Aurora General Advertiser, February 23, 1799
There was never a time when it was more requisite for the public to be
truly acquainted with foreign transactions than at the present; nor one at
which this information was more difficult. With every thing that regards the
French Republic, it is of peculiar importance that it should be accurately and
fully understood, because that is the Foreign Power, with which our relations
have become more interesting than with any other. It happens at the same time,
that it is the very power, concerning whose affairs more than those of any
other, it is difficult to gain the exact and authentic information which ought
to regulate the opinion and direct the proceedings of the United States.
The French Revolution has produced such a ferment and agitation in the
world, and has divided it, according to the different turns given to men's
minds by temper, by interest, and by political principles, into such violent
parties, that nothing depending on opinion, nor much even on facts, is received
without a strong tincture from the channel through which it passes.
To this general consideration must be added some powerful obstacles of a
more particular nature.
The publications in France are said to be under such influence and
restraints from the Government, that little confidence can be put in them
beyond the official documents which they sometimes contain. The publications
indeed of any sort, from that quarter, arrive now so sparingly in this country,
that they scarcely serve the purpose of assisting truth by those comparisons
with other doubtful accounts by which it is sometimes approached.
In the next place, the mass of information relating to France is brought
to this Country chiefly from England and Germany, and is consequently
adulterated with all the exaggerations & perversions which the most raging
hostility can infuse.
To these foreign sources of uncertainty is to be added, in the third
place, the opposite dispositions under which our own presses make their
extracts and comments; whereby the imperfect lights received from abroad are
still further refracted and obscured.
Nor is any remedy to be derived in the present case, from the
correspondence of American citizens in Europe. For besides that the letters
ascribed to them are often the most palpable forgeries, dictated by the
extravagant zeal of party, it is not to be denied that such as are genuine
breathe an obvious spirit of partiality that turns away the ear of every
discerning enquirer after truth.
For these reasons it is most prudent and safe to indulge a considerable
measure of doubt as to a variety of scenes passing in the old world,
particularly in France; and to wait for full and satisfactory information, till
it shall be furnished by the course of facts and events properly
In the mean time, however, it may be useful to reflect on the nature of
some of the allegations and reproaches under which a country has fallen, that
of late was so interesting to us by the ties of friendship, and that is still
so by the relation of her revolution to ours, and by her form of government; as
well as by the nature of her markets, by her power, and by her political views,
whether amicable or otherwise towards this country. These allegations, if well
founded, afford lessons too instructive to be unheeded; and even if unfounded,
present an occasion for reflections well adapted to the present posture of our
affairs. Our attention will be limited to two articles much dwelt on in the
charge against the French Republic.
The first is, that the government has entirely separated itself
from the people, and erected itself into a Tyranny, actuated by its own
ambitious views, in opposition to the sentiments and interests of the
It is not proposed to examine in what degree this charge is strictly
true. If on one hand there be symptoms which favor it, it is not improbable,
that some mitigating pleas at least might be urged on the other. It may be
recollected that similar imputations were constantly thrown on the congress
during our own revolution, tho' well known to be without foundation. Taking the
fact however in the form in which it is stated, it certainly offers very
serious admonitions to a people living under a representative government.
The French Republic, like ours, is founded on the principles of
representation and responsibility. The members of its legislature are chosen by
the people. They become at short periods amenable to their constituents, by the
frequent return of elections. And as a further security, they are divided into
two branches, as checks the one on the other. If it be true, as alledged, that
under these circumstances, a tyrannical usurpation has already taken place in
that government, is not here an example in point against the doctrine so
ardendy propagated by many, that in a republic the people ought to consider the
whole of their political duty as discharged when they have chosen their
representatives; that it is impossible in fact and ought never to be presumed,
that men chosen by the people, and having a common interest with the people,
can pursue an interest different from that of the people; and consequently that
the people ought at all times to place an unlimited confidence in rulers so
chosen, applauding the wisdom of public measures where they can see it and
assuring themselves that it is equally the foundation of all others, where
nothing but folly or mischief may appear on the face of them.
Nothing can be more contradictory than this reasoning, to the alledged
usurpations of the French government, and yet, however curious it may be, many
who proclaim these usurpations with most energy, are the same who with no less
energy preach an unlimited confidence in representative government as incapable
The inconsistency is not done away by pleading the extraordinary means
employed by the French Government in their illegitimate pursuits, such as the
expulsion and banishment of part of their own body, controuling the election of
successors, &c. &c. The observation always recurs, that such means were
in fact employed, in such pursuits, by elective and responsible agents; and
consequently that such agents are not incapable of violating the trust
committed to them.
It must not be permitted however, either to the friend of liberty in
despair, or to its enemy in disguise, to turn this inference against the merit
and competency of the Representative principle. The true lesson it teaches is,
that in no case ought the eyes of the people to be shut on the conduct of those
entrusted with power; nor their tongues tied from a just wholesome censure on
it, any more than from merited commendations. If neither gratitude for the
honor of the trust, nor responsibility for the use of it, be sufficient to curb
the unruly passions of public functionaries, add new bits to the bridle rather
than to take it off altogether. This is the precept of common sense illustrated
and enforced by experience — un-controuled power, ever has been, and ever
will be administered by the passions more than by reason. The exceptions are
too few to have the smallest weight with sober and sensible people. There is no
possible state of things, therefore, where a remedy against the abuses of power
ought to be sought for in a renewal of the checks on it.
The second charge against the French Republic is, that the
Directory has gained an omnipotent ascendancy over the Legislature, and makes
use of its authority to sanction and disguise all the projects of its own
ambition and rapacity.
The prompt and uniform concurrence of the two Departments, said to
prevail in all the public measures, is a strong indication either that both are
governed by the voice of the nation, or that one is extremely compliant with
the will of the other. The first supposition being rejected, the inference from
appearances certainly is that the Executive rules the Legislature, rather than
that the Legislature rules the Executive.
Taking this for the fact, what a subject does it present for the
meditation of free nations.
The French Directory it will be recollected, is not only an elective and
responsible body, but is elected by, and in a certain degree responsible to the
legislative body; yet in the short period that has passed, since that
government was established, we are told that the power, and influence of the
Executive Department, have rendered it the absolute masters of its creators and
constituents. This surely is another example that does not favor the
fashionable doctrine of the present day, that elective and responsible rulers
ought never to be deemed capable of abusing their trust, much less does it
favor the still more fashionable doctrine, that executive influence in a
representative government is a, mere phantom created by the
imaginations of the credulous, or the arts of the hypocritical friends of
liberty; and that all true patriots will ever unite their efforts in
strengthening the executive force, by stifling every jealousy of its
But in order to comprehend this subject fully, and to draw from it all
the instruction which it offers, the question must be asked, under what
circumstances, and by what means, this Executive omnipotence has been brought
The answer to this question, one of the most important that could invite
the public attention, will be best given by a simple view of facts.
The French Republic has been, and still is, in a state of war and
danger, and this state of war and danger, have given to the Executive an
immense army to command, innumerable offices to bestow, a mighty mass of money
to deal out, a control over the freedom of speech and of the press; together
with all the use that can be made of foreign relations, and internal alarms,
for leading the counsels of the legislature, for crying down the opponents of
its measures, and for imposing silence, if not satisfaction on the people.
An army such as that of France, which does not bear a less
proportion to the whole nation, than fifty thousand men would do to
the people of the United States, must be formidable at home as well as abroad;
whilst a revenue and laws, &c. corresponding with the proportion of
twenty or thirty millions of dollars to the United States, to be
distributed in emoluments to officers and dependants beyond number, of every
kind, and of every grade, must add an influence, equal to the power of
the military establishment itself.
What other resources would a Walpole or a Mazarine desire for drawing
all the corruption and all the weakness in the society into their views, and
for building up a gigantic Executive on the ruins of every collateral
department of power. Or if other resources were desired, might they not be
found in an unbounded license to applaud, without the privilege of censuring
their movements; and in that fund of influence enjoyed, by the prerogative
that superintends all foreign dangers and designs, and that can exhibit and
vary the pictures of them, at its pleasure.
Under circumstances like these, the Directory are models of virtue, if
ambition has not somewhat yielded to the means of gratifying it; the
legislative body more pure, than is probable, if the avarice of many of its
members has not overpowered their duty; and the people more firm and
enlightened than ought to be expected, if they are not in some measure awed or
duped into a tacit acquiescence under oppression.
The usurped sway ascribed to the Directory, with the causes which must
have led to it, cannot then be too much pondered and contemplated by Americans
who love their country, and are sensible of the blessings of its free
constitution. They ought most generously to reflect on the evils of a state of
war, not only as it destroys the lives of the people, wastes their treasure,
and corrupts their morals; but on the other, evils which lurk under its
dreadful tendency, to destroy the equilibrium of the departments of power, by
throwing improper weights into the Executive scale, and to betray the people
into the snares which ambition may lay for their liberties.
When a state of war becomes absolutely and clearly necessary, all good
citizens will submit with alacrity to the calamities inseparable from it. But
wars are so often the result of causes which prudence and a love of peace might
obviate, that it is equally the duty and the characteristic of good citizens to
keep a watchful, tho' not censorious eye, over that branch of the government
which derives the greatest accession of power and importance from the armies,
offices, and expences, which compose the equipage of war. In spite of all the
claims and examples of patriotism, which ought by no means to be undervalued,
the testimony of all ages forces us to admit, that war is among the most
dangerous of all enemies to liberty; and that the executive is the most favored
by it, of all the branches of power. The charge brought against the French
Directory adds a new fact to the evidence which will be allowed by all to have
very great weight and to meet the particular attention of the United
It deserves to be well considered also, that actual war is not the only
state which may supply the means of usurpation. The real or pretended
apprehensions of it, are, sometimes of equal avail to the projects of ambition.
Hence the propagation and management of alarms has grown into a kind of system.
Its origin however is not of recent or even moderate date. The Roman Senate,
and Athenian demagogues understood it as well as Mr. Pitt or any of the mimics
of his policy. Nor ought it to be doubted, that the stratagem will readily
occur to every government that can with impunity and without animadversion,
indulge that "unlimited passion," which the frankness of our President has
declared to be an attribute of human nature.
An alarm is proclaimed — Troops are raised — Taxes are imposed
— Officers military and civil are created. The danger is repelled or
disappears. But in the army, remains a real force, in the taxes pecuniary
measures, and in the offices a political influence, all at hand for the
internal interprizes of ambition. But should no other pretext present itself,
one may possibly be found in the jealousies, discontents, and murmurs excited
by the very danger which threatens.
The whole field of political sciences rich as it is in momentous truths,
contains none that are better established or that ought to be more deeply
engraven on the American mind, than the two following:
First. That the fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever
been forged out of the weapons provided for defence against real, pretended, or
imaginary dangers from abroad.
Secondly, That there never was a people whose liberties long
survived a standing army.
The case under consideration leads to another reflection highly
interesting to the United States.
Although a protracted and complicated war, and the multiplied alarms
from without and within, might account for a rapid growth of the Executive
Branch in the French Government, it may have been not a little facilitated by
the consolidation of France into one simple republic. In this particular
the United States have an advantage that cannot be too much prized. Our state
governments by dividing the power with the Federal Government, and forming so
many bodies of observation on it, must always be a powerful barrier against
dangerous encroachments; unless indeed their members, particularly their
leading members, like those of the British House of Commons, or the Tribunes of
ancient Rome, should sacrifice the character and duties incident to their
political station, to superior allurements from another quarter, a danger not
to be too much disregarded, but which it may be hoped, will be controuled by
the vigilance of the people and the frequency of elections.
In the French Republic, all power being collected into one government,
the people cannot act, by any intermediate, local authorities in checking its
excesses; and the public affairs being of vast extent and complexity, a
proportional latitude of direction in managing them, is almost of necessity
transferred to the standing magistracy of the Executive; whilst the great
source of influence in the distribution and superintendance of lucrative
offices, is enlarged by the addition of those of every description, which on
the federal plan, would make a part of the subordinate governments.
As a conclusion to our subject, it may be remarked, that there are three
different uses to which the events of the French Revolution, and the conduct of
the French Government are applied by three different classes of politicians.
The endeavor of one class is so to caricature the scene as to cast an odium on
all Republican government. That of another class is (a strange endeavor to be
sure) to infer from the vices and usurpations charged on the French government,
the propriety of a blind and unqualified reliance on the infallibility of our
own: And that of the third, to trace and ascertain the true causes of the
abuses in France, as so many rocks to be shunned by an administration that
wishes to maintain the character of Republican Government in general, and the
principles of its own in particular. The public will decide which of these
classes are best entitled to the name of friends to their country.
A citizen of the united states.