Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787
by James Madison
Thursday, June 21
IN CONVENTION3 Docr. JOHNSON. On a comparison of the two plans which had been proposed from Virginia & N. Jersey, it appeared that the peculiarity which characterized the latter was its being calculated to preserve the individuality of the States. The plan from Va. did not profess to destroy this individuality altogether, but was charged with such a tendency. One Gentleman alone ( Col. Hamilton) in his animadversions on the plan of N. Jersey, boldly and decisively contended for an abolition of the State Govts. Mr. Wilson & the gentlemen from Virga. who also were adversaries of the plan of N. Jersey held a different language. They wished to leave the States in possession of a considerable, tho’ a subordinate jurisdiction. They had not yet however shewn how this cd. consist with, or be secured agst. the general sovereignty & jurisdiction, which they proposed to give to the national Government. If this could be shewn in such a manner as to satisfy the patrons of the N. Jersey propositions, that the individuality of the States would not be endangered, many of their objections would no doubt be removed. If this could not be shewn their objections would have their full force. He wished it therefore to be well considered whether in case the States, as was proposed, shd. retain some portion of sovereignty at least, this portion could be preserved, without allowing them to participate effectually in the Genl. Govt., without giving them each a distinct and equal vote for the purpose of defending themselves in the general Councils.
Mr. WILSON’S respect for Docr. Johnson, added to the importance of the subject led him to attempt, unprepared as he was, to solve the difficulty which had been started. It was asked how the Genl. Govt. and individuality of the particular States could be reconciled to each other; and how the latter could be secured agst the former? Might it not, on the other side be asked how the former was to be secured agst. the latter? It was generally admitted that a jealousy & rivalship would be felt between the Genl. & particular Govts. As the plan now stood, tho’ indeed contrary to his opinion, one branch of the Genl. Govt. (the Senate or second branch) was to be appointed by the State Legislatures. The State Legislatures, therefore, by this participation in the Genl. Govt. would have an opportunity of defending their rights. Ought not a reciprocal opportunity to be given to the Genl. Govt. of defending itself by having an appointment of some one constituent branch of the State Govts. If a security be necessary on one side, it wd. seem reasonable to demand it on the other. But taking the matter in a more general view, he saw no danger to the States from the Genl. Govt. In case a combination should be made by the large ones it wd. produce a general alarm among the rest; and the project wd. be frustrated. But there was no temptation to such a project. The States having in general a similar interest, in case of any proposition4 in the National Legislature to encroach on the State Legislatures, he conceived a general alarm wd. take place in the National Legislature itself, that it would communicate itself to the State Legislatures, and wd. finally spread among the people at large. The Genl. Govt. will be as ready to preserve the rights of the States as the latter are to preserve the rights of individuals; all the members of the former, having a common interest, as representatives of all the people of the latter, to leave the State Govts. in possession of what the people wish them to retain. He could not discover, therefore any danger whatever on the side from which it had been5 apprehended. On the contrary, he conceived that in spite of every precaution the general Govt. would be in perpetual danger of encroachments from the State Govts.
Mr. MADISON was of the opinion6 that there was 1. less danger of encroachment from the Genl. Govt. than from the State Govts. 2.7 that the mischief from encroachments would be less fatal if made by the former, than if made by the latter. 1. All the examples of other confederacies prove the greater tendency in such systems to anarchy than to tyranny; to a disobedience of the members than to8 usurpations of the federal head. Our own experience had fully illustrated this tendency. -But it will be said that the proposed change in the principles & form of the Union will vary the tendency; that the Genl. Govt. will have real & greater powers, and will be derived in one branch at least from the people, not from the Govts. of the States. To give full force to this objection, let it be supposed for a moment that indefinite power should be given to the Genl. Legislature, and the States reduced to corporations dependent on the Genl. Legislature; Why shd. it follow that the Genl. Govt. wd. take from the States any branch of their power as far as its operation was beneficial, and its continuance desireable to the people? In some of the States, particularly in Connecticut, all the Townships are incorporated, and have a certain limited jurisdiction. Have the Representatives of the people of the Townships in the Legislature of the State ever endeavored to despoil the Townships of any part of their local authority? As far as this local authority is convenient to the people they are attached to it; and their representatives chosen by & amenable to them naturally respect their attachment to this, as much as their attachment to any other right or interest. The relation of a General Govt. to State Govts. is parallel. 2. Guards were more necessary agst. encroachments of the State Govts. on the Genl. Govt. than of the latter on the former. The great objection made agst. an abolition of the State Govts. was that the Genl. Govt. could not extend its care to all the minute objects which fall under the cognizance of the local jurisdictions. The objection as stated lay not agst. the probable abuse of the general power, but agst. the imperfect use that could be made of it throughout so great an extent of country, and over so great a variety of objects. As far as as its operation would be practicable it could not in this view be improper; as far as it would be impracticable, the conveniency9 of the Genl. Govt. itself would concur with that of the people in the maintenance of subordinate Governments. Were it practicable for the Genl. Govt. to extend its care to every requisite object without the cooperation of the State Govts. the people would not be less free as members of one great Republic than as members of thirteen small ones. A Citizen of Delaware was not more free than a Citizen of Virginia: nor would either be more free than a Citizen of America. Supposing therefore a tendency in the Genl. Government to absorb the State Govts. no fatal10 consequence could result. Taking the reverse of11 the supposition, that a tendency should be left in the State Govts. towards an independence on the General Govt. and the gloomy consequences need not be pointed out. The imagination of them, must have suggested to the States the experiment we are now making to prevent the calamity, and must have formed the chief motive with those present to undertake the arduous task. On the question for resolving “that the Legislature ought to consist of two Branches”
Mass. ay. Cont. ay. N. Y. no. N. Jersey no Pa. ay. Del. no. Md. divd. Va. ay. N. C. ay. S. C. ay. Geo. ay.12
The third resolution of the Report13 taken into consideration.
Genl. PINKNEY moved “that the 1st. branch, instead of being elected by the people, shd. be elected in such manner as the Legislature of each State should direct.” He urged 1.14 that this liberty would give more satisfaction, as the Legislatures could then accomodate the mode to the conveniency15 & opinions of the people. 2.14 that it would avoid the undue influence of large Counties which would prevail if the elections were to be made in districts as must be the mode intended by the Report of the Committee. 3.14 that otherwise disputed elections must be referred to the General Legislature which would be attended with intolerable expence and trouble to the distant parts of the republic.
Mr. L. MARTIN seconded the Motion.
Col. HAMILTON considered the motion as intended manifestly to transfer the election from the people to the State Legislatures, which would essentially vitiate the plan. It would increase that State influence which could not be too watchfully guarded agst. All too must admit the possibility, in case the Genl. Govt. shd. maintain itself, that the State Govts. might gradually dwindle into nothing. The system therefore shd. not be engrafted on what might possibly fail.
Mr. MASON urged the necessity of retaining the election by the people. Whatever inconveniency16 may attend the democratic principle, it must actuate one part of the Govt. It is the only security for the rights of the people.
Mr. RUTLIDGE could not admit the solidity of the distinction between a mediate & immediate election by the people. It was the same thing to act by oneself, and to act by another. An election by the Legislature would be more refined than an election immediately by the people: and would be more likely to correspond with the sense of the whole community. If this Convention had been chosen by the people in districts it is not to be supposed that such proper characters would have been preferred. The Delegates to Congs. he thought had also been fitter men than would have been appointed by the people at large.
Mr. WILSON considered the election of the 1st. branch by the people not only as the corner Stone, but as the foundation of the fabric: and that the difference between a mediate & immediate election was immense. The difference was particularly worthy of notice in this respect: that the Legislatures are actuated not merely by the sentiment of the people; but have an official sentiment opposed to that of the Genl. Govt. and perhaps to that of the people themselves.
Mr. KING enlarged on the same distinction. He supposed the Legislatures wd. constantly choose men subservient to their own views as contrasted to the general interest; and that they might even devise modes of election that wd. be subversive of the end in view. He remarked several instances in which the views of a State might be at variance with those of the Genl. Govt.: and mentioned particularly a competition between the National & State debts, for the most certain & productive funds.
Genl. PINKNEY was for making the State Govts. a part of the General System. If they were to be abolished, or lose their agency, S. Carolina & other States would have but a small share of the benefits of Govt.
Massts. no. Cont. ay. N. Y. no. N. J. ay. Pa. no. Del. ay. Md. divd. Va. no. N. C. no. S. C. ay Geo. no.19
General PINKNEY then moved that the 1st. branch be elected by the people in such mode as the Legislatures should direct; but waved it on its being hinted that such a provision might be more properly tried in the detail of the plan.
On the question for ye. election of the 1st. branch by the people.”
Massts. ay. Cont. ay. N. Y. ay. N. J. no. Pa. ay. Del. ay. Md. divd. Va. ay. N. C. ay. S. C. ay Geo. ay.2018Election of the 1st. branch “for the term of three years,”21 considered
Mr. RANDOLPH moved to strike out, “three years” and insert “two years”-he was sensible that annual elections were a source of great mischiefs in the States, yet it was the want of such checks agst. the popular intemperence as were now proposed, that rendered them so mischievous. He would have preferred annual to biennial, but for the extent of the U. S. and the inconveniency22 which would result from them to the representatives of the extreme parts of the Empire. The people were attached to frequency of elections. All the Constitutions of the States except that of S. Carolina, had established annual elections.
Mr. DICKENSON. The idea of annual elections was borrowed from the antient usage of England, a country much less extensive than ours. He supposed biennial would be inconvenient. He preferred triennial: and in order to prevent the inconveniency 22 of an entire change of the whole number at the same moment, suggested a rotation, by an annual election of one third.
Mr. ELSEWORTH was opposed to three years, supposing that even one year was preferable to two years. The people were fond of frequent elections and might be safely indulged in one branch of the Legislature. He moved for 1 year.
Mr. STRONG seconded & supported the motion.
Mr. WILSON being for making the 1st. branch an effectual representation of the people at large, preferred an annual election of it. This frequency was most familiar & pleasing to the people. It would be not23 more inconvenient to them, than triennial elections, as the people in all the States have annual meetings with which the election of the National representatives might be made to co-incide. He did not conceive that it would be necessary for the Natl. Legisl: to sit constantly; perhaps not half-perhaps not one fourth of the year.
Mr. MADISON was persuaded that annual elections would be extremely inconvenient and apprehensive that biennial would be too much so: he did not mean inconvenient to the electors; but to the representatives. They would have to travel seven or eight hundred miles from the distant parts of the Union; and would probably not be allowed even a reimbursement of their expences. Besides, none of those who wished to be re-elected would remain at the seat of Governmt.; confiding that their absence would not affect them. The members of Congs. had done this with few instances of disappointment. But as the choice was here to be made by the people themselves who would be much less complaisant to individuals, and much more susceptible of impressions from the presence of a Rival candidate, it must be supposed that the members from the most distant States would travel backwards & forwards at least as often as the elections should be repeated. Much was to be said also on the time requisite for new members who would always form a large proportion, to acquire that knowledge of the affairs of the States in general without which their trust could not be usefully discharged.
Mr. SHERMAN preferred annual elections, but would be content with biennial. He thought the Representatives ought to return home and mix with the people. By remaining at the seat of Govt. they would acquire the habits of the place which might differ from those of their Constituents.
Col. MASON observed that the States being differently situated such a rule ought to be formed as would put them as nearly as possible on a level. If elections were annual the middle States would have a great advantage over the extreme ones. He wished them to be biennial; and the rather as in that case they would coincide with the periodical elections of S. Carolina as well of the other States.
Col. HAMILTON urged the necessity of 3 years. There ought to be neither too much nor too little dependence, on the popular sentiments. The checks in the other branches of Governt. would be but feeble, and would need every auxiliary principle that could be interwoven. The British House of Commons were elected septennially, yet the democratic spirit of ye. Constitution had not ceased. Frequency of elections tended to make the people listless to them; and to facilitate the success of little cabals. This evil was complained of in all the States. In Virga. it had
been lately found necessary to force the attendance & voting of the people by severe regulations.
On the question for striking out “three years”
Massts. ay. Cont. ay. N. Y. no. N. J. divd. Pa. ay. Del. no. Md. no. Va. ay. N. C. ay. S. C. ay. Geo. ay.24
The motion for “two years” was then inserted nem. con.
1 From June 21 to July 18 inclusive not copied by Mr. Eppes. Return to text 2 This footnote is omitted in the transcript. It refers to a copy of Madison’s journal made by John W. Eppes, Jefferson’s son-in-law, for Jefferson’s use some time between 1799 and 1810. “The Writings of James Madison, Hunt, Editor, Vol. VI (1906), 329, n; Documentary History of the Constitution, Vol. V (1905), 294-296. Return to text 3 The transcript here inserts the following: “The second Resolution in the Report from the Committee of the Whole, being under consideration.” Return to text 4 The transcript uses the word “proposition” in the plural. Return to text 5 The word “was” is substituted in the transcript for “had been.” Return to text 6 The phrase “in the first place” is here inserted in the transcript and the figure “1″ is omitted. Return to text 7 The figure “2″ is changed to “and in the second place” in the transcript. Return to text 8 The word “to” is omitted in the transcript. Return to text 9 The word “conveniency” is changed to “convenience” in the transcript. Return to text 10 The transcript italicizes the word “fatal.” Return to text 11 The word “as” is substituted in the transcript for “of” Return to text 12 In the transcript the vote reads: “Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, aye-7; New York, New Jersey, Delaware, no-3; Maryland, divided.” Return to text 13 The word “being” is here inserted in the transcript. Return to text 14 The figures “1,” “2″ and “3″ are changed to “first,” “secondly” and “thirdly” in the transcript. Return to text 15 The word “conveniency” is changed to “convenience” in the transcript. Return to text 16 The word “inconveniency” is changed to “inconvenience” in the transcript. Return to text 17 The word “the” is here inserted in the transcript. Return to text 18 The word “the” is here inserted in the transcript. Return to text 19 In the transcript the vote reads: “Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, South Carolina, aye-4; Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, no-6; Maryland, divided.” Return to text 20 In the transcript the vote reads: “Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, aye- 9; New Jersey, no-1; Maryland, divided.” Return to text 21 The word “being” is here inserted in the transcript. Return to text 22 The word “inconveniency” is changed to “inconvenience” in the transcript. Return to text 23 The words “be not” are transposed to read “not be” in the transcript. Return to text 24 In the transcript the vote reads: “Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, aye-7; New York, Delaware, Maryland, no-3; New Jersey, divided.” Return to text