Thursday 21 June 2018
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1790 - Letter of General Rufus Fisher Ames, Congressman from Massachusetts - Why the West Would Not Secede -

IN conversation with you at New York in July last (if I recollect right), you made this a question: "Can we retain the western country within the government of the United States? And if we can, of what use will it be to them?"


That they may be retained appears to me evident from the following consideration, viz., that it will always be their interest that they should remain connected.... It is true that flour, hemp, tobacco, iron, potash and such bulky articles will go down the Mississippi to New Orleans for market, and there be sold, or shipped to the Atlantic States, Europe and West Indies; and it is also admitted that the countries west of the mountains and below or to the southward of the junction of the Ohio with the Mississippi may import goods from New Orleans; and then it is absolutely necessary that the people of the western country, in some way or other, at a proper period, should be possessed of the free navigation of the Mississippi River. It does not, however, follow from hence that it will be for their interest to lose their connection with the Atlantic States; but the contrary will appear if we consider that all the beef, pork, and mutton (from a very great part of the western country) will come to the seaports of Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania to market. Also, most of the furs and skins, etc., obtained by the Indian trade can be sent to those places and New York much more to the advantage of the West country people than they can be sent to New Orleans and Quebec. Besides, all the goods for carrying on the Indian trade, as well as supplying the inhabitants even to the Kentucky and Wabash countries, are at present imported into that country from Philadelphia, Baltimore, Alexandria, etc., much cheaper than they can be obtained from New Orleans or Quebec.

There is also not the least doubt but when the navigation of the Potomac is completed, with the carrying-place to the Monongahela, according to the plan of the undertakers, the transport of goods into the western country will be lowered fifty per cent; and should other communication be opened, which no doubt will be, between the Susquehanna and Alleghany rivers, James river and the Great Kanawha, the expense of transportation will be reduced still lower. In short, from the seaports of the United States to Niagara, Detroit, and even of the Lake of the Woods, goods can be supplied much cheaper than from any other quarter.

From this statement of facts, which I presume can not be disproved, I conceive it fully appears to be the interest of the people of the Western country to remain a part of the United States. If it be said that they may be separated and yet retain all the advantages of trade here mentioned, I answer that it is possible, but by no means probable; for (admitting the separation was not hostile) it is by no means reasonable to suppose that the legislature of the United States would pay the same attention to the subjects of a foreign power as to their own. Nor is it to be presumed that those people will ever forget that while they remain a part of the Union, they will have their voice in the councils of the nation, and that no law can pass but what must affect their brethren on this side of the mountains, as well as themselves. To be deprived of a commerce with the United States would be greatly to the injury, if not the ruin, of that country; and to voluntarily deny themselves a voice in the regulation of that commerce, and trust themselves (without any check or control) in the hand of those whose interest would be distinct from their own, is a folly I trust they never will be guilty of.

But it may be said there are advantages to be gained which will overbalance all this loss. Pray let us attend a little to this matter. Will they put themselves under the viceroy of Canada? What will be their gain here? A legislative council of the King's own appointment gives law to the province, except that the whole is under the control of a military governor. A few, by permission from Lord Dorchester, or somebody else, may carry goods into the Indian country, but returns must be made to Quebec. Surely, this government can never suit their genius, nor be for their interest. Nor is the advantage to be derived from the Spanish government much better. It is true that New Orleans will be a great mart for their produce, but it is very doubtful if they were Spanish subjects whether they would enjoy greater privileges than they might without. The inhabitants would certainly have no voice in the matter, but must be subject to the will of a despot. They could expect no indulgence but what should comport with the interest of the governor and Spanish Court; and this they may reasonably expect, even should they remain part of the United States, so that if the object be to unite them with Great Britain or Spain, I see nothing that is in the least degree worth their attention.

Perhaps the idea is that they should set up for a separate independent government. This maggot, I know, is in the heads of some people; therefore we will consider it a little and see if we can find it to be for their interest. For argument's sake, we will suppose the United States to consent to all this, we will suppose, moreover, that they grant a free trade to the subjects of this new government, and then pray tell me what they will be the better for it? Nay, will they not be in a much worse situation? Will they not incur a great expense to support their new government beyond what their proportion to the old can possibly be? And can it then be for their interest to be separated?

It may be said that they want a free trade to New Orleans, and thence to the sea; that while they remain a part of the United States, this is not likely to be obtained; that the interest of the old States and theirs in this respect is inconsistent with each other; that the object is, first to separate themselves from the Union, and then to clear the river of the Spaniards. This, I have heard, is the language of some people in Kentucky; but is it rational? Will the measure be for their interest, and, if not for their interest, are we to suppose the measure will be pursued? Have these people considered that the United States are deeply interested in opposing such separation? Have they considered that driving the Spaniards out of the river will not give them a free trade to the sea? Do they know that the harbors of Pensacola and Havana are so situated that, a few cruisers from them sent into the Bay, not one vessel in a thousand going from or returning to the Mississippi would escape falling into their hands? No, Sir; so far would such a measure be from giving them a free trade to the sea, that it would put an end to their present market, and all reasonable prospects of a compensation for the loss. Nor do I conceive that the interests of the Atlantic States and the Western country, as it respects the navigation of the Mississippi, by any means clash. For it is for the interest of the United States that flour, tobacco, potash, iron and lumber of all kinds, with ships ready built, should be sent to Europe and the West Indies by way of remittance for goods obtained from those countries. If hemp, flax, iron and many other raw materials be of any use to be brought into the Atlantic States for the purpose of manufacturing, then it is the interest of those States that the navigation of the Mississippi should be free.

. . . I do not deny but what such circumstances may exist as shall not only make it the wish of some, but of all, the inhabitants of that country to be separated from the old States, but what I contend for is, that these circumstances do not, nor even can (if I may be allowed the expression) exist naturally. I allow that, should Congress give up her claim to the navigation of the Mississippi or cede it to the Spaniards, I believe the people in the Western quarter would separate themselves from the United States very soon. Such a measure, I have no doubt, would excite so much rage and dissatisfaction that the people would sooner put themselves under the despotic government of Spain than remain the indented servants of Congress; or should Congress by any means fail to give the inhabitants of that country such protection as their present infant state requires, connected with the interest and dignity of the United States; in that case such events may take place as will oblige the inhabitants of that country to put themselves under the protection of Great Britain or Spain.... But . . . we are not to suppose that Congress will do wrong when it is their interest to do right. . .

. . . But there is another point of light in which we ought to consider this matter, for if we would know the real advantage that country must be to this, remaining united, we ought to consider what probable mischief will ensue by a division. Among these may be reckoned the loss of more than seventy-five million dollars in the sale of lands, an annual revenue of more than one hundred and sixty thousand dollars on European and West India goods, with all the advantages that can possibly arise from the peltry trade. And, what is a matter of serious consideration, it is more than probable (in case of a separation from the United States) that country would be divided between Great Britain and Spain, for I can see no reason to suppose they will maintain a separate existence. Then I suppose the western boundary of the United States must be the Alleghany Mountains. A miserable frontier this (and yet the best to be found if we give up the Western country) that will require more expense to guard than the protection of all the Western territory. The natural boundaries of the great lakes and the Mississippi River added to the inhabitants of the western quarter will give such strength and security to the old States, if properly attended to, as they must most sensibly feel the want of in case of a separation.