Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787

by James Madison


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Tuesday, June 26

In Convention, — The duration of the second branch being under consideration,

Mr. GORHAM moved to fill the blank with “six years,” one-third of the members to go out every second year.

Mr. WILSON seconded the motion.

General PINCKNEY opposed six years, in favor of four years. The States, he said, had different interests. Those of the Southern, and of South Carolina in particular, were different from the Northern. If the Senators should be appointed for a long term, they would settle in the State where they exercised their functions, and would in a little time be rather the representatives of that, than of the State appointing them.

Mr. READ moved that the term be nine years. This would admit of a very convenient rotation, one third going out triennially. He would still prefer “during good behaviour;” but being little supported in that idea, he was willing to take the longest term that could be obtained.

Mr. BROOM seconded the motion.

Mr. MADISON. In order to judge of the form to be given to this institution, it will be proper to take a view of the ends to be served by it. These were, — first, to protect the people against their rulers, secondly, to protect the people against the transient impressions into which they themselves might be led. A people deliberating in a temperate moment, and with the experience of other nations before them, on the plan of government most likely to secure their happiness, would first be aware, that those charged with the public happiness might betray their trust. An obvious precaution against this danger would be, to divide the trust between different bodies of men, who might watch and check each other. In this they would be governed by the same prudence which has prevailed in organizing the subordinate departments of government, where all business liable to abuses is made to pass through separate hands, the one being a check on the other. It would next occur to such a people, that they themselves were liable to temporary errors, through want of information as to their true interest; and that men chosen for a short term, and employed but a small portion of that in public affairs, might err from the same cause. This reflection would naturally suggest, that the government be so constituted as that one of its branches might have an opportunity of acquiring a competent knowledge of the public interests. Another reflection equally becoming a people on such an occasion, would be, that they themselves, as well as a numerous body of representatives, were liable to err, also, from fickleness and passion. A necessary fence against this danger would be, to select a portion of enlightened citizens, whose limited number, and firmness, might seasonably interpose against impetuous counsels. It ought, finally, to occur to a people deliberating on a government for themselves, that as different interests necessarily result from the liberty meant to be secured, the major interest might, under sudden impulses, be tempted to commit injustice on the minority. In all civilized countries the people fall into different classes, having a real or supposed difference of interests. There will be creditors and debtors; farmers, merchants, and manufacturers. There will be, particularly, the distinction of rich and poor. It was true, as had been observed (by Mr. PINCKNEY), we had not among us those hereditary distinctions of rank which were a great source of the contests in the ancient governments, as well as the modern States of Europe; nor those extremes of wealth or poverty, which characterize the latter. We cannot, however, be regarded, even at this time, as one homogeneous mass, in which every thing that affects a part will affect in the same manner the whole. In framing a system which we wish to last for ages, we should not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce. An increase of population will of necessity increase the proportion of those who will labor under all the hardships of life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings. These may in time outnumber those who are placed above the feelings of indigence. According to the equal laws of suffrage, the power will slide into the hands of the former. No agrarian attempts have yet been made in this country; but symptoms of a levelling spirit, as we have understood, have sufficiently appeared in a certain quarter, to give notice of the future danger. How is this danger to be guarded against, on the republican principles? How is the danger, in all cases of interested coalitions to oppress the minority, to be guarded against? Among other means, by the establishment of a body, in the government, sufficiently respectable for its wisdom and virtue to aid, on such emergencies, the preponderance of justice, by throwing its weight into that scale. Such being the objects of the second branch in the proposed Government, he thought a considerable duration ought to be given to it. He did not conceive that the term of nine years could threaten any real danger; but, in pursuing his particular ideas on the subject, he should require that the long term allowed to the second branch should not commence till such a period of life as would render a perpetual disqualification to be re-elected, little inconvenient, either in a public or private view. He observed, that as it was more than probable we were now digesting a plan which in its operation would decide for ever the fate of republican government, we ought, not only to provide every guard to liberty that its preservation could require, but be equally careful to supply the defects which our own experience had particularly pointed out.

Mr. SHERMAN. Government is instituted for those who live under it. It ought, therefore to be so constituted as not to be dangerous to their liberties. The more permanency it has, the worse, if it be a bad government. Frequent elections are necessary to preserve the good behaviour of rulers. They also tend to give permanency to the government, by preserving that good behaviour, because it insures their re-election. In Connecticut elections have been very frequent, yet great stability and uniformity, both as to persons and measures, have been experienced from its original establishment to the present time; a period of more than a hundred and thirty years. He wished to have provision made for steadiness and wisdom, in the system to be adopted; but he thought six, or four, years would be sufficient. He should be content with either.

Mr. READ wished it to be considered by the small States, that it was their interest that we should become one people as much as possible; that State attachments should be extinguished as much as possible; that the Senate should be so constituted as to have the feelings of citizens of the whole.

Mr. HAMILTON. He did not mean to enter particularly into the subject. He concurred with Mr. MADISON in thinking we were now to decide forever the fate of republican government; and that if we did not give to that form due stability and wisdom, it would be disgraced and lost among ourselves, disgraced and lost to mankind forever. He acknowledged himself not to think favorably of republican government; but addressed his remarks to those who did think favorably of it, in order to prevail on them to tone their government as high as possible. He professed himself to be as zealous an advocate for liberty as any man whatever; and trusted he should be as willing a martyr to it, though he differed as to the form in which it was most eligible. He concurred, also, in the general observations of Mr. MADISON on the subject, which might be supported by others if it were necessary. It was certainly true, that nothing like an equality of property existed; that an inequality would exist as long as liberty existed, and that it would unavoidably result from that very liberty itself. This inequality of property constituted the great and fundamental distinction in society. When the Tribunitial power had levelled the boundary between the patricians and plebeians, what followed? The distinction between rich and poor was substituted. He meant not, however, to enlarge on the subject. He rose principally to remark, that Mr. SHERMAN seemed not to recollect that one branch of the proposed Government was so formed as to render it particularly the guardians of the poorer orders of citizens; nor to have adverted to the true causes of the stability which had been exemplified in Connecticut. Under the British system, as well as the Federal, many of the great powers appertaining to government, particularly all those relating to foreign nations, were not in the hands of the government there. Their internal affairs, also, were extremely simple, owing to sundry causes, many of which were peculiar to that country. Of late the Government had entirely given way to the people, and had in fact suspended many of its ordinary functions, in order to prevent those turbulent scenes which had appeared elsewhere. He asks Mr. SHERMAN, whether the State, at this time, dare impose and collect a tax on the people? To these causes, and not to the frequency of elections, the effect, as far as it existed, ought to be chiefly ascribed.

Mr. GERRY wished we could be united in our ideas concerning a permanent Government. All aim at the same end, but there are great differences as to the means. One circumstance, he thought, should be carefully attended to. There was not a one-thousandth part of our fellow-citizens who were not against every approach towards monarchy, — will they ever agree to a plan which seems to make such an approach? The Convention ought to be extremely cautious in what they hold out to the people. Whatever plan may be proposed will be espoused with warmth by many, out of respect to the quarter it proceeds from, as well as from an approbation of the plan itself. And if the plan should be of such a nature as to rouse a violent opposition, it is easy to foresee that discord and confusion will ensue; and it is even possible that we may become a prey to foreign powers. He did not deny the position of Mr. MADISON, that the majority will generally violate justice when they have an interest in so doing; but did not think there was any such temptation in this country. Our situation was different from that of Great Britain; and the great body of lands yet to be parcelled out and settled would very much prolong the difference. Notwithstanding the symptoms of injustice which had marked many of our public councils, they had not proceeded so far as not to leave hopes that there would be a sufficient sense of justice and virtue for the purpose of government. He admitted the evils arising from a frequency of elections, and would agree to give the Senate a duration of four or five years. A longer term would defeat itself. It never would be adopted by the people.

Mr. WILSON did not mean to repeat what had fallen from others, but would add an observation or two which he believed had not yet been suggested. Every nation may be regarded in two relations, first, to its own citizens; secondly, to foreign nations. It is, therefore, not only liable to anarchy and tyranny within, but has wars to avoid and treaties to obtain from abroad. The Senate will probably be the depository of the powers concerning the latter objects. It ought therefore to be made respectable in the eyes of foreign nations. The true reason why Great Britain has not yet listened to a commercial treaty with us has been, because she had no confidence in the stability or efficacy of our Government. Nine years, with a rotation, will provide these desirable qualities; and give our Government an advantage in this respect over monarchy itself. In a monarchy, much must always depend on the temper of the man. In such a body, the personal character will be lost in the political. He would add another observation. The popular objection against appointing any public body for a long term, was, that it might, by gradual encroachments, prolong itself, first into a body for life, and finally become a hereditary one. It would be a satisfactory answer to this objection, that as one-third would go out triennally, there would be always three divisions holding their places for unequal times, and consequently acting under the influence of different views, and different impulses.

On the question for nine years, one-third to go out triennially, — Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, aye — 3; Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, no — 8.

On the question for six years, one-third to go out biennally, — Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, aye — 7; New York, New Jersey, South Carolina, Georgia, no — 4.

The clause of the fourth Resolution, “to receive fixed stipends by which they may be compensated for their services” being considered, —

General PINCKNEY proposed, that no salary should be allowed. As this (the Senatorial) branch was meant to represent the wealth of the country, it ought to be composed of persons of wealth; and if no allowance was to be made, the wealthy alone would undertake the service. He moved to strike out the clause.

Doctor FRANKLIN seconded the motion. He wished the Convention to stand fair with the people. There were in it a number of young men who would probably be of the Senate. If lucrative appointments should be recommended, we might be chargeable with having carved out places for ourselves.

On the question, — Massachusetts, Connecticut,1 Pennsylvania, Maryland, South Carolina, aye — 5; New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, no — 6.

Mr. WILLIAMSON moved to change the expression into these words, to wit, “to receive a compensation for the devotion of their time to the public service.” The motion was seconded by Mr. ELLSWORTH, and agreed to by all the States except South Carolina. It seemed to be meant only to get rid of the word “fixed,” and leave greater room for modifying the provision on this point.

Mr. ELLSWORTH moved to strike out, “to be paid out of the National Treasury,” and insert, “to be paid by their respective States.” If the Senate was meant to strengthen the Government, it ought to have the confidence of the States. The States will have an interest in keeping up a representation, and will make such provision for supporting the members as will insure their attendance.

Mr. MADISON considered this as a departure from a fundamental principle, and subverting the end intended by allowing the Senate a duration of six years. They would, if this motion should be agreed to, hold their places during pleasure; during the pleasure of the State Legislatures. One great end of the institution was, that being a firm, wise and impartial body, it might not only give stability to the General Government, in its operations on individuals, but hold an even balance among different States. The motion would make the Senate, like Congress, the mere agents and advocates of State interests and views, instead of being the impartial umpires and guardians of justice and the general good. Congress had lately, by the establishment of a board with full powers to decide on the mutual claims between the United States and the individual States, fairly acknowledged themselves to be unfit for discharging this part of the business referred to them by the Confederation.

Mr. DAYTON considered the payment of the Senate by the States as fatal to their independence. He was decided for paying them out of the National Treasury.

On the question for payment of the Senate to be left to the States, as moved by Mr. ELLSWORTH, it passed in the negative, — Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, South Carolina, Georgia, aye — 5; Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, no — 6.

Col. MASON. He did not rise to make any motion, but to hint an idea which seemed to be proper for consideration. One important object in constituting the Senate was, to secure the rights of property. To give them weight and firmness for this purpose, a considerable duration in office was thought necessary. But a longer term than six years would be of no avail in this respect, if needy persons should be appointed. He suggested, therefore, the propriety of annexing to the office a qualification of property. He thought this would be very practicable; as the rules of taxation would supply a scale for measuring the degree of wealth possessed by every man.

A question was then taken, whether the words “to be paid out of the National Treasury,” should stand, — Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, aye — 5; Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, no — 6.

Mr. BUTLER moved to strike out the ineligibility of Senators to State offices.

Mr. WILLIAMSON seconded the motion.

Mr. WILSON remarked the additional dependence this would create in the Senators on the States. The longer the time, he observed, allotted to the officer, the more complete will be the dependence, if it exists at all.

General PINCKNEY was for making the States, as much as could be conveniently done, a part of the General Government. If the Senate was to be appointed by the States, it ought, in pursuance of the same idea, to be paid by the States; and the States ought not to be barred from the opportunity of calling members of it into offices at home. Such a restriction would also discourage the ablest men from going into the Senate.

Mr. WILLIAMSON moved a Resolution, so penned as to admit of the two following questions, — first, whether the members of the Senate should be ineligible to, and incapable of holding, offices under the United States; secondly, whether &c., under the particular States.

On the question to postpone, in order to consider Mr. WILLIAMSON’s Resolution, — Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, aye — 8; Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, no — 3.

Mr. GERRY and Mr. MADISON move to add to Mr. WILLIAMSON’s first question, “and for one year thereafter.”

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

On [/tah-onclick] move to add to Mr. WILLIAMSON’s first question as amended, viz, “ineligible and incapable &c. for one year &c.” — agreed to unanimously.

On the second question as to ineligibility, &c. to State offices, — Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, aye — 3; Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, no — 8.

The fifth Resolution, “that each branch have the right of originating acts,” was agreed to, nem. con.

Adjourned.


1 Quere. Whether Connecticut should not be, no, and Delaware, aye? J. M.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.

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