Monday, August 22, 2011
"FEDERAL CATECHISM" (1798) - Noah Webster
By Noah Webster from "The American Spelling Book" (Boston, 1798), pp. 154-55.
A Federal Catechism (Containing a Short EXPLANATION of the CONSTITUTION of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, and the PRINCIPLES of GOVERNMENT) for the Use of Schools
Q. What is a constitution of government?
A. A constitution of government, or a political constitution, consists in certain standing rules or ordinances, agreed upon by a nation or state, determining the manner in which the supreme power shall be exercised over that nation or state, or rather how the legislative body shall be formed.
Q. How many kinds of constitutions are there; or in how many ways may the sovereign power be exercised over a people?
A. Constitutions are commonly divided into three kinds; monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.
Q. Explain the sorts of government.
A. When the sovereign power is exercised by one person, the constitution is a monarchy. When a few rich men, or nobles, have the whole supreme power in their hands, the constitution is an aristocracy. When the supreme power is exercised by all the citizens, in a general meeting or assembly, the constitution is a democracy.
Q. What are the faults of despotic governments?
A. In a despotic government, a whole nation is at the disposal of one person. If this person, the prince, is of a cruel or tyrannical disposition, he may abuse his subjects, take away their lives, their property, or their liberty.
Q. What objections are there to aristocracy?
A. In an aristocracy, where a few rich men govern, the poor may be oppressed, the nobles may make laws to suit themselves and ruin the common people. Besides, the nobles, having equal power one with another, may quarrel and throw the state into confusion; in this case there is no person of superior power to settle the dispute.
Q. What are the defects of democracy?
A. In democracy, where the people all meet for the purpose of making laws, there are commonly tumults and disorders. A small city may sometimes be governed in this manner; but if the citizens are numerous, their assemblies make a crowd or mob, where debates cannot be carried on with coolness and candor, nor can arguments be heard: Therefore a pure democracy is generally a very bad government. It is often the most tyrannical government on earth; for a multitude is often rash, and will not hear reason.
Q. Is there another and better form of government than any of these?
A. There is. A representative republic, in which the people freely choose deputies to make laws for them, is much the best form of government hitherto invented.
Q. What are the peculiar advantages of representative governments?
A. When deputies or representatives are chosen to make laws, they will commonly consult the interest of the people who choose them, and if they do not, the people can choose others in their room. Besides, the deputies coming from all parts of a state, bring together all the knowledge and information necessary to show the true interest of the whole state; at the same time, being but few in number, they can hear arguments and debate peaceably on a subject. But the great security of such a government is, that the men who make laws, are to be governed by them; so that they are not apt to do wrong willfully. When men make laws for themselves, as well as for their neighbors, they are led by their own interest to make good laws.
Q. Which of the forms or kinds of government is adopted by the American States?
A. The states are all governed by constitutions that fall under the name of representative republics. The people choose deputies to act for them in making laws; and in general, the deputies, when assembled, have as full power to make and repeal laws, as the whole body of freemen would have, if they were collected for the same purpose.
Noah Webster, 1798