You are here

One Man No Longer Forgotten


Over the transom came a video about a painting titled The Forgotten Man. I can’t show the picture to you; you’ll have to go to the artist’s website.

The painting is interesting enough, and the artist has clearly done some study to decide who to depict. All the Presidents are there, along with many other people. The site has an interesting interactive component (which is why I can’t copy it). Go look and poke around. You will learn something.

I learned of a man called Fisher Ames. Ames was a member of the First Congress, representing a part of Massachusetts. He was also a noted orator and

one of our forgotten defenders of ordered liberty, and deserves the attention of all serious students of the free society. Fisher Ames, of Dedham in Massachusetts, was a lifelong champion of private property, and of an economy unhampered by government intervention.

According to a brief biography at The Freeman, Ames held that

free societies do not arise out of some conscious “social contract” or from the abstract plan of the political metaphysician. Order, justice and freedom in the commonwealth emerge gradually as the laws and institutions of a people build up the framework of society. Habit and custom, prescription and prejudice are the buttresses of the commonwealth.

Calling out the concept of prejudice as essential to an ordered society is discordant with the popular and politically correct view. Ames’s thinking was influenced by the French Revolution which

was an attempt to restructure French society according to an ideological system of ideas. Ideology, as understood by Ames and Burke, is a “second reality,” an abstract set of ideas dreamed up in the mind of someone who is convinced his society is totally evil and unredeemable. The French revolutionaries sought to impose this ideological “dream” upon their nation, and the clash of ideology with reality culminated in the horror and bloodshed of the Reign of Terror. Ames feared that the ideology of the French Revolution would take root in America, and he argued eloquently against it. The desire for innovation and reform, Ames said, perennially tempts people into accepting ideology.

The two main concepts to emerge from the ideology of the French Revolution were equality and natural rights. Though they are noble-sounding words, Ames knew them to be inimical to the free society. Instead of civil rights, based on man’s spiritual nature and secured through centuries of tradition, the ideologists posited the rights of nature which existed in some idyllic pre-civilized time. If only men would throw off their institutions and laws which are corrupt and evil, a new dawn of freedom would come. But Ames understood man’s nature to be fallen and not essentially good, and thus he realized that institutions and law were precisely the guarantors of order, and hence of freedom.

Along with his views on economics (aligned with Bastiat and Adam Smith), Fisher Ames saw politics as I do. Any system which aims to perfect men and society is inescapably dependent on someone to dictate what the perfected ideal looks like. No man or class of men is so gifted with such vision.

Today’s libertarians and sophisticated anarchists fail to appreciate the importance of institutions and law. Prosperity is dependent upon predictability. Liberty is an essential moral value, but it is not the only moral value.

The U.S. Constitution—to loop back to the Forgotten Man painting—is both an attempt to guarantee liberty and to restrain what free men might do to one another. Even the ideology of liberty can lack necessary balance.

In the painting, Ames is in the back row, mostly obscured and mostly forgotten. But today he is remembered.

Via: MJB