Elbridge Gerry’s Objections to the Constitution

October 18, 1787

Elbridge Gerry to James Warren

I expected e’er this to have been in Massachusetts but am detained here longer than I expected—I inclose some papers on the subject of the Constitution to be reprinted if you think it convenient. I know not who the authors are of the anonymous pieces & it is a Matter of no consequence to the public, the Sentiments are in many respects just. My opinion with respect to the proposed constiution, is, that if adopted it will lay the foundation of a Government of force & fraud, that the people will bleed with taxes at every pore, & that the existence of their liberties will soon be terminated. The wealth of the Continent will be collected in pennsylvania, where the Seat of the federal Government is proposed to be, & those who will use the greatest address in obtaining an acceptance of this despotic System, will hereafter scourge the people for their folly in adopting it.

I shall submit on my return, or by Letter, if I should not leave this City in a few Days, my Resons to the legislature for dissenting from the Convention, & shall write them by post a short Letter to this effect—

P.S. As the object of the Supporters of the Constitution, is to carry it thro by Surprize, it is hoped that the Legislature of Massachuesetts will not propose a Convention till the next Session, & thus give to the people an opportunity to consider of the Constiution before they are called on to adopt it—Colo R H Lee informs me, the Judges, all the Bar, & some many of the principle Gentlemen of Virginia are high against this System—

Elbridge Gerry to the General Court, New York, 18 October

Gentlemen

I have the honor to inclose, pursuant to my Commission, the constitution proposed by the federal Convention.

To this system I gave my dessent, & shall submit my objections to the honorable Legislature.

It was painful for me, on a subject of such national importance, to differ from the respectable Members who signed the constitution: but conceiving as I did, that the liberties of America were not secured by the system, it was my duty to oppose it—

My principal objections to the plan, are that there is no adequate provision for a representation of the People—that they have no security for the right of election—that some of the powers of the Legislature are ambiguous, & others indefinite & dangerous—that the executive is blended with & will have an undue influence over the legislature—that the Judicial department will be oppressive—that treaties of the highest importance may be formed by the president with the advice of two thirds of a quorum of the Senate—& that the System is without the Security of a Bill of rights, these are objections which are not local, but apply equally to all the States—

As the Convention was called for “the sole & express purpose of revising the articles of confederation, & reporting to Congress & the several Legislatures such alterations & provisions as shall render the federal constiution adequate to the exigencies of Government, & the preservation of the union,” I did not conceive that these powers extended to the formation of the plan proposed, but the Convention being of a different opinion, I acquiesced in it, being fully convinced that to preserve the union, an efficient Government was indispensibly necessary; & that it would be difficult to make proper amendments to the articles of confederation.

The Constitution proposed has few, if any federal features, but is rather a system of national government: nevertheless, in many respects I think it has great merit, & by proper amendments, may be adapted to the “exigencies of Government” & preservation of Liberty.

The question on this plan involves others of the highest importance 1st Whether there shall be a dissolution of the federal Government? 2dly Whether the several State Governments shall be so altered, as in effect to be dissolved? And 3dly Whether in lieu of the federal & state Governments, the national constiution now proposed shall be substituted without amendment? Never perhaps were a people called on to decide a question of greater magnitude—should the Citizens of America adopt the plan as it now stands, their liberties may be lost: or should they reject it altogether Anarchy may ensue. It is evident therefore that they should not be presipitate in their decissions; that the subject should be well understood, lest they should refuse to support the Government, after having hastily accepted it.

If those who are in favour of the Constiution, as well as those who are against it, should preserve moderation, their discussions may afford much information & finally direct to any happy issue.

It may be urged by some, that an implicit confidence should be placed in the Convention: but however respectable the members may be who signed the constiution, it must be admitted, that a free people are the proper Guardians of their rights & liberties—that the greatest men may err—& that their errors are sometimes, of the greatest magnitude.

Others may suppose, that the constitution may be safely adopted, because therein provision is made to amend it: but cannot this object be better attained before a ratification than after it? And should a free people, adopt a form of Government, under conviction that it wants amendment?

And some may conceive, that if the Plan is not accepted by the people they will not unite in another: but surely whilst they have the power to amend, they are not under the necessity of rejecting it.

I have been detained here longer than I expected, but shall leave this place in a day or two for Massachusetts to support that which shall be finally adopted, sincerely hoping it will secure the Liberty & happiness of America.

I have the Honor to be Gentlemen with the highest respect for the honorable Legislature & yourselves, you most obedt & very hum servt E Gerry

Contents

Introduction

Introductions, the documentary history of each amendment, and major themes about the adoption of the Bill of Rights.

From Political Liberty to Social Freedom

Using artwork, see how the idea of rights has changed throughout American history.

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Documentary Origins and Politics of the Bill of Rights

Interactive chart showing the origins of each of the rights in the Bill of Rights.

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