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Thomas B. (Thomas Brackett) Reed.

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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, ex-
claim others, should be made with a monarch or a despot:
there will be no naval security while those sea-robbers dom-
ineer on the ocean: their den must be destroyed: that
nation must be extirpated.

I like this, sir, because it is sincerity. With feelings



ON THE BRITISH TREATY 57

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 more than
a sand bank for the sea monsters to fatten on, a space for
the storms of the ocean to mingle in conflict.

I object nothing to the good sense or humanity of all
this. I yield the point that this is a proof that the age of
reason is in progress. Let it be philanthropy, let it be
patriotism, if you will, but it is no indication that any
treaty would be approved. The difficulty is not to over-
come the objections to the terms; it is to restrain the
repugnance to any stipulations of amity with the party.

Having alluded to the rival of Great Britain, I am not
unwilling to explain myself; I affect no concealment, and
I have practised none. While those two great nations agi-
tate all Europe with their quarrels, they will both equally
desire, and, with any chance of success, equally endeavor to
create an influence in America. Each will exert all its arts
to range our strength on its own side. How is this to be
effected? Our government is a democratical republic. It
will not be disposed to pursue a system of politics in sub-
servience to either France or England, in opposition to the
general wishes of the citizens; and, if Congress should
adopt such measures, they would not be pursued long, nor
with much success. From the nature of our government,
popularity is the instrument of foreign influence. Without
it, all is labor and disappointment. With that mighty aux-
iliary, foreign intrigue finds agents, not only volunteers,
but competitors for employment, and anything like reluc-
tance is understood to be a crime. Has Britain this means
of influence? Certainly not. If her gold could buy adher-
ents, their becoming such would deprive them of all politi-
cal power and importance. They would not wield popu-
larity as a weapon, but would fall under it. Britain has no
influence, and for the reasons just given can have none.
She has enough; and God forbid she ever should have
more, France, possessed of popular enthusiasm, of party



58 FISHER AMES

attachments, has had and still has too much influence on
our politics any foreign influence is too much, and ought
to be destroyed. I detest the man and disdain the spirit
that can bend to a mean subserviency to the views of any
nation. It is enough to be Americans. That character com-
prehends our duties, and ought to engross our attachments.

But I would not be misunderstood. I would not break
the alliance with France; I would not have the connection
between the two countries even a cold one. It should be
cordial and sincere; but I would banish that influence
which, by acting on the passions of the citizens, may acquire
a power over the government.

It is no bad proof of the merit of the treaty that, under
all these unfavorable circumstances, it should be so well
approved. In spite of first impressions, in spite of misrep-
resentation and party clamor, inquiry has multiplied its
advocates; and at last the public sentiment appears to me
clearly preponderating to its side.

On the most careful review of the several branches of
the treaty, those which respect political arrangements, the
spoliations on our trade, and the regulation of commerce,
there is little to be apprehended. The evil, aggravated as
it is by party, is little in degree and short in duration two
years from the end of the European war. I ask, and I
would ask the question significantly, what are the induce-
ments to reject the treaty? What great object is to be
gained, and fairly gained by it? If, however, as to the
merits of the treaty, candor should suspend its approba-
tion, what is there to hold patriotism a moment in balance,
as to the violation of it? Nothing; I repeat confidently,
nothing. There is nothing before us in that event but con-
fusion and dishonor.

But before I attempt to develop those consequences,
I must put myself at ease by some explanation.

Nothing is worse received among men than the confuta-
tion of their opinions; and, of these, none are more dear
or more vulnerable than their political opinions. To say
that a proposition leads to shame and ruin, is almost equiva-
lent to a charge that the supporters of it intend to produce
them. I throw myself upon the magnanimity and candor
of those who hear me. I cannot do justice to my subject



ON THE BRITISH TREATY 59

without exposing, as forcibly as I can, all the evils in pros-
pect. I readily admit that in every science, and most of
all in politics, error springs from other sources than the
want of sense or integrity. I despise indiscriminate pro-
fessions of candor and respect. There are individuals op-
posed to me of whom I am not bound to say anything.
But of many, perhaps of a majority of the opposers of the
appropriations, it gives me pleasure to declare, they possess
my confidence and regard. There are among them indi-
viduals for whom I entertain a cordial affection.

The consequences of refusing to make provision for the
treaty are not all to be foreseen. By rejecting, vast inter-
ests are committed to the sport of the winds. Chance
becomes the arbiter of events, and it is forbidden to human
foresight to count their number, or measure their extent.
Before we resolve to leap into this abyss, so dark and so
profound, it becomes us to pause and reflect upon such of
the dangers as are obvious and inevitable. If this assembly
should be wrought into a temper to defy these conse-
quences, it is vain, it is deceptive, to pretend that we can
escape them. It is worse than weakness to say that as to
public faith our vote has already settled the question. An-
other tribunal than our own is already erected. The public
opinion, not merely of our own country, but of the enlight-
ened world, will pronounce a judgment that we cannot
resist, that we dare not even affect to despise.

Well may I urge it to men who know the worth of char-
acter, that it is no trivial calamity to have it contested.
Refusing to do what the treaty stipulates shall be done,
opens the controversy. Even if we should stand justified
at last, a character that is vindicated is something worse
than it stood before, unquestioned and unquestionable.
Like the plaintiff in an action of slander, we recover a repu-
tation disfigured by invective, and even tarnished by too
much handling. In the combat for the honor of the nation
it may receive some wounds, which, though they should
heal, will leave scars. I need not say, for surely the feel-
ings of every bosom have anticipated, that we cannot guard
this sense of national honor, this everlasting fire which
alone keeps patriotism warm in the heart, with a sensi-
bility too vigilant and jealous.



60 FISHER AMES

If, by executing the treaty, there is no possibility of
dishonor, and if, by rejecting, there is some foundation for
doubt and for reproach, it is not for me to measure, it is
for your own feelings to estimate the vast distance that
divides the one side of the alternative from the other.

If, therefore, we should enter on the examination of the
question of duty and obligation with some feelings of pre-
possession, I do not hesitate to say, they are such as we
ought to have: it is an after inquiry to determine whether
they are such as ought finally to be resisted.

The resolution [Mr. Blount's] is less explicit than the
Constitution. Its patrons should have made it more so,
if possible, if they had any doubts, or meant the public
should entertain none. Is it the sense of that vote, as some
have insinuated, that we claim a right, for any cause or no
cause at all but our own sovereign will and pleasure, to
refuse to execute, and thereby to annul, the stipulations of
a treaty that we have nothing to regard but the expedi-
ency or inexpediency of the measure, being absolutely free
from all obligation by compact to give it our sanction? A
doctrine so monstrous, so shameless, is refuted by being
avowed. There are no words you could express it in that
would not convey both confutation and reproach. It would
outrage the ignorance of the tenth century to believe, it
would baffle the casuistry of a papal council to vindicate.
I venture to say it is impossible : no less impossible than
that we should desire to assert the scandalous privilege of
being free after we have pledged our honor.

It is doing injustice to the resolution of the House
(which I dislike on many accounts) to strain the interpreta-
tion of it to this extravagance. The treaty-making power
is declared by it to be vested exclusively in the President
and Senate. Will any man in his senses affirm that it can
be a treaty before it has any binding force or obligation?
If it has no binding force upon us, it has none upon Great
Britain. Let candor answer: is Great Britain free from any
obligation to deliver the posts in June, and are we willing
to signify to her that we think so? Is it with that nation a
question of mere expediency or inexpediency to do it, and
that, too, even after we have done all that depends upon us
to give the treaty effect? No sober man believes this. No



ON THE BRITISH TREATY 61

one, who would not join in condemning the faithless pro-
ceedings of that nation, if such a doctrine should be avowed
and carried into practise and why complain, if Great
Britain is not bound? There can be no breach of faith
where none is plighted. I shall be told that she is bound.
Surely it follows that if she is bound to performance, our
nation is under a similar obligation ; if both parties be not
obliged, neither is obliged: it is no compact, no treaty.
This is a dictate of law and common sense, and every jury
in the country has sanctioned it on oath.

It cannot be a treaty and yet no treaty, a bargain, yet
no promise; if it is a promise, I am not to read a lecture to
show why an honest man will keep his promise.

The reason of the thing, and the words of the resolution
of the House, imply that the United States engage their
good faith in a treaty. We disclaim, say the majority,
the treaty-making power; we of course disclaim (they
ought to say) every doctrine that would put a negative
upon the doings of that power. It is the prerogative of
folly alone to maintain both sides of a proposition.

Will any man affirm the American nation is engaged by
good faith to the British nation, but that engagement is
nothing to this House? Such a man is not to be reasoned
with. Such a doctrine is a coat of mail, that would turn
the edge of all the weapons of argument, if they were
sharper than a sword. Will it be imagined the King of
Great Britain and the President are mutually bound by the
treaty, but the two nations are free?

It is one thing for this House to stand in a position that
presents an opportunity to break the faith of America, and
another to establish a principle that will justify the deed.

We feel less repugnance to believe that any other body
is bound by obligation than our own. There is not a man
here who does not say that Great Britain is bound by
treaty. Bring it nearer home. Is the Senate bound? Just
as much as the House, and no more. Suppose the Senate,
as part of the treaty power, by ratifying a treaty on Mon-
day, pledges the public faith to do a certain act. Then, in
its ordinary capacity as a branch of the legislature, the
Senate is called upon on Tuesday to perform that act, for
example, an appropriation of money is the Senate (so



62 FISHER AMES

lately under obligation) now free to agree or disagree to the
act? If the twenty ratifying senators should rise up and
avow these principles, saying, We struggle for liberty, we
will not be ciphers, mere puppets, and give their votes
accordingly, would not shame blister their tongues, would
not infamy tingle in their ears, would not their country,
which they had insulted and dishonored, though it should
be silent and forgiving, be a revolutionary tribunal, a rack
on which their own reflections would stretch them?

This, sir, is a cause that would be dishonored and be-
trayed if I contented myself with appealing only to the
understanding. It is too cold, and its processes are too
slow for the occasion. I desire to thank God that, since
He has given me an intellect so fallible, He has impressed
upon me an instinct that is sure. On a question of shame
and honor, reasoning is sometimes useless, and worse. I
feel the decision in my pulse if it throws no light upon
the brain, it kindles a fire at the heart.

It is not easy to deny, it is impossible to doubt, that a
treaty imposes an obligation on the American nation. It
would be childish to consider the President and Senate
obliged, and the nation and the House free. What is the
obligation perfect or imperfect? If perfect, the debate
is brought to a conclusion. If imperfect, how large a part
of our faith is pawned? Is half our honor put at risk, and
is that half too cheap to be redeemed? How long has this
hair-splitting subdivision of good faith been discovered, and
why has it escaped the researches of the writers on the law
of nations? Shall we add a new chapter to that law, or
insert this doctrine as a supplement to, or more properly a
repeal of, the Ten Commandments?

The principles and the example of the British Parlia-
ment have been alleged to coincide with the doctrine of
those who deny the obligation of the treaty. I have not
had the health to make very laborious researches into this
subject. I will, however, sketch my view of it. Several
instances have been noticed, but the treaty of Utrecht is
the only one that seems to be at all applicable. It has been
answered, that the conduct of Parliament in that celebrated
example affords no sanction to our refusal to carry the
treaty into effect. The obligation of the treaty of Utrecht



ON THE BRITISH TREATY 63

has been understood to depend on the concurrence of Parlia-
ment as a condition to its becoming of force. if that
opinion should, however, appear incorrect, still the prece-
dent proves, not that the treaty of Utrecht wanted obliga-
tion, but that Parliament disregarded it ; a proof, not of
the construction of the treaty-making power, but of the
violation of a national engagement. Admitting still fur-
ther, that the Parliament claimed and exercised its power,
not as a breach of faith, but as a matter of constitutional
right, I reply, that the analogy between Parliament and
Congress totally fails. The nature of the British govern-
ment may require and justify a course of proceeding in
respect to treaties that is unwarrantable here.

The British government is a mixed one. The king, at
the head of the army, of the hierarchy, with an ample civil
list, hereditary, irresponsible, and possessing the preroga-
tive of peace and war, may be properly observed with some
jealousy in respect to the exercise of the treaty-making
power. It seems, and perhaps from a spirit of caution on
this account, to be their doctrine that treaties bind the
nation, but are not to be regarded by the courts of law,
until laws have been passed conformably to them. Our
concurrence has expressly regulated the matter differently.
The concurrence of Parliament is necessary to treaties
becoming laws in England, gentlemen say; and here the
Senate, representing the states, must concur in treaties.
The Constitution and the reason of the case make the con-
currence of the Senate as effectual as the sanction of Par-
liament, and why not? The Senate is an elective body,
and the approbation of a majority of the states affords the
nation as ample security against the abuse of the treaty-
making power, as the British nation can enjoy in the con-
trol of Parliament.

Whatever doubt there may be as to the parliamentary
doctrine of the obligation of treaties in Great Britain (and
perhaps there is some), there is none in their books, or
their modern practise. Blackstone represents treaties as of
the highest obligation, when ratified by the king; and for
almost a century there has been no instance of opposition
by Parliament to this doctrine. Their treaties have been
uniformly carried into effect, although many have been rati-



64 FISHER AMES

fied of a nature most obnoxious to party, and have produced
louder clamor than we have lately witnessed. The example
of England, therefore, fairly examined, does not warrant,
it dissuades us from a negative vote.

Gentlemen have said, with spirit, Whatever the true doc-
trine of our Constitution may be, Great Britain has no right
to complain or to dictate an interpretation. The sense of
the American nation as to the treaty power is to be received
by all foreign nations. This is very true as a maxim ; but
the fact is against those who vouch it. The sense of the
American nation is not as the vote of the House has de-
clared it. Our claim to some agency in giving force and
obligation to treaties is beyond all kind of controversy
novel. The sense of the nation is probably against it.
The sense of the government certainly is. The President
denies it on constitutional grounds, and therefore cannot
ever accede to our interpretation. The Senate ratified the
treaty, and cannot without dishonor adopt it, as I have
attempted to show. Where then do they find the proof
that this is the American sense of the treaty-making power,
which is to silence the murmurs of Great Britain? Is it
because a majority of two or three, or, at most, of four or
five of this House, will reject the treaty? Is it thus the 1
sense of our nation is to be recognized? Our government
may thus be stopped in its movements, a struggle for
power may thus commence, and the event of the conflict
may decide who is the victor, and the quiet possessor of
the treaty power. But at present it is beyond all credibility
that our vote, by a bare majority, should be believed to do
anything better than to embitter our divisions, and to tear
up the settled foundations of our departments.

If the obligation of a treaty be complete, I am aware
that cases sometimes exist which will justify a nation in
refusing a compliance. Are our liberties, gentlemen de-
mand, to be bartered away by a treaty and is there no
remedy? There is. Extremes are not to be supposed,
but when they happen, they make the law for themselves.
No such extreme can be pretended in this instance, and if
it existed, the authority it would confer to throw off the
obligation, would rest where the obligation itself resides
in the nation. This House is not the nation it is not the



ON THE BRITISH TREATY 65

whole delegated authority of the nation. Being only a part
of that authority, its right to act for the whole society
obviously depends on the concurrence of the other two
branches. If they refuse to concur, a treaty, once made,
remains in full force, although a breach on the part of a for-
eign nation would confer upon our own a right to forbear
the execution. I repeat it, even in that case the act of this
House cannot be admitted as the act of the nation, and if
the President and Senate should not concur, the treaty
would be obligatory.

I put a case that will not fail to produce conviction.
Our treaty with France engages that free bottoms shall
make free goods, and how has it been kept? As such
engagements will ever be in time of war. France has set
it aside, and pleads imperious necessity. We have no navy
to enforce the observance of such articles, and paper bar-
riers are weak against the violence of those who are on the
scramble for enemies' goods on the high seas. The breach
of any article of a treaty by one nation gives an undoubted
right to the other to renounce the whole treaty. But has
one branch of the government that right, or must it reside
with the whole authority of the nation? What if the Sen-
ate should resolve that the French treaty is broken, and
therefore null and of no effect? The answer is obvious:
you would deny their sole authority. That branch of the
legislature has equal power in this regard with the House
of Representatives. One branch alone cannot express the
will of the nation.

A right to annul a treaty because a foreign nation has
broken its articles is only like the case of a sufficient cause
to repeal a law. In both cases the branches of our govern-
ment must concur in the orderly way, or the law and the
treaty will remain.

The very cases supposed by my adversaries in this argu-
ment conclude against themselves. They will persist in
confounding ideas that should be kept distinct, they will
suppose that the House of Representatives has no power
unless it has all power. The House is nothing if it be not
the whole government the nation.

On every hypothesis, therefore, the conclusion is not to be
resisted: we are either to execute this treaty or break our faith.
5



66 FISHER AMES

To expatiate on the value of public faith may pass with
some men for declamation to such men I have nothing to
say. To others I will urge can any circumstance mark
upon a people more turpitude and debasement? Can any-
thing tend more to make men think themselves mean, or
degrade to a lower point their estimation of virtue and
their standard of action?

It would not merely demoralize mankind: it tends to
break all the ligaments of society, to dissolve that mysteri-
ous charm which attracts individuals to the nation, and to
inspire in its stead a repulsive sense of shame and disgust.

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, mingling 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 defense, and is conscious that he gains protec-
tion 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 law 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 bind-
ing force, but sanctity to treaties. Even in Algiers a truce



ON THE BRITISH TREATY 67

may be bought for money; but when ratified, even Algiers
is too wise, or too just, to disown and annul its obligations.
Thus we see neither the ignorance of savages nor the prin-
ciples of an association for piracy and rapine, permit a nation
to despise its engagements. If, sir, there could be a resur-
rection 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 funda-
mental law of their state. They would perceive it was
their interest to make others respect, and they would there-



Online LibraryThomas B. (Thomas Brackett) ReedModern eloquence; (Volume 11) → online text (page 8 of 43)