A politician and skilled orator, Fisher Ames served in the first four federal Congresses and was a leader of the New England Federalists. His political views were defined by distrust of popular politics, belief that laws were necessary to sustain liberty, and support for a strong centralized national government. While he endorsed popular sovereignty, he remained highly concerned about the frailty of republics. “The power of the people if uncontroverted, is licentious and mobbish,” he wrote to a fellow Federalist in 1802.1 He believed that a republic could only survive if it was governed by the natural aristocracy of wise, impartial, dispassionate individuals.
Born in Dedham, Massachusetts on April 19, 1758, Ames was admitted to Harvard College at the age of twelve. He graduated in 1774 and became a teacher for five years before studying law under the guidance of William Tudor. He was admitted to the bar in 1781.
Ames first entered politics in response to Shays’ Rebellion in 1786. Under pseudonyms, Ames published a series of essays in Boston’s Independence Chronicle that called for the government to suppress the uprising, using force if necessary. Although Ames did not espouse despotism, he did argue that the government needed a “well-digested, liberal, permanent system of policy.” This new government could improve public credit, defend the republic, and ensure “the greatest permanent happiness of the greatest number of people.”2
Ames was elected to Massachusetts’ ratifying convention for the federal constitution and skillfully defended it against Anti-Federalist critiques. He narrowly defeated Samuel Adams for Suffolk County’s seat in the new federal House of Representatives in 1788 and was reelected in 1790, 1792, and 1794. He consistently promoted Massachusetts’ interests, tried to centralize the national government’s power, and supported Great Britain over France in the realm of foreign policy. Ames served on sixteen committees between 1789 and 1791 and helped shape legislation on topics including trade and treaties with Native Americans, the post office, and the government’s permanent location. With a reputation as a skilled orator, Ames was a strong defender of private property, declaring that “The essence, and almost the quintessence, of a good government is, to protect property and its rights.”3
Ames was impressed by Alexander Hamilton’s “First Report on the Public Credit” and quickly became Hamilton’s leading advocate in the House. He supported the assumption of the states’ Revolutionary War-era debts and strongly opposed James Madison’s proposal to differentiate among original and current holders of these financial securities. Ames also defended Hamilton’s financial plan, the creation of a national bank, and the establishment of a strong military system. In 1792, he married Frances Worthington and the couple went on to have seven children.
During the foreign policy crisis of 1793-6, Ames rose to fame by supporting President George Washington’s policy of neutrality against European powers at war. The Citizen Genêt affair, a diplomatic incident over the United States’ neutrality during a war between France and Great Britain, made Ames highly suspicious of France. This crisis fueled Ames’ distrust of the “Virginia faction,” a group that included Thomas Jefferson and Madison. As war with Great Britain neared in 1794, he gave a powerful speech in the House rejecting Madison’s proposal to have Congress initiate commercial war against Britain. To Ames, only John Jay’s diplomatic mission to London and the resulting treaty could avoid war. Unfortunately, Ames was forced to remain on the sidelines of the debate over the Jay Treaty as he fell ill to “lung fever” in the spring of 1795 and could not return to Congress until early 1796. The Federalists pushed ratification through the Senate but faced opposition from Democratic-Republicans in the House. Fearing the Treaty would fail, Ames roused himself enough in April 1796 to give a persuasive speech supporting the Treaty, and is largely credited with securing its approval despite strong opposition from the Jeffersonians.4
Although his poor health forced him to retire to Dedham in 1797 at the age of 39, Ames remained a major Federalist figure and continued to challenge the Jeffersonian Republicans. During the XYZ crisis, a diplomatic incident between French and American diplomats that resulted in the Quasi-War, Ames held a strong anti-French position and was attacked by the Republican press for his support for England. He turned against President John Adams in 1799 when he nominated William Vans Murray as minister to France to carry out the peace mission, a decision that undermined the Federalists’ foreign policy.
After 1800, as the sage of the New England Federalists, Ames tried to organize opposition to Jeffersonian policies and found himself associated with groups of similarly minded politicians known as the High Federalists and the “Essex Junto.” As the Federalists’ presence on the national stage began to decline, Ames encouraged Federalists to “entrench themselves in the state governments” of New England.5 He tried to use the press to garner public support for the Federalists, including publishing numerous essays in the Boston Repertory and the New England Palladium and attempted to start a Federalist newspaper. Yet, by 1803, Ames came to see the futility of his efforts, writing “I renounce the wrangling world of politics and devote myself in the future to pigs and poultry. I will not be a Tom Paine on the Federal side.”6 Once lauded for his contributions to the Revolution, Paine was ostracized by his friends and ridiculed near the end of his life because he published The Age of Reason, which promoted Deism.
To support his family, Ames returned to the legal profession and invested in the burgeoning India trade. In 1805, he was elected president of Harvard College, but declined due to his ill health. He died of “consumption” on July 4, 1808 and his funeral was a Federalist political spectacle. Within months, a collection of his speeches and essays was published in Boston as the Works of Fisher Ames.
1. Fisher Ames to Oliver Wolcott, December 2, 1802, in John W. Malsberger, “The Political Thought of Fisher Ames,” Journal of the Early Republic 2, no. 1 (1982): 6.
2. Ames, “Camillus No. III,” Works of Fisher Ames, ed. John T. Kirkland, (Boston: T.B. Wait, 1809), 16-19.
3. Ames, “Phocion No. V,” Works of Fisher Ames, 181.
4. Ames, “Speech on the Jay Treaty, April 28, 1796,” in Works of Fisher Ames: With a Selection from His Speeches and Correspondence, ed. W.B. Allen and Seth Ames, Reprint, vol. 2, 2 vols. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1984), 1142–82.
5. Ames to Christopher Gore, December 13, 1802, in Works of Fisher Ames, ed. Allen and Ames, 2: 1445.
6. Ames to Oliver Wolcott, Jr, March 9, 1803, quoted in Malsberger, “The Political Thought of Fisher Ames,” 19.
Allen, W.B., and Seth Ames, eds. Works of Fisher Ames: With a Selection from His Speeches and Correspondence. Reprint. 2 vols. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1984.
Arkin, Marc M. “The Federalist Trope: Power and Passion in Abolitionist Rhetoric.” The Journal of American History 88, no. 1 (2001): 75–98.
Bernhard, Winfred E. Fisher Ames: Federalist and Statesman, 1758-1808. University of North Carolina Press, 1965.
---------. “Ames, Fisher.” American National Biography Online, February 2000. http://www.anb.org/view/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.001.0001/anb-9780198606697-e-0200005.
Douglass, Elisha P. “Fisher Ames, Spokesman for New England Federalism.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 103, no. 5 (1959): 693–715.
Kirkland, John T. ed., Works of Fisher Ames. Boston: B. Wait, 1809.
Malsberger, John W. “The Political Thought of Fisher Ames.” Journal of the Early Republic 2, no. 1 (1982): 1–20.