Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787

by James Madison


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Monday, June 25

In Convention, — The fourth Resolution being taken up, –

Mr. PINCKNEY spoke as follows:

The efficacy of the system will depend on this article. In order to form a right judgment in the case, it will be proper to examine the situation of this country more accurately than it has yet been done.

The people of the United States are perhaps the most singular of any we are acquainted with. Among them there are fewer distinctions of fortune, and less of rank, than among the inhabitants of any other nation. Every freeman has a right to the same protection and security; and a very moderate share of property entitles them to the possession of all the honors and privileges the public can bestow. Hence, arises a greater equality than is to be found among the people of any other country; and an equality which is more likely to continue. I say, this equality is likely to continue; because in a new country, possessing immense tracts of uncultivated lands, where every temptation is offered to emigration, and where industry must be rewarded with competency, there will be few poor, and few dependent. Every member of the society almost will enjoy an equal power of arriving at the supreme offices, and consequently of directing the strength and sentiments of the whole community. None will be excluded by birth, and few by fortune, from voting for proper persons to fill the offices of government. The whole community will enjoy, in the fullest sense, that kind of political liberty which consists in the power, the members of the State reserve to themselves, of arriving at the public offices, or at least, of having votes in the nomination of those who fill them.

If this state of things is true, and the prospect of its continuance probable, it is perhaps not politic to endeavor too close an imitation of a government calculated for a people whose situation is, and whose views ought to be, extremely different.

Much has been said of the Constitution of Great Britain. I will confess that I believe it to be the best constitution in existence; but, at the same time, I am confident it is one that will not or cannot be introduced into this country for many centuries. If it were proper to go here into an historical dissertation on the British Constitution, it might easily be shown that the peculiar excellence, the distinguishing feature, of that government cannot possibly be introduced into our system — that its balance between the Crown and the people cannot be made a part of our Constitution, — that we neither have nor can have the members to compose it, nor the rights, privileges and properties of so distinct a class of citizens to guard, — that the materials for forming this balance or check do not exist, nor is there a necessity for having so permanent a part of our Legislative, until the Executive power is so constituted as to have something fixed and dangerous in its principle. By this I mean a sole, hereditary, though limited Executive.

That we cannot have a proper body for forming a Legislative balance between the inordinate power of the Executive and the people, is evident from a review of the accidents and circumstances which gave rise to the peerage of Great Britain. I believe it is well ascertained, that the parts which compose the British Constitution arose immediately from the forests of Germany; but the antiquity of the establishment of nobility is by no means clearly defined. Some authors are of opinion that the dignity denoted by the titles of dux and comes, was derived from the old Roman, to the German, Empire; while others are of opinion that they existed among the Germans long before the Romans were acquainted with them. The institution, however, of nobility is immemorial among the nations who may properly be termed the ancestors of Great Britain. At the time they were summoned in England to become a part of the national council, the circumstances which contributed to make them a constituent part of that Constitution, must be well known to all gentlemen who have had industry and curiosity enough to investigate the subject. The nobles, with their possessions and dependents, composed a body permanent in their nature, and formidable in point of power. They had a distinct interest both from the King and the people, — an interest which could only be represented by themselves, and the guardianship of which could not be safely intrusted to others. At the time they were originally called to form a part of the national council, necessity perhaps, as much as other causes induced the monarch to look up to them. It was necessary to demand the aid of his subjects in personal and pecuniary services. The power and possessions of the nobility would not permit taxation from any assembly of which they were not a part: and the blending of the deputies of the commons with them, and thus forming what they called their parler-ment, was perhaps as much the effect of chance as of any thing else. The commons were at that time completely subordinate to the nobles, whose consequence and influence seem to have been the only reasons for their superiority; a superiority so degrading to the commons, that in the first summons, we find the peers are called upon to consult, the commons to consent. From this time the peers have composed a part of the British Legislature; and, notwithstanding their power and influence have diminished, and those of the commons have increased, yet still they have always formed an excellent balance against either the encroachments of the Crown or the people.

I have said that such a body cannot exist in this country for ages; and that until the situation of our people is exceedingly changed, no necessity will exist for so permanent a part of the Legislature. To illustrate this, I have remarked that the people of the United States are more equal in their circumstances than the people of any other country; that they have very few rich men among them — by rich men I mean those whose riches may have a dangerous influence, or such as are esteemed rich in Europe — perhaps there are not one hundred such on the continent; that it is not probable this number will be greatly increased; that the genius of the people, their mediocrity of situation, and the prospects which are afforded their industry, in a country which must be a new one for centuries, are unfavorable to the rapid distinction of ranks. The destruction of the right of primogeniture, and the equal division of the property of intestates, will also have an effect to preserve this mediocrity; for laws invariably affect the manners of people. On the other hand, that vast extent of unpeopled territory, which opens to the frugal and industrious a sure road to competency and independence, will effectually prevent, for a considerable time, the increase of the poor or discontented, and be the means of preserving that equality of condition which so eminently distinguishes us.

If equality is, as I contend, the leading feature of the United States, where, then, are the riches and wealth whose representation and protection is the peculiar province of this permanent body? Are they in the hands of the few who may be called rich, — in the possession of less than a hundred citizens? Certainly not. They are in the great body of the people, among whom there are no men of wealth, and very few of real poverty. Is it probable that a change will be created, and that a new order of men will arise? If under the British government for a century, no such change was produced, I think it may be fairly concluded it will not take place while even the semblance of republicanism remains. How is this change to be effected? Where are the sources from whence it is to flow? From the landed interest? No. That is too unproductive, and too much divided in most of the States. From the moneyed interest? If such exist at present, little is to be apprehended from that source. Is it to spring from commerce? I believe it would be the first instance in which a nobility sprang from merchants. Besides, sir, I apprehend that on this point the policy of the United States has been much mistaken. We have unwisely considered ourselves as the inhabitants of an old, instead of a new, country. We have adopted the maxims of a state full of people, and manufactures, and established in credit. We have deserted our true interest, and instead of applying closely to those improvements in domestic policy which would have insured the future importance of our commerce, we have rashly and prematurely engaged in schemes as extensive as they are imprudent. This, however, is an error which daily corrects itself; and I have no doubt that a few more severe trials will convince us, that very different commercial principles ought to govern the conduct of these States.

The people of this country are not only very different from the inhabitants of any state we are acquainted with in the modern world, but I assert that their situation is distinct from either the people of Greece or Rome, or of any states we are acquainted with among the ancients. Can the orders introduced by the institution of Solon, can they be found in the United States? Can the military habits and manners of Sparta be resembled to ours in habits and manners? Are the distinction of patrician and plebeian known among us? Can the Helvetic or Belgic confederacies, or can the unwieldly, unmeaning body called the Germanic Empire, can they be said to possess either the same, or a situation like ours? I apprehend, not. They are perfectly different, in their distinctions of rank, their constitutions, their manners, and their policy.

Our true situation appears to me to be this, — a new extensive country, containing within itself the materials for forming a government capable of extending to its citizens all the blessings of civil and religious liberty — capable of making them happy at home. This is the great end of republican establishments. We mistake the object of our Government, if we hope or wish that it is to make us respectable abroad. Conquests or superiority among other powers is not, or ought not ever to be, the object of republican systems. If they are sufficiently active and energetic to rescue us from contempt, and preserve our domestic happiness and security, it is all we can expect from them, — it is more than almost any other government insures to its citizens.

I believe this observation will be found generally true, — that no two people are so exactly alike in their situation or circumstances, at to admit the exercise of the same government with equal benefit; that a system must be suited to the habits and genius of the people it is to govern, and must grow out of them.

The people of the United States may be divided into three classes, — professional men, who must, from their particular pursuits, always have a considerable weight in the government, while it remains popular, — commercial men, who may or may not have weight, as a wise or injudicious commercial policy is pursued. If that commercial policy is pursued which I conceive to be the true one, the merchants of this country will not, or ought not, for a considerable time, to have much weight in the political scale. The third is the landed interest, the owners and cultivators of the soil, who are, and ought ever to be, the governing spring in the system. These three classes, however distinct in their pursuits, are individually equal in the political scale, and may be easily proved to have but one interest. The dependence of each on the other is mutual. The merchant depends on the planter. Both must, in private as well as public affairs, be connected with the professional men; who in their turn must in some measure depend on them. Hence it is clear, from this manifest connexion, and the equality which I before stated exists, and must, for the reasons then assigned, continue, that after all there is one, but one great and equal body of citizens composing the inhabitants of this country, among whom there are no distinctions of rank, and very few or none of fortune.

For a people thus circumstanced are we, then, to form a Government; and the question is, what sort of government is best suited to them?

Will it be the British Government? No. Why? Because Great Britain contains three orders of people distinct in their situation, their possessions, and their principles. These orders, combined, form the great body of the nation; and as in national expenses the wealth of the whole community must contribute, so ought each component part to be duly and properly represented. No other combination of power could form this due representation but the one that exists. Neither the peers or the people could represent the royalty; nor could the royalty and the people form a proper representation for the peers. Each, therefore, must of necessity be represented by itself, or the sign of itself; and this accidental mixture has certainly formed a Government admirably well balanced.

But the United States contain but one order that can be assimilated to the British nation — this is, the order of Commons. They will not, surely, then, attempt to form a Government consisting of three branches two of which shall have nothing to represent. They will not have an Executive and Senate [hereditary], because the King and Lords of England are so. The same reasons do not exist, and therefore the same provisions are not necessary.

We must, as has been observed, suit our Government to the people it is to direct. These are, I believe, as active, intelligent and susceptible of good government as any people in the world. The confusion which has produced the present relaxed state is not owing to them. It is owing to the weakness and [defects] of a government incapable of combining the various interests it is intended to unite, and destitute of energy. All that we have to do, then, is to distribute the powers of government in such a manner, and for such limited periods, as, while it gives a proper degree of permanency to the magistrate, will reserve to the people the right of election they will not or ought not frequently to part with. I am of opinion that this may easily be done; and that, with some amendments, the propositions before the Committee will fully answer this end.

No position appears to me more true than this; that the General Government cannot effectually exist without reserving to the States the possession of their local rights. They are the instruments upon which the Union must frequently depend for the support and execution of their powers, however immediately operating upon the people, and not upon the States.

Much has been said about the propriety of abolishing the distinction of State Governments, and having but one general system. Suffer me for a moment to examine this question. 1

The mode of constituting the second branch being under consideration, the word “national” was struck out, and “United States” inserted.

Mr. GORHAM inclined to a compromise as to the rule of proportion. He thought there was some weight in the objections of the small States. If Virginia should have sixteen votes, and Delaware with several other States together sixteen, those from Virginia would be more likely to unite than the others, and would therefore have an undue influence. This remark was applicable not only to States, but to counties or other districts of the same State. Accordingly the Constitution of Massachusetts, had provided that the representatives of the larger districts should not be in an exact ratio to their numbers; and experience, he thought, had shown the provision to be expedient.

Mr. READ. The States have heretofore been in a sort of partnership. They ought to adjust their old affairs before they opened a new account. He brought into view the appropriation of the common interest in the western lands to the use of particular States. Let justice be done on this head; let the fund be applied fairly and equally to the discharge of the general debt; and the smaller States, who had been injured, would listen then, perhaps, to those ideas of just representation which had been held out.

Mr. GORHAM could not see how the Convention could interpose in the case. Errors he allowed had been committed on the subject. But Congress were now using their endeavors to rectify them. The best remedy would be such a government as would have vigor enough to do justice throughout. This was certainly the best chance that could be afforded-to the smaller States.

Mr. WILSON. The question is, shall the members of the second branch be chosen by the Legislatures of the States? When he considered the amazing extent of country — the immense population which is to fill it — the influence of the Government we are to form will have, not only on the present generation of our people and their multiplied posterity, but on the whole globe, — he was lost in the magnitude of the object. The project of Henry IV. and his statesmen, was but the picture in miniature of the great portrait to be exhibited. He was opposed to an election by the State Legislatures. In explaining his reasons, it was necessary to observe the twofold relation in which the people would stand, — first, as citizens of the General Government; and, secondly, as citizens of their particular State. The General Government was meant for them in the first capacity: the State Governments in the second. Both governments were derived from the people — both meant for the people — both therefore ought to be regulated on the same principles. The same train of ideas which belonged to the relation of the citizens to their State Governments, were applicable to their relation to the General Government; and in forming the latter we ought to proceed by abstracting as much as possible from the idea of the State Governments. With respect to the province and object of the General Government they should be considered as having no existence. The election of the second branch by the Legislatures will introduce and cherish local interests and local prejudices. The General Government is not an assemblage of States, but of individuals, for certain political purposes; it is not meant for the States, but for the individuals composing them; the individuals, therefore, not the States, ought to be represented in it. A proportion in this representation can be preserved in the second, as well as in the first, branch; and the election can be made by electors chosen by the people for that purpose. He moved an amendment to that effect; which was not seconded.

Mr. ELLSWORTH saw no reason for departing from the mode contained in the Report. Whoever chooses the member, he will be a citizen of the State he is to represent; and will feel the same spirit, and act the same part, whether he be appointed by the people or the Legislature. Every State has its particular views and prejudices, which will find their way into the general council, through whatever channel they may flow. Wisdom was one of the characteristics which it was in contemplation to give the second branch, — would not more of it issue from the Legislatures than from an immediate election by the people? He urged the necessity of maintaining the existence and agency of the States. Without their co-operation it would be impossible to support a republican government over so great an extent of country. An army could scarcely render it practicable. The largest States are the worst governed. Virginia is obliged to acknowledge her incapacity to extend her government to Kentucky. Massachusetts cannot keep the peace one hundred miles from her capital, and is now forming an army for its support. How long Pennsylvania may be free from a like situation, cannot be foreseen. If the principles and materials of our Government are not adequate to the extent of these single States, how can it be imagined that they can support a single government throughout the United States? The only chance of supporting a General Government lies in grafting it on those of the individual States.

Doctor JONHSON urged the necessity of preserving the State Governments, which would be at the mercy of the General Government on Mr. WILSON’S plan.

Mr. MADISON thought it would obviate difficulty if the present Resolution were postponed, and the eighth taken up, which is to fix the right of suffrage in the second branch.

Mr. WILLIAMSON professed himself a friend to such a system as would secure the existence of the State Governments. The happiness of the people depended on it. He was at a loss to give his vote as to the Senate until he knew the number of its members. In order to ascertain this, he moved to insert, after “second branch of the National Legislature,” the words, “who shall bear such proportion to the number of the first branch as one to —.” He was not seconded.

Mr. MASON. It has been agreed on all hands that an efficient government is necessary; that, to render it such, it ought to have the faculty of self-defence; that to render its different branches effectual, each of them ought to have the same power of self-defence. He did not wonder that such an agreement should have prevailed on these points. He only wondered that there should be any disagreement about the necessity of allowing the State Governments the same self-defence. If they are to be preserved, as he conceived to be essential, they certainly ought to have this power; and the only mode left of giving it to them was by allowing them to appoint the second branch of the National Legislature.

Mr. BUTLER, observing that we were put to difficulties at every step by the uncertainty whether an equality or a ratio of representation would prevail finally in the second branch, moved to postpone the fourth Resolution, and to proceed to the eighth Resolution on that point. Mr. MADISON seconded him.

On the question, — New York, Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, aye — 4; Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, no — 7. 

On a question to postpone the fourth, and take up the seventh, Resolution, — Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, aye — 5; Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, no — 6.

On the question to agree, “that the members of the second branch be chosen by the individual Legislatures.” — Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, aye — 9; Pennsylvania, Virginia, no — 2.2 On a question on the clause requiring the age of thirty years at least, — it was unanimously agreed to.

On a question to strike out the words, “sufficient to insure their independence,” after the word “term,” — it was agreed to.

The clause, that the second branch hold their offices for a term of “seven years,” being considered, —

Mr. GORHAM suggests a term of “four years,” one fourth to be elected every year.

Mr. RANDOLPH supported the idea of rotation, as favorable to the wisdom and stability of the corps; which might possibly be always sitting, and aiding the Executive, and moves, after “seven years,” to add, “to go out in fixed proportion;” which was agreed to.

Mr. WILLIAMSON suggests “six years,” as more convenient for rotation than seven years.

Mr. SHERMAN seconds him.

Mr. READ proposed that they should hold their offices “during good behaviour.” Mr. R. MORRIS seconds him.

General PINCKNEY proposed “four years.” A longer time would fix them at the seat of government. They would acquire an interest there, perhaps transfer their property, and lose sight of the States they represent. Under these circumstances, the distant States would labor under great disadvantages.

Mr. SHERMAN moved to strike out “seven years,” in order to take questions on the several propositions.

On the question to strike out “seven,” — Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, aye — 7; Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, no — 3; Maryland, divided.

On the question to insert “six years,” which failed five States being, aye; five, no; and one, divided, — Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, aye — 5; Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, South Carolina, Georgia, no — 5; Maryland divided.

On a motion to adjourn, the votes were, five for, five against it; and one divided, — Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, aye — 5; Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, no — 5; Maryland divided.

On the question for “five years,” it was lost, — Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, aye — 5; Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, South Carolina, Georgia, no — 5; Maryland divided.

Adjourned.


1 The residue of this speech was not furnished, like the above, by Mr. Pinckney. Return to text

2 It must be kept in view that the largest States, particularly Pennsylvania and Virginia, always considered the choice of the second branch by the State Legislatures as opposed to a proportional representation, to which they were attached as a fundamental principle of just government. The smaller States, who had opposite views, were reinforced by the members from the large States most anxious to secure the importance of the State Governments. Return to text


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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 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

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