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Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787

by James Madison


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Thursday, June 28

In Convention, — Mr. L. MARTIN resumed his discourse, contending that the General Government ought to be formed for the States, not for individuals: that if the States were to have votes in proportion to their numbers of people, it would be the same thing, whether their Representatives were chosen by the Legislatures or the people; the smaller States would be equally enslaved. That if the large States have the same interest with the smaller, as was urged, there could be no danger in giving them an equal vote; they would not injure themselves, and they could not injure the large ones, on that supposition, without injuring themselves; and if the interests were not the same, the inequality of suffrage would be dangerous to the smaller States. That it will be in vain to propose any plan offensive to the rulers of the States, whose influence over the people will certainly prevent their adopting it. That the large States were weak at present in proportion to their extent; and could only be made formidable to the small ones by the weight of their votes. That in case a dissolution of the Union should take place, the small States would have nothing to fear from their power; that if, in such a case, the three great States should league themselves together, the other ten could do so too; and that he had rather see partial confederacies take place, than the plan on the table. This was the substance of the residue of his discourse, which was delivered with much diffuseness, and considerable vehemence.

Mr. LANSING and Mr. DAYTON moved to strike out “not,” so that the seventh article might read, “that the right of suffrage in the first branch ought to be according to the rule established by the Confederation.”

Mr. DAYTON expressed great anxiety that the question might not be put till to-morrow, Governor LIVINGSTON being kept away by indisposition, and the representation of New Jersey thereby suspended.

Mr. WILLIAMSON thought, that, if any political truth could be grounded on mathematical demonstration, it was, that if the States were equally sovereign now, and parted with equal proportions of sovereignty, that they would remain equally sovereign. He could not comprehend how the smaller States would be injured in the case, and wished some gentleman would vouchsafe a solution of it. He observed that the small States, if they had a plurality of votes, would have an interest in throwing the burdens off their own shoulders on those of the large ones. He begged that the expected addition of new States from the westward might be taken into view. They would be small States; they would be poor States; they would be unable to pay in proportion to their numbers, their distance from market rendering the produce of their labor less valuable; they would consequently be tempted to combine for the purpose of laying burdens on commerce and consumption, which would fall with greater weight on the old States.

Mr. MADISON said, he was much disposed to concur in any expedient, not inconsistent with fundamental principles, that could remove the difficulty concerning the rule of representation. But he could neither be convinced that the rule contended for was just, nor that it was necessary for the safety of the small States against the large States. That it was not just, had been conceded by Mr. BREARLY and Mr. PATTERSON themselves. The expedient proposed by them was a new partition of the territory of the United States. The fallacy of the reasoning drawn from the equality of sovereign states, in the formation of compacts, lay in confounding mere treaties, in which were specified certain duties to which the parties were to be bound, and certain rules by which their subjects were to be reciprocally governed in their intercourse, with a compact by which an authority was created paramount to the parties, and making laws for the government of them. If France, England and Spain, were to enter into a treaty for the regulation of commerce, &c., with the Prince of Monacho, and four or five other of the smallest sovereigns of Europe, they would not hesitate to treat as equals, and to make the regulations perfectly reciprocal. Would the case be the same, if a Council were to be formed of deputies from each, with authority and discretion to raise money, levy troops, determine the value of coin, &c.? Would thirty or forty millions of people submit their fortunes into the hands of a few thousands? If they did, it would only prove that they expected more from the terror of their superior force, than they feared from the selfishness of their feeble associates. Why are counties of the same States represented in proportion to their numbers? Is it because the representatives are chosen by the people themselves? So will be the Representatives in the National Legislature. Is it because the larger have more at stake than the smaller? The case will be the same with the larger and smaller States. Is it because the laws are to operate immediately on their persons and properties? The same is the case, in some degree, as the Articles of Confederation stand; the same will be the case, in a far greater degree, under the plan proposed to be substituted. In the cases of captures, of piracies, and of offences in a Federal army, the property and persons of individuals depend on the laws of Congress. By the plan proposed a complete power of taxation, the highest prerogative of supremacy, is proposed to be vested in the National Government. Many other powers are added which assimilate it to the government of individual States. The negative proposed on the State laws will make it an essential branch of the State Legislatures, and of course will require that it should be exercised by a body, established on like principles with the branches of those Legislatures. That it is not necessary to secure the small States against the large ones, he conceived to be equally obvious. Was a combination of the large ones dreaded? This must arise either from some interest common to Virginia, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, and distinguishing them from the other States; or from the mere circumstance of similarity of size. Did any such common interest exist? In point of situation, they could not have been more effectually separated from each other, by the most jealous citizen of the most jealous States. In point of manners, religion, and the other circumstances which sometimes beget affection between different communities, they were not more assimilated than the other States. In point of the staple productions, they were as dissimilar as any three other States in the Union. The staple of Massachusetts was fish, of Pennsylvania flour, of Virginia tobacco. Was a combination to be apprehended from the mere circumstance of equality of size? Experience suggested no such danger. The Journals of Congress did not present any peculiar association of these States in the votes recorded. It had never been seen that different counties in the same State, conformable in extent, but disagreeing in other circumstances, betrayed a propensity to such combinations. Experience rather taught a contrary lesson. Among individuals of superior eminence and weight in society, rivalships were much more frequent than coalitions. Among independent nations, pre-eminent over their neighbours, the same remark was verified. Carthage and Rome tore one another to pieces, instead of uniting their forces to devour the weaker nations of the earth. The Houses of Austria and France were hostile as long as they remained the greatest powers of Europe. England and France have succeeded to the pre-eminence and to the enmity. To this principle we owe perhaps our liberty. A coalition between those powers would have been fatal to us. Among the principal members of ancient and modern confederacies, we find the same effect from the same cause. The contentions, not the coalitions, of Sparta, Athens, and Thebes, proved fatal to the smaller members of the Amphictyonic confederacy. The contentions, not the combinations, of Russia and Austria, have distracted and oppressed the German Empire. Were the large States formidable, singly, to their smaller neighbours? On this supposition, the latter ought to wish for such a General Government as will operate with equal energy on the former as on themselves. The more lax the band, the more liberty the larger will have to avail themselves of their superior force. Here again, experience was an instructive monitor. What is the situation of the weak compared with the strong, in those stages of civilization in which the violence of individuals is least controlled by an efficient government? The heroic period of ancient Greece, the feudal licentiousness of the middle ages of Europe, the existing condition of the American savages, answer this question. What is the situation of the minor sovereigns in the great society of independent nations, in which the more powerful are under no control, but the nominal authority of the law of nations? Is not the danger to the former exactly in proportion to their weakness? But there are cases still more in point. What was the condition of the weaker members of the Amphictyonic confederacy? Plutarch (see Life of Themistocles) will inform us, that it happened but too often, that the strongest cities corrupted and awed the weaker, and that judgment went in favor of the more powerful party. What is the condition of the lesser States in the German confederacy? We all know that they are exceedingly trampled upon, and that they owe their safety, as far as they enjoy it, partly to their enlisting themselves under the rival banners of the pre-eminent members, partly to alliances with neighbouring princes, which the constitution of the Empire does not prohibit. What is the state of things in the lax system of the Dutch confederacy? Holland contains about half the people, supplies about half the money, and by her influence silently and indirectly governs the whole republic. In a word, the two extremes before us are, a perfect separation, and a perfect incorporation of the thirteen States. In the first case, they would be independent nations, subject to no law but the law of nations. In the last, they would be mere counties of one entire republic, subject to one common law. In the first case, the smaller States would have every thing to fear from the larger. In the last, they would have nothing to fear. The true policy of the small States, therefore, lies in promoting those principles, and that form of government, which will most approximate the States to the condition of counties. Another consideration may be added. If the General Government be feeble, the larger States, distrusting its continuance, and foreseeing that their importance and security may depend on their own size and strength, will never submit to a partition. Give to the General Government sufficient energy and permanency, and you remove the objection. Gradual partitions of the large, and junctions of the small States, will be facilitated, and time may effect that equalization which is wished for by the small States now, but can never be accomplished at once.

Mr. WILSON. The leading argument of those who contend for equality of votes among the States is, that the States, as such, being equal, and being represented, not as districts of individuals, but in their political and corporate capacities, are entitled to an equality of suffrage. According to this mode of reasoning, the representation of the boroughs in England, which has been allowed on all hands to be the rotten part of the Constitution, is perfectly right and proper. They are, like the States, represented in their corporate capacity; like the States, therefore, they are entitled to equal voices — Old Sarum to as many as London. And instead of the injury supposed hitherto to be done to London, the true ground of complaint lies with Old Sarum: for London instead of two, which is her proper share, sends four representatives to Parliament.

Mr. SHERMAN. The question is, not what rights naturally belong to man, but how they may be most equally and effectually guarded in society. And if some give up more than others, in order to obtain this end, there can be no room for complaint. To do otherwise, to require an equal concession from all, if it would create danger to the rights of some, would be sacrificing the end to the means. The rich man who enters into society along with the poor man gives up more than the poor man yet, with an equal vote he is equally safe. Were he to have more votes than the poor man, in proportion to his superior stake, the rights of the poor man would immediately cease to be secure. This consideration prevailed when the Articles of Confederation were formed.

The determination of the question, for striking out the word “not,” was put off till tomorrow, at the request of the Deputies from New York.

Doctor FRANKLIN. Mr. President, The small progress we have made after four or five weeks close attendance and continual reasonings with each other — our different sentiments on almost every question, several of the last producing as many noes as ayes — is, methinks, a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the human understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own want of political wisdom, since we have been running about in search of it. We have gone back to ancient history for models of government, and examined the different forms of those republics which, having been formed with the seeds of their own dissolution, now no longer exist. And we have viewed modern states all round Europe, but find none of their constitutions suitable to our circumstances.

In this situation of this Assembly, groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights, to illuminate our understandings? In the beginning of the contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection. Our prayers, sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending Providence in our favor. To that kind Providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need his assistance? I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that “except the Lord build the house they labor in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel. We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded; and we ourselves shall become a reproach and by-word down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter, from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing governments by human wisdom, and leave it to chance, war, and conquest.

I therefore beg leave to move — that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the clergy of this city be requested to officiate in that service.

Mr. SHERMAN seconded the motion.

Mr. HAMILTON and several others expressed their apprehensions, that, however proper such a resolution might have been at the beginning of the Convention, it might at this late day, in the first place, bring on it some disagreeable animadversions; and in the second, lead the public to believe that the embarrassments and dissensions within the Convention had suggested this measure. It was answered, by Doctor FRANKLIN, Mr. SHERMAN, and others, that the past omission of a duty could not justify a further omission; that the rejection of such a proposition would expose the Convention to more unpleasant animadversions than the adoption of it; and that the alarm out of doors that might be excited for the state of things within would at least be as likely to do good as ill.

Mr. WILLIAMSON observed, that the true cause of the omission could not be mistaken. The Convention had no funds.

Mr. RANDOLPH proposed, in order to give a favorable aspect to the measure, that a sermon be preached at the request of the Convention on the Fourth of July, the anniversary of Independence; and thenceforward prayers, &c. to be read in the Convention every morning. Doctor FRANKLIN seconded this motion. After several unsuccessful attempts for silently postponing this matter by adjourning, the adjournment was at length carried, without any vote on the motion.


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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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