Chase on Democracy

From time to time, in the course of my research, I find something that Chase wrote that no prior scholar has found. often these are rather routine letters, but sometimes they are really interesting and important. Today, thanks to my researcher at Brown University, Molly McCarthy, I found such a source: a Fourth of July speech from 1829. Chase did not give it as a speech—the event was rained out—but he printed it as an essay in a local paper—the Washington Chronicle for July 11, 1829. I will quote some bits in the relevant chapter, but the whole thing is interesting, and I wanted to share it. Here it is, with some notes and comments after the text.


It has been usual, on occasions like the present, to review the past and anticipate the future—to contemplate the glory with which the deeds of our fathers have surrounded the American name, and to exult in the expectation of a still loftier destiny, yet to be fulfilled. And the remembrance and the hope are alike dear to our hearts; but the theme is one upon which the. Powers of description have been long since exhausted, and the time has come when vanity herself is satiated by the repetition of her praises. It will therefore be deemed the less reprehensible, the less presumptuous in me, if I venture to leave this path to others, and to lead you today, for a few moments, to the consideration not of national greatness, but of national peril; of the which menace the purity, perhaps endanger the existence, of our free institutions. In so doing I shall attempt to call up no horrible phantoms to scare the imagination. No ghost of murdered freedom will be evoked from the habitation of spirits to fright mankind at midday. Plain facts and plain information are alone required by the occasion. In the assembly which I have the honor to address, the monitory language of reason and experience, however humbly interpreted, need not, I trust, any artificial embellishments.

He must be blind indeed to the operations of political causes who cannot perceive in our institutions a tendency to unmingled democracy. It is manifested especially in the growing disposition of the people to control their deputies and representatives in the execution of their trusts; and thus, in effect, to retain in their own hands powers which they have apparently entrusted to others. If a senator, for example, is to be elected by the legislature of state, we sometimes see the people requiring pledges of the members to vote for a particular individual. This experiment has not been very often made as yet, but other indications of popular spirit show that the time is not very far distant, when it will be as common as it now is to require pledges from the electors of president. Now we are bound to assume that the choice of senator is not committed to the legislature by accident; that this order of things is not the result of merely fortuitous circumstances. But happily, we are not left to conjecture. The reason is pointed at in the Constitution. It is because the Senate was intended as a link between the general and the state governments: and because there is no way in which this connection can be effectually secured, but by vesting the right to appoint its members in legislatures. Now if such was the intent, is it not frustrated by the practice to which we have adverted? Is not the peculiar prerogative of the legislature taken away, and the appointment of a senator reduced to a circuitous mode of election by the people?

The same remarks apply to the common mode of selecting a president for the union, through the medium of pledged electors. It is true that there are no express words in the Constitution which forbid this to be done. It is not written down in so many letters and syllables, the electos shall not be pledged. But what have we to do with the literality of that instrument, when the spirit of its provision is as manifest as light? May we seek from the letter, miserable pretexts to justify deeds denounced by the spirit? Are we at liberty, because no express words forbid the act, to do that which nullifies the whole scheme of the presidential election? Or, in other words, is an act which renders the Constitution, or any of its parts, a mere dead letter, and a compliance with its provisions a lifeless, ineffective formality, sanctioned or allowed by that instrument? Let common sense and reason decide, and let patriotism ponder the decision.

Now it requires no extraordinary strength or acuteness of intellect to demonstrate that these electoral pledges are just such violations of the intent of the Constitution as have been described. What is the Constitution? It is in part a deed of powers from the governed to the governing members of society, and in part it ascertains and prescribes the mode in which the powers ceded to the government and those retained by the people are to be exercised. Its great distinctive feature is the recognition of that fundamental principle of government, that all power is derived from the people. Of course, the authorities granted in it are surrendered by the people, who have however reserved in their hands the important right of selecting, from among themselves, the agents to whom they shall be entrusted, and by whom they are to be administered. This is as it should be. This is the glorious, the peculiar distinction of our beloved country among the nations of the earth. This gives to the self-ruling poor man of America an air of dignity and independence which is not elsewhere to be found. This causes the life blood to circulate rapidly and vigorously through the community. This gives the impetus to the spirit of improvement and multiplies the springs of national prosperity. But, though this right should most unquestionably remain now if the future vote of each individual of those who are to compose these assemblies is previously ascertained, they cannot be said to elect the president. When once selected for the performance of this duty, they will have no will in the matter at all. Pieces of paper, automata, anything by which the popular voice could be indicated, would answer every purpose just as well.

But let us look a little farther. What was the intent of this provision? It is said in the Federalist—but really the passage has so much the air of satire, when viewed in connection with the actual state of things, that I am almost afraid to quote it—however it is there said “The immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements that were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to so complicated an investigation.” Men capable of analyzing—circumstances favorable to deliberation—a judicious combination of reasonsand inducements—information and discernment requisite to so complicatedan investigation!Where are we? Not surely in a college of electors—for there, there is no need of analysis—no need of deliberation—no need of information and discernment; because there is no complicated investigation. the qualifications of the members are amply sufficient, simply because the discharge of that duty requires no qualification at all. The powers of the electors are taken from them, and their duties reduced to the very simple affair of writing a name on a ballot. Here, then, it is evident the framers of the constitution made a nugatory provision, or the present practice is wrong. If this is not plain, nothing is plain. Any man who can see the divergence of one straight line from another, must see the departure of the people, in practice, from the mode by themselves prescribed.

But some are dissatisfied with the existing order for a different reason. These think that the intervention of the electors is quite unnecessary. These would commit this important election to the universal suffrage. It is not enough for them that the spirit of the Constitution is violated, they would annihilate the form. These are the demagogues—the modern tribune plebis—the pests of popular government of all ages. These are they who prepare the way for anarchy and usurpation, by accustoming the people to be led. There are enough of them everywhere—there are more than enough among us. Young as I am I have witnessed the partial career of one who, by the magic influence of party names, controlled a state more absolutely than if a scepter were in his hand. Today he denounced, and public confidence fled from the object of his denunciation; tomorrow he approved and lo! the Ethiop was white. Often breasting the current of opinion, he arrested and turned its course at his pleasure; often opposed by the wisest and the best, he triumphed over them all. He was the High Priest of a party, and the and the excommunication of the Vatican, in the plenitude of Papal dominion, were not more dreaded than his. Of such men this nation should beware, more than of open violence. Let them not prevail to throw down a single barrier erected by the Constitution. Let the slightest manifestation of such an intent summon the truly patriotic to the defense of that sacred bulwark of our free institutions. For the downfall of one provision will but herald the downfall of another; and the work will not cease until the dominion of party has been erected upon the ruins of regulated liberty.

There is another form under which the disposition on which we are commenting manifests itself still more strikingly. I refer to the instruction of representatives by their constituents. Now it is unquestionably the right of the constituent to give such advice as he may think proper. As unquestionably it is both the right and the duty of the representative to exercise his own judgment, and to act upon its decisions. A very short process of reasoning will exhibit the foundation of this proposition. The objects for which the representative is elected are of a general, not local character. While he is bound to look especially to the interests of those who elect him, he is no less bound to look to the interests of every citizen of these United States, from the dweller upon the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, to the wandering hunter beyond the Rocky Mountains; from him who beholds the onward sweeping of the majestic St. Lawrence, to him who looks upon the swelling waves of the gulf of Mexico. Now how can he discharge his duties, arising from these various and extensive relations, if he is not left to the untrammeled exercise of his own reason? Can his constituents be supposed to be in possession of the information necessary to enable them to judge of the propriety of a measure which is to affect not only them, but the whole community? Is it possible that they can be as free from sectional prejudice, from narrow and selfish purposes? It is plainly impossible. The farmers and seamen of Maine know little of the planters of Louisiana—and the planters of Louisiana know as little about the farmers and seamen of Maine. It is obvious, then, that this doctrine of the subjection of the reason of the representative to the will of his constituents, goes to establish a partial and oppressive legislation—an unrighteous dominion denounced by every sentence of the Declaration to which we have just listened. It converts the members of the legislative body to mere conducting rods of public sentiment. It degrades the representative from a free intelligent being to a machine, to a speaking instrument of the will of others. It infringes upon the rights of the community, by depriving it of services to which it has a just and undisputed claim. If, then, this right cannot be exercised unless in violation of the rights and duties of him over whom it is claimed, nothing more can be wanting to provide that it does not exist.

I have hinted my apprehension of partial legislation as an evil likely to grow out of this doctrine. This subject deserves but a few brief remarks. If that day should ever arrive when a majority of the legislative body, influenced by fear of their constituents, or any other motive, shall adopt and persevere in a course of unjust and selfish legislation, we may be sure that the voice of remonstrance will be heard, and if no remedy is applied the aggrieved and suffering portion of the community will be driven to resistance. This will not be done at once or soon. Long and patient will be the endurance of the sufferers, in their attachment to our glorious Union. To many and severe privations will they voluntarily subject themselves ere they will sunder that golden cord, which binds together so many sovereignties into one mighty nation. Yes; they will endure so long as hope endures. But human patience has its period. The sun of hope, which through the thick gloom of oppression still sheds its brightness over the future, may go down in night. Regardless of everything but sectional and individual interest, partial and oppressive legislation may be pushed to that degree when it drives the wise man mad. No human power can describe the scene which must follow. Let darkness, then, rest upon it. Let no parricidal hand strike the blow which must compel us to behold it. This is no vain imagination, no unreal apprehension. Experience, gathering wisdom from the history of nations, declares that it is not. Reason, looking at the nature of man and of government, declares that it is not.

For what purposes was government instituted? Was it to protect and cherish? Was it to guard the rights and promote the prosperity of the governed? Or was it to foster the interests, the individual interests of those who may chance to administer its powers? To answer these questions here would be to insult the understandings of this assembly. If, then, these things are so, how can we resist the inference that whenever the powers or any portion of the powers of the general government are administered with a sole view to private interest, or sectional interest, or party interest, the administrators are faithless to their trust? And if one part of this country finds that it is to be sacrificed to such views—that government instead of being to them a protection and a blessing is a blight and a curse—is it not perfectly evident, upon all the common principles of human action, that they will endeavor to relieve themselves from its operation? It was the opinion of one of the wisest and most practical men that France ever saw, that revolutions are not effected by the people through desire of change, but through impatience of suffering. And this opinion is confirmed by the voice of all time. If, then, oppression shall ever weigh heavily upon any section of our country, and remonstrances and supplications shall be unavailing, and the conviction shall take root that no change is to be expected, then may we indeed despair of the republic. Then words of entreaty will be exchanged for tones of defiance; petitions and memorials, for manifestos and declarations. They will say to their oppressors—”we have implored your forbearance, and you have multiplied your exactions; we have remonstrated with you as brethren, and you have spurned us as slaves. Henceforth we are separate and forever. If you attempt to force us into submission we are prepared to resist. If your armies are sent hither we are ready to meet them. And upon the graves of our fathers every man of us will perish before we return to a connection which we abhor.”

I have dwelt the longer upon this them because it appears to me that these effects flow naturally from that tendency to extreme democracy which has been proved to exist in our institutions and that from this source very serious danger is to be apprehended. On this subject history speaks in strong and impressive language. Light comes from the past, and flashes broadly over the future, revealing the things that shall be hereafter. By that light we should be warned. We need not flatter ourselves that a peculiar destiny is reserved for us. The same causes which have subverted other fabrics of empire will, if suffered to operate, destroy our institutions; and if the democratic principle, which is, confessedly, essential to the vitality of the Constitution, should so far preponderate over the representative principle, which is equally essential, as virtually to annihilate its efficacy, the Constitution itself is destroyed and our Government is at an end.

There is yet another source from which we may apprehend danger. I mean from the increase of our population, and the extension of the Union, without a corresponding increase and extent of intelligence and virtue. No people can be trulyfree unless they are exempt from the debasing influence of ignorance and vice. Upon the knowledge and integrity of the people rests the whole fabric of self-government. If this foundation be removed the magnificent structure erected upon it must surely fall. Looking around, then, how many do we find animated by an enlightened love of country, fortified by strong and unyielding principle. Our fathers are descending into the grave, and we are coming upon the stage; but alas! nec pares, nec similes sumus.

This matter is too much neglected by those whose duty it is to attend to it. The importance of general instruction is not generally feltas it should be. Let us then look at this matter a little more closely. We boast that our institutions are the most free of any on earth. In what does this freedom consist? What do we mean by this word liberty? Do we mean exemption from all unnecessary restraint, or do we mean exemption from all restraint? If the former, who is to decide what is and what is not a necessary restraint? The answer might come from an American child, and yet it contains a truth which the wisdom of man, toiling for almost six thousand years, has been unable to comprehend and apply in practice—the law of God and our own reason. It is an answer worthy of an intelligent freeman; it is more—it is an answer worthy of an immortal being. Why is it then that mankind have never acted upon this truth? Why is it that neither the divine law nor human reason has ever set limits to the lust of dominion, on the one hand, or to the excesses of licentiousness, on the other? It is become human reason has never become sufficiently enlightened; because virtuous principle has never been sufficiently strong; because the craft of the few has ever been too much for the ignorance of the many. The power of public opinion has been felt, but it has been felt only as an engine of tremendous efficacy in the hands of the designing. Our own country forms the most glorious exception to the truth of these remarks, in their sweeping generality, yet witnessed by the world. And why? Because here sound knowledge has been more universally. Diffused; and high principle, built upon the sure foundation of a pure religion, has been a more usual constituent of character than elsewhere upon the earth. If then we are becoming more ignorant, and by consequence more vicious, we are approximating, slowly it may. be, but certainly, a state of fitness for slavery. I do not say that this is now the case with us, but it may be, and it becomes us to watch well the avenues of evil. We should remember that a single corrupting drop thrown upon the reservoir of public sentiment quickly taints the whole mass, while the warming rays of intelligence and morality exert their feeble influence upon the surface and are long, very long, in pervading and heating its inner recesses. Would that my feeble utterance could impress the conviction, which fills my own bosom, upon those who, like me, are growing up to be influenced by and to influence the destinies of their country; a conviction that a single action or word which has a tendency to vitiate the moral sense of the community is a transgression against the freedom of our land; that days and months and years of misspent time are just so many rightful deductions from the common treasury of our country.

But the dangers arising from ignorance and an unsound state of public morals, are to be feared—not so much from the increase as from the extension of our population. The valleys of the West are rapidly filling with emigrants. The East, the North, and the South yield their contributions. And the day is not very distant when on the shores of the mighty Ohio, and on the shores of the mightier Mississippi, and far beyond where as yet the foot of the pioneer hunter has alone trodden, there will be congregated a mass of human beings, far outnumbering the whole of our Atlantic population.

This state of things cannot be contemplated but with deep anxiety. To this section of our country he who loves her institutions must look with undissembled alarm. The work of peopling the wilderness has already commenced, and is in rapid progress. The march of emigration goes daily deeper and deeper in the bosom of the forest—but the Ark of God is not in the midst of the host, nor does Science spread over it her shielding wings. In the nearer states are a few scattered and feebly supported literary institutions, and in their neighborhood, and in the cities and villages, are a few churches, lifting their solitary spires towards Heaven, as if testifying that the genius of Learning and the spirit of Christianity have not yet passed from among them. But beyond, in the extreme regions, there is a moral darkness, a mental night, relieved only by a few sparks of knowledge which the emigrants have carried with them, but which, as they and their children die, are one by one extinguished.

Such is an unvarnished statement of facts in relation to our extending population. It would need no commentary, even did time permit me to give one. The remedy, if one is ever to be successfully applied, must come from among themselves. A spirit of improvement must be awakened and directed to the diffusion of knowledge by the establishment of a general system of education which will bring its benefits home to every individual. A moral feeling must be created in the community, by sound instruction and the dissemination of religious principle. For it is vain to conceive, worse than vain to attempt, the erection of national morality on any other foundation. Let these things be done, and we have nothing to fear. Let them be neglected, and we have everything to dread.

I have thus superficially glanced at what consider to be the three principal sources of danger to our liberty and union. They are the virtual resumption by the people of power, which they have, by the constitution, delegated to other hands; a partial and oppressive exercise of legislative authority; and an increasing and extending population without a corresponding increase and extent of intelligence and virtue. I have attempted to show in what way these causes may be expected to operate. I will now endeavor to state, as briefly as I can the means by which their influence may be counteracted.  In the first place, let the people learn moderation. Let them be content with the exercise of the elective franchise, and not seek to trammel the man whom the honor with their suffrages, by restrictions which evince that confidence is withheld at the very moment when it seems to be bestowed. They have power enough without arrogating that which does not properly belong to them. If a representative has unfaithfully executed his trust, they can and should punish him at the expiration of his term of service. But let them not, in order to prevent a small evil, commit a great wrong. Let them not infringe upon the free exercise of his judgment. The whole doctrine of pledges and instructions should be cut up by the roots. It shows a want of confidence and creates a want of principle. It adds no new motives to the exertions of the good, and is weaker than a broken straw when opposed to the machinations of the bad. If, however, the exercise of this pretended right be attempted, let the representative respectfully, but firmly, assert his independence. Let him evince his regard to the best interests of his country by a resolute defense of his constitutional rights. Let him prove the distinterestedness of his patriotism by the sacrifice, if necessary, of his ambition to his principles.

In the next place, those entrusted with the legislation should be careful how they wield that double-edged sword. They should see to it that neither sectional prejudice nor party spirit be suffered to cloud or distort their mental or moral vision. They should look to the welfare of that great whole of which they are collectively and individually the representatives. They should beware that there be no unequal impositions upon the minority; but that the benefits and the burdens of government be equally distributed.

But, above all, it is necessary that the whole mass, both the representatives and the represented, the rulers and the ruled, be enlightened and virtuous. And this is a work which government cannot accomplish, though indirectly it may do much to advance it. Here the chief reliance must be upon individual character. To this work all may engage. There is not an individual so humble or solitary whose example or whose word may not influence the conduct of multitudes of others. And it is an animating and ennobling thought that a single mind can accomplish so much. It is a thought which forbids us to despair of our country while there are ten righteous men left in her. It is a thought which summons us all to the most noble undertaking within the sphere of human ambition—to the improvement and elevation of individual and national character. Science smiles upon the enterprise, and Religion blesses it. The solemn voices of the dead come to us from the years that are gone and forbid us to shrink from this high duty. The thrilling entreaties of those to come after us rise up from the deep abysses of futurity, and conjure us, by all that is dear and all that is sacred, to transmit to them unimpaired and undefiled our beautiful inheritance of Freedom! Spirits of the dead and spirits of the unborn: by the help of God we will do our duty and by the blessing of God our beloved country shall annually become more great, more glorious, more virtuous, and more free: and the day we now celebrate shall be celebrated with increasing joy and gratitude, and exultation, to the thousandth and ten thousandth generation.


Chase was writing in the midst of what we call Jacksonian Democracy: the process of broadening the franchise to reach more voters and giving voters more direct political control. Chase did not like what he saw. The nation had already shifted from what one might call the original electoral college, a group of leaders who gathered to discuss and debate who should be president, to the modern electoral college, in which voters selected electors who were committed to vote for a particular candidate.

Chase disapproved of this change and he disapproved even more strongly of suggestions that presidents should be elected by direct popular elections. Chase also disliked voters demanding to know (from prospective legislators) who they would select for the Senate. I am not aware of many instances of this in the early nineteenth century: the Lincoln-Douglas election of 1858 was unusual in that it was viewed as a fight for the Senate seat, not merely a fight for control of the legislature.

I think that the “high priest of party” whom Chase denounces was Martin Van Buren, the head of the Albany Regency, the first strong party machine in American history. If others have different ideas, please let me know.

Although Chase does not mention the Tariff of 1828, bitterly opposed by almost all southerners, and by many in New England, this is clearly the kind of sectional legislation that he has in mind in his essay. Already John Calhoun had published an anonymous essay, the South Carolina Exposition and Protest, in which he urged South Carolina to nullify the tariff, that is, to denounce and disregard it as unconstitutional.  Already there was talk that South Carolina might secede from the Union if the federal government insisted upon implementing and enforcing the tariff.

Chase’s sketch of what secessionists would say, as they left the Union, sounds eerily like what southern secessionists did say, in the winter of 1860, when they seceded from the Union after the election of Lincoln. At that point, of course, Chase opposed secession, he believed that the southern states had no right to secede because they had not yet been oppressed in any way by the Republican administration. But in this speech Chase is more sympathetic to secession—at least as a last resort for an injured and oppressed part of the United States.

It is also interesting that Chase did NOT say that the North and South would quarrel over slavery and that that would divide the Union into two parts. There had already been hints of such a division, such as, for example, the intense debate over the admission of Missouri as a slave state, which was only resolved through the Missouri Compromise. But Chase did not have this degree of foresight, perhaps because he had not really thought much about slavery yet.

Chase’s discussion of westward expansion is interesting because most Americans, at this time, favored such expansion and emigration. Chase had already lived for three years in Ohio, as a ward of his uncle, Philander Chase, the first Episcopal bishop of Ohio. So Chase knewthe West in a way which few easterners did at this time. He knew that there were schools and churches and literary societies in the West—but he also knew that they were comparatively few and weak.

Chase sounds, in this part of his letter, a bit like his uncle, the bishop. In 1823, in a letter from Cincinnati to the eastern bishops, Bishop Chase wrote that “it may be said generally of the whole community of the western settlements that they are sinking fast in ignorance, and its never failing attendants, vice and fanaticism. Our own church, scattered like a discomfited army, are seeking for strange food in forbidden fields, or in solitary groups by the wayside, are fainting, famishing, dying, for the lack of all things which can nourish them in eternal life. No missionaries make their appearance, nor are there even the most distant hopes of obtaining any from the East.”