Deficiencies of the Confederation

CHAPTER 5 | Document 8

Richard Henry Lee to Samuel Adams

14 Mar. 1785Letters 2:343--45

The selfishness and corruption of Europe I have no doubt about, and therefore wish most sincerely that our free Republics may not suffer themselves to be changed and wrongly wrought upon by the corrupt maxims of policy that pervade European Councils--where artful and refined plausibility is forever called in to aid the most pernicious designs. It would seem as if there were a general jealosy beyond the water, of the powerful effects to be derived from Republican virtue here, and so we hear a constant cry from thence, echoed & reechoed here by all Expectants from the Treasury of the United States--That Congress must have more power--That we cannot be secure & happy until Congress command implicitly both purse & sword. So that our confederation must be perpetually changing to answer sinister views in the greater part, until every fence is thrown down that was designed to protect & cover the rights of Mankind. It is a melancholy consideration that many wise & good men have, some how or other, fallen in with these ruinous opinions. I think Sir that the first maxim of a man who loves liberty should be, never to grant to Rulers an atom of power that is not most clearly & indispensably necessary for the safety and well being of Society. To say that these Rulers are revocable, and holding their places during pleasure may not be supposed to design evil for self-aggrandizement, is affirming what I cannot easily admit. Look to history and see how often the liberties of mankind have been opressed & ruined by the same delusive hopes & falacious reasoning. The fact is, that power poisons the mind of its possessor and aids him to remove the shackles that restrain itself. To be sure, all things human must partake of human infirmity, and therefore the Confederation should not be presumptuously called an infallible system for all times and all situations--but tho' this is true, yet as it is a great and fundamental system of Union & Security, no change should be admitted until proved to be necessary by the fairest fullest & most mature experience. Upon these principles I have ever been opposed to the 5 P Cent imposts, My idea is still that of the Confederation, Fix the sum, apportion it & let every State by its own means, and in its own way faithfully & honestly make its payment. That the now federal mode of apportionment is productive of delay, of great expence, and still liable to frequent change, is certain. And therefore I see no inconvenience in so far altering the Confederation as to make the Rule of Apportionment lie upon the numbers as stated in the recommendation of Congress upon that Subject. But I can never agree that this Body shall dictate the mode of Taxation, or that the collection shall in any manner be subject to Congressional controul. It is said that this will more effectually secure the Revenue--But how so? if a spirit prevails to neglect a duty imposed by the Confederation, may not the same spirit render abortive at any time Acts passed for granting the Impost? Besides that we are depending for the payment of our debts upon uncertainty, when the most certain revenues of the State ought to be appropriated for that purpose. Whilst every good man wishes great punctuality to prevail in the payment of debts, he must at the same time condemn and discourage large importations which impoverish by increasing the balance of trade against us. So that from this system we are to expect our greatest good from our greatest evil. A good physician will tell you that contrary indications of cure threaten danger to human life, and by a just parity of reason, contrary indications threaten danger to the Political body. But happily for us, our political disease admits of simple remedies for its cure, if rightly judged of, and wisely practised upon. Let it be therefore the effort of every Patriot to encourage a punctual payment of each State's quota of the foederal demand, and let the money be found in ways most agreable to the circumstances of every State. This is the plan of the Confederation, and this I own will be mine, until more satisfactory experience has proved its inefficacy.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 5, Document 8
The University of Chicago Press

The Letters of Richard Henry Lee. Edited by James Curtis Ballagh. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan Co., 1911--14.

Easy to print version.