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The Jay Papers Ii: The Forging Of The Nation
States they were, united they were not; while their Secretary for Foreign Affairs sought to pull them together, Europe waited for them to fall apart
December 1968 | Volume 20, Issue 1
… Your sentiments, that our affairs are drawing rapidly to a crisis, accord with my own. What the event will be is also beyond the reach of my foresight. We have errors to correct. We have probably had too good an opinion of human nature in forming our confederation. Experience has taught us, that men will not adopt and carry into execution, measures the best calculated for their own good without the intervention of a coercive power. I do not conceive we can exist long as a Nation, without having lodged somewhere a power which will pervade the whole Union in as energetic a Manner, as the authority of the different State governments extends over the several States. To be fearful of vesting Congress, constituted as that body is, with ample authorities for national purposes, appears to me the very climax of popular absurdity and madness. Could Congress exert them for the detriment of the public without injuring themselves in an equal or greater proportion? Are not their interests inseparably connected with those of their constituents? By the rotation of appointment must they not mingle frequently with the mass of citizens? Is it not rather to be apprehended, if they were possessed of the powers before described, that the individual members would be induced to use them, on many occasions, very timidly and inefficaciously for fear of losing their popularity and future election? We must take human nature as we find it. Perfection falls not to the share of mortals. Many are of opinion that Congress have too frequently made use of the suppliant humble tone of requisition, in applications to the States, when they had a right to assume their imperial dignity, and command obedience. Be that as it may requisitions are a perfect nihility, where thirteen sovereign, independent, disunited States are in the habit of discussing and refusing compliance with them at their option. Requisitions are actually little better than a jest and a bye word throughout the Land. If you tell the Legislatures they have violated the treaty of peace and invaded the prerogatives of the confederacy they will laugh in your face. What then is to be done? Things cannot go on in the same train forever. It is much to be feared, as you observe, that the better kind of people being disgusted with the circumstances will have their minds prepared for any revolution whatever. We are apt to run from one extreme into another. …
What astonishing changes a few years are capable of producing! I am told that even respectable characters speak of a monarchical form of government without horror. From thinking proceeds speaking, thence to action is often but a single step. But how irrevocable and tremendous! What a triumph for the advocates of despotism to find that we are incapable of governing ourselves, and that systems founded on the basis of equal liberty are merely ideal and fallacious! Would to God that wise measures may be taken in time to avert the consequences we have but too much reason to apprehend.
Retired as I am from the world, I frankly acknowledge I cannot feel myself an unconcerned spectator. Yet, having happily assisted in bringing the ship into port, and having been fairly discharged, it is not my business to embark again on a sea of troubles. Nor could it be expected that my sentiments and opinions would have much weight on the minds of my Countrymen—they have been neglected, though given as a last legacy in the most solemn manner. I had then perhaps some claims to public attention. I consider myself as having none at present. With sentiments of sincere esteem and friendship,
I am, Dear Sir, Your most Obedient and Affectionate Humble Servant, G EO. W ASHINGTON .
New York 7 January 1787
They who regard the public good with more Attention and Attachment than they do mere personal Concerns, must feel and confess the Force of such Sentiments as are expressed in your Letter. … The Situation of our Affairs calls not only for Reflection and Prudence but for Exertion. What is to be done? is a common Question, but it is a Question not easy to answer.
Would the giving any further Degree of power to Congress do the Business? I am much inclined to think it would not for among other Reasons: It is natural to suppose there will always be Members who will find it convenient to make their Seats subservient to partial and personal Purposes; and they who may be able and willing to concert and promote useful and national Measures, will seldom be unembarrassed by the Ignorance, Prejudices, Fears, or interested Views of others.
In so large a Body Secrecy and Dispatch will be too uncommon; and foreign as well as local influence will frequently oppose, and sometimes frustrate the wisest Measures.
Large assemblies often misunderstand or neglect the Obligations of Character Honor and Dignity; and will collectively do or omit Things which individual Gentlemen in private Capacities would not approve. As the many divide Blame and also divide Credit, too little a Portion of either falls to each Mans Share to affect him strongly; even in Cases where the whole Blame or the whole Credit must be national. It is not easy for those to think and feel as Sovereigns who have always been accustomed to think and feel as Subjects.
The executive Business of Sovereignty depending on so many Wills, and those Wills moved by such a Variety of contradictory Motives and Inducements, will in general be but feebly done.