Died on the 4th of July: Fisher Ames, Founding Father and Arch-Foe of Democracy

By Tippins, Stephen B., Jr. | The American Conservative, July 2012 | Go to article overview

Died on the 4th of July: Fisher Ames, Founding Father and Arch-Foe of Democracy


Tippins, Stephen B., Jr., The American Conservative


I told a friend of mine I was going to write a profile on Fisher Ames.

"Who?" he asked.

"Fisher Ames. One of our Founding Fathers and a preeminent Federalist."

"And you're writing a profile on him?"

"Yep."

"Why?"

"Well ... he's largely forgotten. And his brand of conservatism was actually conservative. You know, interestingly enough, he died on July--"

"No, no. I mean why?"

"I don't follow."

"Well, it's an election year, in case you haven't noticed. And I don't think a dead Federalist is going to resonate much. How's Fisher Ames going to help Republicans win the White House?"

"I don't know, really. But I do think that Republicans could stand to learn a thing or two from the Federalists. Hell, I think we all could."

"Why is that? I mean, what, exactly, did the Federalists believe in?"

I wasn't prepared to be tested. I thought for a moment. "They lobbied for a strong national government, Hamiltonian finance, a stronger allegiance with Britain, and they believed, I guess, in rule by a natural aristocracy."

"Natural aristocracy? Strong national government? What relevance does any of that have? I mean, a strong national government? Really? Government isn't the answer, you know. It's the problem."

Well, now.

I carefully considered my friend's point. Government isn't the answer ... It's the problem. It then occurred to me: Like most modern conservatives, my friend had missed the point. To say that government isn't the answer to our nation's problems is to presuppose the wrong incentive for erecting government in the first place. Fisher Ames would know that. And that's why he's relevant.

Fisher Ames (1758-1808) of Dedham, Massachusetts is not exactly a forgotten Founding Father. The general public may not remember him, but historians and scholars haven't forgotten Ames so much as they've dismissed him. John W. Malsberger, in his 1982 essay "The Political Thought of Fisher Ames," wrote that for much of American history scholars considered Ames nothing more than an extremist "who resisted the idealism of the American Revolution," an unstable man whose writing was so "infected with hysterical and paranoid symptoms that it is difficult to believe that he represented a sane body of thought."

Henry Adams was more poetic. Ames's "best political writing," he wrote, "was saturated with the despair of the tomb to which his wasting body was condemned."

Yet much can be learned from the life of Ames, and not just from his rhetoric (which gave us the wittiest of all retorts when, in response to the declaration that all men are created equal, he quipped: "But differ greatly in the sequel") or from his writing ("Constitutions are but paper; society is the substratum of government"). He was, in Russell Kirk's words, a man many years dying. This was because in his youth, well before his tubercular demise, he displayed more promise than perhaps any of our other great statesmen. Fisher Ames personified two of conservatism's most indelible tenets: life is fragile and all is vanity.

Ames began his political journey at Harvard, where he enrolled during the summer of his twelfth year--an early start for this oldest of souls. Providence could not have placed him in a better place at a better time, for he was afforded the opportunity to couch his education in the context of the single great political question of his time. As war with Britain loomed, one of the school's benefactors remarked that Ames and his classmates were brought "to such a pitch of enthusiasm" that it was "difficult for their tutors to keep them within due bounds."

At the time, Ames was enamored with notions of liberty and independence. As a member of Harvard's Speaking Club, he gave such patriotic orations as a recital of Benjamin Church's speech on the Boston Massacre ("When will the locust leave the land? …

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