THE DANGER OF A DEMAGOGUE: "IN THE HOUR… OF OUR GREATEST POLITICAL DANGER, THE UNITED EXERTIONS OF THE TRUE PATRIOTS OF OUR COUNTRY SAVED US FROM IMPENDING ANARCHY": EIGHT-PAGE AUTOGRAPH ESSAY ON THE FEDERAL CONSTITUTION AND THE IMMINENT DANGER OF DEMAGOGUES WRITTEN BY NOAH WEBSTER, SIGNED "A FEDERALIST"—FROM THE SANG COLLECTION
WEBSTER, Noah. Autograph manuscript. No place, circa 1800. Quarto, four leaves of wove paper measuring 8 by 10 inches, handwritten in ink on rectos and versos for eight pages. $17,500.
Intriguing, lengthy autograph manuscript by Noah Webster—signed "A Federalist"—a complete draft of an open letter on opposition to the Constitution and the potential rise of demagogues in America, likely written for publication in his Federalist newspaper, The Commercial Advertiser. From the renowned Philip D. Sang collection of important Americana.
"In 1783 Webster moved back to Hartford… He rented rooms from the lawyer-poet John Trumbull (1750-1831) who introduced him to the circle of 'Hartford Wits,' poets and essayists who sang the glories of the new republic. This environment, together with Webster's ardent nationalism, made him a Federalist politically. He was in Philadelphia when the Federal Convention met in 1787… He obtained a copy of the Constitution on the day it was published, and a month later he published a pamphlet explaining and defending it. During the 1790s he published a Federalist newspaper in New York City, the Commercial Advertiser, and wrote a number of essays defending the foreign and domestic policies of George Washington's administration… In 1800 he openly sided with Adams, denouncing the Hamiltonians for undermining Adams within the Federalist party. This angered Alexander Hamilton, the Federalist leader of New York, who set out to purge Webster from the party. In 1801 Hamilton helped to finance the establishment of a rival paper, the New York Evening Post. Thus rebuffed, Webster sold the Commercial Advertiser and left politics. He devoted the rest of his life to his dictionary" (ANB).
The occasion of Webster's article is almost certainly the victory of Republican Vice President Thomas Jefferson over the incumbent President, Federalist John Adams in the Presidential election of 1800. "Let them have their day," Webster writes, "the Fathers and friends of our Constitution will not cease to love their country and respect its laws." The unnamed opposition has "wrested the reign of our Government… and hurried along with the natural impetuosity of newly acquired and undeserved power." This election—sometimes referred to as the "Revolution of 1800"—ushered in a generation of pro-French and pro-decentralization Republican Party rule and hastened the demise of the pro-British and pro-centralization Federalist Party. Though they had won in 1796, by 1800 the Federalists were less organized than the Republicans, and hamstrung by bitter infighting between their two principal leaders, President Adams and Alexander Hamilton.
Webster states that "the best laws framed in wisdom and administered with Justice could afford no protection against the cavils and calumny of discontented and designing men." Well aware of the example of Revolutionary France, where a democratic revolution inspired by the ideals of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité had devolved into the Reign of Terror, Webster warns against the rise of an American demagogue to rival Robespierre and Murat, whose "greatest enormities were constantly palliated or justified by their hatred of Aristocracy and their love for the People." He traces the rise such demagogues typically take: "A man of desperate fortune, or doubtful talents—of a ruthless, perhaps of vicious character—despairing of advancing his reputation through the fair and flowery guild of science, or the rugged and thorny paths of professional duty… is first a humble and obsequious lover of the people—next a bold officious advocate of their rights—then a consequential idol of popular favor—at length an overbearing insolent tyrant—whose death or detection finally discovers to his dearly beloved people what was apparent from the first to the observation of every man of reflection—that their Demagogue of the day had been always a designing unprincipled hypocrite."
Such demagogues threatened the establishment of the United States immediately after the Revolution. "In the hour however of our greatest political danger, the united exertions of the true Patriots of our Country saved us from impending anarchy, perhaps from the horror of a civil war. The Constitution was adopted and for twelve years was administered with an example of public virtue and private happiness which has seldom if ever been equaled." Despite the evident success of the Federal Constitution, Webster maintains that "a redoubled effort was directed to debase and vilify every honest man who rendered himself conspicuous in the various branches of its administration… For the honor of our country it ought never to be forgotten that the virulence of opposition was mostly confined to foreigners, disappointed characters, or very young men."
He concludes, "It is more easy for the great body of a people to feel evils than to foresee them, and whenever the fraudulent possession of power shall forget the precaution which must always accompany its acquisition, and abandon themselves to their natural character, the full force of the evils of their usurpation will be felt and known, and of course removed. But if a constant watchfulness of their conduct should avert such a detection we may console ourselves with the reflection that the cloak of virtue will take from vice at least the appearance of deformity." He signs the article "A Federalist." Philip D. Sang Sale (June 3, 1980), lot 1042 (this item). Not cited in or found among any of the following sources: Skeel, A Bibliography of the Writings of Noah Webster, New York, 1958; Warfel, Letters of Noah Webster, New York, 1953; the Noah Webster Papers at the New York Public Library. From the esteemed collection of Americana assembled by Philip D. Sang, sold at his sale of "Highly Important American Historical Documents, Autograph Letters & Manuscripts" in 1980. Philip Sang was the most famous collector of American historical manuscripts and documents of his era. The sales of his large collection, which took place from 1978 to 1981, were a landmark, comparable to the sale of the Thomas W. Streeter collection of Americana a decade earlier. Then from the collection of Milton R. Slater. Numerous contemporary holograph corrections throughout.
Uneven toning with some shallow wear to leaf edges, a few scattered short separations at folds repaired with paper, ink burn to first leaf with minor text loss; a tiny bit of loss at signature; writing overall bold and legible. An extraordinary letter.