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HENRY KNox to Mercy Warren
NEW-YORK, 30th May, 1787
MADAM, - Having but just returned from Philadelphia, it was only yesterday I had the honor to receive your favor of the 2d instant.
Respecting politicks, as you have given me the opportunity, I shall take the liberty of indulging confidentially a few reflections, relying on your goodness for an excuse if any sentiment should escape, which in appearance should seem to be contrary to our former opinions.
When I survey the animal Man, analyze his passions, and investigate his views; Take a retrospect of his progressions through the various stages of society, and his blind impulses to pursue the present enjoyment to the exclusion of future good, I tremble at the present awful crisis. I arrange in my imagination two or three hundred millions of our posterity, with their eyes fixed on our conduct, ready to applaud our wisdom, or to execrate our folly; I long for that degree of intuition which belongs to a higher race than man, in order to exhibit strongly to the view of my countrymen the effects which will flow from the causes established at the present moment, whether arising from design or accident.
That our system operates badly indeed, no person who knows the discontents, which pervade the United States will deny. Not only a ruined commerce, but such destruction of moral principle as must alarm every upright, and intelligent lover of his country. Anarchy with its horrid train of miseries seem ready to overwhelm this region marked by nature for happiness. Were we to examine our political systems without prejudice, perhaps we shall there find the source of all the evils of which we complain, and of all those which we apprehend.
Our respectable and enlightened friend Mr. Adams's Book will be the surest basis of his reputation. It is true he has been a little unfortunate in his title. It is not a defence of the constitutions of the United States, it is rather a sarcasm on them. But it should have been entitled "The Soul of a free government." But still it
will be the means of great good. It is a word spoken in season He clearly points out one of the capital causes of our misery and prostrate character - the will, the caprice the headlong conduct, of a government without strong checks by different branches, or a division of power by a balance, A mad democracy sweeps away every moral and divine trait from the human character. Hence it is that reason Law, and patriotism is banished from almost every Legislature. Private convenience, paper money, and ex post facto Laws, are the main springs of the American governments.
In addition to these local evils all national character, and interests are lost by the monsterous system of State governments; which from their construction, compared with the general government, must necessarily produce the effects which we experience of overturning even almost the appearance of a general government. Granted says candor, but the remedy? pardon me, the convention is sitting and shall one of the cincinnati presume to give his opinion?
I confess however, that my only hope of human assistance is founded on the convention. Should they possess the hardihood to be unpopular, and propose an efficient National government, free from the entanglements of the present defective state systems we may yet be a happy and great nation. But I have no expectations if their propositions should be truly wise, that they will be immediately accepted. I should rather suppose that they would be ridiculed in the same as was the ark of old, while building by Noah. But if human nature be influenced by invariable principles, we are on the eve of political storms.
If the convention should propose to erect a temple to liberty on the solid, and durable foundation of Law and Justice, all men of principle in the first instance will embrace the proposal. Demagogues and vicious characters will oppose for a while. But reason will at length triumph. But should the convention be desirous of acquiring present popularity; should they possess local and not general views should they propose a patch work to the present wretchedly defective thing called the Confederation, look out ye patriots, supplicate Heaven! for you will have need of its protection!
Seperate Anarchies will take place. Hostile conflicts will happen, and in proportion to their number, and duration, will be the strength of the tyrany which will be established on the issue. The party triumphant, will never submit its actions to the decisions of a free legislature -no-The tyrants will direct. If they call an assembly of the people, it will be for the purpose, of devising ways and means of raising more money, like the notables in France.
But say you, all this may appear true to a man of warm imagination, but still a distant glimpse has not been given of the government of Laws, of the paradise of humanity True, madam. I should be first happy to hear your opinion on the subject. do you remember the idea which you once whispered to me at Mr. Russell's? I like the principle to be established hereafter. But I wish at present to try the experiment of a strong national republic. The state governments should be deprived of the power of injuring themselves or the Nation. The people have parted with power enough to form an excellent constitution; But it is incorp[ora]ted and diffused among bodies which cannot use it to good purpose. It must be concentered in a national government, the power of which should be divided between a strong executive, a senate, and assembly. The powers which each should have, would be a subject of nice discussion and much detail. The time of the executive, and senate should be such as to give stability to the system. The Assembly to be for one two or at most three years. A Judicial to be formed on the highest principles of Independency. This government should possess every power necessary for national purposes which would leave the state governments but very little. But every power should be defined with accuracy, and checked according to the highest human wisdom. an attempt to overleap the bounds of the constitution by those who are in the execution of it, should be certainly and severely punished
Thus, madam, I have hastily confided to your liberality my sentiments of our present critical situation, and stated the mildest remedy that the case will admit. To attempt less will I am apprehensive precipitate us into the gulph of seperate anarchies, on the issue of which we may see established seperate tyrannies. The
tyrants will find ways and means by reciprocal alliances between themselves to render the fetters of the people as durable as brass or iron.
I have said nothing on the subject of foreign intrigues, which will agitate us in the course of the commotions. This circumstance is too obvious to need any illustration.
I should be happy madam to receive your communications from time to time particularly on the subject enlarged on in this letter. Your sentiments shall remain with me. I beg you to present to the general my affectionate and respectful compliments, and to believe me to be most respectfully, you obedient humble Servt.
Mrs. Knox presents her compliments to the Genl. and yourself.
HENRY KNox to Mercy Warren
NEW YORK, 21 August, 1787
MADAM,— Your highly esteemed favor of the 21st of June was duly received. But my absences and avocations lately, have been such, that I have been unable at an earlier period, to set down to form a reply.
Indeed I wished that somewhat of the proceedings of the convention might be first known, in order to discover the complexion the remainder of our lives was likely to assume, as far as depended on government.
Although this wish has not been gratified in such a manner, as to be communicated on paper, at present, yet it is well ascertained that great unanimity prevails in the convention. That the important principles are fixed - and that their deliberations are drawing to a close, so that the members will probably seperate before the 15th of next month.
In this state of things the true lovers of their country will wait to receive the result of the deliberations of the convention. I look forward to the period of publication with a degree of anxiety. I
am persuaded that some ardent and intelligent spirits may regard the propositions of the convention as inadequate to remedy the evils of our situation; while others and a greater majority too will be apt at the first blush to consider the proposed government as too high toned.
But if the characters of the convention be duly estimated, and the nature and circumstances of the society I flatter myself the government proposed will be received by the multitude as the best that can be obtained at present.
If however it should be otherwise, if the still small voice of reason should not be heard, but local demagogues successfully oppose the erection of a fair national republic, we shall most probably feel the force of blind events. Whether they will be rigid, or flexible, adverse or prosperous must be left for the present to those superior beings who can penetrate further into futurity than we poor mortals.
The information you are pleased to request on certain points respecting the Cincinnati and the characters of certain Gentlemen shall be candidly given when I shall have the honor of seeing you, which I hope will be in the ensuing October or November.
Mrs. Knox and myself have recently sustained the sharp affliction of losing our youngest child of about eleven months old, of a disorder incident to children when cutting their teeth. However much our affections have been lacerated on this occasion we are forced to believe that the system in which we are, and every thing therein, is governed by infinite wisdom.
I beg General Warren to accept my best wishes for his happiness, mental, and corporeal. I am, madam, with perfect respect and esteem Your Most obedient humble Servant,
CATHERINE MACAULAY GRAHAM TO MERCY WARREN
DEAR MADAM, I have long wished, long hoped, and long expected, to receive a letter from you; the letter is at length arrived, and your reasons for not gratifying me before, are so friendly that I cannot complain.