Much can be learned from the life of Fisher Ames. He displayed more promise than perhaps any of our other great statesmen, and he personified two of conservatism’s most indelible tenets: Life is fragile, and all is vanity. But he was also quick to see how American citizens embraced their “liberty,” and he did not like what he saw.
Fisher Ames (1758-1808) of Dedham, Massachusetts is not exactly a forgotten Founding Father. The general public may not remember him, but historians and scholars haven’t forgotten Ames so much as they’ve dismissed him. John W. Malsberger, in his 1982 essay “The Political Thought of Fisher Ames,” wrote that for much of American history scholars considered Ames nothing more than an extremist “who resisted the idealism of the American Revolution,” an unstable man whose writing was so “infected with hysterical and paranoid symptoms that it is difficult to believe that he represented a sane body of thought.”
Henry Adams was more poetic. Ames’s “best political writing,” he wrote, “was saturated with the despair of the tomb to which his wasting body was condemned.”
Yet much can be learned from the life of Ames, and not just from his rhetoric (which gave us the wittiest of all retorts when, in response to the declaration that all men are created equal, he quipped: “But differ greatly in the sequel”) or from his writing (“Constitutions are but paper; society is the substratum of government”). He was, in Russell Kirk’s words, a man many years dying. This was because in his youth, well before his tubercular demise, he displayed more promise than perhaps any of our other great statesmen. Fisher Ames personified two of conservatism’s most indelible tenets: life is fragile and all is vanity.
Ames began his political journey at Harvard, where he enrolled during the summer of his twelfth year—an early start for this oldest of souls. Providence could not have placed him in a better place at a better time, for he was afforded the opportunity to couch his education in the context of the single great political question of his time. As war with Britain loomed, one of the school’s benefactors remarked that Ames and his classmates were brought “to such a pitch of enthusiasm” that it was “difficult for their tutors to keep them within due bounds.”
At the time, Ames was enamored with notions of liberty and independence. As a member of Harvard’s Speaking Club, he gave such patriotic orations as a recital of Benjamin Church’s speech on the Boston Massacre (“When will the locust leave the land?”) and a rendition of Cicero’s defense of Titus Annius Milo (“by my single efforts has it been brought to pass that right, and equity, and laws, and liberty, and modesty, and chastity remain in this city”). But he was also unknowingly receiving his first lesson in conservative thought. Soon he would see how the people embraced their “liberty.” He would not like what he saw.
His eyes opened in 1786, when boom and bust hastily descended on the new republic. The bust proved difficult to weather, especially for rural inhabitants of New England. A precipitous fall in agricultural prices, a shortage of paper money, high taxes, and a rise in foreclosures led many rural New Englanders—believers in an inalienable right to protest the state—to take up arms against their newly formed governments. Led by Daniel Shays, an ex-captain in the Continental Army, the rebellion shut down numerous county courts and brought the impotence of the Articles of Confederation to light.
Though the uprising was quickly quelled, conservative interests in New England recognized the ease with which civilized men could regress “to barbarism . . . weary of liberty, and unworthy of it; arming their sacrilegious hands against it, though it was bought with their blood, and was once the darling pride of their hearts.” Ames believed that because the Massachusetts constitution was the product of “the free act of the people . . . treason against such a constitution implies a high degree of moral depravity.” He also believed that such moral depravity was unavoidable unless “sage politicians” could eradicate “the destructive notions that the seditious” had “infused in the people.”
Ames’s faith in “sage politicians” reflects the fading optimism that he still held for the American enterprise. About this time he wrote, with decidedly less predestination than in subsequent musings, “If we fall we fall by our folly not our fate.” And in defending the idea of biennial elections, he gave credence to the “sober second thought of the people.” Such credence he would never entertain later in life.
Whatever optimism Ames may have felt in the aftermath of Shays’s misadventure, the French Revolution would exorcise it. The Terror was one of two influences that finally molded Fisher’s conservative philosophy. The other was witnessing firsthand his fellow congressmen in action. He had first come to the nation’s capital—then situated in New York—with a great deal of enthusiasm and all the fire that political upstarts display. But by the time he left office in 1797, he had realized that the great orators and statesmen of our land were anything but “demigods” or “Roman senators.” According to biographer Winfred E.A. Bernhard, even some of the men Ames held in esteem—James Madison for one—he found too “pedantic” and “impractical” for governing.
Factions, sectionalism, and a growing democratic sensibility among the people left him with a jaded opinion of governing—“I despise politics when I think of this office”—and the uprising in France left him with an even bleaker view of those who were charged with electing him in the first place. The French Revolution’s bloodletting foreshadowed for Ames the future of the West and reflected for him the true nature of democracies. “Theories fit for angels,” he said of the Jacobins’ creed, “have been adopted for the use of a multitude, who have been found, when left to what is called their self-government, unfit to be called men.”
Despite his growing melancholy, Ames managed to parlay early success as a country lawyer into a seat at Massachusetts’s constitutional ratifying convention. From there he upset Samuel Adams in the nation’s first congressional elections in 1788. Once in Congress, he helped author the First Amendment, played a vital role in lobbying for Alexander Hamilton’s financial policies, and wrote the lower house’s address to Washington when he retired from the presidency. Most famously, he arose in opposition to Jefferson’s Republicans on the question of funding Jay’s Treaty. His words movingly evoked the faith that composes a nation and binds its pledges to others:
What is patriotism? Is it a narrow affection for the spot where a man was born? Are the very clods where we tread entitled to this ardent preference because they are greener? No, sir; that is not the character of the virtue, and it soars higher for its object. It is an extended self-love, mingling with all the enjoyments of life, and twisting itself with the minutest filaments of the heart. It is thus we obey the laws of society, because they are the laws of virtue. In their authority we see, not the array of force and terror, but the venerable image of our country’s honor. Every good citizen makes that honor his own, and cherishes it not only as precious, but as sacred. He is willing to risk his life in its defense, and is conscious that he gains protection while he gives it.
For what rights of a citizen will be deemed inviolable when a state renounces the principles that constitute their security? Or if his life should not be invaded, what would its enjoyments be in a country odious in the eyes of strangers and dishonored in his own? Could he look with affection and veneration to such a country as his parent? The sense of having one would die within him; he would blush for his patriotism, if he retained any, and justly, for it would be a vice. He would be a banished man in his native land.
Funding of the treaty helped stay a war with Britain and ushered in a decade of prosperous trade with the country from which we won independence.
Successes notwithstanding, Ames was forced to forego reelection in 1796 due to declining health. To his chagrin, nothing he achieved while in office seemed to carry any lasting influence. The United States were shifting culturally and electorally. The Federalists were declining as a party. The Republicans—the “Jeffs” as he called them—were growing. Soon, war with Britain would come; France under Napoleon would loom as a threat; rights-speak would become the vernacular of the governed as well as the governors; and Jefferson’s shadow would forever cast itself upon the nation.
Ames believed that there was little he and like-minded Federalists could do but “mitigate a tyranny.” His outlook not only struck many of his contemporaries as alarmist, but later thinkers—even conservatives—tended to agree. Russell Kirk, in The Conservative Mind, wrote, “Ames was wrong, so far as the immediate future was concerned; for already a counterbalance to American radicalism was making its weight felt. That saving influence was in part the product of an innate moderation in the planter society Jefferson represented.”
But Jefferson’s planter society happened to have hung its hat on an immoderate—and infamously peculiar—institution. And whatever Federalist ideals were in place before Reconstruction, we lost them in its wake.
Ames’s philosophy can be summed up as follows: the “power of the people, if uncontroverted, is licentious and mobbish.” But if checked by a powerful and well-led state, a more virtuous citizenry could be procured, one that feels a “love of country diffused through the Society and ardent in each individual, that would dispose, or rather impel every one to do or suffer much for his country, and permit no one to do anything against it.”
He realized, however, that a republican state cannot coincide with a democratic state—into which he perceived us slipping—and a democratic state cannot nurture a more virtuous citizenry. “A democratick society will soon find its morals the incumbrance of its race, the surly companion of its licentious joys. . . . In a word there will not be morals without justice; and though justice might possibly support a democracy, yet a democracy cannot possibly support justice.”
He warned of “schemes of an abolition of debts and an equal distribution of property” that would be “pursued with unremitting industry.” For Ames, the truth was that “our country is too big for union, too sordid for patriotism, too democratick for liberty. What is to become of it? He who made it best knows. Its vice will govern it, by practising upon its folly. This is ordained for democracies.”
This bleak prophecy sounds irredeemably pessimistic. Yet the skull grinned. “Our disease,” Ames wrote,
is democracy. It is not the skin that festers—our very bones are carious and their marrow blackens with gangrene. Which rogues shall be first, is of no moment—our republicanism must die, and I am sorry for it. . . . Nevertheless, though I indulge no hopes, I derive much entertainment from the squabbles in Madam Liberty’s family. After so many liberties have been taken with her, I presume she is no longer a miss and a virgin, though she may still be a goddess.
Even on the verge of death, he embraced a wry sense of humor and found solace, away from politics, in friends. “My health,” he wrote to one, “is exceedingly tender. While I sit by the fire and keep my feet warm, I am not sick. I have heard of a college lad’s question, which tolerably describes my case: ‘Whether bare being, without life or existence, is better than not to be or not?’ I cannot solve so deep a problem; but as long as you are pleased to allow me a place in your esteem, I shall continue to hold better than ‘not to be’ to be.”
A sheer pessimist would not have conveyed such warmth in his waning hours, nor would he have found Madam Liberty still a goddess.
Fisher Ames died on the Fourth of July, 1808. Everyone knows the story of how Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on the Fourth of July, 1826, a half-century after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Every Independence Day, great respect is given to the memory of Jefferson—and at least a little to Adams. But no mention is ever made of that other Founding Father who died on the Fourth of July, primarily because he wasn’t a president. The arch-elitist Ames is forgotten beside two men whose 44-man fraternity resembles the closest thing we have to a monarchy.
You can’t make a democratic society remember something it doesn’t want to remember, which brings us back to where we came in. Anti-statist conservatives forget that we left the state of nature in the first place because the souls of men, which are inherently depraved, need nurturing, and only institutions can provide that. But democracy will not tolerate institutions of restraint, political or otherwise. Fisher Ames warned us well, if only we could recall his words.
Republished with gracious permission from The American Conservative (July 2012).
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The featured image is a portrait of Fisher Ames (1758-1808) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.