"A democracy is a volcano which conceals the fiery materials of its own destruction. These will produce an eruption and carry desolation in their way. The known propensity of a democracy is to licentiousness which the ambitious call, and ignorant believe to be liberty." — Fisher Ames
Ames was born in Dedham, Massachusetts. His father, a physician, died when Fisher was but six years old, but his mother resolved, in spite of her limited income, to give the boy a classical education. At the age of six he began the study of Latin, and at the age of twelve, he was sent to Harvard College graduating in 1774 when he began work as a teacher. While teaching school Ames also studied law. He was admitted to the bar, and commenced practice in Dedham in 1781.
His father, Dr. Nathaniel Ames was the author of the Ames almanack, "which were the inspiration for the Poor Richard's Almanacs."
In 1788, he served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. He became a member of the Massachusetts convention that ratified the United States Constitution that same year.
Ames was elected to the First United States Congress, having beat Samuel Adams for the post. He also served in the Second and Third Congresses and as a Federalist to the Fourth Congress. He served in Congress from March 4, 1789 to March 3, 1797. During the First Congress, he was chairman of the Committee on Elections. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1793. In 1796, he was not a candidate for renomination but resumed the practice of law in Dedham. He stayed in politics and was a member of the Governor's Council from 1798 to 1800. In his new role, Ames offered one of the great orations on the death of President Washington. He also published a number of essays, critical of Jefferson's followers. He was a member of the Federalist Party, specifically its Essex Junto.
In 1805, Ames was chosen president of Harvard University. He declined to serve because of failing health. Four years later, in 1808, he died in Dedham on July 4. He was interred in the Old First Parish Cemetery after a public funeral in Boston.
Despite his limited number of years in public service, Fisher Ames ranks as one of the more influential figures of his era. Ames led Federalist ranks in the House of Representatives. His acceptance of the Bill of Rights garnered support in Massachusetts for the new Constitution. His greatest fame however may have come as an orator, for which one historian has dubbed him "the most eloquent of the Federalists." Ames offered one of the first great speeches in American Congressional history when he spoke in favor of the Jay Treaty.
Ames became concerned by the rising popularity of Jefferson's Republicans, who advocated the United States adopt Republican type representative government along the lines of post Revolution government in France. Hamilton's Federalists (of which Ames was one), although they too agreed with a Republic, advocated a stronger federal government with similar powers to the British example. Ames felt Federalism around a clear and firm constitution was the model the United States should follow to prevent the fledgling nation from failing. He cautioned against the excesses of democracy unfettered by morals and reason: "Popular reason does not always know how to act right, nor does it always act right when it knows." Likewise, Ames warned his countrymen of the dangers of flattering demagogues, who incite dis-union and lead their country into bondage: "Our country is too big for union, too sordid for patriotism, too democratic for liberty. What is to become of it, He who made it best knows. Its vice will govern it, by practising upon its folly. This is ordained for democracies."
In 2002, the Ames Christian University was named after Fisher Ames.
"I have heard it remarked that men are not to be reasoned out of an opinion they have not reasoned themselves into." The Influences of Democracy on Liberty, Property, and the Happiness of Society Considered. London: John W. Parker, 1835, p. 110.