Letters of Centinel : Attacks on the U.S. Constitution 1787-1788

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A conspiracy of the wealthy and well-born hatched the Constitution as a way of tricking the people of the United States out of the liberties they had gained through the expenditure of blood and treasure during the Revolution.

The raving of a right-wing zany? The ranting of the last Maoist in Albania?

No. It was the opinion of Samuel Bryan of Philadelphia, a patriot who took an active part in the public debate over the Constitution of the United States by writing and publishing twenty-four letters under the pen name "Centinel."

Why are the letters important?

As historian Charles Beard pointed out, The Letters of Centinel demand comparison with The Federalist Papers. They turn many of our revered assumptions on their ears.

The letters contain one of the earliest and most outspoken calls for a Bill of Rights. We tend to forget the Constitution was first proposed without those first ten amendments that are so important to us now. It is unlikely the Bill of Rights would exist without the public alarm sounded by Centinel and others like him.

The letters publicly lament the Constitution's provision for the continuing importation of slaves, an element of the document most of us now would rather forget.

The letters make a case for what are now called "term limits," an early attempt to prevent the formation of a political class in the U.S.

The letters cause us to rethink some of our received opinions on the "Founding Fathers." Washington and Franklin are seen as well-meaning but misled tools of an aristocratic junto. Hamilton is described as a New York writer with a "deranged brain."

In short, The Letters of Centinel make what is now mere history breathe the impassioned air of a contemporary debate and should be widely read and discussed for the very good reason Centinel himself provides-- "...of all possible evils, that of despotism is the worst and the most to be dreaded."

Edited and introduced by Warren Hope, Ph.D., an author and a professor of graduate English and publishing at Rosemont College, this book will prove of interest to general readers, journalists, politicians, lawyers, and students and teachers of American history. (Includes notes, selected bibliography, and index.)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781892355010
  • Publisher: Fifth Season Press
  • Publication date: 2/15/1999
  • Edition description: ANNOTATED
  • Pages: 160

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"Man is the glory, jest, and riddle of the world." --POPE.

Incredible transition! the people who, seven years ago, deemed every earthly good, every other consideration, as worthless, when placed in competition with liberty, that heaven-born blessing, that zest of all others; the people, who, actuated by this noble ardor of patriotism, rose superior to every weakness of humanity, and shone with such dazzling lustre amidst the greatest difficulties; who, emulous of eclipsing each other in the glorious assertion of the dignity of human nature, courted every danger, and were ever ready, when necessary, to lay down their lives at the altar of liberty: I say the people, who exhibited so lately a spectacle that commanded the admiration, and drew the plaudits of the most distant nations, are now reversing the picture, are now lost to every noble principle, are about to sacrifice that inestimable jewel, liberty, to the genius of despotism. A golden phantom held out to them by the crafty and aspiring despots among themselves, is alluring them into the fangs of arbitrary power; and so great is their infatuation, that it seems as if nothing short of the reality of misery necessarily attendant on slavery, will rouse them from their false confidence, or convince them of the direful deception-but then alas! it will be too late, the chains of depotism will be fast riveted and all escape precluded.

For years past, the harpies of power have been industriously inculcating the idea that all our difficulties proceed from the impotency of Congress, and have at length succeeded to give to this sentiment almost universal currency and belief: the devastations, losses and burthens occasioned by the late war; the excessive importations of foreign merchandise and luxuries, which have drained the country of its specie and involved it in debt, are all overlooked, and the inadequacy of the powers of the present confederation is erroneously supposed to be the only cause of our difficulties; hence persons of every description are revelling in the anticipation of the halcyon days consequent on the establishment of the new constitution. What gross deception and fatal delusion! Although very considerable benefit might be derived from strengthening the hands of Congress, so as to enable them to regulate commerce, and counteract the adverse restrictions of other nations, which would meet with the concurrence of all persons; yet this benefit is accompanied in the new constitution with the scourge of despotic power, that will render the citizens of America tenants at will of every species of property, of every enjoyment, and make them the mere drudges of government. The gilded bait conceals corrosives that will eat up their whole substance.

Since the late able discussion, all are now sensible of great defects in the new constitution, are sensible that power is thereby granted without limitations or restriction; yet such is the impatience of the people to reap the golden harvest of regulated commerce, that they will not take time to secure their liberty and happiness, nor even to secure the benefit of the expected wealth; but are weakly trusting their every concern to the discretionary disposal of their future rulers: are content to risk every abuse of power, because they are promised a good administration, because moderation and self-denial are the characteristic features of men in possession of absolute sway. What egregious folly! What superlative ignorance of the nature of power does such conduct discover.

History exhibits this melancholy truth, that slavery has been the lot of nearly the whole of mankind in all ages, and that the very small portion who have enjoyed the blessings of liberty, have soon been reduced to the common level of slavery and misery. The cause of this general vassalage may be traced to a principle of human nature, which is more powerful and operative than all the others combined; it is that lust of dominion that is inherent in every mind, in a greater or less degree; this is so universal and ever active a passion as to influence all our ancestors; the different situation and qualifications of men only modifies and varies the complexion and operation of it.

For this darling pre-eminence and superiority, the merchant, already possessed of a competency, adventures his all in the pursuit of greater wealth; it is for this that men of all descriptions, after having amassed fortunes, still persevere in the toils of labor; in short, this is the great principle of exertion in the votaries of riches, learning, and fame.

In a savage state, pre-eminence is the result of bodily strength and intrepidity, which compels submission from all such as have the misfortune to be less able; therefore the great end of civil government is to protect the weak from the oppression of the powerful, to put every man upon the level of equal liberty; but here again the same lust of dominion by different means frustrates almost always this salutary intention. In a polished state of society, wealth, talents, address and intrigue are the qualities that attain superiority in the great sphere of government.

The most striking illustration of the prevalence of this lust of dominion is, that the most strenuous assertors of liberty in all ages, after successfully triumphing over tyranny, have themselves become tyrants, when the unsuspicious confidence of an admiring people has entrusted them with unchecked power. Rare are the instances of self denial, or consistency of conduct in the votaries of liberty when they have become possessed of the reins of authority; it has been the peculiar felicity of this country, that her great Deliverer did not prove a Cromwell nor a Monk.

Compare the declarations of the most zealous assertors of religious liberty, whilst under the lash of persecution, with their conduct when in power; you will find that even the benevolence and humility inculcated in the gospels, prove no restraint upon this love of domination. The mutual contentions of the several sects of religion in England some ages since, are sufficient evidence of this truth.

The annals of mankind demonstrate the precarious tenure of privileges and property dependent upon the will and pleasure of rulers; these illustrate the fatal danger of relying upon the moderation and self-denial of men exposed to the temptations that the Congress under the new constitution will be. The lust of power or dominion is of that nature as seeks to overcome every obstacle, and does not remit its exertions whilst any object of conquest remains; nothing short of the plenitude of dominion will satisfy this cursed demon. Therefore, liberty is only to be preserved by a due responsibility in the government, and by the constant attention of the people; whenever that responsibility has been lessened or this attention remitted, in the same degree has arbitrary sway prevailed.

The celebrated Montesquieu has warned mankind of the danger of an implicit reliance on rulers; he says that "a perpetual jealousy respecting liberty, is absolutely requisite in all free states," and again, "that slavery is ever preceded by sleep."

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