The Letters of Fabius, in 1788, on the
Federal Constitution; and in 1797 on the Present Situation of Public
From the office of the Delaware Gazette, Wilmington, by W. C.
John Dickinson wrote two series of letters under the
pseudonym of "Fabius." The first set, published in 1788, attempted
to rally support for the ratification of the new constitution. The second
set, in April 1797, commented with alarm on the deteriorating relations
with France. The collected letters were reprinted in Delaware in a single
publication from the press of W. C. Smyth in Wilmington in late 1797.
This edition, complete with additions and amendments Dickinson had made
in the intervening years, including footnotes drawn from publications
which had later appeared, like Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man,
is the one provided here.
John Dickinson was one of the five Delaware delegates to the Constitutional
Convention in Philadelphia in May, 1787. His character, temperament,
and experience made their mark despite his ill health throughout the
gathering. There, he had to resolve his own ideas about the central
issue dominating the meetings - the role of central government in unifying
the "nation" in connection with the rights of the individual
"states." He had, in his long career, spoken both for freedom
from arbitrary central power and for unity. His reputation had been
made with warnings he penned as "the Farmer," and the lack
of progress in union had been a reason he had not been ready to sign
the Declaration of Independence. Generally seen on the side of the "nationalists,"
he worked also as a loyal representative of a small state to provide
balance against central power, especially in the areas of the selection
and representation of the Senate and the election of the President.
He also fought so that tried and true elements of the English Constitution
were not discarded. Delaware quickly ratified the completed document
on December, 1787, becoming the first state to do so. Progress was not
as speedy in other states, however, and questions began to generate
opposition to ratification. In response, Dickinson wrote a series of
nine letters that began to be published in the Delaware Gazette
in the early spring of 1788. They were also published in pamphlet form
Dickinson's choice for pseudonym marked both his personal philosophy
and the events that prompted his writing. Quintus Fabius Maximums was
the First Consul of Rome made famous to posterity in Oligarch's Lives.
Fabius was renowned for his eventual defeat of Hannibal through tactics
of harassing his enemy with small and specific attacks but never joining
pitched or decisive battle. Dickinson's own temperament and long influence
on American affairs, of course, had been one of moderation, conservatism,
and prudence. Dickinson's nine letters seemed to follow that pattern;
they deal in a calm and non-confrontational manner with specific questions
that were troubling those who were finding it difficult to support the
Letter One holds that patriotic Americans can disagree, and it is to
this audience that the letters are addressed. Indeed, the future of
the nation needed to be discussed carefully so that the mistakes of
previous civilizations could be avoided. This is a complicated matter
in which many interests need to be addressed for the good of all.
Letter Two addresses the specific complaint that a strong federal government
would have the opportunity to subvert the independence and interests
of states and individuals. Fabius holds that the methods of election
the Convention decided upon, together with their frequency, will bring
the power of the people to bear as an antidote to any dangerous gathering
of power to the center.
Letter Three is a broad discussion of society and the contract that
the individual makes to contribute his own rights to a "common
stock" of rights that will secure society for the greater good.
This trust is "sacred" and based upon the design of "the
Creator," not simply a practical arrangement. The states, in giving
up some of their rights to the federation, should undertake this contract
in the same way as individuals.
Letter Four begins with a discussion of how government will put to work
these "contributed rights." Again morality is involved since
to betray the trust of those contributions would be "an offence
against heaven." To safeguard against this, Fabius says the Convention
has cemented into place the separation of powers in the government.
Additionally, he cites the provision for the amendment of the Constitution
should any of its aspects prove defective. Finally, he holds that it
is ordained duty of the people to protect the sanctity of the contract.
Letter Five is an historical discussion of precedent in the success
and failure of governments. He suggests that "passions" and
the self-interested "whims" of the represented have done more
to weaken governments and endanger their people than the application
of central power. Using a number of historical examples to illustrate
his point, the lesson is that a strong confederation is vital to happiness
Letter Six uses a single example to undercut those who say that subservience
to a central legislature will bring tyranny. Much of the letter is a
reproduction of the speech Lord Belhaven gave during the debate concerning
the Act of Union of 1701 which sought to place the Scottish Parliament
under the power of the House of Commons. Belhaven's speech laid down
many of the same concerns being expressed on the issue of the new Constitution,
but, Fabius says, these fears have not been realized. On the contrary,
Scotland has enjoyed a period of unprecedented freedom and a flourishing
of its wealth and prowess.
Letter Seven expands upon the dangers first mentioned in Letter Five.
The peaceful Union is indeed in danger if it falls foul to either of
two grievous faults - imitation of "foreign fashions" and
"thirst for empire." Fabius writes that "the abuse of
prosperity is rebellion against Heaven" and is "fatal to republican
forms of government."
Letter Eight addresses the specific doubts of some who fear that a single
republic cannot rule such a large area as the United States is and may
become in the future. Fabius replies that the machinery of democracy
that the new Constitution erects enables millions to be heard directly
through representatives to the central government. Furthermore, the
concept of state government under the document will provide many of
the services locally with which a federal government would not therefore
have to trouble itself. And, again, the provision for amendment will
allow the adjustment to changed circumstances.
Letter Nine ends the series with a discussion of the advantages and
disadvantages of the British Constitution. Since it had the only existing
representative national assembly to which the new Congress could be
compared, some had considered the new body to be weaker, especially
those who feared sharing power with a strong executive. Fabius counters
that the much more representative democracy outlined in the new document
will provide the crucial advantage in advancing the American Constitution
beyond the British. He ends the letters by saying that monarchies and
other less representative regimes will not take kindly to the success
of the new United States; one more reason for strong and loyal unity.
Few can say what influence these letters had upon the final ratification
of the United States Constitution. Certainly, the tone of the arguments
was moderate and discursive rather than confrontational. They also addressed
particular concerns with respect and with straightforward responses
more dependent upon history and Christian faith than the earlier philosophical
debates of, for example, "the Farmer." They retain, however,
John Dickinson's life long traits of conservatism and prudence that
did so much to shape the early days of the United States.
For almost ten years John Dickinson had occupied himself with affairs
closer to home, including the revision of the Delaware constitution
in 1791. In the early 1790s, however, the new nation was beginning to
become involved in international affairs. Dickinson, having predicted
that the United States would need a strong government to protect itself
from encroachments from abroad, became very interested in the diplomacy
surrounding Anglo-American and Anglo-French relations, especially in
light of the French Revolution of 1789 and its subsequent reshaping
of European interests. He opposed the renegotiated treaty with Britain
in 1795, in part because he felt that it would place the United States
on the side of the British in its emerging contest with France. American
attitudes towards France had been cooling as the more gruesome details
of the Revolution reached across the Atlantic. Dickinson refused to
abandon the debt owed to France in spite of recent events. In March,
1797, Franco-American relations reached a new low with the onset of
what was called the "XYZ Affair," in which alleged French
requests for bribes were angrily rejected, and Congress intervened.
"Fabius" again picked up his pen, this time in defense of
France. A second series of letters "Containing Remarks on the Present
Situation of Public Affairs" began to be published in the Philadelphia
newspaper New World commencing on April 10, 1797. This set of letters
numbers fifteen in all.
Letter One seeks to excuse the French people themselves from the horrors
of the Terror. The French had little choice but to submit to such arbitrary
government when under attack from half of Europe. He praises the French
for themselves removing the Terror and reforming themselves into a more
Letter Two outlines the current strength and potential strength of France.
Fabius hints that France will have the power to defeat all its enemies
in Europe and will be much more helpful as a friend than adversary.
Letter Three holds that France is at least somewhat justified in demanding
territorial concessions after its victories in Germany. Millions have
died in France, and a border on the Rhine is both an understandable
demand and a safeguard for the new republic.
Letter Four cautions France from ever following the lamentable example
of territorial ambitions seen in older nations of Europe. France has
a responsibility as a republic to follow the laws of reason and the
Letter Five opposes the opinion that France is upsetting the "balance
of power" in Europe. Fabius, in fact, calls the whole concept simply
the tool of the hereditary powers. Now that France, as a republic, has
come into power, new arrangements will need to be developed.
Letter Six downplays the "fables" of those who say that post-war
France is filled with dissidents who will bring confusion to an already
impoverished republic. Comparing that situation with the bleak propaganda
the United States faced during its own struggle, the letter expresses
confidence that the loyalty of the people to the concept of liberty
Letter Seven diverts into an historical account of the naval wars between
Carthage and Rome, highlighting the perseverance of Rome in the face
of many losses that brought eventual victory. No contemporary context
is mentioned in the letter, but the maritime accounts suggest the current
Anglo-French warfare in the Mediterranean.
Letter Eight sees Fabius defend himself from the charge that he is anti-British
and pro-French. He claims that he desires the elevation of all nations.
Britain he praises fulsomely. Charles James Fox, leader of the Whigs
in Parliament, is highly lauded, as is the English Constitution and
its adherence to the rule of law. But, if Britain stands against the
opportunity of nations to develop, as in the case of France, then he
is against Britain.
Letter Nine makes explicit the analogy suggested in Letter Seven. Fabius
lays out the campaigns and conquests of the ongoing war and comes to
the conclusion that the power of Britain at sea will not deter a French
invasion forever. He is confident that such an invasion can and will
Letter Ten returns to Carthage and Rome and quotes the historian Scipio
explaining the eventual Roman victory as driven by "a certain inflexibility
peculiar to themselves." Fabius sees the same kind of determination
in French efforts to secure victory, and liberty, despite any setback
Letter Eleven brings Fabius' strongest argument in favor of American
friendship with France. He quotes at length from the congressional record
of 1778, when the Franco-American alliance was formed against Britain,
and in 1783, when representatives thanked France for the aid without
which independence might not have been won. Moreover, he claims that
when the pact was originally proposed, it was to "continue for
ever" and could therefore still be in effect.
Letter Twelve continues discussion of the American debt owed to France.
It laments the ironic end of Louis XVI, whose decision to support the
United States may have hastened the problems which brought the Revolution
Letter Thirteen contains a long philosophical discussion concerning
gratitude and friendship. Using moral and Christian argument, Fabius
holds forth against those who believe that these emotions fall below
the over-riding concept of self-interest.
Letter Fourteen makes common cause with France based upon a shared republicanism.
After the French Revolution joined the American, all of Europe became
anti-republican. If matters continue in the direction they are going
now, then international relations will be reduced to a trial by combat
between despotism and republicanism, as were the ancient struggles between
Sparta and Athens. The common interests of the United States and France
Letter Fifteen concludes the series with an assessment of current British
power and leadership. Fabius begins with another history lesson, this
time concerning the abortive Anglo-Spanish "War of Jenkins' Ear"
which cost much blood and treasure and yielded almost no result or benefit.
He praises Sir Robert Walpole for his implacable resistance to those
in Britain who had demanded the war and wishes that British leadership
was now as prudent and pure. British interests are suffering all over
the world at the hands of the French, and they soon will lay open to
invasion and defeat. Such a fall can be ascribed to divine retribution,
of the type that had already punished Spain with decline. He concludes
by saying again that the true character of the United States should
be in support of the nation that helped uphold liberty in both the American
Revolution and its own.
The events of the French Revolution and the conflicts that followed
split public opinion severely in the United States. Many conservatives
followed Edmund Burke in holding that the dangerous and radical French
developments were upsetting the natural order of society. John Dickinson
sided with the new republic and turned his substantial learning and
sophistry to defending France and predicting that its "just war"
would end with victory and progress for the safeguarding of liberty.
His arguments call perhaps more on the Creator than they had previously
- God protects democracy and republics and punishes despots - though
they still invoke the use of history and morality. Events in France
would turn against him, however, and he would ultimately be forced to
back Britain in its war against what was soon to become Napoleonic and