Letter from Marcellus to Daniel Webster

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Printed pamphlet of an anonymous letter as written to Daniel Webster.

This is a scanned version of the original document in the Abernethy Collection at Middlebury College.

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public, may be well founded. But with regard to intelligence, it may be questioned whether such a portion of it can be imparted to the mass of citizens as will secure the public from the most injurious, if not fatal, mistakes. And as to genuine virtue, based on divine authority, are we authorized to expect this to exist, unless in a millennial state?

But if a correct understanding of the public interest would, in any case, secure a pure administration, under wise and impartial rulers, how is it possible to prevent deception and mistake among the people? The press must be free, and if free, it will often be used as the instrument of deception. How is this evil to be prevented? If it cannot be prevented, then the use of intelligence is defeated.

It appears to me, Sir, that there are radical errors in the opinions of our citizens in regard to the principles on which a republican government is to be founded, and the means by which it is to be supported. The constitutions of government in the United States commence with a declaration of certain abstract principles, or general and indefinite propositions; as that all men are born free and equal, or all men are created equal. But as universal propositions, can they be true? In what sense are men born free? If they are born under a despotic government, they are not born free. But in any government, children are born, subject to the control of their parents, and this by the express ordinance of the Creator. No man will question the right or the expedience of parental government; it is for the benefit of the child that he should not be free, till he has acquired strength to procure his own subsistence, and knowledge or wisdom to direct his voluntary actions.

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The general proposition then that all men are born free, is the reverse of the truth, for no person is born free, in the general acceptation of the word free.

In what sense then are men born equal? Is it true that all men are furnished with equal force of constitution, or physical strength? Is it true that all men are endowed by the Creator with equal intellectual powers? No person will contend for an affirmative answer to these questions. Men are not formed with equal powers of body or mind; and if they were, the race would be an exception from all other works of the Creator, in which a prominent feature is diversities without end, even in the same genus and species.

Equally indefinite is the proposition that all men are entitled to the enjoyment of life and liberty. They are entitled to life, unless it has been forfeited; but even life is to be enjoyed, upon the conditions prescribed by law, for the enjoyment of life must be in consistency only with the public safety. The enjoyment of liberty is subject to a like restriction. No society can exist without restricting the liberty of every member by the laws or will of the community; for it is a first principle of the social state, that every member must so use his own liberty, as not to injure or impair the rights of another.

It would seem then to be clearly proved that the general principles assumed by the framers of our government, are too indefinite to be the basis of constitutional provision. The natural freedom of men must be restrained by regulations which are essential to the public safety, and to that of every individual. This freedom is civil liberty, that is, the

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liberty which the law permits each citizen to enjoy. Even in a savage state, the liberty of each individual must be under some restraint, or no individual can be safe.

The principle then which must be the basis of a good constitution, is, that every member of the community or state is entitled to all the freedom which the laws permit, and which is compatible with the public safety. This is the right of every citizen; and in the possession of this right, every man is equal.

It is believed, however, that the loose, undefined sense in which the words free and equal are used in some of the American constitutions, has been and will be a source of immense evil to this country. Illiterate men will mistake the just limitation of the words, and unprincipled men will give them a latitude of construction incompatible with the peace of society.

There is, in my apprehension, a common mistake in this country, in regard to the nature of democratic and republican governments. It seems to be held as a truth not to be questioned, that a republican government is of course a free government, or a government which, by the very fact that it springs from the people, will certainly secure to the citizens the enjoyment of their rights.

That a proper democracy, in which the whole body of citizens constitute the legislature, is a turbulent government, is a fact too well established by historical evidence to be disputed. But it seems to be generally understood, that a government by representatives of the people, is not subject to the same evil; and that such a government will not abuse

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its powers and oppress the people. In short, it is generally believed that, in a republic, liberty is safe.

One reason for this general belief may be, that the history of nations in the old world, and particularly in Asia, has, from time immemorial, exhibited monarchs as tyrants. It seems to be taken for granted that all monarchies, all kingly governments, are tyrannies.

This, as a general fact in past ages, may be admitted. But connected with this subject, there are some popular errors which ought to be corrected.

1. The tyranny of a monarch depends o his disposition. If one man has the sole power of making laws, the government is arbitrary in form, but the administration of it may be mild or tyrannical, at the pleasure of the prince. And it often happens that a monarch administers the government in such a manner to do equal justice, and secure to all his subjects their rights or all the liberty which they desire.

2. In modern Europe, in nations civilized, and in which a great portion of the citizens are educated men, cultivating arts and science, and carrying on trade and manufactures, monarchs cannot exercise tyrannical power. In such nations, the public sense of rights, to which the citizens are entitled, restrains kings from acts of oppression. This improved state of society, which began with the revival of learning, arts and commerce, in the thirteenth or fourteenth century, for ever precludes the possibility of the es-

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tablishment and continuance of tyrannical governments in the western portion of Europe. Men understanding the principlles of freedom, and possessing property, can not be reduced to the vassalage of former ages.

3. The kingdoms of France and England are not, in the true sense of the word, monarchies. Their governments are a mixture or union of aristocracy and republicanism. The kings are hereditary executive magistrates, but they have not the power to make a single law, and of course cannot exercise arbitrary government over the citizens. In this respect, the kings are as essentially restrained from acts of tyranny, as the president of the United States. The house of peers is an aristocratical body, possessing powers of government by virtue of title or rank; but the commons, elected by the people, are a republican body. These houses are complete checks upon each other, by which the rights of both are secured; and both are a complete check upon the king.

Now the great source of mistake in this country, is, that monarchies have generally been characterized by arbitrary and oppressive government; and particularly in rude ages and uncivilized countries, where the mass of the population have had neither learning nor property. This fact being well known, and incessantly proclaimed by our patriotic conductors of the revolution, has produced in the minds of American citizens, an extreme odium against all monarchies, leading them to make royal government and tyranny synonymous terms, and impressing the belief or

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