Fisher Ames: Forgotten Defender of Liberty
JUNE 01, 1980 by GREGORY WOLFE
Mr. Wolfe is completing his undergraduate studies at Hillsdale College In Michigan.
When students of the free society look back into history for the first exposition of the private enterprise economy, they rightly turn to Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Smith contended that the wealth of a nation is not dependent on how much gold or other precious metals it has in its coffers, but on the quantity of the goods and services produced by the people. Individuals, if left alone by the state, Smith wrote, would work together in the competitive market to produce wealth for the whole of society.
Another outstanding historic defender of ordered liberty is the French economist, statesman and author, Frederic Bastiat. Writing at the time of the Revolutions of 1848, Bastiat combatted the socialist fallacies which were threatening to take over European society. Both in such written works as The Law, and in his role as statesman, Bastiat up held the principles of limited government, private property, and the market economy.
In the context of early American history, and especially the founding of the United States, two of the best known proponents of a free economy were Pelatiah Webster and Thomas Jefferson. Webster warned Americans that inflation would destroy the economy by increasing the money supply without a corresponding growth in production, and thus debase the currency to worthlessness. And Jefferson is olden quoted as saying that individuals competing freely in the marketplace will help bring about a prosperous commonwealth.
But there is an American of the generation of the Founding Fathers who had read and understood the theoretical principles of the free market as expounded by Adam Smith, and, like Bastiat, had acted out these principles in the realm of politics. He is one of our forgotten defenders of ordered liberty, and deserves the attention of all serious students of the free society. Fisher Ames, of Dedham in Massachusetts, was a lifelong champion of private property, and of an economy unhampered by government intervention.
Born of a family long settled in New England, Fisher Ames received a superior early education, being steeped in the classics and a thorough knowledge of antiquity. Ames was admitted to Harvard College at the age of twelve and soon gained a reputation for his oratorical skills. Alter studying under one of Boston’s leading lawyers, Ames joined the bar and rose to prominence in Massachusetts politics. He was sent to the Concord Convention which met during the Revolution to regulate prices, and also to the Massachusetts Ratifying Convention, which debated the newly-framed Constitution. Later, Ames was elected to the first two sessions of the Congress of the United States, and participated in the writing of the First Amendment and in structuring the American government.
Fisher Ames’s career in Congress was short, for as Russell Kirk has pointed out, Ames “was many years dying.” Plagued by illness most of his life, Ames was a melancholy man who had a pessimistic outlook on America’s future. Yet, his was a penetrating intellect, and his warnings about the “dangers to American liberty” (as he phrased it) now carry a prophetic ring. In his later years, Ames set his ideas down in numerous essays, and this legacy shows a man who deserves to be recognized as one of the greatest advocates of the free society in American history.
Ames’s ideas on politics and economics were formed during the tumultuous years at the close of the 18th century. It was during this period in Ames’s native Massachusetts that such events as Shays’ Rebellion forced men to come to grips with the relation of the state to society. In 1786 a number of rural inhabitants of western Massachusetts, aggravated by rigid financial policies and falling agricultural prices, prevented the meeting of the county court houses as a form of protest. Shays and his followers acted under the assumption that individuals had an inherent right to forceful protest. This anarchic attitude frightened and outraged Ames and convinced him of the need for a state which would protect the rights of individual citizens. Ames thus came to the same conclusion that the Founding Fathers would reach: only through a limited but competent government could the individual’s rights be protected from force or fraud.
Though Ames was convinced that government was needed to prevent anarchy in society, he by no means envisioned a state which intervened in the economy or the private affairs of citizens. To be sure, Ames felt the state should be vigorous and capable of carrying out its role of “umpire” and guarantor of individual freedom. He also crusaded for a strong, central government for the United States. But he wanted a government which would ensure peace and order, and would leave men free to pursue their own ends within the bounds of the law.
Private Property Defended
To Ames, private property was one of the essential requirements of a free society. Without the right to own and dispose of property as the individual saw fit, Ames felt society would degenerate into tyranny and mediocrity. For a man is free only when he can gain a livelihood and choose how to dispose of it. This fundamental right of private property Ames felt was jeopardized by such events as Shays’ Rebellion. As Theodore Sedgewick, a prominent Federalist and friend of Ames, wrote at this time: “Every man of observation is convinced that the end of government security cannot be attained by the exercise of principles founded on democratic equality. A war is now actually levied on the virtue, property and distinctions of the community.” Throughout his life, Ames would fight to defend private property.
Ames’s convictions about the role of government in relation to the economy were clear from the beginning of his public life. At the very time when Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was being published in England, Ames went as a delegate from Dedham to a convention in Concord. Called by the Boston Committee of Correspondence, the convention met to regulate prices during the Revolution. Ames’s position at the Concord convention is summed up well by his biographer, Winfred Bernhard:
Ames spoke emphatically against the whole concept of restrictions. He was convinced that employing the power of the state to establish the value of commodities was false, as prices resulted from agreement and consent between buyer and seller and could not be arbitrarily determined. The embarrassment of a depreciating currency, he stated, was inevitable and could be met only with patience and fortitude.
Ames was not heeded in his own day; nor would he be heard today. Ames felt that the market could be supported only by moral and spiritual principles. Our own society has far less patience and fortitude than that of Ames, and it is doubtful whether most Americans could sacrifice their immediate satisfaction to any form of economic “hardship.” Ames knew that freedom in society and the economy could arise only from a people whose souls were ordered and virtuous.
Freedom to Trade
In his statements at Concord, Ames displayed an understanding of the workings of the free market. His belief that government intervention was detrimental to the economy was reinforced by his reading of Adam Smith. During the First Congress, Ames admired and supported many of the economic proposals of James Madison. He felt sure that Madison had read Smith and was intelligently applying Smith’s concepts to economic legislation. Ames’s satisfaction did not last long, however, for Madison soon began introducing bills which in effect declared war on all of America’s trading partners, using economic restrictions as weapons. Ames thought these efforts at forcing other countries to trade “favorably” with the United States would either be ineffectual or actually harmful. In one of his best orations in the House, Ames argued against Madison’s proposals. “Were I invested with the trust to legislate for all mankind,” Ames declared, “it is very probable the first act of my authority would be to throw all the restrictive and prohibitory laws of trade onto the fire . . . .” Speaking of the regulations and tariffs in Madison’s bill, Ames continued:
On the whole, the resolutions contain two great principles: to control trade by law, instead of leaving it to the better management of the merchants; and the principle of sumptuary law. To play the tyrant in the counting house, and in directing the private expenses of our citizens, are employments equally unworthy of discussion.
Ames saw these measures as infringements on individual freedom as well as just poor economics. Madison’s bill was eventually tabled and then abandoned, but the tide was against Ames here as elsewhere, and interventionist policies would triumph in time.
Ames was influenced not only by Adam Smith but also by another British liberal: Edmund Burke. Along with that philosopher of conservatism, Ames knew that a free economy existed only within a free society. But free societies do not arise out of some conscious “social contract” or from the abstract plan of the political metaphysician. Order, justice and freedom in the commonwealth emerge gradually as the laws and institutions of a people build up the framework of society. Habit and custom, prescription and prejudice are the buttresses of the commonwealth. Tampering willy-nilly with the constitution of society can only break civilized forms loose from their grounding. Both Ames and Burke saw the American revolution not as a radical reconstitution of things, but as an effort to preserve the American colonial tradition from English innovation and meddling. These men knew that change would and should come. But for change to be true progress, it must be seen in the light of the experience and tradition of a people.
The French Revolution
The close of the 18th century was dominated by the French Revolution. That catastrophic political upheaval preoccupied Ames as well as Burke. To them, this was a real revolution, for it was an attempt to restructure French society according to an ideological system of ideas. Ideology, as understood by Ames and Burke, is a “second reality,” an abstract set of ideas dreamed up in the mind of someone who is convinced his society is totally evil and unredeemable. The French revolutionaries sought to impose this ideological “dream” upon their nation, and the clash of ideology with reality culminated in the horror and bloodshed of the Reign of Terror. Ames feared that the ideology of the French Revolution would take root in America, and he argued eloquently against it. The desire for innovation and reform, Ames said, perennially tempts people into accepting ideology.
The two main concepts to emerge from the ideology of the French Revolution were equality and natural rights. Though they are noble-sounding words, Ames knew them to be inimical to the free society. Instead of civil rights, based on man’s spiritual nature and secured through centuries of tradition, the ideologists posited the rights of nature which existed in some idyllic pre-civilized time. If only men would throw off their institutions and laws which are corrupt and evil, a new dawn of freedom would come. But Ames understood man’s nature to be fallen and not essentially good, and thus he realized that institutions and law were precisely the guarantors of order, and hence of freedom.
Ames believed that the ideological notion of equality was perhaps the most dangerous idea to come out of the French Revolution. Equality according to the ideologists meant not only equality before the law and before God, but equality of condition. This too arose from the idea that men in the state of nature were perfectly equal. The ideologists were not satisfied with the fact that the free society gives each man the opportunity to better his condition through effort, discipline and sacrifice.
Ames held that the egalitarians would attack both private property and free enterprise in order to achieve their ends. “The philosophers among the democrats will no doubt insist, that they do not mean to equalize property, that they contend only for an equality of rights . . .” But, Ames goes on to say, “on close examination, it turns out, that their notion is, that all the citizens of a republick have an equal right to political power.” As Ames warned time and again, the demagogues will promise “power to the people,” but will take the purse-strings and wield the power themselves. Property rights inevitably will be violated by egalitarians. John Randolph of Roanoke formulated succinctly what he felt the demagogues were saying in the phrase: “We are numbers. You are property.”
An Equality of Poverty
The drive for equality of condition, said Ames, would ultimately end in the loss of individual freedom, the impoverishment of the people, and the aggrandizement of the demagogues. State-enforced equality would end merely in mediocrity, an equality of poverty, Ames said. Without the opportunity to better oneself and enjoy the fruits of one’s labors, there will be no incentive to produce wealth. At the end of his life, Ames believed that the very pillars of the free society were being destroyed. Fisher Ames, as Russell Kirk has put it, “expired sunk deep in despair, prophesying mediocrity in spirit, anarchy in society.”
This short survey of Ames’s ideas does little justice to the man. His greatness lies not in the originality of his ideas, but in his learned and eloquent exposition of those princi ples of limited government and the free economy, and in his ability to apply those principles in the realm of public life. Despite the fact that he died expecting the imminent collapse of American liberty, Ames’s prophecies have been fulfilled in many ways. To study Fisher Ames is to see that the clash of ideas between the proponents of the free society and its enemies is as relevant to our own time as it was to his.