To William Widgery

    Philadelphia        31 January 1792

    My dear Sir—

    It now and then happens that a Letter lays by me unanswered much longer than is my usual practice—This is the case of your favor of the 5th Decemr. And as I have no very interesting information to communicate, I shall speculate a little on the principles of Representation in general, with a few observations on those parts of the Roman history you have brought up to view—

    People frequently agree in words but differ in their ideas; and sometimes their Ideas are the same but being expressed in different words they yet appear to entertain various sentiments. Every body with whom I have conversed on the subject of a representative Government agrees in saying the Representation of the people must be large if we wish to secure their rights and priviledges; but when they enter upon an explanation of what they understand by a large representation, the antipodes are scarcely at a greater distance from each other, than these politicians are in their sentiments relative to the same subject. Nature has not, that we know of, fixed any ratio between the representatives and represented, nor have all people agreed upon any: Hence every man must fix upon one for himself; and experience only can determin which is best. I look upon it however, a very fortunate circumstance to mankind that as this is a question which does not admit of being reduced to very narrow bounds, and people are left to fix on any point within wide extremes, it does not appear to be a question pregnant with great evils. One extreme is fixed by the Constitution—that is the representatives in the general Government cannot exceed one to thirty thousand souls. This is the extreme towards which I always apprehended there would be the most danger of approaching in approaching to[o] near—I see no danger in ascending towards the other point. Hence I feel very easy on account of the representation. If I have any object of fear on this question it is, however, that the representation will become unnecessarily large, rather than too small.

    That the people ought not to be decieved is an important principle in a representative Government; And perhaps, one of those few general truths that does not admit of any exceptions—But it does not follow from hence the admission of this principle, that it is the duty of a Representative to give his vote, on questions relative to the whole Community, according to what he apprehends to be the wishes of a majority, or even a uninimity of the particular Town, County District or State by which he may be immediately elected. This would reduce him to the odious character of a party-man, rather than that of an upright, impartial Legislator. A representative must act from a conviction of his own Judgment. And one reason for this is, that ’tis to be presumed his situation and circumstances afford him a better opportunity of understanding the subject as to its probable effects on the community at large than any or all those persons who are immediately his electors. Were Legislators appointed for some particular, definite object, as special attornies are, I should readily agree to your sentiments on this subject. In this case, to be sure, it is safer, as we sailors say, to break owners than orders; But in questions of Legislation there is a discreation to be exercised—a choice to be made amidst various combinations of events & circumstances that his immediate electors cannot be supposed to have so comprehensive a view of as he has himself. This implies no reflection on their understanding; for tho, in this respect, they may be vastly his superiors, yet from situation he has the advantage. The most uninformed sailer on board the ship, being at mast head, is more likely to descry a distant object, than the Captain on the quarter deck. Hence I have always looked upon what is generally called the right of instructing Representatives, to be no more than one mode, among many, of conveying information to Legislators. And I will leave it for you to give a name to the Representative, who, after hearing a general question examined in the Legislature and being convinced of its utility to the Community at large, should yet vote against it, merely because he apprehended that his particular Town or District, who perhaps, had not heard the reasons that his situation afforded him, might be opposed to the measure—But whatever name you may call this representative by, to me he appears no better than a mere party-man—a deciever of the people; And such as I should be unwilling to trust. In all matters, public and private, political and religious I would wish my representative to examine freely—judge candidly and act decidedly according to the conviction of his own mind—Such a man will never decieve—every body will know where to find him—

    In my last Letter I made an allusion to the Consuls of Rome, to shew you that, in one instance at least, the Liberty and safety of the people did not depend so much on the number, as other circumstances attending the persons to whom a people committed political power.1 It can make no material difference in the argument whether these persons are a Legislative or an executive Body—’Tis a fact, they did not abuse the confidence of the people; while the Decemviri, tho five times their number, were hardly warm in their seats before they attempted an usurpation. You suppose this usurpation was owing to the smallness of their number; and ask if it would not have been more difficult for that Court to have agreed in a combination against the people, if instead of ten, it had consisted of one hundred & fifty members? Now I do not recollect any thing in the history of this business that induces an opinion that the same or pretty similar events would not have taken place, if their number had been greater, provided the circumstances of the people, in other respects, had remained the same. Indeed the probability seems to favor the idea, that if this Court had been more numerous they would have fixed chains on the people, & effected a revolution. And the case of the Tribunes which you have called up tends to corroborate the opinion—

    They consisted, at first of five—And afterwards, under an idea of giving them more strength to oppose the hereditary branch of Government, they were increased to ten—and what was the Consequence? Livy tells us that this addition to their number destroyed their responsibility; and exposed them to cabals & dissentions, which was improved by the Senate to the Injury of the people2

    It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for us to determine, with any degree of accuracy, what were the particular causes to which we should ascribe the quantity of political & civil Liberty enjoyed by the romans, as well as to point out the reasons why that which they did possess was subject to so many interruptions and attacks, as history informs us it was. The Romans always appeared to me to be actuated by a strong sense of Liberty & freedom as to themselves, & with an equal desire of subjugating all other nations—And yet they did not know how to guarde their own Liberty—

    It does not appear to me that any definite principle can be drawn from the number of Representatives in the state Governments, whereby we can decide on the ratio to be established between the Representatives & represented in the Federal Government. There are States that have nearly the same number of inhabitants which differ in their ratio of Representation as one to seven—And in all the States as well those that have the smallest number of Representatives as those where their number is greater, there are people who, tho staunch Republicans, complain of the unwealdiness of the popular branch of their Legislature.

    What is likely to be done, this Session on the subject of seperating Maine from Massachusetts? By the Boston papers I percieve it is coming before you3

    It is well known that I have always favored the Independence of Maine—but I must guard you against decieving the people in this business. Many, who are advocates of the seperation, hold up an idea to the people that a seperate Government will be less expensive to them than the present—that their Taxes will be lighter &c &c—I am not of this opinion;4 nor do I wish the consent of the people might be obtained simply on these expectations; for if they should be mistaken they will have reason to censure those who misled them. I am of opinion however, that altho’ the Taxes are not directly lessened, the general interest will be advanced by a Seperation.

    I am, dear Sir, yours &c

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    FC, TFP