Letter from Thomas Burke to Richard Caswell
Burke, Thomas, ca. 1747-1783
1777 - March 24,
Volume 11, Pages 417-423
LETTER FROM THOS. BURKE TO GOV. CASWELL.
[From Executive Letter Book.]
Philadelphia, March 11th 1777.
Our adjournment from Baltimore has put all our proceedings to a stand, and our unsettled situation has prevented my writing to you as often as I at first intended, I believe you have no cause to regret it, for I had nothing to communicate worth your attention.
The more experience I acquire, the stronger is my conviction, that unlimited power can not be safely trusted to any man, or set of men, on earth, No men have undertaken to exercise authority with intentions more generous and disinterested than the Congress,
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and none seem to have fewer or more feeble motives for increasing the power of their body politic. What could induce individuals, blest with peaceable domestic affluence, to forego all the enjoyment of a pleasing home, to neglect their private affairs, and at the expence of all their time and some part of their private fortunes, to attend public business under many insurmountable difficulties and inconveniences? What but a generous zeal for the public? And what can induce such men to endeavour at increasing the power with which they are invested, when their tenure of it must be exceedingly dangerous and precarious, and can bring them individually neither pleasure nor profit? This is a question I believe cannot be answered, but by a plain declaration, that Power of all kinds has an irresistible propensity to increase a desire for itself. It gives the passion of ambition a velocity which increases in its progress; and this is a passion which grows in proportion as it is gratified. I hope, Sir, you will pardon me these reflections. I know they have not escaped you. But I find my attendance in Congress, short as it has been, obtrudes them on me every day. Great part of our time is consumed in debates, whose object on one side is to increase the power of Congress, and on the other to restrain it. The advocates do not always keep the same side of the contest. The same persons, who, on one day endeavour to carry through some resolutions, whose tendency is to increase the power of Congress, are often on another day very strenuous advocates to restrain it: from this I infer that no one has entertained a concerted design to increase the power; and the attempts to do it proceed from ignorance of what such a being ought to be, and from the delusive intoxication which power materially imposes on the human mind. The latter inevitably leads to an abuse and corruption of power, and is in my humble opinion the proper object of political vigilance and jealousy. This is what will insensibly produce combinations of the States, and such combinations will be fatal to the liberties of many. It is of little moment to know what are now the subjects of political speculation. No State is in a condition to cherish projects of future ambition; but situation and comparative strength will always suggest such projects, and the powerful and conveniently situated will cherish them when they can. This will always be the case so long as man remains what his nature has determined him to be. Nor will human virtue
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be a sufficient security against it: on the contrary I am very suspicious that our greatest danger will arise from that source. The present is the period of public virtue and spirit; it is also the era of inexperience.
Simple nature walks almost without disguise. That profound dissimulation covered by an appearance of the most unreserved frankness, always inseparable from the accomplished political negotiation, is unknown amongst us, and must long be unknown, because it is to be acquired only by the most assidious application, and long attentive exercise in the habit of it. Courts are the only schools where it can be learned, and we yet have them not, and probably shall not have them very soon. Every man's soul now stands forth; and in every one you read in very legible characters, that the State he represents is more wise, virtuous, and powerful than any other, and therefore ought to dictate to the rest. Where the more palpable advantage of power is wanting, each, in his own imagination supplies the superiority in wisdom or virtue; and this, I believe in time will be realised. For conscious strength begets a security which relaxes the more painful efforts of wisdom and virtue; while conscious weakness spurs them to their highest mettle. But, strength, Sir, irresistible strength must in the end overcome all opposition. The more powerful States by combining, can doubtless subjugate the more feeble, and opposition will but rouse them to more effectual efforts. I own, Sir, I am under no apprehensions from the New England States. Their situation and natural disadvantages will prevent their becoming formidable if uncombined with others. Their situation is remote, and in a manner detached from the other States, especially ours to the Southward, and nature has in general denied them a fertile soil. Their principal resources will always be in commerce and fisheries. This indeed will give them ships and seamen; but they can not support the one, or fit out the others, without the assistance of other States, and other States cannot be excluded from fishing and navigation. Their strength may indeed be competent to internal defence, but I believe, not to foreign conquests. I think the most formidable combination would be Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia. The first has power sufficient to overawe, and consequently to direct the other three New England States. The second could equally influence Jersey and Delaware. Virginia would be formidable
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to her Southern Neighbors, and Maryland. New York could not resist a combination of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. Maryland must fall a sacrifice to Pennsylvania and Virginia. Against this powerful confederacy I fear, we should not be able to hold out long: and yet North Carolina seems to me best calculated to check the ambition of Virginia, I cannot help, Sir, apprehending that any resolution of Congress, wherein the three formidable above mentioned States concur, must be carried into effect, even if it tended to annihilate the Independence of other States, and divided their territory. I have said that virtue would increase or give birth to this danger Thus I explain myself. The virtue most cultivated will be that which will most distinguish a man in the State in which he resides. The grandeur and preeminence of that State will be the favorite passion of every man in it. A zealous love for its grandeur and preeminence, and a capacity to promote it, will be what must best distinguish and recommend any individual in it. In a word patriotism in America must always be partial to the particular States. Patriotism to the whole will never be cherished or regarded, but as it may be conducive or necessary to the other. The first will be the passion of the heart: the second the idea of the understanding, and whenever our common danger is at any time removed, or even relaxed, the latter will lie dormant, while the active principle of the first will exert its greatest energy. No man can rise to eminence or distinction but through the favour of his particular State; because he must be obscure until that points him out: and no man can acquire that favor by any other means than convincing them that their wishes will always be the first object of his attention,—not to mention that natural prejudice which every man living has in favor of his own country, and the community of which he is a member, and which the most attentive and liberal education is not able wholly to remove. In this particular all men are and ever will be national. These and many other considerations make me earnestly wish that the power of Congress was accurately defined, and that there were adequate checks provided to prevent any excess. I am also exceedingly desirous to have particular instructions relative to some heads which I shall enclose to you, to be laid before the Assembly. One thing now embarrasses me very much. It is this. Whenever any matter wherein the authority of Congress is contested is debated,
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it is usual to lay it over undetermined. By the rule of secrecy you know I am not at liberty to communicate anything before it is determined, and therefore can not consult the State upon it. In these cases all our time is lost for nothing is entered on the journals and nothing therefore can give testimony hereafter that such points were contested, and even rejected by a majority, as is indeed the usual case. Relative to the measures intended to be pursued by Congress, I have nothing new to add. They are endeavouring at a foreign Alliance, and have some hopes of success: they will increase as much as possible their naval force, and are using every endeavour to recruit a strong army, to take the field early in the spring. Their endeavours in this respect will be ineffectual if not earnestly seconded by the States. I have no doubt, Sir, of your particular attention to this important object. I am often suggesting to Congress that the Civil Power of the States is the best instrument for calling forth their proportion of exertions in this or any cause: but they hear with reluctance any thing that looks like the interposition of such a power in military affairs,—tho' no one will venture directly to oppose or reject it. I need not repeat to you my own thoughts on this subject: you have often heard me deliver them and I have not yet changed my opinion. With respect to intelligence I will enclose you the papers, and anything not contained in them I will subjoin. I enclose you an abstract of the debates in Congress on every question of any consequence that has been determined in Congress since my last. By these you will see what has been decided, and why You will from them also better judge of the various opinions or rather the fluctuations of opinion in Congress. This is an evil from which nothing but experience and a better constitution of Congress can deliver us. My own opinions, being those in which my country is particularly interested, I wish her to be fully informed of. To you, Sir, her principal guardian I submit them with all simplicity of unadorned truth; and when they are reprehensible I wish them to be reproved. The last matter in the abstract will show you, that even this early men so eminent as members of Congress, are willing to explain away any power, that stands in the way of their particular purpose. What may we not expect some time hence, when the seat of power shall become firm by habit, and men will be accustomed to obedience, and perhaps forgetful of the original principles which gave rise to
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it. I believe, Sir, the root of the evil is deep in human nature: its growth may be kept down, but it can not be entirely extirpated. Power will sometime or other be abused, unless men are well watched and checked by something which they cannot remove, when they please.
This State is very unhappy at present so powerful a party opposes the new constitution, that I fear the Magistrate will not be obeyed. I am told Dr. Frank in persuaded them, by a simile, to reject a second branch of the Legislature. He said, two branches would resemble a wagon with two horses at the tongue two at the tail, who by pulling opposite ways would keep the machine still. I think the simile would have been more apt, had it represented four horses yoked to the tongue, whose business it is to assist one another in pulling on the plains, and up hill, and through all difficult places, but in going down hill the two hindmost should oppose the motion of the machine, and prevent its running too fast, to the prejudice—of horses themselves and all concerned. This simile of the Doctor's is said to have kindled the present flame. One can hardly suppress the reflection, that the people who could be so much influenced by it, were wonderfully competent to frame constitutions.
Our expenses here, Sir, are incredible: every horse is ten shillings a day, and every thing else in proportion. Since our arrival in this city, we have done very little in Congress. Until within a few days we had no Congress, and now we have but nine States: the few members in town are closely engaged in committees, and what I write is done when other people are asleep. You will therefore not wonder, should you find it very incorrect.
There are letters from Dr. Franklin in France of the 10th December. They represent a war in Europe as certainly imminent, and we have received very particular marks of the favor of that Court, which I am not at liberty to disclose. You will see in the papers a Resolution recommending to the States to assess blankets for the soldiery. This is absolutely necessary, because otherwise such things can not be had. In our State I hope it will be attended with no difficulty, because a great many families can spare one at least, and supply themselves again before the winter by spinning. The money should be paid in the counties, and indeed if possible immediately on the valuation, because the price will not be worth
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the trouble of seeking after, and the individual might lose it. Whenever it is necessary to draw for money for this purpose, your draught on the President of the Congress will be duly honoured. Before Mr. Hooper's departure it was ordered, resolved, that five hundred thousand dollars should be advanced to our State, on your Warrant. No such warrant has yet arrived: but some bills from the Treasurers have come to hand. I have consented to their being paid, and deducted out of the above sum; because I knew that was the utmost amount of what was permitted to be drawn, by any means, on the account of our State. The Treasury Board complain of these small drafts as being too troublesome, and wish you would order out the whole.
'Tis probable, Sir, the Assembly may make choice of some more able man to serve in this Department. I should be very far from deeming it an injury to me, and am certain it would be none to the State. I have resolved, very early in this dispute, to decline no service that my country requires me to perform, altho' all offices are almost equally out of my way, and none are desirable to me. But if the Assembly should think proper to direct me to continue in this department, I hope I may be allowed to return to my private affairs, for a few weeks in the summer. If I have this permission, I promise, Sir, that I will not avail myself of it to the delay or prejudice of public business. I began this letter on tbe 11th instant, and it is now the twenty-second (March). I will probably be some days before I close it, and if any thing occurs, I will subjoin it.
March 24th. A vessel has just arrived from France with ten thousand stand of arms, a very seasonable supply. We have some apprehension that General Howe will turn his arms against this city, and we are providing for his reception. I have the honour to be with the greatest respect and esteem,
Your Excellency's most ob'd't. humble servant,
P. S. You will perceive by the paper of 26th that the account of arms was overrated. I beg the favour of you to forward the inclosed.