Constitution Sunday: Amos Singletary and Jonathan Smith on “Leviathan” Swallowing Up “Us Little Folks” and on the Danger of Anarchy

Massachusetts Ratifying Convention.

January 25, 1788

Amos Singletary rose at the Massachusetts Convention to say that he was troubled; the Convention was considering a Constitution that was no better than the state was under British rule in 1775. It would lead to the federal government laying “taxes, duties, imposts, and excises” on the people just as the British did. When the British did so, Singletary said, the colonies “claimed a right to tax us and bind us in all cases whatever” and thus the Revolution became necessary and warranted.

Here, it was not the British but “lawyers, and men of learning, and monied men” who were interested in having the Constitution put into effect. They “talk so finely and gloss over matters so smoothly, to make us poor illiterate people swallow down the pill, expect to get into Congress themselves; they expect to be the managers of this Constitution and get all the power and all the money into their own hands, and then they will swallow up all us little folks, like the great Leviathan, Mr. President, yes, just as the whale swallowed up Jonah.”

Then, Jonathan Smith rose. He was a farmer, a “plain man” who lived “by the plough” and was “not used to speak in publick.” He had “known the worth of good government by the want of it.” There were people who “used to live peaceably, and were before good neighbors” but then “got distracted and took up arms against government.” And “if you went to speak to them, you had the musket of death presented to your breast. They would rob you of your property, threaten to burn your houses; oblige you to be on your guard night and day; alarms spread from town to town; families were broke up; the tender mother would cry, O my son is among them! What shall I do for my child!” The distress led many to feel that they “should have been glad to catch at any thing that looked like a government for protection.” That was true even if the government “had been a monarch, and that monarch might have proved a tyrant so that you see that anarchy leads to tyranny, and better have one tyrant than so many at once.”

When Smith received a copy of the Constitution, he “read it over and over.” He learned, during the Convention for the State Constitution, about the checks on power and the balance of power, and in the United States Constitution he “found them all here.” He continued:

I never had any post, nor do I want one, and I don’t think the worse of the Constitution because lawyers, and men of learning and monied men, are fond of it. I don’t suspect that they want to get into Congress and abuse their power. I am not of such a jealous make; they that are honest men themselves are not apt to suspect other people. I don’t know why our constituents have not as good a right to be as jealous of us, as we seem to be of the Congress, and I think those gentlemen who are so very suspicious, that as soon as a man gets into power he turns rogue, had better look at home.

Rather, said Smith, “these lawyers, these monied men, these men of learning, are all embarked in the same cause with us, and we must all swim or sink together; and shall we throw the Constitution overboard, because it does not please us alike?” He concluded: “I say take things in time—gather fruit when it is ripe. There is a time to sow and a time to reap; we sowed our seed when we sent men to the federal convention, now is the harvest, now is the time to reap the fruit of our labour, and if we don’t do it now I am afraid we never shall have another opportunity.”

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