Reply to Mason’s “Objections”: “Civis Rusticus”

Virginia Independent Chronicle (Richmond), January 30, 1788

Following are excerpts of an article written in response to George Mason’s article listing the objections to the Constitution:

“5th. Had the convention left the executive power indivisible, I am free to own it would have been better, than giving the senate a share in it; or had they left the power to the president of appointing his own privy council, upon each of whom for every measure be advised and carried, responsibility should have been fixed, this blending of what should be separate would have been avoided—The following conjecture may explain the reason of this: A jealousy of executive government; and a jealousy in the minor states, which made them anxious to add every weight to the scale of the senate, considering it as the inexpugnable barrier of their privileges, and the soul of their existence.”

“10th. ‘No declaration of the liberty of the press.’ Our Bill of Rights declares, and it is not repealed, that the freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of the liberty of the people, and never can be restrained, but by despotic power. The people of England have no other security for the liberty of the press, than we have—Their own spirit, and an act of parliament—their act of parliament may be repealed—our Bill of Rights may be repealed. Of that no man has any fear, of this no man need have, while this spirit is in the people—”This peculiar privilege must last (says a learned writer) as long as our government remains, in any degree, free and independent—it is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost at once—slavery has so frightful an aspect to men accustomed to freedom, that it must steal upon them by degrees, and disguise itself in a thousand shapes in order to be received—But, if the liberty of the press ever be lost, it will be lost at once.—The general laws against sedition and libelling are at present as strong as they can possibly be made, nothing can impose a further restraint, but, either clapping an imprimatur on the press, or giving to the court very large discretionary powers, to punish whatever displeases them—but these concessions would be such a bare faced violation of liberty, that they will probably be the last efforts of a despotic government—Hume’s essay vol. I. p. 17.'”

“The last efforts of a despotic government! Can we then a popular government, a guaranteed republic, fear this more under the proposed, than the present constitution?”

“A standing army without the consent of the representatives of the people in Congress there never can be: to their wisdom and their discretion we submit—Necessity may oblige America to raise an army—and who can judge of this necessity so well as Congress? Where can this power be more safely reposed? Dr. Smith (in his ‘Wealth of Nations,’ book 5. ch. 1.) is of opinion that in some cases, that a standing army is not dangerous to liberty—of this the people of America will judge, and a people jealous of their liberty, vigilant over executory magistracy, will oppose with their united voice this institution, when they discover its end to be usurpation and tyranny.”

The author’s characterization of the Senate, as well as his framing of a standing army, are most notable.

First, the author views the Senate as usurping an inordinate amount of power from the executive branch of government. This seems peculiar in retrospect, however, some powers in the Constitution, such as the Senate’s duty to give advice and consent to the President on matters involving treaties, could just as easily have been placed in the executive branch. See Constitution, Article II, Section 2, Clause 2. The fact that those powers were split between Congress and the President acts as a safeguard against an executive branch going rogue.

Second, the author’s discussion regarding a standing army sums up a position often held in the earliest years of the American Republic. With tyranny and monarchy looming in the not-so-distant past, Americans were keen on avoiding any imagery of those forms of government. A standing army was one such example, as a tyrant could misuse a standing army to enforce his will on the people. At least, that was the logic of the argument.

Underlying the author’s points is a broader theme, which is a touchstone for democracy. With all of these issues, significant and insignificant, who better to determine the right position for America than Congress, as it is filled with ideally the most educated and experienced individuals, who represent their respective constituencies? Both the Senate and the House of Representatives are intended to fulfill these obligations, ensuring that no matter the issue, the common American is protected.