Epilogue: Securing the Republic
CHAPTER 18|Document 10
Carter Braxton, An Address to the Convention of the Colony and Ancient Dominion of Virginia; on the Subject of Government in General, and Recommending a Particular Form to Their ConsiderationMay 1776Scribner 518, 520--23
When despotism had displayed her banners, and with unremitting ardor and fury, scattered her engines of oppression through this wide extended continent; the virtuous opposition of the people to its progress, relaxed the tone of government in almost every colony, and occasioned in many instances a total suspension of law.
These inconveniences however were natural; and the mode readily submitted to, as there was then reason to hope, that justice would be done to our injured country; the same laws, executed under the same authority, soon regain their former use and lustre; and peace, raised on a permanent foundation, bless this our native land.
But since these hopes have hitherto proved delusive; and time instead of bringing us relief, daily brings forth new proofs of British tyranny, and thereby separates us further from that reconciliation we so ardently wished; does it not become the duty of your and every other Convention, to assume the reins of government, and no longer suffer the people to live without the benefit of law, and order the protection it affords? Anarchy and riot will follow a continuance of its suspension, and render the enjoyment of our liberties and future quiet, at least very precarious.
Presuming that this object will, e're long, engage your attention, and fully persuaded that when it does, it will be considered with all the candor and deliberation due to its importance; I have ventured to collect my sentiments on the subject, and in a friendly manner offer them to your consideration. Should they suggest any hints that may tend to improve or embellish the fabrick you are about to erect; I shall deem myself happy in having contributed my mite to the benefit of a people I esteem, and country to which I owe every obligation.
Taking for granted therefore the necessity of instituting a government capable of affording all the blessings, of which, the most cruel attempts have been made to deprive us; the first enquiry will be, which of the various forms is best adapted to our situation, and will in every respect most probably answer our purpose.
Various are the opinions of men on this subject, and different are the plans proposed for your adoption. Prudence will direct you to examine them with jealous eye, and weigh the pretensions of each with care as well as impartiality. Your, and your children's welfare depends upon the choice. Let it therefore neither be marked by a blind attachment to ancient prejudices, on the one hand; or a restless spirit of innovation, on the other.
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Men are prone to condemn the whole, because a part is objectionable, but certainly it would in the present case be more wise to consider, whether if the constitution was brought back to its original state, and its present imperfections remedied, it would not afford more happiness than any other.
If the independence of the Commons could be secured, and the dignity of the Lords preserved, how can a government be better formed for the preservation of freedom? And is there any thing more easy than this? If placemen and pensioners were excluded a seat in either house, and elections made triennial, what danger could be apprehended from prerogative. I have the best authority for asserting, that with these improvements, added to the suppression of boroughs and giving the people an equal and adequate representation, England would have remained a land of liberty to the latest ages.
Judge of the principle of this constitution by the great effects it has produced. Their code of laws, the boast of Englishmen and of freedom; the rapid progress they have made in trade, in arts and sciences, the respect they command from their neighbours, then gaining the empire of the sea, are all powerful arguments of the wisdom of that constitution and government which raised the people of that island to their late degree of greatness. But though I admire their perfections I must mourn their faults, and though I would guard against and cast off their oppression, yet would I retain all their wise maxims, and derive advantage from their mistakes and misfortunes.
The testimony of the learned Montesquieu in favour of the English constitution is very respectable. "There is (says he) one nation in the world, that has for the direct end of its constitution political liberty." Again he says, "it is not my business to examine whether the English actually enjoy this liberty or not, sufficient it is for my purpose to observe, that it is established by their laws, and I inquire no farther."
This constitution and these laws have also been those of Virginia, and let it be remembered that under them she flourished and was happy. The same principles which led the English to greatness, animates us. To that principle our laws, our customs, and our manners are adapted, and it would be perverting all order, to oblige us, by a novel government, to give up our laws, our customs, and our manners.
However necessary it may be to shake off the authority of arbitrary British dictators, we ought nevertheless to adopt and perfect that system, which England has suffered to be so grossly abused, and the experience of ages has taught us to venerate. This, like almost every thing else, is perhaps liable to objections; and probably the difficulty of adapting a limited monarchy will be largely insisted on. Admit this objection to have weight, and that we cannot in every instance assimulate a government to that, yet no good reason can be assigned, why the same principle or spirit may not in great measure be preserved.
But honorable as this spirit is, we daily see it calumniated by advocates for popular governments; and rendered obnoxious to all whom their artifices can influence or delude. The systems recommended to the Colonies, seem to accord with the temper of the times, and are fraught with all the tumult and riot incident to simple democracy. Systems which many think in their interest to support, and without doubt will be industriously propagated among you. The best of these systems exist only in theory, and were never confirmed by the experience, even of those who recommend them. I flatter myself therefore that you will not quit a substance actually enjoyed, for a shadow or phantom, by which, instead of being benefited many have been misled or perplexed.
Let us examine the principles they assign to their government, and try its merits by the unerring standard of truth. In a late pamphlet it is thus stated. The happiness of man as well as his dignity consists in Virtue, if there be a form of government, then whose principle is virtue, will not every sober man acknowledge it better calculated to promote the general happiness of society than any other form. Virtue is the principle of a republic, therefore a republic is the best form of government. The author, with what design I know not, seems to have cautiously blended private and public virtue, as if for the purpose of confounding the two, and thereby recommending his plan under the amiable appearance of courting virtue.
It is well known that private and public virtue are materially different. The happiness and dignity of man I admit consists in the practice of private virtues, and to this he is stimulated by the rewards promised to such conduct. In this he acts for himself, and with a view of promoting his own particular welfare.
Public virtue, on the other hand, means a disinterested attachment to the public good, exclusive and independent of all private and selfish interest, and which, though sometimes possessed by a few individuals, never characterised the mass of the people in any state. And this is said to be the principle of democratical governments, and to influence every subject of it to pursue such measures as conduce to the prosperity of the whole. A man therefore, to qualify himself for a member of such a community, must divest himself of all interested motives, and engage in no pursuits which do not ultimately redound to the benefit of society. He must not through ambition desire to be great, because it would destroy that equality on which the security of the government depends, nor ought he to be rich, lest he be tempted to indulge himself in those luxuries which though lawful are not expedient, and might occasion envy and emulation. Should a person deserve the esteem of his fellow citizens and become popular, he must be neglected, if not banished, lest his growing influence disturb the equilibrium. It is remarkable that neither the justice of Aristides or the bravery of Themistocles could shield men from the darts of envy and jealousy.--nor are modern times without examples of the same kind.
To this species of government every thing that looks like elegance and refinement, is inimical however necessary to the introduction of manufacturers, and the cultivation of arts and sciences. Hence in some ancient republics, flowed those numberless sumptuary laws, which restrained men to plainness and similarity in dress and diet; and all the mischiefs which attend Agrarian laws and unjust attempts to maintain their idol equality by an equal division of property.
Schemes like these may be practicable in countries so steril by nature as to afford a scanty supply of the necessaries and none of the conveniences, of life: But they can never meet with a favourable reception from people who inhabit a country to which providence has been more bountiful. They will always claim a right of using and enjoying the fruits of their honest industry, unrestrained by any ideal principles of government, and will gather estates for themselves and children without regarding the whimsical impropriety of being richer than their neighbours. These are rights which freemen will never consent to relinquish, and after fighting for deliverance from one species of tyranny, it would be unreasonable to expect they should tamely acquiesce under another.
The truth is that men will not be poor from choice or compulsion, and these governments can exist only in countries where the people are so from necessity. In all others they have ceased almost as soon as erected, and in many instances been succeeded by despotism, and the arbitrary sway of some usurper, who had before perhaps gained the confidence of the people, by eulogiums on liberty, and possessing no property of his own, by most disinterestedly opposing depredations on that of his neighbours.
Revolutionary Virginia: The Road to Independence. Vol 6, The Time for Decision, 1776: A Documentary Record, edited by Robert L. Scribner and Brent Tarter. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia for the Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, 1981.
© 1987 by The University of Chicago