To David Sewall

    New York City        20 July 1790

    Dear Sir,

    Your conjectures of the motives that governed the Pennsylvanians in advocating the Patomack Bill are certainly just1—and I have no doubt but future events will sanction them as predictions much better founded than many of Mohammeds supposed prophesies—

    The importance, and consequences of a fixed seat of Government for the United States was first brought before Congress in the year 1788—I was then in Congress—And from that time to this have frequently revolved the subject in my mind—and have finally come to an opinion, that if the thirteen States, and such other as may be erected within the Limits setled by Treaty of eighty three, are to be continued under united under one Government and one nation, according to the principles of the present Constitution—the Seat of Government ought to be upon the Potomac, or some where between that River & the Susquehanna—I dont know that any place within these bounds is now the centre of population—but for two or three hundred years to come I beleive it will be there more than three fifths of the time.2 Natural population has always been the most rapid in the northern and eastern States—whether this will always be the case I am not fully convinced; but if it is owing to accidental causes acting, in the southern States, to retard the natural course of the increase of the human species, & which may hereafter be removed3—the numbers will then increase more rapidly in the southern and western, than in the northern & eastern States—because nine tenths of emigrants, which are continually poring into America the United [States], will resort to Pennsylvania and south thereof. These considerations, however point out to me the impropriety of fixing, at this time, a permanent seat of Government—but selfish motives, and what may be called temporary causes, have forced Congress into the measure—It is natural to ask, will Congress now take it upon them to say where it will be most convenient for the Legislature of the United States to reside fifty years hence—or, one, two, or three centuries to come? It is impossible for the greatest human sagacity to do this—too many events, altogether contingent to the Understanding of man, are necessary to be taken into the calculation, in order to settle this point—All this will be granted—But as a majority are for fixing on the seat of Government, it appears to me it must be done under a supposition of one of two alternatives taking place—viz—that the present thirteen States, and such others as may hereafter be created within the Limits setled [by] the Treaty of eighty three, are to continue under one general Goverment for ever—or that, at some definite period of time, the Territory within the foregoing Limits, is to be divided into separate & distinct Governments—each having a Legislature & seat of Government in and over itself—

    If the seat of Government be established on the first of these alternatives, we must anticipate three or four hundred years, at least—or the utmost period of time, the ordinary events whereof can be discovered to have any possible connection with the present state of things—And tho the great chain of future events is so concealed from our inspection, that the most certain principles we can lay down to regulate our present conduct by, so far as it is to effect those distant senes, can only be compared to the glimmering rays of a Glow-worm in the blackest night; yet to me it seems more wise and prudent to act upon this, than the other alternative—

    Who can enumerate the inconveniencies & miseries that would probably arise from debating, publicly, the seat of Government on a supposition of a division of the American Empire?

    These, and like reflections have reconciled me to the Patomack Bill—tho I am not clear but the Susquehanna might have been more convenient. But the evils of the Law are not, and cannot be yet felt—after the seed is put into the Ground a considerable time will elaps before the sprout appears. Some Laws are to the body-politic what poison is to the natural man—their effects are not felt till they are become irremidible. What will be the state of the American mind, american prejudices & passions, eight or ten years hence, I will not take upon me to say—at this moment, however, they revolt against the Law for going to the Patomac; and nothing but the evils, it is supposed to conceal in its Trojan womb, being so distant as not to be felt, prevents its being the occasion of immediate confusion—Some of these evils were pointed out by members, in the minority, when the Bill was before the House—and apparently laughed at by the majority—I say apparently—because I am persuaded many apprehended them, but hoped for the best—relying on a ten years contemplation of the Law to reconcile its opposers to its opperation fitness—and the minds, prejudices & passions of the people to acquiess in its operation—others laughed—because they had no doubt but the Law will be repealed before the time it is to take effect as to the permanent residence—And before that time Congress would be seated in Philadelphia—where they presumed it would remain

    Laws that are good, and which would operate beneficialy to the people they are to govern, were it not for some unreasonable prejudice the people have conceived against their operation, must be ranked among the acts of imprudent Legislators unless such prejudices are removed—Upon this principle, and in conformity to some unreasonable prejudices the Athenians had contracted, repugnant to a higher degree of happiness than what they then enjoyed, Solon declared his Constitution was a less perfect one than he would have offered them had they been free of these prejudices, which rendered them incapable of submiting to a better Government4—He had but a choice of evils—an imperfect Government with a continuation of peace & the degree of happiness the Athenians then enjoyed—or a more perfect System with the probable risque of confusion and misery—And Ages have done justice to his wisdom and prudence in adopting the former—

    When there exists an unreasonable prejudice in the minds of a people against a Law, the most effectual method of introducing it, and preserving peace & harmony, is to publish it some time before it is to take effect—This affords time to examine the Law and its natural consequences—and if a spirit of Liberality and candor, with free enquiry, prevails generally among the people, they will perceive that all their apprehended evils must flow from their unreasonable prejudices and not from the Law itself—By contemplating the Law, with its natural consequences, the public mind will be brought willingly to embrace it—Upon the same principles a Law, originating in party spirit, and which has not the general good for its object, (could the time of its operation be put off to some distant period, & time given for the special causes that gave rise to it, to subside) might be prevented from ever taking effect at all.

    In proof of this I should even dare to refer you to Laws now existing in Massachusetts—which, had the time of their operation been fixed to the present moment, would have been repealed the last Session of the General Court, if not before—There are moments of political phrensy when the people cannot determine a good Law from a bad one—there are also moments of madness when the leaders of the people will force down Laws of the latter character, from Revenge, or some other abominable passion—But I entertain too high an opinion of the general good sense and enlarged views of Americans to apprehend these periods will ever be of long duration—The circumstances of America are vastly more favourable to a rational Legislation than any other Country under Heaven—

    The Patomack-Law is a subject of much speculation—Will it be repealed before eighteen hundred? Then the president of the United States must be a Citizen of Pensylvania, or some eastern State—If it is not repealed, will Congress, at the time appointed, remove the Government and all its appurtenant-Offices to the Patomack? If Pennsylvania & the eastern States please they will continue in Philadelphia—And the moment Congress gets seated in that City it will be their pleasure to remain there—What then will the southern States say—they will plead the present Law—And the minority, with those in the majority who advocated the Law only for the sake of removing to Philadelphia, will laugh at the Southern States for being duped by the Pennsylvanians—

    But if the Law is founded on rational grounds, and the public good actually requires the seat of Government at, or near the Patomack, the arguments & declamations against it are all founded on prejudice, which ten years reflection will wipe away; & at the time appointed the seat of empire will be removed thither, and all parties cheerfully acquiess—But suppose this should not be the case—the Law is not repealed—and the seven eastern States are not in a humour to comply with it, will not the Southern States take dudgen, and declare, as the eastern part of the Union have openly violated one Law, they have a right to disregard all the others & the constitution itself, & set up a Republic themselves? This opens the door of speculation too wide to be shut by any thing but random conjectures—conjectures more wild than Chines[e] fables—or heathen mythology.

    When I took my pen & began this Letter my designe was, in a few lines, to acknowledge the receipt of yours of the 12th. inst. But instead of that have wrote a dissertation—And having cursorily run it over I have strong doubts whether it is lawfull in bono conscientiæ,5 for me to send it; as it will impliedly lay you under an obligation to read it—But as it is probable you will turn to the end to see who signed it, you may possibly see this Line—wherein I Give you full Liberty to put the whole into the fire before you read another word—But nevertheless

    beleive me to be with great esteem & friendship your friend & humble servant

    [. . . .]

    * * *

    FC, TFP. The omitted postscript relates to Sewall’s request for an order to be drawn (probably for his salary as federal judge) on the collector for York; see DHFFC 20:2201.