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


January 3, 1788.

Dear sir,

Before I proceed to examine the objections, I beg leave to add a
valuable idea respecting representation, to be collected from De Lo[l]me, and
other able writers, which essentially tends to confirm my positions: They very
justly impute the establishment of general and equal liberty in England to a
balance of interests and powers among the different orders of men; aided by a
series of fortunate events, that never before, and possibly never again will

Before the Norman conquest the people of England enjoyed much of this
liberty. The first of the Norman kings, aided by foreign mercenaries and
foreign attendants, obnoxious to the English, immediately laid arbitrary taxes,
and established arbitrary courts, and severely oppress[ed] all orders of
people: The barons and people, who recollected their former liberties, were
induced, by those oppressions, to unite their efforts in their common defence:
Here it became necessary for the great men, instead of deceiving and depressing
the people, to enlighten and court them; the royal power was too strongly fixed
to be annihilated, and rational means were, therefore directed to limiting it
within proper bounds. In this long and arduous task, in this new species of
contests, the barons and people succeeded, because they had been freemen, and
knew the value of the object they were contending for; because they were the
people of a small island—one people who found it practicable to meet and
deliberate in one assembly, and act under one system of resolves, and who were
not obliged to meet in different provincial assemblies, as is the case in large
countries, as was the case in France, Spain, &c. where their determinations
were inconsistent with each other, and where the king could play off one
assembly against another.

It was in this united situation the people of England were for several
centuries, enabled to combine their exertions, and by compacts, as Magna
Charta, a bill of rights, &c. were able to limit, by degrees, the royal
prerogatives, and establish their own liberties. The first combination was,
probably, the accidental effect of pre-existing circumstances; but there was an
admirable balance of interests in it, which has been the parent of English
liberty, and excellent regulations enjoyed since that time. The executive power
having been uniformly in the king, and he the visible head of the nation, it
was chimerical for the greatest lord or most popular leader, consistent with
the state of the government, and opinion of the people, to seriously think of
becoming the king’s rival, or to aim at even a share of the executive power;
the greatest subject’s prospect was only in acquiring a respectable influence
in the house of commons, house of lords, or in the ministry; circumstances at
once made it the interests of the leaders of the people to stand by them. Far
otherwise was it with the ephori in Sparta, and tribunes in Rome. The leaders
in England have led the people to freedom, in almost all other countries to
servitude. The people in England have made use of deliberate exertions, their
safest and most efficient weapons. In other countries they have often acted
like mobs, and been enslaved by their enemies, or by their own leaders. In
England, the people have been led uniformly, and systematically by their
representatives to secure their rights by compact, and to abolish innovations
upon the government: they successively obtained Magna Charta, the powers of
taxation, the power to propose laws, the habeas corpus act, bill of rights,
&c. they, in short, secured general and equal liberty, security to their
persons and property; and, as an everlasting security and bulwark of their
liberties, they fixed the democratic branch in the legislature, and jury trial
in the execution of the laws, the freedom of the press, &c.

In Rome, and most other countries, the reverse of all this is true. In
Greece, Rome, and wherever the civil law has been adopted, torture has been
admitted. In Rome the people were subject to arbitrary confiscations, and even
their lives would be arbitrarily disposed of by consuls, tribunes, dictators,
masters, &c. half of the inhabitants were slaves, and the other half never
knew what equal liberty was; yet in England the people have had king, lords,
and commons; in Rome they had consuls, senators and tribunes: why then was the
government of England so mild and favourable to the body of the people, and
that of Rome an ambitious and oppressive aristocracy? Why in England have the
revolutions always ended in stipulations in favour of general liberty, equal
laws, and the common rights of the people, and in most other countries in
favour only of a few influential men? The reasons, in my mind, are obvious: In
England the people have been substantially represented in many respects; in the
other countries it has not been so. Perhaps a small degree of attention to a
few simple facts will illustrate this.—In England, from the oppressions
of the Norman kings to the revolution in 1688, during which period of two or
three hundred years, the English liberties were ascertained and established,
the aristocratic part of that nation was substantially represented by a very
large number of nobles, possessing similar interests and feelings with those
they represented. The body of the people, about four or five millions, then
mostly a frugal landed people, were represented by about five hundred
representatives, taken not from the order of men which formed the aristocracy,
but from the body of the people, and possessed of the same interests and
feelings. De Lo[l]me, speaking of the British representation, expressly founds
all his reasons on this union; this similitude of interests, feelings, views
and circumstances. He observes, the English have preserved their liberties,
because they and their leaders or representatives have been strictly united in
interests, and in contending for general liberty. Here we see a genuine balance
founded in the actual state of things. The whole community, probably, not more
than two-fifths more numerous than we now are, were represented by seven or
eight hundred men; the barons stipulated with the common people, and the king
with the whole. Had the legal distinction between lords and commons been broken
down, and the people of that island been called upon to elect forty-five
senators, and one hundred and twenty representatives, about the proportion we
propose to establish, their whole legislature evidently would have been of the
natural aristocracy, and the body of the people would not have had scarcely a
single sincere advocate; their interests would have been neglected, general and
equal liberty forgot, and the balance lost; contests and conciliations, as in
most other countries, would have been merely among the few, and as it might
have been necessary to serve their purposes, the people at large would have
been flattered or threatened, and probably not a single stipulation made in
their favour.

In Rome the people were miserable, though they had three orders, the
consuls, senators and tribunes, and approved the laws, and all for want of a
genuine representation. The people were too numerous to assemble, and do any
thing properly themselves; the voice of a few, the dupes of artifice, was
called the voice of the people. It is difficult for the people to defend
themselves against the arts and intrigues of the great, but by selecting a
suitable number of men fixed to their interests to represent them, and to
oppose ministers and senators. And the people’s all depends on the number of
the men selected, and the manner of doing it. To be convinced of this, we need
only attend to the reason of the case, the conduct of the British commons, and
of the Roman tribunes: equal liberty prevails in England, because there was a
representation of the people, in fact and reality, to establish it; equal
liberty never prevailed in Rome, because there was but the shadow of a
representation. There were consuls in Rome annually elected to execute the
laws, several hundred senators represented the great families; the body of the
people annually chose tribunes from among themselves to defend them and to
secure their rights; I think the number of tribunes annually chosen never
exceeded ten. This representation, perhaps, was not proportionally so numerous
as the representation proposed in the new plan; but the difference will not
appear to be so great, when it shall be recollected, that these tribunes were
chosen annually; that the great patrician families were not admitted to these
offices of tribunes, and that the people of Italy who elected the tribunes were
a long while, if not always, a small people compared with the people of the
United States. What was the consequence of this triffling representation? The
people of Rome always elected for their tribunes men conspicuous for their
riches, military commands, professional popularity, &c. great commoners,
between whom and the noble families there was only the shadowy difference of
legal distinction. Among all the tribunes the people chose for several
centuries, they had scarcely five real friends to their interests. These
tribunes lived, felt and saw, not like the people, but like the great patrician
families, like senators and great officers of state, to get into which it was
evident, by their conduct, was their sole object. These tribunes often talked
about the rights and prerogatives of the people, and that was all; for they
never even attempted to establish equal liberty: so far from establishing the
rights of the people, they suffered the senate, to the exclusion of the people,
to engross the powers of taxation; those excellent and almost only real weapons
of defence even the people of England possess. The tribunes obtained that the
people should be eligible to some of the great offices of state, and marry, if
they pleased, into the noble families; these were advantages in their nature,
confined to a few elevated commoners, and of triffling importance to the people
at large. Nearly the same observations may be made as to the ephori of

We may amuse ourselves with names; but the fact is, men will be governed
by the motives and temptations that surround their situation. Political evils
to be guarded against are in the human character, and not in the name of
patrician or plebian. Had the people of Italy, in the early period of the
republic, selected yearly, or biennially, four or five hundred of their best
informed men, emphatically from among themselves, these representatives would
have formed an honest respectable assembly, capable of combining in them the
views and exertions of the people, and their respectability would have procured
them honest and able leaders, and we should have seen equal liberty
established. True liberty stands in need of a fostering hand; from the days of
Adam she has found but one temple to dwell in securely; she has laid the
foundation of one, perhaps her last, in America; whether this is to be
compleated and have duration, is yet a question. Equal liberty never yet found
many advocates among the great: it is a disagreeable truth, that power perverts
mens views in a greater degree, than public employments inform their
understandings—they become hardened in certain maxims, and more lost to
fellow feelings. Men may always be too cautious to commit alarming and glaring
iniquities: but they, as well as systems, are liable to be corrupted by slow
degrees. Junius well observes, we are not only to guard against what men will
do, but even against what they may do. Men in high public offices are in
stations where they gradually lose sight of the people, and do not often think
of attending to them, except when necessary to answer private purposes.

The body of the people must have this true representative security
placed some where in the nation; and in the United States, or in any extended
empire, I am fully persuaded can be placed no where, but in the forms of a
federal republic, where we can divide and place it in several state or district
legislatures, giving the people in these the means of opposing heavy internal
taxes and oppressive measures in the proper stages. A great empire contains the
amities and animosities of a world within itself. We are not like the people of
England, one people compactly settled on a small island, with a great city
filled with frugal merchants, serving as a common centre of liberty and union:
we are dispersed, and it is impracticable for any but the few to assemble in
one place: the few must be watched, checked, and often resisted—tyranny
has ever shewn a prediliction to be in close amity with them, or the one man.
Drive it from kings and it flies to senators, to dicemvirs, to dictators, to
tribunes, to popular leaders, to military chiefs, &c.

De Lo[l]me well observes, that in societies, laws which were to be equal
to all are soon warped to the private interests of the administrators, and made
to defend the usurpations of a few. The English, who had tasted the sweets of
equal laws, were aware of this, and though they restored their king, they
carefully delegated to parliament the advocates of freedom.

I have often lately heard it observed, that it will do very well for a
people to make a constitution, and ordain, that at stated periods they will
chuse, in a certain manner, a first magistrate, a given number of senators and
representatives, and let them have all power to do as they please. This
doctrine, however it may do for a small republic, as Connecticut, for instance,
where the people may chuse so many senators and representatives to assemble in
the legislature, in an eminent degree, the interests, the views, feelings, and
genuine sentiments of the people themselves, can never be admitted in an
extensive country; and when this power is lodged in the hands of a few, not to
limit the few, is but one step short of giving absolute power to one man —
in a numerous representation the abuse of power is a common injury, and has no
temptation—among the few, the abuse of power may often operate to the
private emolument of those who abuse it.