by Samuel Adams

Editor’s Note: Samuel Adams, American Patriot and Revolutionary Leader, was born on September 27, 1722. In celebration of his birth, we present the following letter, sent by him to Elbridge Gerry, on August 22, 1789.

I wrote to you hastily two days ago, and as hastily ventured an Opinion concerning the Right of Congress to control a Light-house erected on Land belonging to this sovereign and independent State for its own Use and at its own Expense.

I say sovereign and independent, because I think the State retains all the Rights of Sovereignty which it has not expressly parted with to the Congress of the United States–a federal Power instituted solely for the Support of the federal Union.

The Sovereignty of the State extends over every part of its Territory. The federal Constitution expresses the same Idea in Sec. 8, Art. 1.

A Power is therein given to Congress “to exercise like Authority,” that is to exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, “over all places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature in which the same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, and other needful Buildings,” among which Light-houses may be included.

Is it not the plain Conclusion from this Clause in the Compact, that Congress have not the Right to exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, nor even to purchase or control any part of the Territory within a State for the Erection of needful Buildings unless it has the Consent of its Legislature.

If there are any such Buildings already erected, which operate to the General Welfare of the U S, and Congress by Virtue of the Power vested in them have taken from a State for the general Use, the necessary Means of supporting such Buildings it appears to be reasonable & just that the U S should maintain them; but I think that it follows not from hence, that Congress have a right to exercise any Authority over those buildings even to make Appointments of officers for the immediate Care of them or furnishing them with necessary Supplies. I wish to have your Opinion if you can find Leisure.

I hope Congress, before they adjourn, will take into very serious Consideration the necessary Amendments of the Constitution. Those whom I call the best–the most judicious & disinterested Federalists, who wish for the perpetual Union, Liberty & Happiness of the States & their respective Citizens, many of them if not all are anxiously expecting them.

They wish to see a Line drawn as clearly as may be, between the federal Powers vested in Congress and the distinct Sovereignty of the several States upon which the private & personal Rights of the Citizens depend.

Without such Distinction there will be Danger of the Constitution issuing imperceptibly and gradually into a consolidated Government over all the States; which, although it may be wished for by some was reprobated in the Idea by the highest Advocates for the Constitution as it stood without Amendments.

I am fully persuaded that the population of the U S living in different Climates, of different Education and Manners, and possesed of different Habits & feelings under one consolidated Government can not long remain free, or indeed remain under any kind of Government but despotism.

You will not forget our old Friend Devens, and if you please mention him to Mr R H Lee.

Adieu my dear Friend and believe me to be sincerely yours,

P. S. The joint regards of Mrs A & myself to Mrs Gerry.