To Nathaniel Barrell

    New York City        9 March 1790

    My friend—

    Three days ago I had the pleasure of reading yours of the 21st. Feby—And I find I was right in the judgment I formed in my mind when I left you at Boston—I then said to myself, that when you shall have read the books, you offered to sell me, you would be of the opinion I now find you entertain of them1—that is—they are honestly worth much more than you can sell them for—And I will now as honestly tell you why I did not, at that time, offer you a price for them—I wanted the books, & knew the worth of them—you wanted to sell them, but did not know their value, or their intrinsic merit—And if I had offered you a price you would have accepted it, or you would not—If you had accepted it you would have lost the books, & I should have got them for less than one half their value—If you had not accepted my price; you would now, knowing their merit, entertain strong suspicions that I ment to take advantage of you in the sale—which, tho it may be right in dealing with a professed hawker, pedler or Vendue-master, does not comport with my idea of fair dealing with a friend—

    But I can hardly admit the attachment to books, which you plead as an excuse for not writing me before, as a good one; because I know you can drive the quill with great rapidity, & your sentiments flow with as little difficulty—

    You know me to be what some call a bookish sort of a man—This disposition has led me to the vendues in this city, where I have purchased a number of pretty good books, that is in my estimation; and for one quarter their first cost—tho they were not the worse for ware—Hence you see I look upon Justice & fair dealing [as] quite different things at Boston, & in this city! Why then do you talk to me, in the latter part of your Letter, about “doing Justice, according to the true definition of the word, by following the strait Line, agreeable to the simple sense it will bear”— ? Dont you see in this place tis justice to get a Book, (& why not any thing else?) as cheep as you can—but in Boston it seemed otherwise—as Voltaire said what was beautifull, & much applauded on the Stage, in France was not so in England2

    I have been highly entertained, for some time past, in hearing Gentlemen talk about public Justice, & public faith—of which you have also discanted a little3—It appears to me that many are so staunchly orthodox as to think that public faith without, And even contrary to works, will save a nation—Now I confess this is a paradox to me—For in public as in private affairs I always make great dependence on works4

    You say—“there is not only a bare probability, but a moral certainty, that we shall be able to make good all our honest” (a word very few people agree in the application of) “engagements”—when we look back & see the “rise & fall of Empires, & Kingdoms, we find they succeed no farther then they kept pace with Justice, and as they departed from that they crumbled away, till they became what we now see them”—On Saturday evening as I read this sentence I was struck with it, & made a contemplative pause; and before I returned to reading my Letter, my fr friend Mr. [Paine] Wingate read to the company part of a Letter, he had just received from a Reverend Divine in Boston, in which the writer said he hoped soon to see the divine maxim, “that Righteousness exalteth a nation”—verified in America5—At which I asked the company where was the nation that worked righteousness and eschewed evil? A Gentleman who set by, & was pretty largely interested in continental Securities, & consequently had his mind full of the importance of public faith & six per cent. interest, observed that Great Britain was a living & very striking example, for it was well known that she had always fulfilled her promises & paid the Interest punctually—true said another—but it must be remembered that, to enable her to do this she has been obliged to sacrifice every command in the Decalogue; and continues to oppress, by enormus taxes of one kind & another, eleven millions of her subjects.

    “Righteousness exalteth a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people”—I believe I have got it right, but am not certain—

    Were I to preach from this text—I should take the following method—and inquire—First

    What is that righteousness here spoken of as the cause of the exaltation of a nation

    2ly. What is that State or situation which is called the exaltation of a Nation & results from the practice of national Righteousness?

    3ly. Enquire whether there is, or ever was a nation, where Righteousness was practiced in this sense—

    4ly. To what actions of a Nation, or individuals the latter part of my text will apply—“but sin is a reproach to a people”—

    I shall pass over my two first heads, & leave them, till an opportunity presents of delivering you an extemore extempore discourse at your own house—which, should Congress be faithfull to the trust reposed in them and not waste their time needlessly, I hope will not be at a greater distance than May, or the first of June—And make a few observations on my third head—which will apply more directly to that part of your Letter, where you hold up an attention to Justice as the Scale by which the rise & fall of Empires may be marked—

    I shall omit saying any thing about Gods peculiar people—because you would charge me with having read Voltaire & Bollingbrook6—or reply that, with regard to them, their Law-giver [Moses] had suspended the common rules of Justice, which were in force, & Laws to other nations—I shall also pass by the ancient Monarchies in Asia & Africa—because we scarce know enough of them to found an opinion upon—

    The first people then of whom we have a sufficiently accurate knowledge of to discover, with certainty, the real causes of their rise to, & fall from Empire & Greatness, are the Grecian Republics—These were powerfull, learned, & arrived to a considerable degree of exaltation—Yet there is discovered but little of what we call public faith, or public Justice; while ambition, pride, emulation, & what, according to our ideas, is an imperfect idea notion of Liberty, were the causes of that perfection to which they attained.

    Without entering into a detail of particulars, it deserves notice that the Ostracism of the Greeks, which was a legal Banishment of such citizens as were distinguished for their virtues & inflexible integrity, has, by many, been looked upon [as] a principle cause of their safety & preservation—

    Tho my Letter has already vastly exceeded the decent bounds of Length, I cannot, in conscience, pass over that nest of private private villains and public Robbers, the Romans—That nation was first composed, individually, of murderers, Robbers, & Refugees from Justice—And such being the characters of the men, is it possible for them to exhibit any thing that should look like national Righteousness? read their History—And Let their public actions do them justice—Scarce had these rascals embodied together than, by force and fraud, they ravished from a neighbouring nation their wives & daughters7—This I think will hardly be called an act of national Righeousness—yet some politicians have denominated it good policy—Time will not suffer me to make observations as I go along—I shall only hint the facts. These refugees from the halter, having procured themselves women, then set out as public murderers to rove over the world—They attacked & conquered the Albi, the Fidenates, & Ardeates—the Vienians, the Falisci, & the Volsci—till all Italy was obliged to submit to their arms—But not content with these conquests, they continued to extend their arms ravages to the innocent Britains in the west, & the parthians in the east—sticking at no means however treacherous, & contrary to what is commonly called justice, when they became necessary to obtain their object—

    I was going to notice their sacrilegious attack upon the Temple of the most high, & driving those children of the true worship among Gentile nations8—But you will tell me, this was by way of punishment upon a people more abandondly wicked than themselves, and therefore becomes a just judgment from Heaven whose instruments they were—If this be true, I have to lament that there ever was a people more vile than the Romans—And take my leave of them for the present, to make an observation or two upon England, that nation held up by Polititians as a pattern for wisdom Justice & public faith—

    Most people seem to consider the observance of public faith, in England, as that Righteousness which hath exalted her above other nations, in the enjoyments & security of the essential Rights of men—But is it not a fact, that if she works Righteousness in keeping faith with her public creditors, she first works iniquity to enable her to discharge her promises? And in this does she not do evil that good may rise out of it? Has her public administration for half a century been any thing but a continued series of the most abominable outrages upon the sacred Laws of Humanity? Let the Inhabitants of the east be called upon the stand as witnesses9—View her Laws relative to slavery in the West Indias—And Laws are strictly the actions of Nations—with this difference only, from the actions of individuals, that they are never suspended, but infinitely repeated—Survey the subjects of that Kingdom bending under an extreme weight of Taxes, levied upon them to pay the interest of an immense debt, contracted in the prosecution of wars wars and measures in open violation of the Laws of God! And let it be noted the public creditors of Great Britain do not exceed seventeen or eighteen thousand—can it then be public justice to commit the foregoing oppressions, outrages & murders to keep their engagements with those creditors? Can the latter act attone for the former? surely no—then their public faith, as tis called, deserves not the name of Righteousness—

    Tis almost eleven oClock & I must attend in the [Federal] Hall—after informing you it has been resolved in a Committee of the House, “That the debts of respective states ought, with the consent of the creditors, to be assumed & provided for by the United States; and that effectual provision be, at the same time, made for liquidating & crediting to the States the whole of their respective expenditures during the war, as the same have been, or may be stated for that purpose, & that in such Liquidation the best evidence shall be recieved that the nature of the case will permit”—

    Also—“Resolved that it is adviseable to endeavour to effect a new modification of the domestic debt including that of the particular States, with the voluntary consent of the creditors, by a Loan upon terms mutually beneficial to them & to the United States”—

    I look upon the assumption of the State debts as a matter of great consequence to the Union, as well as the only effectual mode of making them valuable to those who hold them—Upon this plan I am of It seems to be the opinion that the Continent will be able to pay immediately four per cent.

    I must now crave pardon for taking so much of your time, & subscribe myself, with unfeigned respects to Mrs. [Sarah Sayward] Barrell & the family, your friend & humble Servant

    * * *

    ALS, Barrell Correspondence