Notes of 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


Saturday, June 16

IN COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE ON1 RESOLUTIONS PROPOSD. BY MR. P. & MR. R

Mr. LANSING called for the reading of the 1st. resolution of each plan, which he considered as involving principles directly in contrast; that of Mr. Patterson says he sustains the sovereignty of the respective States, that of Mr. Randolph distroys it: the latter requires a negative on all the laws of the particular States; the former, only certain general powers for the general good. The plan of Mr. R. in short absorbs all power except what may be exercised in the little local matters of the States which are not objects worthy of the supreme cognizance. He grounded his preference of Mr. P.’s plan, chiefly on two objections agst.2 that of Mr. R. 1.3 want of power in the Convention to discuss & propose it. 2 3 the improbability of its being adopted.

1. He was decidedly of opinion that the power of the Convention was restrained to amendments of a federal nature, and having for their basis the Confederacy in being. The Act of Congress The tenor of the Acts of the States, the Commissions produced by the several deputations all proved this. And this limitation of the power to an amendment of the Confederacy, marked the opinion of the States, that it was unnecessary & improper to go farther. He was sure that this was the case with his State. N. York would never have concurred in sending deputies to the convention, if she had supposed the deliberations were to turn on a consolidation of the States, and a National Government.

2. was it probable that the States would adopt & ratify a scheme, which they had never authorized us to propose? and which so far exceeded what they regarded as sufficient? We see by their several Acts particularly in relation to the plan of revenue proposed by Cong. in 1783, not authorized by the Articles of Confederation, what were the ideas they then entertained. Can so great a change be supposed to have already taken place. To rely on any change which is hereafter to take place in the sentiments of the people would be trusting to too great an uncertainty. We know only what their present sentiments are. And it is in vain to propose what will not accord with these. The States will never feel a sufficient confidence in a general Government to give it a negative on their laws. The Scheme is itself totally novel. There is no parallel to it to be found. The authority of Congress is familiar to the people, and an augmentation of the powers of Congress will be readily approved by them.

Mr. PATTERSON, said as he had on a former occasion given his sentiments on the plan proposed by Mr. R. he would now avoiding repetition as much as possible give his reasons in favor of that proposed by himself. He preferred it because it accorded 1.4 with the powers of the Convention, 2 4 with the sentiments of the people. If the confederacy was radically wrong, let us return to our States, and obtain larger powers, not assume them of ourselves. I came here not to speak my own sentiments, but the sentiments of those who sent me. Our object is not such a Governmt. as may be best in itself, but such a one as our Constituents have authorized us to prepare, and as they will approve. If we argue the matter on the supposition that no Confederacy at present exists, it can not be denied that all the States stand on the footing of equal sovereignty. All therefore must concur before any can be bound. If a proportional representation be right, why do we not vote so here? If we argue on the fact that a federal compact actually exists, and consult the articles of it we still find an equal Sovereignty to be the basis of it. He reads the 5th. art: of5 Confederation giving each State a vote- & the 13th. declaring that no alteration shall be made without unanimous consent. This is the nature of all treaties. What is unanimously done, must be unanimously undone. It was observed by Mr. Wilson that the larger States gave up the point, not because it was right, but because the circumstances of the moment urged the concession. Be it so. Are they for that reason at liberty to take it back. Can the donor resume his gift without the consent of the donee. This doctrine may be convenient, but it is a doctrine that will sacrifice the lesser States. The large States acceded readily to the confederacy. It was the small ones that came in reluctantly and slowly. N. Jersey & Maryland were the two last, the former objecting to the want of power in Congress over trade: both of them to the want of power to appropriate the vacant territory to the benefit of the whole. -If the sovereignty of the States is to be maintained, the Representatives must be drawn immediately from the States, not from the people: and we have no power to vary the idea of equal sovereignty. The only expedient that will cure the difficulty, is that of throwing the States into Hotchpot. To say that this is impracticable, will not make it so. Let it be tried, and we shall see whether the Citizens of Massts. Pena. & Va. accede to it. It will be objected that Coercion will be impracticable. But will it be more so in one plan than the other? Its efficacy will depend on the quantum of power collected, not on its being drawn from the States, or from the individuals; and according to his plan it may be exerted on individuals as well as according6 that of Mr. R. A distinct executive & Judiciary also were equally provided by his plan. It is urged that two branches in the Legislature are necessary. Why? for the purpose of a check. But the reason of7 the precaution is not applicable to this case. Within a particular State, where party heats prevail, such a check may be necessary. In such a body as Congress it is less necessary, and besides, the delegations of the different States are checks on each other. Do the people at large complain of Congs.? No, what they wish is that Congs. may have more power. If the power now proposed be not eno’, the people hereafter will make additions to it. With proper powers Congs. will act with more energy & wisdom than the proposed Natl. Legislature; being fewer in number, and more secreted & refined by the mode of election. The plan of Mr. R. will also be enormously expensive. Allowing Georgia & Del. two representatives each in the popular branch the aggregate number of that branch will be 180. Add to it half as many for the other branch and you have 270. members coming once at least a year from the most distant as well as the most central parts of the republic. In the present deranged state of our finances can so expensive a system be seriously though of? By enlarging the powers of Congs. the greatest part of this expence will be saved, and all purposes will be answered. At least a trial ought to be made.

Mr. WILSON entered into a contrast of the principal points of the two plans so far he said as there had been time to examine the one last proposed. These points were 1. in the Virga. plan there are 2 & in some degree 3 branches in the Legislature: in the plan from N. J. there is to be a single legislature only-2. Representation of the people at large is the basis of the8 one: -the State Legislatures, the pillars of the other-3. proportional representation prevails in one: -equality of suffrage in the other-4. A single Executive Magistrate is at the head of the one: -a plurality is held out in the other.-5. in the one the9 majority of the people of the U. S. must prevail: -in the other a minority may prevail. 6. the Natl. Legislature is to make laws in all cases to which the separate States are incompetent &-: -in place of this Congs. are to have additional power in a few cases only-7. A negative on the laws of the States: -in place of this coertion to be substituted -8. The Executive to be removeable on impeachment & conviction; -in one plan: in the other to be removeable at the instance of10 majority of the Executives of the States-9. Revision of the laws provided for in one: -no such check in the other-10. inferior national tribunals in one: -none such in the other. 11. In ye. one jurisdiction of Natl. tribunals to extend &c-; an appellate jurisdiction only allowed in the other. 12. Here the jurisdiction is to extend to all cases affecting the Nationl. peace & harmony: there, a few cases only are marked out. 13. finally ye. ratification is in this to be by the people themselves: -in that by the legislative authorities according to the 13 art: of11 Confederation.

With regard to the power of the Convention, he conceived himself authorized to conclude nothing, but to be at liberty to propose any thing. In this particular he felt himself perfectly indifferent to the two plans.

With regard to the sentiments of the people, he conceived it difficult to know precisely what they are. Those of the particular circle in which one moved, were commonly mistaken for the general voice. He could not persuade himself that the State Govts. & Sovereignties were so much the idols of the people, nor a Natl. Govt. so obnoxious to them, as some supposed. Why sd. a Natl. Govt. be unpopular? Has it less dignity? will each Citizen enjoy under it less liberty or protection? Will a Citizen of Delaware be degraded by becoming a Citizen of the United States?12 Where do the people look at present for relief from the evils of which they complain? Is it from an internal reform of their Govts.? no, Sir. It is from the Natl. Councils that relief is expected. For these reasons he did not fear, that the people would not follow us into a national Govt. and it will be a further recommendation of Mr. R.’s plan that it is to be submitted to them, and not to the Legislatures, for ratification.

proceeding now to the 1st point on which he had contrasted the two plans, he observed that anxious as he was for some augmentation of the federal powers, it would be with extreme reluctance indeed that he could ever consent to give powers to Congs. he had two reasons either of wch. was sufficient. 1.13 Congs. as a Legislative body does not stand on the people. 2.13 it is a single body. 1. He would not repeat the remarks he had formerly made on the principles of Representation. he would only say that an inequality in it, has ever been a poison contaminating every branch of Govt. In G. Britain where this poison has had a full operation, the security of private rights is owing entirely to the purity of Her tribunals of Justice, the Judges of which are neither appointed nor paid, by a venal Parliament. The political liberty of that Nation, owing to the inequality of representation is at the mercy of its rulers. He means not to insinuate that there is any parallel between the situation of that Country & ours at present. But it is a lesson we ought not to disregard, that the smallest bodies in G. B. are notoriously the most corrupt. Every other source of influence must also be stronger in small than14 large bodies of men. When Lord Chesterfield had told us that one of the Dutch provinces had been seduced into the views of France, he need not have added, that it was not Holland, but one of the smallest of them. There are facts among ourselves which are known to all. Passing over others, he15 will only remark that the Impost, so anxiously wished for by the public was defeated not by any of the larger States in the Union. 2. Congress is a single Legislature. Despotism comes on Mankind in different Shapes, sometimes in an Executive, sometimes in a Military, one. Is there no danger of a Legislative despotism? Theory & practice both proclaim it. If the Legislative authority be not restrained, there can be neither liberty nor stability; and it can only be restrained by dividing it within itself, into distinct and independent branches. In a single House there is no check, but the inadequate one, of the virtue & good sense of those who compose it.

On another great point, the contrast was equally favorable to the plan reported by the Committee of the whole. It vested the Executive powers in a single Magistrate. The plan of N. Jersey, vested them in a plurality. In order to controul the Legislative authority, you must divide it. In order to controul the Executive you must unite it. One man will be more responsible than three. Three will contend among themselves till one becomes the master of his colleagues. In the triumvirates of Rome first Caesar, then Augustus, are witnesses of this truth. The Kings of Sparta, & the Consuls of Rome prove also the factious consequences of dividing the Executive Magistracy. Having already taken up so much time he wd. not he sd. proceed to any of the other points. Those on which he had dwelt, are sufficient of themselves: and on a decision of them, the fate of the others will depend.

Mr. PINKNEY, the whole comes to this, as he conceived. Give N. Jersey an equal vote, and she will dismiss her scruples, and concur in the Natil. system. He thought the Convention authorized to go any length in recommending, which they found necessary to remedy the evils which produced this Convention.

ority of the Executives of the States-9. Revision of the laws provided for in one: -no such check in the other-10. inferior national tribunals in one: -none such in the other. 11. In ye. one jurisdiction of Natl. tribunals to extend &c-; an appellate jurisdiction only allowed in the other. 12. Here the jurisdiction is to extend to all cases affecting the Nationl. peace & harmony: there, a few cases only are marked out. 13. finally ye. ratification is in this to be by the people themselves: -in that by the legislative authorities according to the 13 art: of11Confederation.

With regard to the power of the Convention, he conceived himself authorized to conclude nothing, but to be at liberty to propose any thing. In this particular he felt himself perfectly indifferent to the two plans.

With regard to the sentiments of the people, he conceived it difficult to know precisely what they are. Those of the particular circle in which one moved, were commonly mistaken for the general voice. He could not persuade himself that the State Govts. & Sovereignties were so much the idols of the people, nor a Natl. Govt. so obnoxious to them, as some supposed. Why sd. a Natl. Govt. be unpopular? Has it less dignity? will each Citizen enjoy under it less liberty or protection? Will a Citizen of Delaware be degraded by becoming a Citizen of the United States?12 Where do the people look at present for relief from the evils of which they complain? Is it from an internal reform of their Govts.? no, Sir. It is from the Natl. Councils that relief is expected. For these reasons he did not fear, that the people would not follow us into a national Govt. and it will be a further recommendation of Mr. R.’s plan that it is to be submitted to them, and not to the Legislatures, for ratification.

Mr. ELSEWORTH proposed as a more distinctive form of collecting the mind of the Committee on the subject, “that the Legislative power of the U. S. should remain in Congs.” This was not seconded though it seemed better calculated for the purpose than the 1st. proposition of Mr. Patterson in place of which Mr. E. wished to substitute it.

Mr. RANDOLPH, was not scrupulous on the point of power. When the salvation of the Republic was at stake, it would be treason to our trust, not to propose what we found necessary. He painted in strong colours, the imbecility of the existing Confederacy, & the danger of delaying a substantial reform. In answer to the objection drawn from the sense of our Constituents as denoted by their acts relating to the Convention and the objects of their deliberation, he observed that as each State acted separately in the case, it would have been indecent for it to have charged the existing Constitution with all the vices which it might have perceived in it. The first State that set on foot this experiment would not have been justified in going so far, ignorant as it was of the opinion of others, and sensible as it must have been of the uncertainty of a successful issue to the experiment. There are certainly seasons16 of a peculiar nature where the ordinary cautions must be dispensed with; and this is certainly one of them. He wd. not as far as depended on him leave any thing that seemed necessary, undone. The present moment is favorable, and is probably the last that will offer. The true question is whether we shall adhere to the federal plan, or introduce the national plan. The insufficiency of the former has been fully displayed by the trial already made. There are but two modes, by which the end of a Genl. Govt. can be attained: the 1st. is17 by coercion as proposed by Mr. P.s plan 2.18 by real legislation as propd. by the other plan. Coercion he pronounced to be impracticable, expensive, cruel to individuals. It tended also to habituate the instruments of it to shed the blood & riot in the spoils of their fellow Citizens, and consequently trained them up for the service of ambition. We must resort therefor to a National19 Legislation over individuals, for which Congs. are unfit. To vest such power in them, would be blending the Legislative with the Executive, contrary to the recd. maxim on this subject: If the Union of these powers heretofore in Congs. has been safe, it has been owing to the general impotency of that body. Congs. are moreover not elected by the people, but by the Legislatures who retain even a power of recall. They have therefore no will of their own, they are a mere diplomatic body, and are always obsequious to the views of the States, who are always encroaching on the authority of the U. States. A provision for harmony among the States, as in trade, naturalization &c.-for crushing rebellion

whenever it may rear its crest-and for certain other general benefits, must be made. The powers for these purposes, can never be given to a body, inadequate as Congress are in point of representation, elected in the mode in which they are, and possessing no more confidence than they do: for notwithstanding what has been said to the contrary, his own experience satisfied him that a rooted distrust of Congress pretty generally prevailed. A Natl. Govt. alone, properly constituted, will answer the purpose; and he begged it to be considered that the present is the last moment for establishing one. After this select experiment, the people will yield to despair.

The Committee rose & the House adjourned.


1 The word “the” is here inserted in the transcript. Return to text

2 The word “to” is substituted in the transcript for “agst.” Return to text

3 The figure “1″ are changed to “first” and “secondly” in the transcript. Return to text

4 The figures “1″ and “2″ are changed to “first” and “secondly” in the transcript. Return to text

5 The word “the” is here inserted in the transcript. Return to text

6 The word “to” is here inserted in the transcript. Return to text

7 The word “for” is substituted in the transcript for “of.” Return to text

8 The word “the” is omitted in the transcript. Return to text

9 The word “a” is substituted in the transcript for “the.” Return to text

10 The word “a” is here inserted in the transcript. Return to text

11 The word “the” is here inserted in the transcript. Return to text

12 The transcript does not italicize the word “States.” Return to text

13 The figures “1″ and “2″ are changed to “first” and “secondly” in the transcript. Return to text

14 The word “in” is here inserted in the transcript.  Return to text

15 The word “we” is substituted in the transcript for “he.” Return to text

16 The words “certainly seasons” are transposed to read “seasons certainly” in the transcript; but the word “seasons” was erroneously printed “reasons,” which error has been followed in other editions of Madison’s notes. Return to text

17 The word “is” is omitted in the transcript. Return to text

18 The figure “2″ is changed to “the second” in the transcript. Return to text

19 The transcript italicizes the word “National.” Return to text


Previous Day | Full Calendar | Next Day


Contents

Introduction

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 Notes on the Convention.

Interactive Map of Historic Philadelphia in the Late 18th Century

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

View Interactive

TeachingAmericanHistory.org is a project of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University

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

info@TeachingAmericanHistory.org