Constitution Sunday: “Americanus” [John Stevens, Jr.] I

“Americanus” [John Stevens, Jr.] I

Daily Advertiser (New York), November 2, 1787

Following are excerpts from John Stevens, Jr.’s article in the Daily Advertiser:

“But, so prone is the spirit of man to party and faction, that even this admirable system will not prevent their mischievous efforts, in a state possessing a ‘small territory.’ The next expedient, then, is to unite a number of these lesser communities under one Federal Head. The chain of dependence, thus lengthened, will give a permanency, consistency, and uniformity to a Federal Government, of which that of a single State is, in its nature, incapable. The gusts of passion, which faction is ever blowing up in ‘a small territory,‘ lose their force before they reach the seat of Federal Government. Republics, limited to a small territory, ever have been, and, from the nature of man, ever will be, liable to be torn to pieces by faction. When the citizens are confined within a narrow compass, as was the case of Sparta, Rome, &c. it is within the power of a factious demagogue to scatter sedition and discontent, instantaneously, thro’ every part of the State. An artful declaimer, such as Cato, for instance, by infusing jealousy and rage into the minds of the people, may do irreparable mischief to a small State. The people, thrown suddenly into passion, whilst this paroxysm, whilst this fit of insanity continues, commit a thousand enormities; and it is well if the Government itself escapes from total subversion. Had the commotion, which Shays excited in Massachusetts, happened in a state of small territory, what would have been the probable consequences? Before the people had recovered from their madness, perhaps all would have been lost.”

Stevens touches on one of the most important features of the American government: the attenuated relationship between the federal government and the people. Stevens recognized that the factions that emerged amongst the people, and the passions of the people, had the power to tear at the fabric of American society as a whole.

This remains true to this day, and modern Americans will see that not every passion and every movement gains the momentum necessary to capture the attention of the federal government. Generally, this is a good thing. The federal government should focus its attention on the most important, impactful issues that arise in American society. While sometimes that means some movements do not capture the attention of Congress, or others in the federal government, that is an acceptable result, given the enormity of the American democracy.

Leave a Reply