Constitution Sunday: Samuel Nasson’s “Pathetick Apostrophe” to Liberty

Massachusetts Ratifying Convention

February 1, 1788

Changing a system—particularly a system about which one is fond—is difficult. For some, the system that the Articles of Confederation created was an ideal one as it permitted states to maintain a level of autonomy that the proposed Constitution would subsume. For Samuel Nasson, at the Massachusetts Ratifying Convention, this was a travesty given that the country had fought so hard to free its member states from Great Britain and its attempts to “enslave us, by declaring her laws supreme.”

For Nasson, it represented a return to tyranny by an all-powerful, far-reaching government. Nasson rose and addressed the Convention: “Oh! Liberty—thou greatest good—thou fairest property! with thee I wish to live—with thee I wish to die! Pardon me if I drop a tear on the peril to which she is exposed: I cannot, sir, see this brightest of jewels tarnished! A jewel worth ten thousand worlds! And shall we part with it so soon?—Oh, No. Gentlemen ask, can it be supposed, that a Constitution so pregnant with danger, could come from the hands of those who framed it? Indeed, sir, I am suspicious of my own judgment, when I contemplate this idea—when I see the list of illustrious names annexed to it:—But, sir, my duty to my constituents, obliges me to oppose the measure they recommend, as obnoxious to their liberty and safety.”

For Nasson, the Articles of Confederation was a “sacred instrument,” and if the country entrusted Congress the power to dissolve the Confederation, “to what can we trust?” The proposed Constitution would annihilate the state governments and consolidate them into a government of the “whole union” whose functions and purposes one could not know. A sovereign state, such as Massachusetts, is one that is independent and sovereign; how could the states vote to destroy “that sovereignty?”

The absence of a Bill of Rights was further proof of the Constitution’s danger: “When I give up any of my natural rights, it is for the security of the rest: But here is not one right secured, although many are neglected.” Then, there was the Senate and its six-year term for its members: “it is too long to trust any body of men with power: It is impossible but that such men will be tenacious of their places; they are to be raised to a lofty eminence, and they will be loth to come down; and in the course of six years, may by management, have it in their power to create officers, and obtain influence enough, to get in again, and so for life.” The problem was that, “rulers ought at short periods, to return to private life, that they may know how to feel for, and regard their fellow creatures. In six years, six, and at a great distance, they will quite forget them.”

With his impassioned plea to reject the Constitution, as drafted, Nasson “concluded by saying, he had much more to say, but as the House were impatient, he should sit down for the present, to give other gentlemen an opportunity to speak.”

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