Date: Monday, December 5, 2005, 3:00 PM
Fisher Ames –
Called by some “the forgotten founder father” Fisher Ames contributed to the writing of the US Constitution and was a founding member of the Federalist Party. Born in Massachusetts in 1758 Ames was accepted into Harvard at the age of twelve and after graduating worked as a teacher for several years. At the age of twenty three Ames became a member of the Massachusetts bar association. Quickly becoming bored with practicing law, Ames moved into the political arena, which, he believed, was a profession more suited to his personality. Ames was first elected into Congress
in 1789 and served until 1796. During George Washington’s first administration Ames helped to form the Federalist Party. The Federalist Party was formed in support of Treasure Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s economic policies. Hamilton’s policies favored business and the banking industry over the agrarian, or farming, industry. After leaving Congress Ames became disillusioned at the increasing popularity of Jeffersonian Democracy and retired to private life. Due to health reasons Ames refused election as president of Harvard in 1804 and died in 1808.
Thoughts on ‘The Dangers of Democracy’
According to Ames, democracy directly means majority rule, whichever side has more people gets their way. In his essay ‘Dangers of Democracy’ he writes “as the majority possesses not only the better right, but the superior force, it will prevail”. He also equates democracy with some type of thought that “rightness” is determined by the greater physical force. Again he says “…to subdue to force of a thousand men the government must employ a force of two thousand men.” Democracy, however, is not about the will of one group forced upon all others because they out number them, but about people being able to decide how they are to be governed and of whom will be governing them. No true governmental democracy has ever existed. No country or state would be able to accomplish anything
if every and any actions to be taken were to be put to a vote. I don’t think Ames misses the idea of Democracy; however I do think his opinions on the matter were shaped by amount of education and virtue he possessed.
Ames also doesn’t see the differences between democracy and other forms of government. Even in democracies forced can be used to obtain obedience from its members. Ames believes the “obedience” needed from the populace should be obtained by reasoning with them. This is not disagreeable however the great majority of people do not possess a Harvard education couple with the study of law. Human nature being what it is, it takes a tremendous amount of will power to allow reason to overcome a person’s instinct or desire to get their way. Also, people must be able to admit when they are wrong and not get upset over not getting their way. People must also be open to new and differing ideas if these new ways are proven to be better. Most people neither possess the intellect to be able to exam every issue completely before deciding which is right, nor the patience and fortitude. Ames had all of these qualities and was not afraid to live his life by his ideals. (Forcing himself to continually go against human nature could be a reason why Ames was sick his entire adult life and died fairly young at the age of fifty)
Fisher Ames was a believer in the republican system of government in which the people delegate power to rule to select individuals. Many republics had existed to that point, the ancient Romans and Greeks were republic states, and the Norsemen of northern Europe also had a republic in place during the middle ages. The Roman system of government is what Ames was shooting for the new American nation. Ames was also not a lover of governments. He thought by their very nature they corrupted decent people by giving them power and also gives power and authority
to those who do not deserve it and would use that power improperly.
Outside events also factored into Ames belief in Republicanism. One was the Shay’s Rebellion and the other the French Revolution. The Shay’s Rebellion, as it is called, was more like a demonstration of civil disobedience than a rebellion. Upset over falling commodity prices a group of farmers blocked entrance to a town hall meeting, preventing that meeting from happening. This little event scared Ames. Here is where Ames fear of majority rule is justified. This
particular group of farmers stopped this meeting because they outnumbered the people trying to have the meeting. The French revolution was even scarier to Ames because it was everyone outside of the ruling class rebelling and completely dismantling the monarchy that ruled France. In Ames’ mind this was anarchy. An anarchy that occurred because the people were allowed to by a weak form of government. The fact that the French people replaced with the monarchy with a republic didn’t seem to impress Ames. Nor the fact that these were cases of people acting out because they were being treated unfairly by their governments.
Interesting to note that economic suffocation and a tyrannical government both reasons for the American Revolution that Ames supported. Both events reinforced Ames belief in a strong central government that would have the power and authority to stifle any such uprising in America.
A major component of Ames’ system of government was the virtuousness of the people elected to office. Ames believed the Bible should be used as a textbook in classrooms and also as a guide in our governing.
Ames opposed to Thomas Jefferson’s idea of democracy for reasons I am not clear. By the time he was elected president in 1800 Jefferson had become alarmed at the suppression of individual rights and freedoms by the Alien and Sedition acts ( Alien Act = allowed the president to deport without cause anyone form a country engaged in was with the us and the Sedition act = makes it a crime to publish or write anything critical of people in power) and by the accumulation of wealth and power by the manufacturing and banking establishments. Jefferson also wanted top give power back to the people who do the work I the country; farmers, tradesmen, i.e. the middle class. Why Ames would disagree with the hording of power and resources by a select few I am not able to understand. A theory could be in Ames opinion of all of mankind: All people are born sinners and without a proper spiritual foundation to guide them they would be prone to acting out of greed and selfishness. His idea of a Jeffersonian Democracy in action is a state of one million residents, all of whom believe themselves to be right and all looking to get their way. Eventually one million people would take up arms against each other and anarchy ensues.
A second problem Ames may have had with Jeffersonian Democracy was the fact that Jefferson wanted to limit the size of the federal government. Ames believed in a strong and powerful federal government, one strong enough to repel any such rebellion such as the Shay’s and the French’s. Or perhaps Fisher Ames was just another person put off by the independent and radical Thomas Jefferson.
Ames and the other Federalists weren’t without their hypocrisies however. During the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars the Federalists took sides with Britain which was still ruled by a monarchy. Jefferson and the republicans sided with France, who had put in place a republic form of government. Why would Ames, hater of democracy and lover of republicanism, side with a monarchy? This question can be answered, it thinks, through Ames strictly religious beliefs. Since he believed all people were inherently sinners, Ames may have feared any outward expression of freewill or independence among people. To keep any type of personal, non Christian behavior unchecked would lead, in Ames mind, to a weak central government and anarchy.