The Weaknesses of Brutus Exposed: “A Citizen of Philadelphia” [Pelatiah Webster]

Philadelphia, November 8, 1787

Following is a series of excerpts from Pelatiah Webster’s article published in Philadelphia:

“This government must have a supreme power, superior to and able to controul each and all of its parts. ‘Tis essential to all governments, that such a power be somewhere existing in it; and if the place where the proposed Constitution has fixed it, does not suit Brutus and his friends, I will give him leave to stow it away in any other place that is better: but I will not consent to have it annihilated; neither will I agree to have it cramped and pinched for room, so as to lessen its energy; for that will destroy both its nature and use.”

“The supreme power of government ought to be full, definite, established, and acknowledged. Powers of government too limited, or uncertain and disputed, have ever proved, like Pandora‘s box, a most fruitful source of quarrels, animosities, wars, devastation, and ruin, in all shapes and degrees, in all communities, states, and kingdoms on earth.”

“Nothing tends more to the honour, establishment, and peace of society, than public decisions, grounded on principles of right, natural fitness, and prudence; but when the powers of government are too limited, such decisions can’t be made and enforced; so the mischief goes without a remedy: dreadful examples of which we have felt, in instances more than enough, for seven years past.”

“Further, where the powers of government are not definite but disputed, the administration dare not make decisions on the footing of impartial justice and right; but must temporise with the parties, lest they lose friends or make enemies: and of course the righteous go off injured and disgusted, and the wicked go grumbling too; for ’tis rare that any sacrifices of a court can satisfy a prevailing party in the state.”

“At any rate, the Congress can never get more power than the people will give, nor hold it any longer than they will permit; for should they assume tyrannical powers, and make incroachments on liberty without the consent of the people, they would soon attone for their temerity, with shame and disgrace, and probably with their heads.”

“But ’tis here to be noted, that all the danger does not arise from the extreme of power in the rulers; for when the ballance verges to the contrary extreme, and the power of the rulers becomes too much limited and cramped, all the nerves of government are weakened, and the administration must unavoidably sicken, and lose that energy which is absolutely necessary for the support of the State, and the security of the people. For ’tis a truth worthy of great attention, that laws are not made so much for the righteous as for the wicked, who never fail to shelter themselves from punishment, whenever they can, under the defects of the lawand the weakness of government.”

“The Carthagenians acquired an amazing degree of strength, wealth, and extent of dominion, under a republican form of government. Neither they or the Romans, owed their dissolation to any causes arising from that kind of government: ’twas the party rage, animosity, and violence of their citizens, which destroyed them both; it weakened them, ’till the one fell under the power of their enemy, and was thereby reduced to ruin; the other changed from their form of government, to a monarchy, which proved in the end, equally fatal to them.”

Pelatiah Webster eloquently explains the problem with American government leading up to the adoption of the Constitution: the government’s power was so small as to be ineffective. He also explains the balance that must be achieved in government. Where a government is given too much power, it can lead to chaos. In the American structure of government, it leads to, at a minimum, shame and disgrace and potentially violence, as Pelatiah Webster said.

Further, in explaining the fate of the Romans and Carthaginians, Webster draws a comparison between America and two major ancient Mediterranean powers. For modern Americans, he notably cites party rage and animosity amongst their citizens as reasons for their respective destructions. Webster essentially argued that internal strife weakened both powers so significantly that one’s enemy crushed them and other changed government, leading to its ultimate demise.

Webster’s writings should be remembered and cherished. In the context of the adoption of the Constitution, he was wisely pointing out that Americans needed a more powerful, active government than they had and that unity should be valued. These observations remain as true today as they were in 1787, while the context is different. While the Constitution was being debated, the Articles of Confederation were wholly inadequate to support a burgeoning American empire, and since 1787, the American government has grown significantly. Nonetheless, internal strife should be avoided. Vigorous political discourse is a valuable asset that America has in spades, but when that discourse crosses the line into strife, it presents a danger to the future of America.

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