Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787

by James Madison


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Friday, June 29

In Convention.

Doctor JOHNSON. The controversy must be endless whilst gentlemen differ in the grounds of their arguments; those on one side considering the States as districts of people composing one political society: those on the other, considering them as so many political societies. The fact is, that the States do exist as political societies, and a government is to be formed for them in their political capacity, as well as for the individuals composing them. Does it not seem to follow, that if the States, as such, are to exist, they must be armed with some power of self-defence? This is the idea of Colonel MASON, who appears to have looked to the bottom of this matter. Besides the aristocratic and other interests, which ought to have the means of defending themselves, the States have their interests as such, and are equally entitled to like means. On the whole he thought, that, as in some respects the States are to be considered in their political capacity, and in others as districts of individual citizens, the two ideas embraced on different sides, instead of being opposed to each other, ought to be combined; that in one branch the people ought to be represented, in the other the States.

Mr. GORHAM. The States, as now confederated, have no doubt a right to refuse to be consolidated, or to be formed into any new system. But he wished the small States, which seemed most ready to object, to consider which are to give up most, they or the larger ones. He conceived that a rupture of the Union would be an event unhappy for all; but surely the large States would be least unable to take care of themselves, and to make connections with one another. The weak, therefore, were most interested in establishing some general system for maintaining order. If, among individuals composed partly of weak, and partly of strong, the former most need the protection of law and government, the case is exactly the same with weak and powerful States. What would be the situation of Delaware, (for these things he found must be spoken out, and it might as well be done at first as last), what would be the situation of Delaware in case of a separation of the States? Would she not be at the mercy of Pennsylvania? Would not her true interest lie in being consolidated with her; and ought she not now to wish for such a union with Pennsylvania, under one Government, as will put it out of the power of Pennsylvania to oppress her? Nothing can be more ideal than the danger apprehended by the States from their being formed into one nation. Massachusetts was originally three colonies, viz.; old Massachusetts, Plymouth, and the Province of Maine. These apprehensions existed then. An incorporation took place; all parties were safe and satisfied; and every distinction is now forgotten. The case was similar with Connecticut and New Haven. The dread of union was reciprocal; the consequence of it equally salutary and satisfactory. In like manner, New Jersey has been made one society out of two parts. Should a separation of the States take place, the fate of New Jersey would be worst of all. She has no foreign commerce, and can have but little. Pennsylvania and New York will continue to levy taxes on her consumption. If she consults her interest, she would beg of all things to be annihilated. The apprehensions of the small States ought to be appeased by another reflection. Massachusetts will be divided. The Province of Maine is already considered as approaching the term of its annexation to it: and Pennsylvania will probably not increase, considering the present state of her population, and other events that may happen. On the whole, he considered a union of the States as necessary to their happiness, and a firm General Government as necessary to their union. He should consider it his duty, if his colleagues viewed the matter in the same light he did, to stay here as long as any other State would remain with them, in order to agree on some plan that could, with propriety, be recommended to the people.

Mr. ELLSWORTH did not despair. He still trusted that some good plan of government would be devised and adopted.

 Mr. READ. He should have no objection to the system if it were truly national, but it has too much of a federal mixture in it. The little States, he thought, had not much to fear. He suspected that the large States felt their want of energy, and wished for a General Government to supply the defect. Massachusetts was evidently laboring under her weakness, and he believed Delaware would not be in much danger if in her neighborhood. Delaware had enjoyed tranquillity, and he flattered himself would continue to do so. He was not, however, so selfish as not to wish for a good General Government. In order to obtain one, the whole States must be incorporated. If the States remain, the representatives of the large ones will stick together, and carry every thing before them. The Executive, also, will be chosen under the influence of this partiality, and will betray it in his administration. These jealousies are inseparable from the scheme of leaving the States in existence. They must be done away. The ungranted lands, also, which have been assumed by particular States, must be given up. He repeated his approbation of the plan of  Mr. HAMILTON, and wished it to be substituted for that on the table.

 Mr. MADISON agreed with Doctor JOHNSON, that the mixed nature of the Government ought to be kept in view; but thought too much stress was laid on the rank of the States as political societies. There was a gradation, he observed, from the smallest corporation, with the most limited powers, to the largest empire, with the most perfect sovereignty. He pointed out the limitations on the sovereignty of the States, as now confederated. Their laws, in relation to the paramount law of the Confederacy, were analagous to that of bye-laws to the supreme law within a State. Under the proposed Government the powers of the States will be much further reduced. According to the views of every member, the General Government will have powers far beyond those exercised by the British Parliament when the States were part of the British Empire. It will, in particular, have the power, without the consent of the State Legislatures, to levy money directly from the people themselves; and therefore, not to divest such unequal portions of the people as composed the several States of an equal voice, would subject the system to the reproaches and evils which have resulted from the vicious representation in Great Britain.

He entreated the gentlemen representing the small States to renounce a principle which was confessedly unjust; which could never be admitted; and which, if admitted, must infuse mortality into a Constitution which we wished to last forever. He prayed them to ponder well the consequences of suffering the Confederacy to go to pieces. It had been said that the want of energy in the large States would be a security to the small. It was forgotten that this want of energy proceeded from the supposed security of the States against all external danger. Let each State depend on itself for its security, and let apprehensions arise of danger from distant powers or from neighbouring States, and the languishing condition of all the States, large as well as small, would soon be transformed into vigorous and high-toned Governments. His great fear was, that their Governments would then have too much energy; that this might not only be formidable in the large to the small States, but fatal to the internal liberty of all. The same causes which have rendered the old world the theatre of incessant wars, and have banished liberty from the face of it, would soon produce the same effects here. The weakness and jealousy of the small States would quickly introduce some regular military force, against sudden danger from their powerful neighbours. The example would be followed by others, and would soon become universal. In time of actual war, great discretionary powers are constantly given to the Executive magistrate. Constant apprehension of war has the same tendency to render the head too large for the body. A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive, will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defence against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim, to excite a war whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved, the people. It is, perhaps, questionable, whether the best-concerted system of absolute power in Europe, could maintain itself, in a situation where no alarms of external danger could tame the people to the domestic yoke. The insular situation of Great Britain was the principal cause of her being an exception to the general fate of Europe. It has rendered less defence necessary, and admitted a kind of defence which could not be used for the purpose of oppression. These consequences, he conceived, ought to be apprehended, whether the States should run into a total separation from each other, or should enter into partial confederacies. Either event would be truly deplorable; and those who might be accessary to either, could never be forgiven by their country, nor by themselves.

 Mr. HAMILTON 1  observed, that individuals forming political societies modify their rights differently, with regard to suffrage. Examples of it are found in all the States. In all of them, some individuals are deprived of the right altogether, not having the requisite qualification of property. In some of the States, the right of suffrage is allowed in some cases, and refused in others. To vote for a member in one branch, a certain quantum of property; to vote for a member in another branch of the Legislature, a higher quantum of property, is required. In like manner, States may modify their right of suffrage differently, the larger exercising a larger, the smaller a smaller, share of it. But as States are a collection of individual men, which ought we to respect most, the rights of the people composing them, or of the artificial beings resulting from the composition? Nothing could be more preposterous or absurd than to sacrifice the former to the latter. It has been said, that if the smaller States renounce their equality, they renounce at the same time their liberty. The truth is, it is a contest for power, not for liberty. Will the men composing the small States be less free than those composing the larger? The State of Delaware having forty thousand souls, will lose power, if she has one-tenth only of the votes allowed to Pennsylvania having four hundred thousand; but will the people of Delaware be less free, if each citizen has an equal vote with each citizen of Pennsylvania? He admitted that common residence within the same State would produce a certain degree of attachment; and that this principle might have a certain influence on public affairs. He thought, however, that this might, by some precautions, be in a great measure excluded; and that no material inconvenience could result from it; as there could not be any ground for combination among the States whose influence was most dreaded. The only considerable distinction of interests lay between the carrying and non-carrying States, which divides, instead of uniting, the largest States. No considerable inconvenience had been found from the division of the State of New York into different districts of different sizes.

Some of the consequences of a dissolution of the Union, and the establishment of partial confederacies, had been pointed out. He would add another of a most serious nature. Alliances will immediately be formed with different rival and hostile nations of Europe, who will foment disturbances among ourselves, and make us parties to all their own quarrels. Foreign nations having American dominion are, and must be, jealous of us. Their representatives betray the utmost anxiety for our fate; and for the result of this meeting, which must have an essential influence on it. It had been said, that respectability in the eyes of foreign nations was not the object at which we aimed; that the proper object of republican government was domestic tranquillity and happiness. This was an ideal distinction. No government could give us tranquillity and happiness at home, which did not possess sufficient stability and strength to make us respectable abroad. This was the critical moment for forming such a government. We should run every risk in trusting to future amendments. As yet we retain the habits of union. We are weak, and sensible of our weakness. Henceforward, the motives will become feebler, and the difficulties greater. It is a miracle that we are now here, exercising our tranquil and free deliberations on the subject. It would be madness to trust to future miracles. A thousand causes must obstruct a re-production of them.

 Mr. PIERCE considered the equality of votes under the Confederation as the great source of the public difficulties. The members of Congress were advocates for local advantages. State distinctions must be sacrificed as far as the general good required, but without destroying the States. Though from a small State, he felt himself a citizen of the United States.

 Mr. GERRY urged, that we never were independent States, were not such now, and never could be, even on the principles of the Confederation. The States, and the advocates for them, were intoxicated with the idea of their sovereignty. He was a member of Congress at the time the Federal Articles were formed. The injustice of allowing each State an equal vote was long insisted on. He voted for it, but it was against his judgment, and under the pressure of public danger, and the obstinacy of the lesser States. The present Confederation he considered as dissolving. The fate of the Union will be decided by the Convention. If they do not agree on something, few delegates will probably be appointed to Congress. If they do, Congress will probably be kept up till the new system should be adopted. He lamented that, instead of coming here like a band of brothers, belonging to the same family, we seemed to have brought with us the spirit of political negotiators.

 Mr. L. MARTIN remarked, that the language of the States being sovereign and independent, was once familiar and understood; though it seemed now so strange and obscure. He read those passages in the Articles of Confederation which describe them in that language.

On the question, as moved by  Mr. LANSING, shall the word “not” be struck out? — Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, aye — 4; Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, no — 6; Maryland, divided.

On the motion to agree to the clause as reported, “that the rule of suffrage in the first branch ought not to be according to that established by the Articles of the Confederation,” — Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, aye — 6; Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, no — 4; Maryland, divided.

Doctor JOHNSON and  Mr. ELLSWORTH moved to postpone the residue of the clause, and take up the eighth Resolution.

On the question, — Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, aye — 9; Massachusetts, Delaware, no — 2.

 Mr. ELLSWORTH moved, “that the rule of suffrage in the second branch be the same with that established by the Articles of Confederation.” He was not sorry, on the whole, he said, that the vote just passed had determined against this rule in the first branch. He hoped it would become a ground of compromise with regard to the second branch. We were partly national, partly federal. The proportional representation in the first branch was conformable to the national principle, and would secure the large States against the small. An equality of voices was conformable to the federal principle, and was necessary to secure the small States against the large. He trusted that on this middle ground a compromise would take place. He did not see that it could on any other, and if no compromise should take place, our meeting would not only be in vain, but worse than in vain. To the eastward, he was sure Massachusetts was the only State that would listen to a proposition for excluding the States, as equal political societies, from an equal voice in both branches. The others would risk every consequence rather than part with so dear a right. An attempt to deprive them of it was at once cutting the body of America in two, and, as he supposed would be the case, somewhere about this part of it. The large States he conceived would, notwithstanding the equality of votes, have an influence that would maintain their superiority. Holland, as had been admitted (by  Mr. MADISON), had, notwithstanding a like equality in the Dutch confederacy, a prevailing influence in the public measures. The power of self-defence was essential to the small States. Nature had given it to the smallest insect of the creation. He could never admit that there was no danger of combinations among the large States. They will like individuals find out and avail themselves of the advantage to be gained by it. It was true the danger would be greater if they were contiguous, and had a more immediate and common interest. A defensive combination of the small States was rendered more difficult by their greater number. He would mention another consideration of great weight. The existing Confederation was founded on the equality of the States in the article of suffrage, — was it meant to pay no regard to this antecedent plighted faith. Let a strong Executive, a Judiciary, and Legislative power, be created, but let not too much be attempted, by which all may be lost. He was not in general a half-way man, yet he preferred doing half the good we could, rather than do nothing at all. The other half may be added when the necessity shall be more fully experienced.

 Mr. BALDWIN could have wished that the powers of the general Legislature had been defined, before the mode of constituting it had been agitated. He should vote against the motion of  Mr. ELLSWORTH, though he did not like the Resolution as it stood in the Report of the Committee of the Whole. He thought the second branch ought to be the representation of property, and that, in forming it, therefore, some reference ought to be had to the relative wealth of their constituents, and to the principles on which the Senate of Massachusetts was constituted. He concurred with those who thought it would be impossible for the General Legislature to extend its cares to the local matters of the States.

Adjourned.


1 From this date he was absent till the 13th of August.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 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.

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