The Antifederalist Papers
On the Guarantee of Congressional Biennial Elections
The following essay was signed by Consider Arms, Malichi Maynard, and Samuel Field. It was taken from The Hampshire Gazette of April 9, 1788.
We the subscribers being of the number, who did not assent to the ratification of the federal constitution, under consideration in the late state convention, held at Boston, to which we were called by the suffrages of the corporations to which we respectively belong-beg leave, through the channel of your paper, to lay before the public in general, and our constituents in particular, the reasons of our dissent, and the principles which governed us in our decision of this important question.
Fully convinced, ever since the late revolution, of the necessity of a firm, energetic government, we should have rejoiced in an opportunity to have given our assent to such a one; and should in the present case, most cordially have done it, could we at the same time been happy to have seen the liberties of the people and the rights of mankind properly guarded and secured. We conceive that the very notion of government carries along with it the idea of justice and equity, and that the whole design of instituting government in the world, was to preserve men's properties from rapine, and their bodies from violence and bloodshed.
These propositions being established, we conceive must of necessity produce the following consequence: That every constitution or system, which does not quadrate with this original design, is not government, but in fact a subversion of it.
Having premised thus much, we proceed to mention some things in this constitution to which we object, and to enter into an inquiry, whether, and how far they coincide with those simple and original notions of government before mentioned.
In the first place, as direct taxes are to be apportioned according to the numbers in each state, and as Massachusetts has none in it but what are declared free men, so the whole, blacks as well as whites, must be numbered; this must therefore operate against us, as two-fifths of the slaves in the southern states are to be left out of the numeration. Consequently, three Massachusetts infants will increase the tax equal to five sturdy full-grown Negroes of theirs, who work every day in the week for their masters, saving the Sabbath, upon which they are allowed to get something for their own support. We can see no justice in this way of apportioning taxes. Neither can we see any good reason why this was consented to on the part of our delegates.
We suppose it next to impossible that every individual in this vast continental union, should have his wish with regard to every single article composing a frame of government. And therefore, although we think it More agreeable to the principles of republicanism, that elections should be annual, yet as the elections in our own state government are so, we did not view it so dangerous to the liberties of the people, that we should have rejected the constitution merely on account of the biennial elections of the representatives-had we been sure that the people have any security even of this. But this we could not find. For although it is said, that "the House of Representatives shall be chosen every second year, by the people of the several states," etc., and that "the times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof," yet all this is wholely superseded by a subsequent provision, which empowers Congress at any time to enact a law, whereby such regulations may be altered, except as to the places of choosing senators. Here we conceive the people may be very materially injured, and in time reduced to a state of as abject vassalage as any people were under the control of the most mercenary despot that ever tarnished the pages of history. The depravity of human nature, illustrated by examples from history, will warrant us to say, it may be possible, if not probable, that the congress may be composed of men, who will wish to burden and oppress the people. In such case, will not their inventions be fruitful enough to devise occasions for postponing the elections? And if they can do this once, they can twice; if they can twice, they can thrice, so by degrees render themselves absolute and perpetual. Or, if they choose, they have another expedient. They can alter the place of holding elections. They can say, whatever the legislature of this state may order to the contrary, that all the elections of our representatives shall be made at Mechias, or at Williamstown. Consequently, nine- tenths of the people will never vote. And if this should be thought a measure favorable to their reelection, or the election of some tool for their mercenary purposes, we doubt not it will be thus ordered. But says the advocates for the constitution, "it is not likely this will ever happen; we are not to expect our rulers will ever proceed to a wanton exercise of the powers given them." But what reason have we more than past ages, to expect that we shall be blessed with impeccable rulers? We think not any. Although it has been said that every generation grows wiser and wiser, yet we have no reason to think they grow better and better. And therefore the probability lies upon the dark side. Does not the experience of past ages leach, that men have generally exercised all the powers they had given them, and even have usurped upon them, in order to accomplish their own sinister and avaricious designs, whenever they thought they could do it with impunity? This we presume will not be denied. And it appeared to us that the arguments made use of by the favorers of the constitution, in the late convention at Boston, proceeded upon the plan of righteousness in those who are to rule over us, by virtue of this new form of government. But these arguments, we confess, could have no weight with us, while we judge them to be founded altogether upon a slippery perhaps.
We are sensible, that in order to the due administration of government, it is necessary that certain powers should be delegated to the rulers from the people. At the same time, we think they ought carefully to guard against giving so much as will enable those rulers, by that means, at once, or even in process of time, to render themselves absolute and despotic. This we think is the case with the form of government lately submitted to our consideration. We could not, therefore, acting uprightly, consulting our own good and the good of our constituents, give our assent unto it. We could not then and we still cannot see, that because people are many times guilty of crimes and deserving of punishment, that it from thence follows the authority ought to have power to punish them when they are not guilty, or to punish the innocent with the guilty without discrimination, which amounts to the same thing. But this we think in fact to be the case as to this federal constitution. For the congress, whether they have provocation or not, can at any time order the elections in any or all the states to be conducted in such manner as wholely to defeat and render entirely nugatory the intention of those elections, and convert that which was considered and intended to be the palladium of the liberties of the people-the grand bulwark against any invasion upon them-into a formidable engine, by which to overthrow them all, and thus involve them in the depth of misery and distress. But it was pled by some of the ablest advocates of the constitution, that if congress should exercise such powers to the prejudice of the people (and they did not deny but they could if they should be disposed) they (the people) would not suffer it. They would have recourse to the ultima ratio, the dernier resort of the oppressed-the sword.
But it appeared to us a piece of superlative incongruity indeed, that the people, whilst in the full and indefeasible possession of their liberties and privileges, should be so very profuse, so very liberal in the disposal of them, as consequently to place themselves in a predicament miserable to an extreme. So wretched indeed, that they may at once be reduced to the sad alternative of yielding themselves vassals into the hands of a venal and corrupt administration, whose only wish may be to aggrandize themselves and families-to wallow in luxury and every species of dissipation, and riot upon the spoils of the community; or take up the sword and involve their country in all the horrors of a civil war-the consequences of which, we think, we may venture to augur will more firmly rivet their shackles and end in the entailment of vassalage to their posterity. We think this by no means can fall within the description of government before mentioned. Neither can we think these suggestions merely chimerical, or that they proceed from an overheated enthusiasm in favor of republicanism; neither yet from an illplaced detestation of aristocracy; but from the apparent danger the people are in by establishing this constitution. When we take a forward view of the proposed congress-seated in the federal city, ten miles square, fortified and replenished with all kinds of military stores and every implement; with a navy at command on one side, and a land army on the other-we say, when we view them thus possessed of the sword in one hand and the purse strings of the people in the other, we can see no security left for them in the enjoyment of their liberties, but what may proceed from the bare possibility that this supreme authority of the nation may be possessed of virtue and integrity sufficient to influence them in the administration of equal justice and equity among those whom they shall govern. But why should we voluntarily choose to trust our all upon so precarious a tenure as this? We confess it gives us pain to anticipate the future scene: a scene presenting to view miseries so complicated and extreme, that it may be part of the charms of eloquence to extenuate, or the power of art to remove.