Alexander Hamilton’s Letters from Phocion (1784) were written to blast the intemperate proceedings against loyalists in the state of New York that unfolded in the aftermath of the American Revolution. In the course of his first letter, he gives a profound exposition of “spirit of Whigism” and shows, with examples from English and Roman history, the folly of policies predicated on the sentiment of revenge. The letter is also notable for the view taken of the sovereignty of Congress, under the Articles of Confederation, in all matters of war and peace; for its warning that unjust measures may form dreadful precedents for future usurpations on the rights of the community; for its bold avowal that the "safest reliance of every government is on men’s interests"; and for its reminder "that justice and moderation are the surest supports of every government."
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[I]n the present moment, we see the most industrious efforts made to violate the Constitution of this State, to trample upon the rights of the subject, and to chicane or infringe the most solemn obligations of treaty; while dispassionate and upright men almost totally neglect the means of counteracting these dangerous attempts . . .
The persons alluded to pretend to appeal to the spirit of Whigism; while they endeavor to put in motion all the furious and dark passions of the human mind. The spirit of Whigism is generous, humane, beneficent, and just. These men inculcate revenge, cruelty, persecution, and perfidy. The spirit of Whigism cherishes legal liberty, holds the rights of every individual sacred, condemns or punishes no man without regular trial and conviction of some crime declared by antecedent laws; reprobates equally the punishment of the citizen by arbitrary acts of legislation, as by the lawless combinations of unauthorized individuals; while these men are advocates for expelling a large number of their fellow-citizens unheard, untried; or, if they cannot effect this, are for disfranchising them, in the face of the Constitution, without the judgment of their peers, and contrary to the law of the land. . . .
Nothing is more common than for a free people, in times of heat and violence, to gratify momentary passions, by letting into the government, principles and precedents which afterwards prove fatal to themselves. Of this kind is the doctrine of disqualification, disfranchisement, and banishment, by acts of Legislature. The dangerous consequences of this power are manifest. If the Legislature can disfranchise any number of citizens at pleasure, by general descriptions, it may soon confine all the votes to a small number of partisans, and establish an aristocracy or an oligarchy. If it may banish at discretion all those whom particular circumstances render obnoxious, without hearing or trial, no man can be safe, nor know when he may be the innocent victim of a prevailing faction. The name of liberty applied to such a government would be a mockery of common sense.
The English Whigs, after the Revolution, from an overweening dread of popery and the Pretender, from triennial, voted the Parliament septennial. They have been trying, ever since, to undo this false step in vain, and repenting the effects of their folly in the over-grown power of the new family. Some imprudent Whigs among us, from resentment to those who have taken the opposite side (and many of them from worse motives), would corrupt the principles of our government, and furnish precedents for future usurpations on the rights of the community.
Let the people beware of such counsellors. However a few designing men may rise in consequence, and advance their private interests by such expedients, the people, at large, are sure to be the losers, in the event, whenever they suffer a departure from the rules of general and equal justice, or from the true principles of universal liberty. . . .
There is a very simple and conclusive point of view in which this subject may be placed. No citizen can be deprived of any right which the citizens in general are entitled to, unless forfeited by some offence. It has been seen that the regular and constitutional mode of ascertaining whether this forfeiture has been incurred, is by legal process, trial, and conviction. This ex vi termini supposes prosecution. Now, consistent with the treaty, there can be no future prosecution for any thing done on account of the war. Can we then do, by act of Legislature, what the treaty disables us from doing by due course of law? This would be to imitate the Roman general, who, having promised Antiochus to restore half his vessels, caused them to be sawed in two before their delivery; or the PlatÆans, who, having promised the Thebans to restore their prisoners, had them first put to death, and returned them dead.
Such fraudulent subterfuges are justly considered more odious than an open and avowed violation of treaty.
When these posture-masters in logic are driven from this first ground of the meaning of the treaty, they are forced to that of attacking the right of Congress to make such a stipulation, and arraigning the impudence of Great Britain in attempting to make terms for our own subjects. But here, as everywhere else, they are only successful in betraying their narrowness and ignorance. Does not the act of Confederation place the exclusive right of making war and peace in the United States in Congress? Have they not the sole power of making treaties with foreign nations? Are not these among the first rights of sovereignty? And does not the delegation of them to the general Confederacy so far abridge the sovereignty of each particular State? Would not a different doctrine involve the contradiction of imperium in imperio? What reasonable limits can be assigned to these prerogatives of the Union, other than the general safety and the fundamentals of the Constitution? Can it be said, that a treaty for arresting the future operations of positive acts of Legislature, and which has indeed no other effect than that of a pardon for past offences committed against these acts, is an attack upon the fundamentals of the State Constitutions? Can it be denied that the peace which was made, taken collectively, was manifestly for the general good—that it was even favorable to the solid interests of this country, beyond the expectation of the most sanguine? If this cannot be denied—and none can deny it who know either the value of the objects gained by the treaty, or the necessity these States were under at the time of making peace—it follows, that Congress and their ministers acted wisely in making the treaty which has been made; and it follows from this, that these States are bound by it, and ought religiously to observe it. . . .
But let it be admitted that Congress had no right to enter into this article; do not equity and prudence strongly urge the several States to comply with it? We have, in part, enjoyed the benefit of the treaty; in consequence of which, we, of this State, are now in possession of our capital; and this implies an obligation in conscience, to perform what is to be performed on our part. But there is a consideration which will, perhaps, have more force with men who seem to be superior to conscientious obligations: it is that the British are still in possession of our frontier posts, which they may keep in spite of us; and that they may essentially exclude us from the fisheries, if they are so disposed. Breach of treaty on our part will be a just ground for breaking it on theirs. The treaty must stand or fall together. The wilful breach of a single article annuls the whole. Congress are appointed by the Constitution, to manage our foreign concerns. The nations with whom they contract are to suppose they understand their own powers, and will not exceed them. If they do it in any instance, and we think it proper to disavow the act, it will be no apology with those with whom they contract, that they had exceeded their authority. One side cannot be bound, unless the obligation is reciprocal. . . .
But, say some, to suffer these wealthy disaffected men to remain among us will be dangerous to our liberties. Enemies to our government, they will be always endeavoring to undermine it, and bring us back to the subjection of Great Britain. The safest reliance of every government is on men’s interests. This is a principle of human nature, on which all political speculation, to be just, must be founded. Make it the interest of those citizens who, during the Revolution, were opposed to us, to be friends to the new government, by affording them not only protection, but a participation in its privileges, and they will undoubtedly become its friends. The apprehension of returning under the dominion of Great Britain is chimerical: if there is any way to bring it about, the measures of those men against whose conduct these remarks are aimed, lead directly to it. A disorderly, or a violent government may disgust the best citizens, and make the body of the people tired of their independence.
The embarrassed and exhausted state of Great Britain, and the political system of Europe, render it impossible for her ever to reacquire the dominion of this country. Her former partisans must be convinced of this, and abandon her cause as desperate. They will never be mad enough to risk their fortunes a second time, in the hopeless attempt of restoring her authority; nor will they have any inclination to do it, if they are allowed to be happy under the government of the society in which they live. To make it practicable, if they should be so disposed, they must not only get the government of this State but of the United States into their hands. To suppose this possible is to suppose that a majority of the numbers, property, and abilities of the United States has been and is in opposition to the Revolution. Its success is a clear proof that this has not been the case, and every man of information among us knows the contrary. The supposition itself would show the absurdity of expelling a small number from the city, which would constitute so insignificant a proportion of the whole, as, without diminishing their influence, would only increase their disposition to do mischief. The policy in this case would be evident of appealing to their interests rather than to their fears. . . .
Viewing the subject in every possible light, there is not a single interest of the community but dictates moderation rather than violence. That honesty is still the best policy; that justice and moderation are the surest supports of every government, are maxims which, however they may be called trite, are at all times true; though too seldom regarded, but rarely neglected with impunity. Were the people of America with one voice to ask: “What shall we do to perpetuate our liberties and secure our happiness?” the answer would be: “Govern well,” and you have nothing to fear either from internal disaffection or external hostility. Abuse not the power you possess, and you need never apprehend its diminution or loss. But if you make a wanton use of it; if you furnish another example that despotism may debase the government of the many as well as the few, you, like all others that have acted the same part, will experience that licentiousness is the forerunner to slavery.
How wise was that policy of Augustus, who, after conquering his enemies, when the papers of Brutus were brought to him, which would have disclosed all his secret associates, immediately ordered them to be burnt. He would not even know his enemies, that they might cease to hate where they had nothing to fear.
How laudable was the example of Elizabeth, who, when she was transferred from the prison to the throne, fell upon her knees, and thanking Heaven for the deliverance it had granted her from her bloody persecutors, dismissed her resentment. “This act of pious gratitude,” says her historian, “seems to have been the last circumstance in which she remembered any past injuries and hardships. With a prudence and magnanimity truly laudable, she buried all offences in oblivion, and received with affability even those who acted with the greatest virulence against her.” She did more, she retained many of the opposite party in her councils.
The reigns of these two sovereigns are among the most illustrious in history. Their moderation gave a stability to their government which nothing else could have effected. This was the secret of uniting all parties. . . .
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Source: Works of Alexander Hamilton (edited by Henry Cabot Lodge), Volume 4, via On-Line Library of Liberty