Letters from The Federal Farmer to The Republican
(Richard Henry Lee ?)


December 31, 1787.

Dear sir,

In viewing the various governments instituted by mankind, we see their
whole force reducible to two principles—the important springs which
alone move the machines, and give them their intended influence and controul,
are force and persuasion: by the former men are compelled, by the latter they
are drawn. We denominate a government despotic or free, as the one or other
principle prevails in it. Perhaps it is not possible for a government to be so
despotic, as not to operate persuasively on some of its subjects; nor is it, in
the nature of things, I conceive, for a government to be so free, or so
supported by voluntary consent, as never to want force to compel obedience to
the laws. In despotic governments one man, or a few men, independant of the
people, generally make the laws, command obedience, and inforce it by the
sword: one-fourth part of the people are armed, and obliged to endure the
fatigues of soldiers, to oppress the others and keep them subject to the laws.
In free governments the people, or their representatives, make the laws; their
execution is principally the effect of voluntary consent and aid; the people
respect the magistrate, follow their private pursuits, and enjoy the fruits of
their labour with very small deductions for the public use. The body of the
people must evidently prefer the latter species of government; and it can be
only those few, who may be well paid for the part they take in enforcing
despotism, that can, for a moment, prefer the former. Our true object is to
give full efficacy to one principle, to arm persuasion on every side, and to
render force as little necessary as possible. Persuasion is never dangerous not
even in despotic governments; but military force, if often applied internally,
can never fail to destroy the love and confidence, and break the spirits, of
the people; and to render it totally impracticable and unnatural for him or
them who govern, and yield to this force against the people, to hold their
places by the peoples’ elections.

I repeat my observation, that the plan proposed will have a doubtful
operation between the two principles; and whether it will preponderate towards
persuasion or force is uncertain.

Government must exist—If the persuasive principle be feeble,
force is infallibly the next resort—The moment the laws of congress
shall be disregarded they must languish, and the whole system be convulsed—that moment we must have recourse to this next resort, and all freedom

It being impracticable for the people to assemble to make laws, they
must elect legislators, and assign men to the different departments of the
government. In the representative branch we must expect chiefly to collect the
confidence of the people, and in it to find almost entirely the force of
persuasion. In forming this branch, therefore, several important considerations
must be attended to. It must possess abilities to discern the situation of the
people and of public affairs, a disposition to sympathize with the people, and
a capacity and inclination to make laws congenial to their circumstances and
condition: it must afford security against interested combinations, corruption
and influence; it must possess the confidence, and have the voluntary support
of the people.

I think these positions will not be controverted, nor the one I formerly
advanced, that a fair and equal representation is that in which the interests,
feelings, opinions and views of the people are collected, in such manner as
they would be were the people all assembled. Having made these general
observations, I shall proceed to consider further my principal position, viz.
that there is no substantial representation of the people provided for in a
government, in which the most essential powers, even as to the internal police
of the country, are proposed to be lodged; and to propose certain amendments as
to the representative branch: 1st, That there ought to be an increase of the
numbers of representatives:
And, 2dly, That the elections of them ought to
be better secured.

1. The representation is unsubstantial and ought to be increased. In
matters where there is much room for opinion, you will not expect me to
establish my positions with mathematical certainty; you must only expect my
observations to be candid, and such as are well founded in the mind of the
writer. I am in a field where doctors disagree; and as to genuine
representation, though no feature in government can be more important, perhaps,
no one has been less understood, and no one that has received so imperfect a
consideration by political writers. The ephori in Sparta, and the tribunes in
Rome, were but the shadow; the representation in Great-Britain is unequal and
insecure. In America we have done more in establishing this important branch on
its true principles, than, perhaps, all the world besides: yet even here, I
conceive, that very great improvements in representation may be made. In fixing
this branch, the situation of the people must be surveyed, and the number of
representatives and forms of election apportioned to that situation. When we
find a numerous people settled in a fertile and extensive country, possessing
equality, and few or none of them oppressed with riches or wants, it ought to
be the anxious care of the constitution and laws, to arrest them from national
depravity, and to preserve them in their happy condition. A virtuous people
make just laws, and good laws tend to preserve unchanged a virtuous people. A
virtuous and happy people by laws uncongenial to their characters, may easily
be gradually changed into servile and depraved creatures. Where the people, or
their representatives, make the laws, it is probable they will generally be
fitted to the national character and circumstances, unless the representation
be partial, and the imperfect substitute of the people. However, the people may
be electors, if the representation be so formed as to give one or more of the
natural classes of men in the society an undue ascendency over the others, it
is imperfect; the former will gradually become masters, and the latter slaves.
It is the first of all among the political balances, to preserve in its proper
station each of these classes. We talk of balances in the legislature, and
among the departments of government; we ought to carry them to the body of the
people. Since I advanced the idea of balancing the several orders of men in a
community, in forming a genuine representation, and seen that idea considered
as chemerical, I have been sensibly struck with a sentence in the marquis
Beccaria’s treatise: this sentence was quoted by congress in 1774, and is as
follows:—“In every society there is an effort continually tending to
confer on one part the height of power and happiness, and to reduce the others
to the extreme of weakness and misery; the intent of good laws is to oppose
this effort, and to diffuse their influence universally and equally.” Add to
this Montesquieu’s opinion, that “in a free state every man, who is supposed to
be a free agent, ought to be concerned in his own government: therefore, the
legislative should reside in the whole body of the people, or their
representatives.” It is extremely clear that these writers had in view the
several orders of men in society, which we call aristocratical, democratical,
merchantile, mechanic, &c. and perceived the efforts they are constantly,
from interested and ambitious views, disposed to make to elevate themselves and
oppress others. Each order must have a share in the business of legislation
actually and efficiently. It is deceiving a people to tell them they are
electors, and can chuse their legislators, if they cannot, in the nature of
things, chuse men from among themselves, and genuinely like themselves. I wish
you to take another idea along with you; we are not only to balance these
natural efforts, but we are also to guard against accidental combinations;
combinations founded in the connections of offices and private interests, both
evils which are increased in proportion as the number of men, among which the
elected must be, are decreased. To set this matter in a proper point of view,
we must form some general ideas and descriptions of the different classes of
men, as they may be divided by occupations and politically: the first class is
the aristocratical. There are three kinds of aristocracy spoken of in this
country—the first is a constitutional one, which does not exist in the
United States in our common acceptation of the word. Montesquieu, it is true,
observes, that where a part of the persons in a society, for want of property,
age, or moral character, are excluded any share in the government, the others,
who alone are the constitutional electors and elected, form this aristocracy;
this according to him, exists in each of the United States, where a
considerable number of persons, as all convicted of crimes, under age, or not
possessed of certain property, are excluded any share in the government; the
second is an aristocratic faction, a junto of unprincipled men, often
distinguished for their wealth or abilities, who combine together and make
their object their private interests and aggrandizement; the existence of this
description is merely accidental, but particularly to be guarded against. The
third is the natural aristocracy; this term we use to designate a respectable
order of men, the line between whom and the natural democracy is in some degree
arbitrary; we may place men on one side of this line, which others may place on
the other, and in all disputes between the few and the many, a considerable
number are wavering and uncertain themselves on which side they are, or ought
to be. In my idea of our natural aristocracy in the United States, I include
about four or five thousand men; and among these I reckon those who have been
placed in the offices of governors, of members of Congress, and state senators
generally, in the principal officers of Congress, of the army and militia, the
superior judges, the most eminent professional men, &c. and men of large
property—the other persons and orders in the community form the natural
democracy; this includes in general the yeomanry, the subordinate officers,
civil and military, the fishermen, mechanics and traders, many of the merchants
and professional men. It is easy to perceive that men of these two classes, the
aristocratical, and democratical, with views equally honest, have sentiments
widely different, especially respecting public and private expences, salaries,
taxes, &c. Men of the first class associate more extensively, have a high
sense of honor, possess abilities, ambition, and general knowledge: men of the
second class are not so much used to combining great objects; they possess less
ambition, and a larger share of honesty: their dependence is principally on
middling and small estates, industrious pursuits, and hard labour, while that
of the former is principally on the emoluments of large estates, and of the
chief offices of government. Not only the efforts of these two great parties
are to be balanced, but other interests and parties also, which do not always
oppress each other merely for want of power, and for fear of the consequences;
though they, in fact, mutually depend on each other; yet such are their general
views, that the merchants alone would never fail to make laws favourable to
themselves and oppressive to the farmers, &c. the farmers alone would act
on like principles; the former would tax the land, the latter the trade. The
manufacturers are often disposed to contend for monopolies, buyers make every
exertion to lower prices, and sellers to raise them; men who live by fees and
salaries endeavour to raise them, and the part of the people who pay them,
endeavour to lower them; the public creditors to augment the taxes, and the
people at large to lessen them. Thus, in every period of society, and in all
the transactions of men, we see parties verifying the observation made by the
Marquis; and those classes which have not their centinels in the government, in
proportion to what they have to gain or lose, must infallibly be ruined.
Efforts among parties are not merely confined to property; they contend for
rank and distinctions; all their passions in turn are enlisted in political
controversies—Men, elevated in society, are often disgusted with the
changeableness of the democracy, and the latter are often agitated with the
passions of jealousy and envy: the yeomanry possess a large share of property
and strength, are nervous and firm in their opinions and habits—the
mechanics of towns are ardent and changeable, honest and credulous, they are
inconsiderable for numbers, weight and strength, not always sufficiently stable
for the supporting free governments; the fishing interest partakes partly of
the strength and stability of the landed, and partly of the changeableness of
the mechanic interest. As to merchants and traders, they are our agents in
almost all money transactions; give activity to government, and possess a
considerable share of influence in it. It has been observed by an able writer,
that frugal industrious merchants are generally advocates for liberty. It is an
observation, I believe, well founded, that the schools produce but few
advocates for republican forms of government; gentlemen of the law, divinity,
physic, &c. probably form about a fourth part of the people; yet their
political influence, perhaps, is equal to that of all the other descriptions of
men; if we may judge from the appointments to Congress, the legal characters
will often, in a small representation, be the majority; but the more the
representatives are encreased, the more of the farmers, merchants, &c. will
be found to be brought into the government.

These general observations will enable you to discern what I intend by
different classes, and the general scope of my ideas, when I contend for
uniting and balancing their interests, feelings, opinions, and views in the
legislature; we may not only so unite and balance these as to prevent a change
in the government by the gradual exaltation of one part to the depression of
others, but we may derive many other advantages from the combination and full
representation; a small representation can never be well informed as to the
circumstances of the people, the members of it must be too far removed from the
people, in general, to sympathize with them, and too few to communicate with
them: a representation must be extremely imperfect where the representatives
are not circumstanced to make the proper communications to their constituents,
and where the constituents in turn cannot, with tolerable convenience, make
known their wants, circumstances, and opinions, to their representatives; where
there is but one representative to 30,000, or 40,000 inhabitants, it appears to
me, he can only mix, and be acquainted with a few respectable characters among
his constituents, even double the federal representation, and then there must
be a very great distance between the representatives and the people in general
represented. On the proposed plan, the state of Delaware, the city of
Philadelphia, the state of Rhode Island, the province of Main[e], the county of
Suffolk in Massachusetts, will have one representative each; there can be but
little personal knowledge, or but few communications, between him and the
people at large of either of those districts. It has been observed, that mixing
only with the respectable men, he will get the best information and ideas from
them; he will also receive impressions favourable to their purposes
particularly. Many plausible shifts have been made to divert the mind from
dwelling on this defective representation, these I shall consider in another

Could we get over all our difficulties respecting a balance of interests
and party efforts, to raise some and oppress others, the want of sympathy,
information and intercourse between the representatives and the people, an
insuperable difficulty will still remain, I mean the constant liability of a
small number of representatives to private combinations; the tyranny of the
one, or the licentiousness of the multitude, are, in my mind, but small evils,
compared with the factions of the few. It is a consideration well worth
pursuing, how far this house of representatives will be liable to be formed
into private juntos, how far influenced by expectations of appointments and
offices, how far liable to be managed by the president and senate, and how far
the people will have confidence in them. To obviate difficulties on this head,
as well as objections to the representative branch, generally, several
observations have been made—these I will now examine, and if they shall
appear to be unfounded, the objections must stand unanswered.

That the people are the electors, must elect good men, and attend to the

It is said that the members of Congress, at stated periods, must return
home, and that they must be subject to the laws they may make, and to a share
of the burdens they may impose.

That the people possess the strong arm to overawe their rulers, and the
best checks in their national character against the abuses of power, that the
supreme power will remain in them.

That the state governments will form a part of, and a balance in the

That Congress will have only a few national objects to attend to, and
the state governments many and local ones.

That the new Congress will be more numerous than the present, and that
any numerous body is unwieldy and mobbish.

That the states only are represented in the present Congress, and that
the people will require a representation in the new one; that in fifty or an
hundred years the representation will be numerous.

That congress will have no temptation to do wrong; and that no system to
enslave the people is practicable.

That as long as the people are free they will preserve free governments;
and that when they shall become tired of freedom, arbitrary government must
take place.

These observations I shall examine in the course of my letters; and, I
think, not only shew that they are not well founded, but point out the fallacy
of some of them; and shew, that others do not very well comport with the
dignified and manly sentiments of a free and enlightened people.