Constitution Sunday: Nathaniel Barrell, a “Plain Husbandman,” Warns of the Passion for Power, but Favors Ratification

February 5, 1788

Massachusetts Ratifying Convention

The draft Constitution had its parts that inspired and other parts that terrified. Nathaniel Barrell, either as a sign of his modesty or as a way to relate to his fellow residents of Massachusetts, claimed that he would not speak with the eloquence of a Cicero but would articulate his objections to the Constitution.

To Barrell, it was a document “pregnant with baneful effects”—effects that he would “not live to feel” perhaps but effects that caused him concern. The Constitution empowered Congress “with more extensive powers than ever Great-Britain exercised over us, too great in my opinion to intrust with any class of men, let their talents or virtues be ever so conspicuous, even though composed of such exalted amiable characters as the great Washington.” This was still a country of men. To expect different behavior from American men versus a group of British men would require naïveté. Barrell said, “For while we consider them as men of like passions, the same spontaneous, inherent thirst for power with ourselves—great and good as they may be, when they enter upon this all-important charge, what security can we have that they will continue so?”

Ancient Rome was a guide. Although Augustus led Rome, and its people were then happy, it would only be a matter of years before Nero came to power—an emperor with a reputation for brutality and harming the interests of the average Roman. Even worse was the fact that Nero was a man who began his rule by shedding tears upon “signing a death warrant, though afterwards became so callous to the tender feelings of humanity, as to behold with pleasure Rome in flames.” One of humanity’s biggest riddles is how to prevent such dynamics from taking hold in a government.

And this system, set out in the Constitution, was replete with flaws. To Barrell, the six-year terms of Senators was too long a duration for “in that time they may get so firmly rooted, and their influence be so great as to continue themselves for life.” The system was not likely to “produce the efficient government we are in pursuit of.” The Congress was vested with the right to fix its members’ “salaries without allowing any controul.” The system was one that “may be disagreeable to men with the high notions of liberty, we Americans have.”

Even with these flaws, the Constitution could be a foundation on which the country built, said Barrell. Some of the speakers at the convention convinced Barrell that “excellent as this system is, in some respects it needs alterations, therefore I think it becomes us as wise men, as the faithful guardians to the people’s rights, and as we wish well to posterity, to propose such amendments as will secure to us and ours that liberty, without which life is a burden.” It was easier to amend the Constitution than to correct all the deficiencies in the Articles of Confederation. But Barrell hoped that he “could wish for an adjournment, that I might have an opportunity to lay it before my constituents with the arguments which have been used in the debates, which have eased my mind, and I trust would have the effect on theirs, so as heartily to join me in ratifying the same:—But, Sir, I cannot be insulted on this desirable object, I am almost tempted to risque their displeasure and adopt it without their consent.”

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