essays

Sep 1, 1982

Rival Notions of Republicanism

Ames’ classical republicanism differed from the Jeffersonian approval of multiple factions, an optimistic view of human nature, and democratic populism.

John W. Malsberger
Dept. of History, Muhlenberg College

“The Political Thought of Fisher Ames.” Journal of the Early Republic 2 (Spring 1982): 1–20.

Fisher Ames (1758–1808), a Federalist representative from Dedham, Massachusetts in the first four Congresses, is mistakenly viewed as a paranoid conservative zealot. Ames’ vitriolic anti-populism was rather an expression of “his political ideology which more closely resembled seventeenth century classical republicanism than the definition of republicanism which emerged in America following the Revolution.”

On several critical issues, including his pessimistic view of mankind’s depraved nature, the chaotic condition of the pre-civil state of nature, and his insistence on a strong, centralized, and paternalistic government, Ames’ political thinking differed from his chief enemies, the Jeffersonian Republicans. Growing increasingly pessimistic with the successes of Jefferson’s version of populist republicanism, Ames feared for the survival of constitutional government. “In essence, then, Fisher Ames was a classical republican theorist attempting to deal with a political system which was no longer based on those ideals.”

The post-Revolutionary period witnessed the subtle transformation of Ames’ classical republican ideal of a “mixed constitution” made up of a balance of social groups or estates (monarchical, oligarchic, and popular) into a predominantly democratic separation of governmental powers. This shocked such classical republicans as Ames who feared the undisciplined people as a mobocracy and who insisted on the rule of “virtue” through a “natural aristocracy” and powerful, paternalistic government.

Believing in the idea that liberty could be secured only by such a vigilant central government, Ames was baffled by the contrary Jeffersonian republican ideology which believed that individual liberty grew as government declined. Ames’ classical republicanism also differed from the Jeffersonian approval of multiple factions, an optimistic view of human nature, and democratic populism. Republicanism as Ames understood it in the classical sense did indeed decline during the early national years under the pressure of a more modern and pluralistic republicanism espoused by Jefferson and Madison.