Birth of the Nation: The First Federal Congress, 1789-1791 Back to the Exhibit

Rep. Fisher Ames of Massachusetts to Nathaniel Sargent, May 5, 1789

New York May 5th. 1789


      I esteem myself honorued by the communication of your sentiments by the mail. It is no small consolation and aid to those who are engaged in public business, and who cannot confide very much in their own knowledge and experience, that, in all the states, gentlemen of the first respectability, are attentive to the operations of govt. and are disposed to lend their assistance and counsel to give them a right direction. There will, probably, never be a time when the opinion of each gentleman can be afforded with more efficacy and advantage. The greater part of Congress are cordially attached to the Constitution, and zealous to realize the blessings expected to be derived from it. But either from the excess of that zeal, or from the indecision and timidity [word crossed out] with us and to the choice of the means conducive to that end, which the novelty and magnitude of the objects of legislation have produced in men of good sense, or from some other cause, there was a strange want of system and intelligence in conducting the revenue business during the first two or three weeks. Since that time, people begin to know what they wish and to decide how they will act. During that period of inaction, and pardon me, if I add, of small talk, the project of a temporary revenue act was engendered. It was however soon damped by the disapprobation of the leading members. It is still talked about and wished for by some, who are afraid of a regulation to favour the navigation of the eastern states -- and that the present is the most favourable time for those states to prevail. and others are loth to suffer the loss of duties upon the spring importations. I have no apprehensions that any such temporary act will be passed. It seemed to me for some time past to be a small object in itself, and likely to produce some of the effects you have so justly remarked upon. Some others you have noticed, wh had escaped my observation.

      But, Sir, tho’ we are sttering clear of one error, we are in danger of another. The advocates for high duties are very importunate, and seem determined to have them imposed in defiance of consequences. Experience has clearly proved that high duties will be evaded. No people better understand smuggling than our’s -- and the govt. is not in a condition to enforce obnoxious laws agt. the interest of many, and the judgment of more. The people will pay much and the treasury receive little. I hope that a temperate and determined opposition to this system, in the legislature, invigorated by the concurring opinion of the best informed and best disposed persons out of Congress, will prevent it passing into a law. Should it pass, I have not an idea, that it will be possible to collect the duties. Smuggling will ensue. The govt. will not only want popularity but power - and sink into that state of beggary and inefficiency from which it seemed to be emerging. I have the pleasure to know Mr Pickman, and shall do no more than common justice to mention him to the Senators of my acquaintance as a man of merit, and possessing the approbation of those who would not patronise his pretensions, if he had not that to support them.

I am, Sir, with the highest

respect and esteem                      

      your most obedient

           and very humble friend

Fisher Ames



      Judge Sargeant

Haverhill, Massachusetts


(Letter courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum)

digitized from DHFFC transcription   
Back to the Exhibit
Go to Exhibit Home
First Federal Congress Project



Copyright © 2000 First Federal Congress Project. All rights reserved.