Our disease 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. But why should we care what sexton happens to be in office at our funeral? Nevertheless, though I indulge no hope, 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.
Fisher Ames was born into a Massachusetts only three generations removed from Old Salem and the witch trials of Judges Hathorne and Danforth. Steeped in Puritan moralism and theology, his upbringing affected his life’s course. His father Nathanael Ames acted as a doctor and owned a small tavern in Dedham. Young Fisher’s childhood in that small New England town helped to mould his worldview. Now a suburb adjoining Boston, it was only a small village in Ames’s youth and marked by a devotion to Congregationalism and a sense of its own traditionalism. His father regularly published Ames’s Almanac; a journal similar to Poor Richard’s and one filled with folklore and earthy witticisms. A studious boy, his widowed mother encouraged his prodigious intellectual abilities and started him learning Latin at six and matriculating at Harvard College at twelve in 1774. After receiving his degree, young Fisher taught school while studying for the bar. Once qualifying as a solicitor, he began practicing in Dedham. Elected to the Massachusetts state legislature in 1788, he became a member of his state’s delegation that ratified the US Constitution. At this stage in early manhood, Ames became convinced of the Constitution’s strengths and the vitality of Federalism as a necessary political stratagem to preserve the Republic. Fully consonant with Adams’s and Hamilton’s convictions that the Articles of Confederation proved too amorphous and loose-limbed to create a viable polity, Ames resolutely defended the new constitutional structure as preservative of ordered liberty.
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By 1789, Ames’s political star was in the ascendant. He vanquished the Son of Liberty and prominent brewer Samuel Adams for a seat in the Federal Congress in 1789. His maiden speech in Congress was eagerly greeted by those familiar with his oratorical and lexical gifts. Ames served in this capacity until 1797. During those epochal years of Washington’s presidency, Ames emerged as a steadfast defender of New England’s political and economic interests. His politics proved protectionist, conservative and redolent of his upbringing. Ames stood for the merchant interests of Boston and their Anglophilic conservatism. Like them, he stood for a sound currency, friendly relations with the former colonial power and a determination to establish the Republic on firm political and economic bases. Ames’s political vision found ample chorus in the ‘Essex Junto’; a grouping of politicians from Essex County, Massachusetts. This assemblage of congressmen included Theophilius Parsons, Benjamin Goodhue and Israel Thorndike. In particular, Israel Thorndike had made his fortune in international shipping and desired high tariffs on imports in order to preserve his interests. All of these men understood their background to be solidly New England and in contradistinction to the South. Ames conceived a strong antipathy to Jefferson and his proposed nation of planters.
Ames’s chief distaste for democracy flowed from his extensive readings in classical history. He was convinced that civic republicanism would best enable his fledgling nation to avoid catastrophe and remain a viable entity. His desire for a mixed constitution stemmed from comparative analysis of ancient Greece and Rome. Fearful of the radical mob which plagued ancient Rome, he urged for order in order to restrain passions and prevent lawlessness. After having witnessed Shays’ rebellion, he fully agreed with Washington’s use of force in order to bind the Republic together. Writing stridently against the rebellion, Ames opined, “I am no advocate for despotism but I believe the probability to be much less of its being introduced by the corruption of our rulers, than by the delusion of the people.” This statement illustrates Ames’s fundamental mistrust of the Republic’s demos and his desire to check its passions by statesmanship. His funeral oration for Washington was printed and widely distributed as an appropriate encomium to the departed President.
Firstly praising Washington as a natural aristocrat, Ames then turned his attention to Washington’s political statecraft in order to delineate appropriate practices to follow. With lavish, Mannerist prose, Ames upheld Washington as an ideal synthesis of soldier and statesman. Beginning with his bravery at Braddock’s side during the Seven Years’ War, Ames then charted Washington’s career into his Presidency. Above all, Ames sought to mythologize Washington as an American Cincinnatus; leading but ultimately subject to the nation’s elites. His funeral oration was intended to be instructive and bely Democratic-Republican claims to Washington’s legacy. Essentially, Ames attempted to claim the mantle of political legitimacy and adorns Adams’s shoulders with authority. By such rhetorical influence, he sought to keep ruling power within a small coterie of elites.
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Ames’s fears regarding direct democracy accelerated with the outbreak of the French Revolution. Initially the uprisings in Paris were greeted with acclaim in Boston and New York by Americans who perceived parallels with their own Revolution. However, its turn towards Jacobinism and Robespierre’s merciless usage of the guillotine greatly alarmed many American statesmen and ecclesiastics. What gave Fisher Ames such compelling impetus was his powerful conviction that the nation was unraveling before his eyes. The Revolution had been successfully won in order to defend both liberty and property from an unlawful king who denied Englishmen their traditional rights. Yet this Revolution did not mean to liberate the masses. What complicated the Federalist position were the unfolding permutations of republican theory. Rhetoricians such as Paine and Jefferson postulated the American Revolution to be a harbinger of expanding democratic rights for increasing classes. Conversely, Federalist political theory conceptualized an elite strata of merchants, bankers and statesmen permeable to those with sufficient talent. Older families would circulate and reinvigorate such a perpetuating elite centered in metropolises and connected to Europe. This worldview proved urban, Northern and one both defensive and traditionalist. Contrastingly, Jefferson visualized a national of small independent farmers with an emphasis on equality and social contractualism. Ames feared and distrusted Jefferson’s Francophilia in the wake of the Revolution and worked with Adams to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Intended to guard the nation against Gallic radicalism, they also undermined any mass support the Federalists might have collected and contributed to Jefferson’s elevation to the Presidency.
Ames’s critique of the French Revolution spread quickly through Federalist circles and he continued to write despite increasing infirmities. His work The Dangers of American Liberty provided an appropriate coda to his intellectual efforts. Published the year after his death by sympathetic friends, it diagnosed the Republic’s cancer as egalitarian democracy and prophesied national decline. Ames depicted America as standing on the edge of ruination and predicted that the Federalists would not regain power. “We listen to the clank of chains and overhear the whispers of assassins. We mark the barbarous dissonance of mingled rage and triumph in the yell of an infuriated mob; we see the dismal glare of their burnings and scent the loathsome steam of human victims offered in sacrifice.” Such a dire prediction continues to fascinate American historians immersed in Jeffersonian rhetoric. Yet astute analysts of American history continue to examine Ames’s influence within intellectual discourse. Fisher Ames died fittingly enough on July 4, 1808. Boston’s Federalist leaders arranged a public funeral complete with black-draped coffin and lengthy orations. Ames had emerged as one of New England’s most capable leaders and his death removed a key opponent to continued expansive democracy. Ames ended his days convinced that the republican experiment would die with the rise of democratic ochlocracy. His private papers often provide even more calamitous and dire depictions of the nation’s trajectory. In a letter to a friend from March 10, 1806 he wrote,
Such Gothic imagery impresses the reader even today with its picturesque depiction of a despoiled Columbia presiding over ruins. American historians questing for sustained analyses of America’s republican traditions must look to Ames’s neglected writings. There they will find catacombs of thought replete with jewels of remarkable sophistication. As a counterpoint to Jeffersonian democracy, Ames’s writings are nonpareil and deserve serious contemplation. As the Republic precariously enters a new century, Ames’s writings still prove penetrative and reflective for those capable of realizing the power of his vision.
Edited by Jonathan Paquette on August 10th, 2015.
Ames, Fisher, and Pelham W. Ames.
Speeches of Fisher Ames in Congress, 1789-1796. Boston: Little, Brown, 1871.
Ames Fisher, William Barclay Allen, and Seth Ames.
Works of Fisher Ames Vol. 1. Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1983.
Bernhard, Winfred E. A.. Fisher Ames, Federalist and Statesman,
1758-1808. Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture at Williamsburg, Va., by the University of North Carolina Press, 1965.
Brown, Charles Raymond.
The Northern Confederacy According to the Plans of the "Essex Junto", 1796-1814. Princeton: Princeton University Press; 1915.
Elisha P. Douglass 1959.
"Fisher Ames, Spokesman for New England Federalism". Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 103, no. 5: 693-715.
Elkins, Stanley M., and Eric L. McKitrick.
The Age of Federalism:The Early American Republic, 1788–1800. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
David Hackett Fischer.
The Revolution of American Conservatism; The Federalist Party in the Era of Jeffersonian Democracy. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.
Miller, John Chester. Crisis in Freedom: The Alien and Sedition Acts. Boston: Little, Brown, 1951.
The Jacobin Phrenzy: Federalism and the Menace of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame, 1951.