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Fisher Ames: Proto-Freshman

May 14, 2012 by Robert Draper


UPDATE: In an exclusive to Constitution Daily, bestselling author Robert Draper looks at one of the great early members of the House, Fisher Ames, who wrote a key section of the First Amendment on religion. Listen to Draper's recent talk at the Constitution Center:


(Author’s note: While doing research for my book on the House of Representatives, “Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives,” I became more interested in one of its great early members, Fisher Ames, than space in the book would allow. Following are two sections on Ames that might make one wistful for a bygone era when division did not guarantee dysfunction.)

Click here for more information on “Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives.”

Fisher Ames arrived in New York City by stagecoach on February 28, 1789, four days ahead of schedule. He disembarked with his belongings at a boarding house on 15 Great Dock Street, a short walk from where he and his colleagues in the 1st Federal Congress would soon be convening.

Ames was, as of this moment, a resident of his young nation’s capital. Hardly did it resemble the “city upon a hill” envisioned by John Winthrop a century and a half before. The British army had deserted New York less than six years ago. The great fires of 1776 and 1778 had left whole neighborhoods in ruins. Pigs foraged along the reeking streets. Still, the population had climbed to 24,000. Tavern lights haloed the port. A wholesale renovation of the capital’s streets and docks was underway. This was America in its infancy—bloodied, impoverished, recklessly exuberant and in dire need of the coherency men like Fisher Ames were counted on to bring to it.

Ames was 30 years old. He had grown up in the inert country town of Dedham, Mass., nine miles south of Boston, descended from a long line of doctors and farmers. A bachelor (though with designs on a Springfield girl he would eventually wed), above average in height, with eyes that one contemporary would describe as “expressive of benignity and intelligence,” the young statesman possessed ambition “of that purified sort, which is rather the desire of excellence than the reputation of it.”

Event Alert

Celebrated journalist and bestselling author Robert Draper joins the National Constitution Center on Monday, May 14, 2012 at 6:30 p.m. for an eye-opening look inside his new book, “Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives.”

Click here for more information on the event.

At the age of six he had begun to study Latin. At age 12, he was admitted to Harvard. The early deaths of his father and two of his brothers, combined with the torments of an abusive stepfather, had imbued in Fisher Ames an acute state of melancholy without for a second slowing him down. In short order the young man became a military volunteer against the British, then a Dedham town delegate, then a lawyer, then a columnist pleading for the immediate formation of a sturdy republic.

In January of 1788, the villagers of Dedham dispatched Ames to Boston to debate the newly drafted federal Constitution.  “If we adopt it,” the delegate told the divided assembly in his concluding speech, “we shall demonstrate to the sneering world,  who deride liberty because they have lost it, that the principles of our government are as free as the spirit of the people.” The Massachusetts Convention voted to ratify the Constitution, 187 to 168.

Ames pulls off early election upset

One year later on January 7, 1789, Ames pulled off an astonishing upset in the race to become one of Massachusetts’ members of the 1st Federal Congress, beating out the venerable Samuel Adams by a grand total of 11 votes. By the end of this year, the Dedham physician’s son would be widely regarded as the nation’s greatest orator.

Ames was a Federalist. While he detested monarchy, he also maintained that “a democracy is a volcano, which conceals the fiery materials of its own destruction…The people always mean right, and if time is allowed for reflection and information, they will do right. I would not have the first wish, the momentary impulse of the publick mind, become law.” For this reason, the Massachusetts delegate at the Constitutional Convention had pressed for biennial rather than annual elections to the House: “Will any man say that the national business can be understood in one year?”

Patriotism, Ames observed, was not “a narrow affection for the spot where a man was born,” but instead sprang from “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.” The question soon before the 60 newly elected representatives would be how to codify that honor. At this early juncture, the United States possessed little to bond them, apart from hatred of tyranny. “Our liberties cannot be preserved without union,” Ames warned. In this state of urgency he waited for Congress to convene.

The appointed day was March 4. Bells rang and cannons fired that morning to commemorate the moment. But only Ames and 12 of his colleagues had made it to New York, insufficient for a quorum. Anxious bulletins were sent out to the derelict, more than once. Alas, travel by water or by land was equally fraught with mishap in that era. Days became weeks. Ames was quietly going crazy waiting. “This is a very mortifying situation,” he wrote, adding, “The public will forget the government before it is born.”

Finally, on Wednesday, April 1, the western Pennsylvanian Thomas Scott arrived in town and a quorum of thirty was thereby constituted. They gathered in the former city hall, just recently re-imagined as the new seat of the American empire by the skilled architect Major Pierre-Charles L’Enfant at a cost of $65,000 by several wealthy New Yorkers, and renamed Federal Hall. The first Speaker, Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania, rapped the gavel. Upstairs, the Senate had yet to convene. Upon reaching a quorum on April 5, the Senate kept its doors closed to the public, and continued to do so for the next six years. On April 9, the “lower body” decided on the opposite approach: Muhlenberg ordered that the doors be thrown open. The citizens and journalists of New York filed in and proceeded to the upper gallery, where they munched noisily on peanuts while observing America’s foray into republican democracy.

First weeks of first Congress

Sitting at his desk in Federal Hall during those first weeks, Fisher Ames scribbled his ongoing observations with such proficiency that his colleagues soon nicknamed him the Secretary of State. Of the members, he wrote, “There are few shining geniuses…Many who expected a Roman senate, when the doors shall be opened, will be disappointed.” One colleague he described as “superficial, arrogant and rapacious”; another he more generously appraised as “plausible, though not over civil.” The esteemed Virginian, James Madison, Ames found to be “very much Frenchified in his politics” and “too timid”—yet intellectually formidable: “He is our first man.” In all, Ames allowed, they were “sober, solid, old-charter folks.” Only two of the sixty-five original members (including the five representatives from North Carolina, which joined the Union in 1790) were new to public service.

The newly elected president, General George Washington, arrived in New York by boat on the 23rd, and a week later he was inaugurated before Congress. Young Ames had been one of the seven men appointed to oversee the great man’s reception. The freshman sat in the Senate chamber during that first inaugural address, unable to contain his awe. “Time has made havoc upon his face,” he would recall of Washington. “His aspect grave, almost to sadness; his modesty, actually shaking; his voice deep, a little tremulous, and so low as to call for close attention; added to the series of objects presented to the mind, and overwhelming it, produced emotions of the most affecting kind upon the members. I…sat entranced.”

The House’s first major legislative business that spring was the fulfillment of its primary Constitutional authority: the power of the purse. In this case, the lower body considered how to finance its war debt with impost taxes. Madison urged an eight-cent per gallon tax on molasses. In his maiden speech on the House floor, Fisher Ames argued that such a duty would cripple his state’s economy, because the Massachusetts fishermen swapped their catch on the open seas with producers of molasses, which was then transported back home to rum distilleries. Ames proposed a more limited tax and by a roll call vote trounced Madison, 41 to 8. “I think Mr. Madison was chagrined,” Ames wrote.

The freshman’s star was rising. “Ames makes a very pretty figure, let me congratulate you on his fame,” Vice President John Adams wrote a Massachusetts friend that year. Another observer found his speeches to possess “the most elegant language of any man in the House.” Ames confessed to a friend that his mind was “crazed with the chase” of politics—that it was hard to imagine returning “to the humble drudgery of earning bread.” Still he worried. His colleagues were endlessly jousting over minutiae: “We correct spelling, or erase `may’ and insert `shall,’ and Quidde in a manner which provokes me.” He feared that they were losing sight of the big picture. In particular, he found fault with the “southern nabobs” who “would not make the law, but the people, king.” He termed them “violent republicans.” To a friend he wrote, “I am commonly opposed to those who modestly assume the rank of champions of liberty, and make a very patriotic noise about the people. It is the stale artifice which has duped the world a thousand times, and yet, though detected, it is still successful. I love liberty as well as anybody…But I would guard it by making the laws strong enough to protect it.”

Laying the foundation of government

That spring and summer, the House would lay the foundations for a federal government. After first standing up an Executive Branch, they established a Treasury department and a federal bank. They instituted a federal judiciary—despite attempts by the South Carolinians to confer nearly all power on state courts, prompting Ames to argue, “A government that may make but cannot enforce laws, cannot last long, nor do good.”

On May 4, Madison introduced his much-anticipated Amendments to the Constitution. Ames was initially scornful, believing them to “stimulate the stomach as little as hasty-pudding”—a sop to Patrick Henry and other anti-Federalists, and ultimately a ploy to gain Madison “some popularity, which he wishes.” He hated to see Congress’s important work bog down in a protracted, acutely public rehashing of the already-ratified Constitution. In the nation’s frail state, Ames yearned to see allegiance to the republic rather than obsessing over individual rights: “I wish to have every American think the union so indissoluble and integral, that the corn would not grow, nor the pot boil, if it should be broken.”

Still, Ames was a realist. The hot-button issue of last year’s elections had been the public’s desire to codify individual liberties lest the federal government slowly assume a state of monarchy. He decided to engage constructively, so that the end product would “not be trash.” On August 15, 1789, New Hampshire representative Samuel Livermore clarified Madison’s then-Third Amendment to read, “Congress shall make no laws touching religion, or infringing the rights of conscience.” Ames mulled over the language. He was a New Englander; the clergy’s role in public life there was centuries old. The Virginians, with a less entrenched religiosity, had been conspicuously muted on the topic.

On August 20, Ames proposed a more focused revision to the Amendment: “Congress shall make no law establishing religion, or to prevent the free exercise thereof, or to infringe the rights of conscience.”

His language passed, was eventually ratified by the States and, after other provisions failed to do so, became the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Far from a Roman senate

On a Friday afternoon in midsummer 1789 Fisher Ames and nine of his fellow House members took momentary leave of their work. According to a newspaper, they “set out on a party of pleasure to take a view of West Point and the Hudson River, on board of Captain North…” They spent the night in West Point. On Saturday morning the 10 congressmen went for a march up to Fort Putnam, then set sail for Poughkeepsie, where they dined and spent their Sunday. The headwinds back to the capital city were rough; they arrived back in time for session on Monday morning, albeit with spinning heads, wrote one passenger: “my head is so deranged that the room, tables & chairs seem in motion.”

Even holiday was rigor. Still, there they had been, 10 congressmen from North and South, patrician and not, all in the same vessel. Fisher Ames, prone to despairing, was beginning to see some promise in the lower body, where he would ultimately spend four terms. “There is no intrigue, no caucusing, little of clanning together, little asperity in debate, or personal bitterness out of the House,” he wrote a friend after the outing.

“And yet,” he could not resist adding, “it is very far from being a Roman Senate.”

The legacy of Fisher Ames

Fisher Ames died of an unknown infirmity at the age of 50 on the 4th of July, 1808, 32 years to the day after his beloved nation had declared its independence from England.

He had served four terms in the House, retiring at the age of 38. Along the way, the eloquent politician with an artist’s despairing core shaped an infant country in ways that must have seemed trivial at the time. It was Ames who provided the final language to the First Amendment. It was also Ames whose fear of an unwieldy and factionalized House compelled him to press hard for a larger proportion of representation and thus fewer members—which displayed prescience in a losing cause. It was Ames as well who helped beat back an attempt by Southern members to change the presidential line of succession from House Speaker to Secretary of State (at the time occupied by Southerner Thomas Jefferson). And it was apparently Fisher Ames who, in 1790, invited ladies to sit in the House gallery for the first time.

It was indubitably Fisher Ames whose April 28, 1796 floor speech moved his colleagues to sign the Jay Treaty with Great Britain and thus avert war—employing oratory that would gain worldwide attention: “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…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.”

But as another Massachusetts congressman, Tip O’Neill, would say two centuries later, “All politics is local.” Fisher Ames’ wariness of democracy’s “volcano” earned him ridicule as an elitist back home. He won a second term with nearly 74% of the vote. During his third race in 1794, however, Ames was accused of voting “to enlarge British imports which would increase the value of his stocks.” Noting Ames’ far closer 57-43 victory that year, Madison gossiped to Jefferson that “Ames is said to owe his success to the votes of Negroes and British sailors smuggled under a very lax mode of conducting the election there.”

Ames seemed untroubled by such less than glowing portrayals and by the fact that a few individuals in Charleston had reacted to his diatribes against the French by burning him in effigy. Still, the ceaseless battles between Federalists and the emerging Republicans had begun to weary him. “I attend Congress daily,” he wrote a friend at the conclusion of his penultimate term, “but crack jokes instead of problems, and think as little of the proceedings as the doorkeeper.” As the session ended, he wrote mordantly, “If we should finish and leave the world right side up, it will be happy. Do not ask what good we do: that is not a fair question, in these days of faction.”

And yet when he did leave the building—quietly departing the day before President Washington’s farewell to Congress on March 3, 1797—Fisher Ames did not do so as a disinterested party. For even as the Federalist aims of a robust and unifying central government came to be battered by the paleo-constructionist Nathaniel Macon and other Southerners, even as his electric yet still mannered speechifying gave way to the pugilistic banter of Macon’s protégé John Randolph of Roanoke (“Let John Randolph…have the amusement of the cockpit,” he wrote), and even as the House’s rusticity descended into mayhem when a Vermont freshman named Matthew Lyon spat on another member and was thereupon clubbed, he maintained an exasperated sort of affection for the body he helped create. In the fall of 1803, the retired House member wrote words of encouragement to an incoming freshman, his brother-in-law Thomas Dwight: “I am glad to hear of your safe, though weary, arrival at the heaven of other men’s ambition, your purgatory, where indeed you will see good spirits, with other spirits conjured by democracy from the vasty deep. Remember what I have often told you, that the scene you are entering upon will form the best characters, and display them to the greatest advantage. The furnace of political adversity will separate the dross, but purify the gold…To serve the people successfully, will be out of your power; the attempt to do it will be unpopular. To flatter, inflame and betray them, will be the applauded work of demagogues, who will dig graves for themselves, and erect thrones for their victors…”

A Federalist icon

A number of Ames’ colleagues from the 1st Federal Congress went on to higher office: nine became U.S. senators, one became treasury secretary (Thomas Tucker), another vice president (Elbridge Gerry) and still another president (James Madison). Ames never did—and indeed turned down an offer to be president of Harvard University. Perhaps to the detriment of lasting fame, he would be identified forever with the lower body, and with the Federalist cause that would soon give way to Jeffersonian democracy.

Ames did not seem to suffer for attention, however. On the occasion of George Washington’s death in 1800, the great orator was requested to say a few words before the Massachusetts state legislature, and once again he did not disappoint:

“Of those, however, who were born, and who acted, through life, as if they were born, not for themselves, but for their country and the whole human race, how few, alas! are recorded in the long annals of ages…Washington is now added to that small number. Already he attracts curiosity, like a newly discovered star, whose benignant light will travel on to the worlds and time’s farthest bounds. Already his name is hung up by history as conspicuously, as if it sparkled in one of the constellations of the sky…Our history is but a transcript of his claims on our gratitude.”

Despite the wishes of his wife and children, the funeral arrangements were subsumed into politics, as Federalists wished to make the moment a rallying point for their cause. Upwards of a thousand mourners—congressmen, senators, judges, mayors and common members in good standing of the “mobocracy”—gathered in the streets of Boston as the procession snaked its way towards Kings Chapel. Flags flew at half-mast. Shopkeepers locked their doors. A great tongue had been stilled—though within months of his passing, friends would hasten to publish his speeches and letters, which critics then set upon like vultures.

One of the latter was John Quincy Adams. “Mr. Ames was a man of genius and of virtue, he meant well to his country, and served her with fidelity according to his best judgment,” Adams allowed in a scathing critique of Ames’ works less than a year after the latter’s death. “But at a very early period of his public life, he connected himself with Hamilton, with his bank and his funding system, in a manner which warped his judgment and trammeled the freedom of his mind for the remainder of his days.” Ames’ later years, Adams asserted, were marked by physical disease that exacerbated “the vivacity of his imagination.” In short, the Federalist was reduced, by the eventual sixth President of the United States, first to dupe, then to madman.

Ames was neither. Instead, to paraphrase Robert Frost, the congressman maintained a lover’s quarrel with America, believing his country great and at the same time imperiled by its audaciousness—and he thereby came to be haunted by his own experience on the very tightrope between self-government and anarchy that the People’s House would navigate daily. He was wrong to predict imminent chaos—but no less wrong than the Nathaniel Macons who feared that any chink in the armor of states’ rights would spell America’s inexorable decline. On both sides, in any event, the cause was the same, and it would prove their ultimate rightness.

“We now set out with our experimental project, exactly where Rome failed with hers. We now begin, where she ended.”

Those words, written in a swell of anguish over the seemingly unstoppable momentum of Jeffersonian democracy, were penned by Fisher Ames in 1804, fully seven years after his retirement from the House of Representatives, and fifteen years after the thirty-year old proto-freshman first arrived in New York City to begin the American experiment. How exhilarating, how absolutely terrifying, so as to seem like only yesterday, the fateful reach for the mortal heavens: We now begin…not knowing what had truly begun, much less how it would end.


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