Several years ago, I wrote on this site about the contributions to the American Founding of Josiah Quincy.
Another little-known Founder who should be more widely celebrated today was Theophilus Parsons.
Parsons was from the same Massachusetts circle that produced Quincy. He was an an outstanding lawyer and an eloquent spokesman for republican government and for federalism.
Although Hamilton’s Federalist No. 28 and Madison’s Federalist No. 46 are justly famous for their expositions of how states and individuals should resist federal usurpation, Parsons also was making the same case about the same time.
Parsons was a leader of the pro-Constitution forces at the Massachusetts ratifying convention. On January 23, 1788—three weeks after the publication of Federalist No. 28 and six days before the Federalist No. 46—he rose in that gathering to point out certain checks and balances inherent in the document.
The oath the several legislative, executive, and judicial officers of the several states take to support the federal Constitution, is as effectual a security against the usurpation of the general government as it is against the encroachment of the state governments. For an increase of the powers by usurpation is as clearly a violation of the federal Constitution as a diminution of these powers by private encroachment; and that the oath obliges the officers of the several states as vigorously to oppose the one as the other. But there is another check, founded in the nature of the Union, superior to all the parchment checks that can be invented. If there should be a usurpation, it will not be on the farmer and merchant, employed and attentive only to their several occupations; it will be upon thirteen legislatures, completely organized, possessed of the confidence of the people, and having the means, as well as inclination, successfully to oppose it. Under these circumstances, none but madmen would attempt a usurpation.
But, sir, the people themselves have it in their power effectually to resist usurpation, without being driven to an appeal to arms. An act of usurpation is not obligatory; it is not law; and any man may be justified in his resistance. Let him be considered as a criminal by the general government, yet only his own fellow-citizens can convict him; they are his jury, and if they pronounce him innocent, not all the powers of Congress can hurt him; and innocent they certainty will pronounce him, if the supposed law he resisted was an act of usurpation.
Parsons played a key role at the convention in other ways. He helped negotiate the deal whereby Massachusetts would ratify while simultaneously proposing amendments—the very seed from which the Bill of Rights grew. He also had been an important figure before the convention, drafting the fine statement of republican principles known as the Essex Result (1778). That document contains a clear explanations of the concept of inalienable v. alienable rights, the basis of which the Founders rarely explained, because they took it for granted:
All men are born equally free. The rights they possess at their births are equal, and of the same kind. Some of those rights are alienable, and may be parted with for an equivalent. Others are unalienable and inherent, and of that importance, that no equivalent can be received in exchange. Sometimes we shall mention the surrendering of a power to controul our natural rights, which perhaps is speaking with more precision, than when we use the expression of parting with natural rights–but the same thing is intended. Those rights which are unalienable, and of that importance, are called the rights of conscience.
After the Constitution was adopted, Parsons continued to practice law and for several years served in the state legislature. Among the clerks educated in his law office was John Quincy Adams, the future president. From 1806 until his death in 1813, he was Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, where, among his other contributions, he helped shape modern American corporate law.
As if that weren’t enough, he was also a mathematician, classicist, and amateur astronomer.
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