Debates over the Bill of Rights in the First Congress

July 21, 1789

An engrossed bill to provide for the government of the Territory northwest of the river Ohio, was read the third time and passed, and sent to the Senate for concurrence.

AMENDMENTS TO THE CONSTITUTION.

Mr. MADISON begged the House to indulge him in the further consideration of amendments to the constitution, and as there appeared, in some degree, a moment of leisure, he would move to go into a Committee of the whole on the subject, conformably to the order of the 8th of last month.

Mr. AMES hoped that the House would be induced, on mature reflection, to rescind their vote of going into a committee on the business, and refer it to a select committee. It would certainly tend to facilitate the business. If they had the subject at large before a Committee of the whole, he could not see where the business was likely to end. The amendments proposed were so various, that their discussion must inevitably occupy many days, and that at a time when they can be ill spared; whereas a select committee could go through and cull out those of the most material kind, without interrupting the principle business of the House. He therefore moved, that the Committee of the whole be discharged, and the subject referred to a select committee.

Mr. SEDGWICK opposed the motion, for the reasons given by his colleague, observing that the members from the several States proposing amendments would no doubt drag the House through the consideration of every one, whatever their fate might be after they were discussed; now gentlemen had only to reflect on this, and conceive the length of time the business would take up, if managed in this way.

Mr. WHITE thought no time would be saved by appointing a select committee. Every member would like to be satisfied with the reasons upon which the amendments offered by the select committee are grounded, consequently the train of argument which gentlemen have in contemplation to avoid, must be brought forward.

He did not presume to say the constitution was perfect, but it was such as had met with the approbation of wise and good men in the different States. Some of the proposed amendments were also of high value, but he did not expect they would be supported by two-thirds of both Houses, without undergoing a thorough investigation. He did not like to refer any business to a select committee, until the sense of the House had been expressed upon it, because it rather tended to retard than dispatch it; witness the collection bill, which had cost them much time, but after all had to be deserted.

Mr. SHERMAN.–The provision for amendments made in the fifth article of the constitution, was intended to facilitate the adoption of those which experience should point out to be necessary. This constitution has been adopted by eleven States, a majority of those eleven have received it without expressing a wish for amendments; now, is it probable that three-fourths of the eleven States will agree to amendments offered on mere speculative points when the constitution has had no kind of trial whatever? It is hardly to be expected that they will. Consequently we shall lose our labor, and had better decline having any thing further to do with it for the present.

But if the House are to go into a consideration, it had better be done in such a way as not to interfere much with the organization of the Government.

Mr. PAGE hoped the business would proceed as heretofore directed. He thought it would be very agreeable to the majority of the Union, he knew it would be to his constituents, to find that the Government meant to give every security to the rights and liberties of the people, and to examine carefully into the grounds of the apprehensions expressed by several of the State conventions; he thought they would be satisfied with the amendments brought forward by his colleague, when the subject was last before the House.

Mr. PARTRIDGE knew the subject must be taken up in some way or other, and preferred, for the sake of expedition, doing it by a select committee.

Mr. JACKSON was sorry to see the House was to be troubled any further on the subject; he looked upon it as a mere waste of time; but as he always chose the least of two evils, he acquiesced in the motion for referring it to a special committee.

Mr. GERRY asked, whether the House had cognizance of the amendments proposed by the State conventions? If they had not, he would make a motion to bring them forward.

Mr. PAGE replied, that such motion would be out of order, until the present question was determined.

A desultory conversation ensued, and it was questioned whether the subject generally was to be before the Committee of the whole, or those specific propositions only which had already been introduced.

Mr. GERRY said, that it was a matter of indifference how this question was understood, because no gentleman could pretend to deny another the privilege of bringing forward propositions conformably to his sentiments. If gentlemen, then, might bring forward resolutions to be added, or motions of amendment, there would be no time saved by referring the subject to a special committee. But such procedure might tend to prejudice the House against an amendment neglected by the committee, and thereby induce them not to show that attention to the State which proposed it that would be delicate and proper.

He wished gentlemen to consider the situation of the States; seven out of thirteen had thought the constitution very defective, yet five of them have adopted it with a perfect reliance on Congress for its improvement. Now, what will these States feel if the subject is discussed in a select committee, and their recommendations totally neglected? The indelicacy of treating the application of five States in a manner different from other important subjects, will give no small occasion for disgust, which is a circumstance that this Government ought carefully to avoid. If, then, the House could gain nothing by this manner of proceeding, he hoped they would not hesitate to adhere to their former vote for going into a Committee of the whole. That they would gain nothing was pretty certain, for gentlemen must necessarily come forward with their amendments to the report when it was brought in. The members from Massachusetts were particularly instructed to press the amendments recommended by the convention of that State at all times, until they had been maturely considered by Congress; the same duties were made incumbent on the members from some other States; consequently, any attempt to smother the business, or prevent a full investigation, must be nugatory, while the House paid a proper deference to their own rules and orders. He did not contend for going into a Committee of the whole at the present moment; he would prefer a time of greater leisure than the present, from the business of organizing the Government.

Mr. AMES declared to the House, that he was no enemy to the consideration of amendments; but he had moved to rescind their former vote, in order to save time, which he was confident would be the consequence of referring it to a select committee.

He was sorry to hear an intention avowed by his colleague, of considering every part of the frame of this constitution. It was the same as forming themselves into a convention of the United States. He did not stand for words, the thing would be the same in fact. He could not but express a degree of anxiety at seeing the system of Government encounter another ordeal, when it ought to be extending itself to furnish security to others. He apprehended, if the zeal of some gentleman broke out on this occasion, that there would be no limits to the time necessary to discuss the subject; he was certain the cession would not be long enough; perhaps they might be bounded by the period of their appointment, but he questioned it.

When gentlemen suppose themselves called upon to vent their ardor in some favorite pursuit, in securing to themselves and their posterity the inestimable rights and liberties they have just snatched from the hand of despotism, they are apt to carry their exertions to an extreme; but he hoped the subject itself would be limited; not that he objected to the consideration of the amendments proposed, indeed he should move himself for the consideration, by the committee, of those recommended by Massachusetts, if his colleagues omitted to do it; but he hoped gentlemen would not think of bringing in new amendments, such as were not recommended, but went to tear the frame of Government into pieces.

He had considered a select committee much better calculated to consider and arrange a complex business, than a Committee of the whole; he thought they were like the senses to the soul, and on occasion like the present, could be made equally useful.

If he recollected rightly the decision made by the House on the 8th of June, it was that certain specific amendments be referred to the Committee of the whole; not that the subject generally be referred, and that amendments be made in the committee that were not contemplated, before. This public discussion would be like a dissection of the constitution, it would be defacing its symmetry, laying bare its sinews and tendons, ripping up the whole form, and tearing out its vitals; but is it presumable that such conduct would be attended with success? Two thirds of both Houses must agree in all these operations, before they can have effect. His opposition to going into a Committee of the whole, did not arise from any fear that the constitution would suffer by a fair discussion in this, or any other House; but while such business was going on, the Government was laid prostrate, and every artery ceased to beat. The unfair advantages that might be taken in such a situation, were easier apprehended than resisted. Wherefore, he wished to avoid the danger, by a more prudent line of conduct.

Mr. TUCKER would not say whether the discussion alluded to by the gentleman last up would do good or harm, but he was certain it ought to take place no where but in a Committee of the whole; the subject is of too much importance for a select committee. Now, suppose such a committee to be appointed, and that the amendments proposed by the several States, together with those brought forward by the gentleman from Virginia, are referred to them; after some consideration they report, but not one of the amendments proposed by either State; what is the inference? They have considered them, and as they were better capable than the House of considering them, the House ought to reject every proposition coming from the State conventions. Will this give satisfaction to the States who have required amendments? Very far from it. They will expect that their propositions would be fully brought before the House, and regularly and fully considered; if indeed then they are rejected, it may be some satisfaction to them, to know that their applications have been treated with respect.

What I have said with respect to the propositions of the several States, may apply in some degree to the propositions brought forward by the gentleman (Mr. Madison) from Virginia; the select committee may single out one or two; and reject the remainder, notwithstanding the vote of the House for considering them. The gentleman would have a right to complain, and every State would be justly disgusted.

Will it tend to reconcile the Government to that great body of the people who are dissatisfied, who think themselves and all they hold most dear, unsafe under it, without certain amendments are made? Will it answer any one good purpose to slur over this business, and reject the propositions without giving them a fair chance of a full discussion? I think not, Mr. Speaker. Both the Senate and this House ought to treat the present subject with delicacy and impartiality.

The select committee will have it in their power so to keep this business back, that it may never again come before the House; this is an imprudent step for us to take; not that I would insinuate it is an event likely to take place, or which any gentleman has in contemplation. I give every gentleman credit for his declaration, and believe the honorable mover means to save time by this arrangement; but do not let us differ on this point. I would rather the business should lie over for a month, nay, for a whole session, than have it put into other hands, and passed over without investigation.

Mr. GERRY inquired of his colleague, how it was possible that the House could be a federal convention without the Senate, and when two-thirds of both Houses are to agree to the amendments? He would also be glad to find out how a committee was the same to the House as the senses to the soul? What, said he, can we neither see, hear, smell, or feel, without we employ a committee for the purpose? My colleague further tells us, that if we proceed in this way, we shall lay bare the sinews and tendons of the constitution; that we shall butcher it, and put it to death. Now, what does this argument tend to prove? Why, sir, to my mind, nothing more nor less than this, that we ought to adopt the report of the committee, whatever the report may be; for we are to judge by the knowledge derived through our senses, and not to proceed on to commit murder. If these are the arguments to induce the House to refer the subject to a select committee, they are arguments to engage to go further, and give into the hands of select committees the whole legislative power. But what was said respecting a public discussion? Are gentlemen afraid to meet the public ear on this topic? Do they wish to shut the gallery doors? Perhaps nothing would be attended with more dangerous consequences. No, sir, let us not be afraid of full and public investigation. Let our means, like our conclusions, be justified; let our constituents see, hear, and judge for themselves.

The question on discharging the Committee of the whole on the state of the Union from proceeding on the subject of amendments, as referred to them, was put, and carried in the affirmative–the House divided, 34 for it, and 15 against it.

It was then ordered that Mr. MADISON‘s motion, stating certain specific amendments, proper to be proposed by Congress to the Legislatures of the States, to become, if ratified by three-fourths thereof, part of the constitution of the United States, together with the amendments to the said constitution, as proposed by the several States, be referred to a committee, to consist of a member from each State, with instruction to take the subject of amendments to the constitution of the United States generally into their consideration, and to report thereupon to the House.

The committee appointed were, Messrs. VINING, MADISON, BALDWIN, SHERMAN, BURKE, GILMAN, CLYMER, BENSON, GOODHUE, BOUDINOT, and GALE.

Then the House adjourned.

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.

View Feature

Documentary Origins and Politics of the Bill of Rights

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

View Interactive

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