Spotlight on Fisher Ames
By Tim Norris
When we think of the Constitution and the founding of America, the names Jefferson, Adams, Madison and perhaps Hamilton all come to mind. The name Fisher Ames, for the most part, has sliiped from the pantheons of American history. Yet, without Fisher Ames there may been a Constitution without our Bill of Rights!
Ames correctly noted the Constitution formed the basis our our system of Government but the first 10 Amendments- our bill of Rights- preserved liberty for the individual!
Ames was a Congressman from Massachusetts where, on August 20, 1789, he proposed as the wording of the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law establishing religion, or to prevent the free exercise thereof, or to infringe the rights of conscience.” Of all the Founders Fisher Ames was the most skeptical of the American experiment. He understood the tendency of government to control individuals with ever increasing burdens. Ames wrote an article titled “Monitor,” published in The New England Palladium of Boston, 1804. “We now set out with our experimental project, exactly where Rome failed with hers. We now begin, where she ended.” He was skeptical about this great American exexperiment in human freedom. He warned that “democracy without morals” would eventually reduce the nation to the basest of human passions, swallowing freedom: “The known propensity of a democracy is to licentiousness which the ambitious call, and the ignorant believe to be, liberty.”
Does that warning sound familiar? In America today, do we confuse liberty with license.
Ames said “where is the check upon excesses?.., The press supplies an endless stimulus to popular imagination and passion; the press lives upon heat and coarse drama and incessant restlessness. He doubted there were sufficient numbers of men and women of moral courage and charisma that would preserve the country from the passions of the multitudes and the demagogues who master them. He was convinced that the people as a body could not reason and were easily swayed by clever speakers and political agents. In his words, ‘few can reason, all can feel’…
Ames feared Democracy could not last, “for despotism lies at the door; when the tyranny of the majority leads to chaos, society will submit to rule by the sword….and justice and morality in America would fail.
Is America in danger today? Have we, as a country travelled so far, we’ve lost touch from where we came? Ames probably The ords of Fisher Ames are still echoing through the generations:
“liberty depends on our education, our laws, and our habits… It is founded on morals and religion, whose authority reigns in the heart, and on the influence these produce on public opinion before that opinion governs rulers.”
Exactly 32 years to the day after America declared its Independence, Fisher Ames died at the age of 50. Fisher Ames died on the Fourth of July, 1808. Everyone knows the story of how Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on the Fourth of July, 1826, a half-century after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Every Independence Day, great respect is given to the memory of Jefferson—and at least a little to Adams. But no mention is ever made of that other Founding Father who died on the Fourth of July, Fisher Ames, whose words continue to echo through the generations, reminding us to “take heed, less we fall.”
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