Balanced Government

CHAPTER 11 | Document 17

Gouverneur Morris to Robert Walsh

5 Feb. 1811Life 3:264--66

Perhaps there is still in my old bosom too much of the youthful ardor of hope, but I do not despair of our country. True it is, that the present state of things has approached with unlooked for rapidity. But in that very circumstance there is a source of comfort. In spite of the power of corruption, there is still, perhaps, enough of public sentiment left to sanctify the approaching misfortunes. Let not good men despair, because the people were not awakened by what has passed. It should be considered, that, in proportion to the size and strength of the patient, and to the dulness of his organs, the dose must be large to operate with effect. The embargo produced so much of nausea, that our State Doctors perceived the necessity of an opiate. Thus, the incipient spasm was lulled, but causes must eventually produce their effects.

This digression leads us, however, from the point of your inquiry. "How far has the Senate answered the end of its creation?" I answer, farther than was expected, but by no means so far as was wished. It is necessary here to anticipate one of your subsequent questions, "What has been, and what is now the influence of the State governments on the Federal system?" To obtain anything like a check on the rashness of democracy, it was necessary not only to organize the legislature into different bodies, (for that alone is a poor expedient,) but to endeavor that these bodies should be animated by a different spirit. To this end the States in their corporate capacity were made electors of the Senate; and so long as the State governments had considerable influence, and the consciousness of dignity, which that influence imparts, the Senate felt something of the desired sentiment, and answered in some degree the end of its institution. But that day is past.

This opens to our view a dilemma, which was not unperceived when the Constitution was formed. If the State influence should continue, the union could not last; and, if it did not, the utility of the Senate would cease. It was observed in the Convention at an early day, by one who had afterwards a considerable share of the business, when the necessity of drawing a line between national sovereignty and State independence was insisted on, "that, if Aaron's rod could not swallow the rods of the Magicians, their rods would swallow his." But it is one thing to perceive a dilemma, and another thing to get out of it. In the option between two evils, that which appeared to be the least was preferred, and the power of the union provided for. At present the influence of the general government has so thoroughly pervaded every State, that all the little wheels are obliged to turn according to the great one. Factious leaders sometimes snarl and growl, but the curs cannot bite, and are easily lashed into order by the great executive thong. It is pleasant enough to see them drop their tails, and run yelping to the kennel.

A factious spirit prevails from one end of our country to the other. And by that spirit both Senators and Representatives are chosen. By that spirit the government acts; and, as to the provisions of the Constitution, however they may fill up the space of a speech to round of[f] a period, or perfume a flower of rhetoric, they cannot restrain men heated in the chase of party game. Mr Poindexter lately observed with no little truth, that it would be vain to oppose what should be enjoined under the form of law, because it was forbidden by the Constitution. The Senate, in my poor opinion, is little if any check, either on the President or the House of Representatives. It has not the disposition. The members of both Houses are creatures, which, though differently born, are begotten in the same way and by the same sire. They have of course the same temper. But their opposition, were they disposed to make any, would be feeble. They would easily be borne down by the other House, in which the power resides. The President can indeed do what he pleases, provided always it shall please him to please those, who lead a majority of the Representatives. This matter is understood among the parties concerned. The Representatives, however, do not yet know, that their power has no bound except their discretion; but a pleasant lesson is easily learnt, and the more they feel their power, the less will be their discretion. Authority so placed is liable as well to excess as to abuse, and this country, unless I am much mistaken, will experience not a little of both.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 11, Document 17
The University of Chicago Press

The Life of Gouverneur Morris, with Selections from His Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers. Edited by Jared Sparks. 3 vols. Boston, 1832.

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