Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787

by James Madison

Previous Day | Full Calendar | Next Day

This Day in the Four Act Drama | Summary of this Day

Thursday, June 7

In Committee of the Whole — Mr. PINCKNEY, according to notice, moved to reconsider the clause respecting the negative on State laws, which was agreed to, and to-morrow fixed for the purpose.

The clause providing for the appointment of the second branch of the National Legislature, having lain blank since the last vote on the mode of electing it, to wit, by the first branch, Mr. DICKINSON now moved, “that the members of the second branch ought to be chosen by the individual Legislatures.”

Mr. SHERMAN seconded the motion; observing, that the particular States would thus become interested in supporting the National Government, and that a due harmony between the two governments would be maintained. He admitted that the two ought to have separate and distinct jurisdictions, but that they ought to have a mutual interest in supporting each other.

Mr. PINCKNEY. If the small States should be allowed one Senator only, the number will be too great; there will be eighty at least.

Mr. DICKINSON had two reasons for his motion — first, because the sense of the States would be better collected through their Governments, than immediately from the people at large; secondly, because he wished the Senate to consist of the most distinguished characters, distinguished for their rank in life and their weight of property, and bearing as strong a likeness to the British House of Lords as possible; and he thought such characters more likely to be selected by the State Legislatures, than in any other mode. The greatness of the number was no objection with him. He hoped there would be eighty, and twice eighty of them. If their number should be small, the popular branch could not be balanced by them. The Legislature of a numerous people ought to be a numerous body.

Mr. WILLIAMSON preferred a small number of Senators, but wished that each State should have at least one. He suggested twenty-five as a convenient number. The different modes of representation in the different branches will serve as a mutual check.

Mr. BUTLER was anxious to know the ratio of representation before he gave any opinion.

Mr. WILSON. If we are to establish a National Government, that government ought to flow from the people at large. If one branch of it should be chosen by the Legislatures, and the other by the people, the two branches will rest on different foundations, and dissensions will naturally arise between them. He wished the Senate to be elected by the people, as well as the other branch; the people might be divided into proper districts for the purpose; and he moved to postpone the motion of Mr. DICKINSON, in order to take up one of that import.

Mr. MORRIS seconded him.

Mr. READ proposed “that the Senate should be appointed by the Executive magistrate, out of a proper number of persons to be nominated by the individual Legislatures.” He said, he thought it his duty to speak his mind frankly. Gentlemen he hoped would not be alarmed at the idea. Nothing short of this approach towards a proper model of government would answer the purpose, and he thought it best to come directly to the point at once. His proposition was not seconded nor supported.

Mr. MADISON. If the motion (of Mr. DICKINSON) should be agreed to, we must either depart from the doctrine of proportional representation, or admit into the Senate a very large number of members. The first is inadmissible, being evidently unjust. The second is inexpedient. The use of the Senate is to consist in its proceeding with more coolness, with more system, and with more wisdom, than the popular branch. Enlarge their number, and you communicate to them the vices which they are meant to correct. He differed from Mr. DICKINSON, who thought that the additional number would give additional weight to the body. On the contrary, it appeared to him that their weight would be in an inverse ratio to their numbers. The example of the Roman tribunes was applicable. They lost their influence and power, in proportion as their number was augmented. The reason seemed to be obvious: they were appointed to take care of the popular interests and pretensions at Rome; because the people by reason of their numbers could not act in concert, and were liable to fall into factions among themselves, and to become a prey to their aristocratic adversaries. The more the representatives of the people, therefore, were multiplied, the more they partook of the infirmities of their constituents, the more liable they became to be divided among themselves, either from their own indiscretions or the artifices of the opposite faction, and of course the less capable of fulfilling their trust. When the weight of a set of men depends merely on their personal characters, the greater the number, the greater the weight. When it depends on the degree of political authority lodged in them, the smaller the number, the greater the weight. These considerations might perhaps be combined in the intended Senate; but the latter was the material one.

Mr. GERRY. Four modes of appointing the Senate have been mentioned. First, by the first branch of the National Legislature — this would create a dependence contrary to the end proposed. Secondly, by the National Executive, — this is a stride towards monarchy that few will think of. Thirdly, by the people; the people have two great interests, the landed interest, and the commercial, including the stockholders. To draw both branches from the people will leave no security to the latter interest; the people being chiefly composed of the landed interest, and erroneously supposing that the other interests are adverse to it. Fourthly, by the individual Legislatures, — the elections being carried through this refinement, will be most like to provide some check in favor of the commercial interest against the landed; without which, oppression will take place; and no free government can last long where that is the case. He was therefore in favor of this last.

Mr. DICKINSON.1 The preservation of the States in a certain degree of agency is indispensable. It will produce that collision between the different authorities which should be wished for in order to check each other. To attempt to abolish the States altogether, would degrade the councils of our country, would be impracticable, would be ruinous. He compared the proposed national system to the solar system, in which the States were the planets, and ought to be left to move freely in their proper orbits. The gentleman from Pennsylvania (Mr. WILSON) wished, he said, to extinguish these planets. If the State Governments were excluded from all agency in the national one, and all power drawn from the people at large, the consequence would be that the National Government would move in the same direction as the State Governments now do, and would run into all the same mischiefs. The reform would only unite the thirteen small streams into one great current, pursuing the same course without any opposition whatever. He adhered to the opinion that the Senate ought to be composed of a large number; and that their influence, from family weight and other causes, would be increased thereby. He did not admit that the Tribunes lost their weight in proportion as their number was augmented, and gave a historical sketch of this institution. If the reasoning (of Mr. MADISON) was good, it would prove that the number of the Senate ought to be reduced below ten, the highest number of the Tribunitial corps.

Mr. WILSON. The subject, it must be owned, is surrounded with doubts and difficulties. But we must surmount them. The British Government cannot be our model. We have no materials for a similar one. Our manners, our laws, the abolition of entails and of primogeniture, the whole genius of the people, are opposed to it. He did not see the danger of the States being devoured by the National Government. On the contrary, he wished to keep them from devouring the National Government. He was not, however, for extinguishing these planets, as was supposed by Mr. DICKINSON; neither did he, on the other hand, believe that they would warm or enlighten the sun. Within their proper orbits they must still be suffered to act, for subordinate purposes, for which their existence is made essential by the great extent of our country. He could not comprehend in what manner the landed interest would be rendered less predominant in the Senate by an election through the medium of the Legislatures, than by the people themselves. If the Legislatures, as was now complained, sacrificed the commercial to the landed interest, what reason was there to expect such a choice from them as would defeat their own views? He was for an election by the people, in large districts, which would be most likely to obtain men of intelligence and uprightness; subdividing the districts only for the accommodation of voters.

Mr. MADISON could as little comprehend in what manner family weight, as desired by Mr. DICKINSON, would be more certainly conveyed into the Senate through elections by the State Legislatures, than in some other modes. The true question was, in what mode the best choice would be made? If an election by the people, or through any other channel than the State Legislatures, promised as uncorrupt and impartial a preference of merit, there could surely be no necessity for an appointment by those Legislatures. Nor was it apparent that a more useful check would be derived through that channel, than from the people through some other. The great evils complained of were, that the State Legislatures run into schemes of paper-money, &c., whenever solicited by the people, and sometimes without even the sanction of the people. Their influence, then, instead of checking a like propensity in the National Legislature, may be expected to promote it. Nothing can be more contradictory than to say that the National Legislature, without a proper check, will follow the example of the State Legislatures; and, in the same breath, that the State Legislatures are the only proper check.

Mr. SHERMAN opposed elections by the people in districts as not likely to produce such fit men as elections by the State Legislatures.

Mr. GERRY insisted, that the commercial and moneyed interest would be more secure in the hands of the State Legislatures, than of the people at large. The former have more sense of character, and will be restrained by that from injustice. The people are for paper-money, when the Legislatures are against it. In Massachusetts the county conventions had declared a wish for a depreciating paper that would sink itself. Besides, in some States there are two branches in the Legislature, one of which is somewhat aristocratic. There would therefore be so far a better chance of refinement in the choice. There seemed, he thought, to be three powerful objections against elections by districts. First, it is impracticable; the people cannot be brought to one place for the purpose; and, whether brought to the same place or not, numberless frauds would be unavoidable. Secondly, small States, forming part of the same district with a large one, or a large part of a large one, would have no chance of gaining an appointment for its citizens of merit. Thirdly, a new source of discord would be opened between different parts of the same district.

Mr. PINCKNEY thought the second branch ought to be permanent and independent; and that the members of it would be rendered more so by receiving their appointments from the State Legislatures. This mode would avoid the rivalships and discontents incident to the election by districts. He was for dividing the States in three classes, according to their respective sizes, and for allowing to the first class three members; to the second, two; and to the third, one.

On the question for postponing Mr. DICKINSON’S motion, referring the appointment of the Senate to the State Legislatures, in order to consider Mr. WILSON’S, for referring it to the people, Pennsylvania, aye — 1; Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, no — 10.

Col. MASON. Whatever power may be necessary for the National Government, a certain portion must necessarily be left with the States. It is impossible for one power to pervade the extreme parts of the United States, so as to carry equal justice to them. The State Legislatures also ought to have some means of defending themselves against encroachments of the National Government. In every other department, we have studiously endeavored to provide for its self-defence. Shall we leave the States alone unprovided with the means for this purpose? And what better means can we provide, than the giving them some share in, or rather to make them a constituent part of, the national establishment? There is danger on both sides, no doubt; but we have only seen the evils arising on the side of the State Governments. Those on the other side remain to be displayed. The example of Congress does not apply. Congress had no power to carry their acts into execution, as the National Government will have.

On Mr. DICKINSON’S motion for an appointment of the Senate by the State Legislatures, — Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, aye — 10.

Mr. GERRY gave notice, that he would to-morrow move for a reconsideration of the mode of appointing the National Executive, in order to substitute an appointment by the State Executives.

The Committee rose, and the House adjourned.

1 It will throw light on this discussion to remark that an election by the State Legislatures involved a surrender of the principle insisted on by the large States, and dreaded by the small ones, namely, that of a proportional representation in the Senate. Such a rule would make the body too numerous, as the smallest State must elect one member at least. Return to text

Previous Day | Full Calendar | Next Day



The year was 1787. The place: the State House in Philadelphia. This is the story of the framing of the federal Constitution.

The Convention

Read the four-act drama and day-by-day summary by Gordon Lloyd, as well as Madison’s account of the Convention Debates.

Interactive Map of Historic Philadelphia in the Late 18th Century

Learn about historic Philadelphia and where the founders stayed, ate, and met.

View Interactive is a project of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University

401 College Avenue | Ashland, Ohio 44805 (419) 289-5411 | (877) 289-5411 (Toll Free)