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Title pageAbout the Book

Dickinson, John.

The Letters of Fabius, in 1788, on the Federal Constitution; and in 1797 on the Present Situation of Public Affairs.

From the office of the Delaware Gazette, Wilmington, by W. C. Smyth, 1797.



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 that April.

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 new document.

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 and defense.

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 acceptable republic.

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 Creator.

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 will succeed.

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 take place.

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 or obstruction.

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 to France.

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 are clear.

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 Imperial France.

Researched and authored by John Osborne, Ph. D.


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