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Ames, Fisher, 1758-1808

Orator and statesman; born in Dedham, Mass., April 9, 1758; was graduated at Harvard College in 1774; taught school until 1781; then began the practice of law: and soon displayed rare oratorical powers. He wrote political essays for Boston newspapers, over the signatures of “Brutus” and “Camillus.” In Congress from 1789 until 1797 he was always distinguished for his great business talent, exalted patriotism, and brilliant oratory. Ardently devoted to Washington, personally and politically, he was chosen by his colleagues to write the address to the first President on his retiring

Fisher Ames.

from office in 1797. After leaving Congress he devoted himself to the practice of his profession; but finally, on account of declining health, gave it up to engage exclusively in agricultural pursuits. In 1804 he was chosen president of Harvard College, [142] but declined the honor. He received the degree of Ll.D. from that institution. His orations, essays, and letters were collected and published in 1 volume, with a biographical sketch by Rev. Dr. Kirkland, in 1809. So powerful was his great speech in Congress in favor of Jay's Treaty, on april 28, 1795, that an opposition member moved to postpone the decision of the question that they might not “vote under the influence of a sensibility which their calm judgment might condemn.” He died in Dedham, July 4, 1808.

Speech on Jay's treaty.

The following are extracts from his speech made on April 28, 1796:

The treaty is bad, fatally bad, is the cry. It sacrifices the interest, the honor, the independence of the United States, and the faith of our engagements to France. If we listen to the clamor of party intemperance, the evils are of a number not to be counted, and of a nature not to be borne, even in idea. The language of passion and exaggeration may silence that of sober reason in other places; it has not done it here. The question here is whether the treaty be really so very fatal as to oblige the nation to break its faith. I admit that such a treaty ought not to be executed. I admit that self-preservation is the first law of society, as well as of individuals. It would, perhaps, be deemed an abuse of terms to call that a treaty which violates such a principle. I waive, also, for the present, any inquiry, what departments shall represent the nation, and annul the stipulations of a treaty. I content myself with pursuing the inquiry, whether the nature of this compact be such as to justify our refusal to carry it into effect. A treaty is the promise of a nation. Now, promises do not always bind him that makes them. But I lay down two rules, which ought to guide us in this case. The treaty must appear to be bad, not merely in the petty details, but in its character, principle, and mass. And in the next place, this ought to be ascertained by the decided and general concurrence of the enlightened public.

I confess there seems to be something very like ridicule thrown over the debate by the discussion of the articles in detail. The undecided point is, shall we break our faith? And while our country and enlightened Europe await the issue with more than curiosity, we are employed to gather piecemeal, and article by article, from the instrument a justification for the deed by trivial calculations of commercial profit and loss. This is little worthy of the subject, of this body, or of the nation. If the treaty is bad, it will appear to be so in its mass. Evil, to a fatal extreme, if that be its tendency, requires no proof; it brings it. Extremes speak for themselves and make their own law. What if the direct voyage of American ships to Jamaica, with horses or lumber, might net 1 or 2 per centum more than the present trade to Surinam — would the proof of the fact avail anything in so grave a question as the violation of the public engagements? . . .

Why do they complain that the West Indies are not laid open? Why do they lament that any restriction is stipulated on the commerce of the East Indies? Why do they pretend that, if they reject this and insist upon more, more will be accomplished? Let us be explicit — more would not satisfy. If all was granted, would not a treaty of amity with Great Britain still be obnoxious? Have we not this instant heard it urged against our envoy that he was not ardent enough in his hatred of Great Britain? A treaty of amity is condemned because it was not made by a foe and in the spirit of one. The same gentleman, at the same instant, repeats a very prevailing objection, that no treaty should be made with the enemy of France. No treaty, exclaim others, should be made with a monarch or a despot; there will be no naval security while those sea-robbers domineer on the ocean; their den must be destroyed; that nation must be extirpated.

I like this, sir, because it is sincerity. With feelings such as these we do not pant for treaties. Such passions seek nothing, and will be content with nothing, but the destruction of their object. If a treaty left King George his island, it would not answer; not if he stipulated to pay rent for it. It has been said the world ought to rejoice if Britain was sunk in the sea; if where there are now men and wealth and laws and liberty, there was no [143] more than a sand-bank for sea monsters to fatten on, a space for the storms of the ocean to mingle in conflict. . . .

What is patriotism? Is it a narrow affection for the spot where a man was born? Are the very clods where we tread entitled to this ardent preference because they are greener? No, sir, this is not the character of the virtue, and it soars higher for its object. It is an extended self-love, mingled with all the enjoyments of life, and twisting itself with the minutest filaments of the heart. It is thus we obey the laws of society, because they are the laws of virtue. In their authority we see not the array of force and terror, but the venerable image of our country's honor. Every good citizen makes that honor his own, and cherishes it not only as precious, but as sacred. He is willing to risk his life in its defence, and is conscious that he gains protection while he gives it. For, what rights of a citizen will be deemed inviolable when a state renounces the principles that constitute their security? Or if his life should not be invaded, what would its enjoyments be in a country odious in the eyes of strangers and dishonored in his own? Could he look with affection and veneration to such a country as his parent? The sense of having one would die within him; he would blush for his patriotism, if he retained any, and justly, for it would be a vice. He would be a banished man in his native land. I see no exception to the respect that is paid among nations to the laws of good faith. If there are cases in this enlightened period when it is violated, there are none when it is decried. It is the philosophy of politics, the religion of governments. It is observed by barbarians — a whiff of tobacco smoke or a string of beads gives not merely a binding force but sanctity to treaties. Even in Algiers a truce may be bought for money, but, when ratified, even Algiers is too wise or too just to disown and annul its obligation. Thus we see neither the ignorance of savages nor the principles of an association for piracy and rapine permit a nation to despise its engagements. If. sir, there could be a resurrection from the foot of the gallows, if the victims of justice could live again, collect together and form a society, they would, however loath, soon find themselves obliged to make justice, that justice under which they fell, the fundamental law of their state. They would perceive it was their interest to make others respect — and they would, therefore, soon pay some respect themselves to — the obligations of good faith.

It is painful — I hope it is superfluous — to make even the supposition that America should furnish the occasion of this opprobrium. No, let me not even imagine that a republican government, sprung, as our own is, from a people enlightened and uncorrupted, a government whose origin is right, and whose daily discipline is duty. can, upon solemn debate, make its option to be faithless — can dare to act what despots dare not avow, what our own example evinces, the states of Barbary are unsuspected of. No, let me rather make the supposition that Great Britain refuses to execute the treaty after we have done everything to carry it into effect. Is there any language of reproach pungent enough to express your commentary on the fact? What would you say, or, rather, what would you not say? Would you not tell them, wherever an Englishman might travel, shame would stick to him — he would disown his country? You would exclaim: “England, proudly of your wealth and arrogant in the possession of power, blush for these distinctions, which become the vehicles of your dishonor.” Such a nation might truly say to corruption, “Thou art my father” ; and to the worm, “Thou art my mother and my sister.” We should say of such a race of men, their name is a heavier burden than their debt. . . .

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