The First Federal Congress Project
Documentary History of the First Federal Congress

Fisher Ames, Representative from Massachusetts

Fisher Ames was born in Dedham, Massachusetts, on 9 April 1758. His father, Nathaniel Ames, was a physician, innkeeper, and almanac maker, whose thriving tavern in Dedham, the Norfolk County seat, provided Fisher Ames with an early education in public affairs. After the death of Dr. Ames when Fisher was only six, his mother exercised the dominant influence over his upbringing. Deborah Fisher Ames, from a family long active in Massachusetts politics, pushed her precocious son to enter Harvard College in 1770 at the age of twelve. Graduating in 1774, he returned to Dedham, which would be his home for the rest of his life. Besides teaching in local schools, continuing his private studies, and acquiring a Masters degree from Harvard in 1777, Ames served sporadically in the Massachusetts militia during the seige of Boston and again in 1778. His accumulated tours of duty totalled less than three weeks. In 1778 Ames began an apprenticeship in the law offices of Boston attorney William Tudor. Three years later he was admitted to the bar.
Ames's first elective office was as one of Dedham's representatives to the 1779 Concord Convention on price fixing. He spent the next seven years slowly building up a lucrative law practice without ever acquiring a liking for the profession. It was not until Shays's Rebellion in 1786 that Ames reentered the political arena through a series of highly regarded pro-central government essays, written under the classical pseudonyms "Lucius Junius Brutus" and "Camillus."
In 1788 Ames represented Dedham at the state's ratification convention, where he made two critically timed speeches defending the Constitution. Massachusetts Federalists appreciated his efforts and Dedham rewarded him with a seat in the state House of Representatives in May of that year. There Ames played a prominent role in devising the election law under which elections for federal Representatives were held on 18 December 1788. The election for the Suffolk district, including the city of Boston, pitted Ames, a last minute compromise candidate, against Sam Adams and Samuel Allyne Otis. Ames won by a majority of only eleven votes.
Ames arrived at New York City on 28 February 1789. Present at the scheduled opening of Congress on 4 March, Ames also appeared punctually at the remaining two sessions, and never requested a leave of absence. For at least part of his stay in New York, Ames lodged at one of the city's major boarding houses at 15 Great Dock Street, where fellow Massachusetts Representatives Sedgwick, Leonard, and Partridge and Senator Strong were also boarders. During the third session in Philadelphia, he lodged at a Mrs. Sage's, where he shared accommodations with a more geographically and ideologically varied clientele—Gerry of Massachusetts, Ashe and Sevier of North Carolina, and Parker of Virginia.
His committee service was prodigious; he served on a total of twenty-six, reporting for seven. His first committee assignment was to the committee on elections, one of only two standing committees established by the First Congress. Of his remaining committee assignments, six addressed private petitions and nine were special committees of between five and twelve members, addressing issues that reflected the entire range of Congress's agenda: its internal organization, the organization of the Post Office, Indian policy, fiscal policy and commerce.
Ames spoke frequently on the floor. Called "the American Demosthenes," he was credited with an imaginative oratory that exceeded even Madison's in its brilliance, a reputation that only highlighted his occasional failure to persuade. One of the first demonstrations of the latter was his unsuccessful opposition to Madison's call for amendments to the Constitution. Pleading that "the government was laid prostrate, and every artery ceased to beat,"1 Ames tried to focus Congress's agenda away from an early consideration of amendments. "I would have amendments," he conceded privately. "But they should not be trash."2 He objected not only to the timing of the amendments, but to some of the substantial changes they aimed at. Ames rejected the idea of instructing Representatives and supported a relatively small representation of one per forty thousand, as a means of avoiding the passions of a truer democracy. Realizing the largely political objectives of Madison's management of the proposed amendments, Ames accepted the final product as being "rather food than physick."3
Many of the speeches on which Ames's early reputation as an orator rested advocated expanding the powers and prerogatives of both Congress and the executive by a liberal construction of the Constitution's "necessary and proper" clause. His interest in buttressing the executive branch was evident from the very beginning: three of the earliest committees Ames sat on were responsible for considering presidential titles and coordinating the elaborate ceremonies surrounding the reception and inauguration of the president and vice president. Later in the first session, Ames spoke at length in favor of the president's exclusive power of removal by inherent constitutional grant rather than legislative sanction. He voted with the majority to pass the Salaries-Executive Act [HR-21] over objections that it was too generous. Finally, when he voted to amend the Courts Act [S-4] by having writs issued in the name of the president rather than the people of the United States, Maclay accused him of trying to give the president "as far as possible every apendage of Royalty."4 During the third session debate on the Militia Bill [HR-102], Ames held that the president possessed the sole power of organizing the militia.
Ames articulated his clearest confession of faith in loose constructionism in his rigorous and successful opposition to Madison's last minute objections to the constitutionality of the Bank Bill [S-15]. In support of the Bank of the United States, Ames professed Congress's right to employ any means not expressly denied it. The same application of the "necessary and proper" clause led Ames to support John Frederick Amelung's petition for a federal subsidy to support his glass factory. These positions were in line with his constituency's largely pro-manufacturing, pro-commercial interest. In the name of Boston's shipbuilders, Ames also supported a high tonnage duty on foreign shipping, but led the fight against Madison's proposed tonnage discrimination, arguing that it would only bring on a trade war with the country's major trading partner, Great Britain. Like the rest of the Massachusetts delegation, Ames supported Hamilton's plan for funding the states' war debts, but he went beyond any other Representative in strenuously opposing Madison's plan for discriminating between holders of funded certificates.
As chairman of the committee that reported the Seat of Government Bill [HR-25] during the first session, Ames's vocal defense of New England interests was again manifested in his preference for a Susquehannah River site. It represented not the center of land, which he considered a meaningless criterion, but as near the center of wealth and population along the coast, and access to the west via the Ohio River, as he thought Congress was likely to find. When the battle resumed over the Residence Act [S-12] during the second session, Ames felt disgust over "this despicable Grog shop contest, whether the taverns of N. York or Philaa. shall get the custom of Congress." "I would not find fault with Fort Pitt [Pittsburg], if we could . . . proceed in peace and quietness."5 His vote on 9 July 1790 suggests that he was not so conciliatory. To the very end he voted against a Potomac River site.
Although they were not the Roman senators he would have preferred, Ames was pleased with his company in the First Congress. He found them "sober, solid, old charter folks"6—a class he himself fit into, if portraits by John Trumbull and Gilbert Stuart are to be relied upon. Both Trumbull's, executed soon after the First Congress and now at Yale, and Stuart's, done ten years later and now at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., reveal a serious, self-assured but open, even inviting face that must have made the thirty-one year old bachelor a welcome guest at social gatherings. Ames did little to cultivate his social connections at the seat of government, but kept up a lively correspondence with many prominent friends in Boston, such as Christopher Gore and George Cabot. His frequent letters to George Richards Minot in particular comprise a candid and thorough record of the political and social life of the First Congress. En route to and from Congress, Ames always stopped over at Springfield, Massachusetts, where he courted Frances Worthington. They married in 1792 and had seven children, one daughter and six sons.
The partisan politics evident in the first election of the Suffolk district's Representative resurfaced when Ames stood for reelection. Following an active newspaper war between supporters of the three leading contenders, Ames won with almost seventy-five percent of the votes cast. One bitter partisan claimed that Ames's support came from a strange combination of Boston's "Aristocrats Brito Americans, old Tories &" and such derelicts as "were obliged to enquire the way" to the polling place.7 Ames continued his service in the House until 1796, when he declined reelection on grounds of ill health. He retired to Dedham where he led the life of a country squire, quietly tending his model farm and attending the Episcopal church he joined to escape the Congregationalists' constant doctrinal disputes. His only other public service was as a member of the governor's council from 1799 to 1801. In 1805 Ames, still only forty-seven, declined the presidency of Harvard, again on grounds of ill health. Always precarious, his health had begun to reveal symptoms of tuberculosis following a 1795 bout with pneumonia. Consumption was given as the official cause of his death in Dedham on 4 July 1808.
Winfred E. A. Bernhard's Fisher Ames: Federalist and Statesman, 1758-1808 (Chapel Hill, 1965) covers his subject's life in breadth and depth and describes the documentary source material. The largest collections of Ames's papers are at the Dedham Historical Society, which holds his letters to his friend Thomas Dwight, and at Stanford University. Ames never retained copies of his letters and may well have kept letters he received for only a limited time. An expanded edition of Seth Ames's collection of his father's writings, The Works of Fisher Ames, edited by William Allen, was published in 1983 by Liberty Press (WFA). Both contain Ames's letters to his friend George R. Minot, the originals of which are apparently no longer extant. Ames's letters to William Tudor can be found in Massachusetts Historical Society Collections, ser. 2, 8(1826); the originals are no longer extant. His letters to John Lowell are scattered but most are in the E. L. Diedrich Collection at the Clements Library. The Boston Public Library owns several Ames letters.
    1. DHFFC 11:1162.
    2. Fisher Ames to George R. Minot, 23 July 1789, WFA 1:65-66.
    3. Fisher Ames to George R. Minot, 12 June 1789, WFA 1:54.
    4. DHFFC 9:168.
    5. Fisher Ames to Thomas Dwight, 11 June 1790, Fisher Ames Papers, Dedham Historical Society, Dedham, Mass.
    6. Fisher Ames to George R. Minot, 4 Apr. 1789, WFA 1:33.
    7. Federal Gazette, 18 Oct. 1790.

Recommended citation: Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, ed. Charlene Bickford, et al. (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 2002). http://adh.sc.edu [Accessed (supply date here)]

Copyright 1999. Documentary History of the First Federal Congress Project. All rights reserved.