Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787


by James Madison

Previous Day | Full Calendar | Next Day

This Day in the Four Act Drama | Summary of this Day

Saturday, June 30

In Convention, — Mr. BREARLY moved that the President write to the Executive of New Hampshire, informing it that the business depending before the Convention was of such a nature as to require the immediate attendance of the Deputies of that State. In support of his motion, he observed that the difficulties of the subject, and the diversity of opinions called for all the assistance we could possibly obtain. (It was well understood that the object was to add New Hampshire to the number of States opposed to the doctrine of proportional representation, which it was presumed, from her relative size, she must be adverse to).

Mr. PATTERSON seconded the motion.

Mr. RUTLEDGE could see neither the necessity nor propriety of such a measure. They are not unapprized of the meeting, and can attend if they choose. Rhode Island might as well be urged to appoint and send deputies. Are we to suspend the business until the Deputies arrive? If we proceed, he hoped all the great points would be adjusted before the letter could produce its effect.

Mr. KING said he had written more than once as a private correspondent, and the answer gave him every reason to expect that State would be represented very shortly, if it should be so at all. Circumstances of a personal nature had hitherto prevented it. A letter could have no effect.

Mr. WILSON wished to know, whether it would be consistent with the rule or reason of secrecy, to communicate to New Hampshire that the business was of such a nature as the motion described. It would spread a great alarm. Besides, he doubted the propriety of soliciting any State on the subject, the meeting being merely voluntary.

On motion of Mr. BREARLY,

New York, New Jersey, aye — 2; Massachusetts, Connecticut, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, no — 5; Maryland, divided; Pennsylvania, Delaware, Georgia, not on the floor.

The motion of Mr. ELLSWORTH being resumed, for allowing each State an equal vote in the second branch, —

Mr. WILSON did not expect such a motion after the establishment of the contrary principle in the first branch; and considering the reasons which would oppose it, even if an equal vote had been allowed in the first branch. The gentleman from Connecticut (Mr. ELLSWORTH) had pronounced, that if the motion should not be acceded to, of all the States north of Pennsylvania one only would agree to any General Government. He entertained more favorable hopes of Connecticut and of the other Northern States. He hoped the alarms exceeded their cause, and that they would not abandon a country to which they were bound by so many strong and endearing ties. But should the deplored event happen, it would neither stagger his sentiments nor his duty. If the minority of the people of America refuse to coalesce with the majority on just and proper principles; if a separation must take place, it could never happen on better grounds. The votes of yesterday against the just principle of representation, were as twenty-two to ninety of the people of America. Taking the opinions to be the same on this point, and he was sure, if there was any room for change, it could not be on the side of the majority, the question will be, shall less than one-fourth of the United States withdraw themselves from the Union, or shall more than three-fourths renounce the inherent, indisputable and unalienable rights of men, in favor of the artificial system of States? If issue must be joined, it was on this point he would choose to join it. The gentleman from Connecticut, in supposing that the preponderance secured to the majority in the first branch had removed the objections to an equality of votes in the second branch for the security of the minority, narrowed the case extremely. Such an equality will enable the minority to control, in all cases whatsoever, the sentiments and interests of the majority. Seven States will control six: seven States, according to the estimates that had been used, composed twenty-four ninetieths of the whole people. It would be in the power, then, of less than one-third to overrule two-thirds, whenever a question should happen to divide the States in that manner. Can we forget for whom we are forming a Government? Is it for men, or for the imaginary beings called States? Will our honest constituents be satisfied with metaphysical distinctions? Will they, ought they to, be satisfied with being told, that the one-third compose the greater number of States? The rule of suffrage ought on every principle to be the same in the second as in the first branch. If the Government be not laid on this foundation, it can be neither solid nor lasting. Any other principle will be local, confined and temporary. This will expand with the expansion, and grow with the growth of the United States. Much has been said of an imaginary combination of three States. Sometimes a danger of monarchy, sometimes of aristocracy, has been charged on it. No explanation, however, of the danger has been vouchsafed. It would be easy to prove, both from reason and history, that rivalships would be more probable than coalitions; and that there are no coinciding interests that could produce the latter. No answer has yet been given to the observations of Mr. MADISON on this subject. Should the Executive magistrate be taken from one of the large States, would not the other two be thereby thrown into the scale with the other States? Whence, then, the danger of monarchy? Are the people of the three large States more aristocratic than those of the small ones? Whence, then, the danger of aristocracy from their influence? It is all a mere illusion of names. We talk of States, till we forget what they are composed of. Is a real and fair majority the natural hot-bed of aristocracy? It is a part of the definition of this species of government, or rather of tyranny, that the smaller number governs the greater. It is true that a majority of States in the second branch cannot carry a law against a majority of the people in the first. But this removes half only of the objection. Bad governments are of two sorts, — first, that which does too little; secondly, that which does too much; that which fails through weakness, and that which destroys through oppression. Under which of these evils do the United States at present groan? Under the weakness and inefficiency of its government. To remedy this weakness we have been sent to this Convention. If the motion should be agreed to, we shall leave the United States fettered precisely as heretofore; with the additional mortification of seeing the good purpose of the fair representation of the people in the first branch, defeated in the second. Twenty-four will still control sixty-six. He lamented that such a disagreement should prevail on the point of representation; as he did not foresee that it would happen on the other point most contested, the boundary between the general and the local authorities. He thought the States necessary and valuable parts of a good system.

Mr. ELLSWORTH. The capital objection of Mr. WILSON, “that the minority will rule the majority,” is not true. The power is given to the few to save them from being destroyed by the many. If an equality of votes had been given to them in both branches, the objection might have had weight. Is it a novel thing that the few should have a check on the many? Is it not the case in the British Constitution, the wisdom of which so many gentlemen have united in applauding? Have not the House of Lords, who form so small a proportion of the nation, a negative on the laws, as a necessary defence of their peculiar rights against the encroachments of the Commons? No instance of a confederacy has existed in which an equality of voices has not been exercised by the members of it. We are running from one extreme to another. We are razing the foundations of the building, when we need only repair the roof. No salutary measure has been lost for want of a majority of the States to favor it. If security be all that the great States wish for, the first branch secures them. The danger of combinations among them is not imaginary. Although no particular abuses could be foreseen by him, the possibility of them would be sufficient to alarm him. But he could easily conceive cases in which they might result from such combinations. Suppose, that, in pursuance of some commercial treaty or arrangement, three or four free ports and no more were to be established, would not combinations be formed in favor of Boston, Philadelphia, and some port of the Chesapeake? A like concert might be formed in the appointment of the great offices. He appealed again to the obligations of the Federal pact, which was still in force, and which had been entered into with so much solemnity; persuading himself that some regard would still be paid to the plighted faith under which each State, small as well as great, held an equal right of suffrage in the general councils. His remarks were not the result of partial or local views. The State he represented (Connecticut) held a middle rank.

Mr. MADISON did justice to the able and close reasoning of Mr. ELLSWORTH, but must observe that it did not always accord with itself. On another occasion, the large States were described by him as the aristocratic States, ready to oppress the small. Now the small are the House of Lords, requiring a negative to defend them against the more numerous Commons. Mr. ELLSWORTH had also erred in saying that no instance had existed in which confederated states had not retained to themselves a perfect equality of suffrage. Passing over the German system, in which the King of Prussia has nine voices, he reminded Mr. ELLSWORTH of the Lycian confederacy, in which the component members had votes proportioned to their importance, and which Montesquieu recommends as the fittest model for that form of government. Had the fact been as stated by Mr. ELLSWORTH, it would have been of little avail to him, or rather would have strengthened the arguments against him; the history and fate of the several confederacies, modern as well as ancient, demonstrating some radical vice in their structure. In reply to the appeal of Mr. ELLSWORTH to the faith plighted in the existing federal compact, he remarked, that the party claiming from others an adherence to a common engagement, ought at least to be guiltless itself of a violation. Of all the States, however, Connecticut was perhaps least able to urge this plea. Besides the various omissions to perform the stipulated acts, from which no State was free, the Legislature of that State had, by a pretty recent vote, positively refused to pass a law for complying with the requisitions of Congress, and had transmitted a copy of the vote to Congress. It was urged, he said, continually, that an equality of votes in the second branch was not only necessary to secure the small, but would be perfectly safe to the large ones; whose majority in the first branch was an effectual bulwark. But notwithstanding this apparent defence, the majority of States might still injure the majority of the people. In the first place, they could obstruct the wishes and interests of the majority. Secondly, they could extort measures repugnant to the wishes and interest of the majority. Thirdly, they could impose measures adverse thereto; as the second branch will probably exercise some great powers, in which the first will not participate. He admitted that every peculiar interest, whether in any class of citizens, or any description of States, ought to be secured as far as possible. Wherever there is danger of attack, there ought to be given a constitutional power of defence. But he contended that the States were divided into different interests, not by their difference of size, but by other circumstances; the most material of which resulted partly from climate, but principally from the effects of their having or not having slaves. These two causes concurred in forming the great division of interests in the United States. It did not lie between the large and small States. It lay between the Northern and Southern; and if any defensive power were necessary, it ought to be mutually given to these two interests. He was so strongly impressed with this important truth, that he had been casting about in his mind for some expedient that would answer the purpose. The one which had occurred was, that, instead of proportioning the votes of the States in both branches, to their respective numbers of inhabitants, computing the slaves in the ratio of five to three, they should be represented in one branch according to the number of free inhabitants only; and in the other, according to the whole number, counting the slaves as free. By this arrangement the Southern scale would have the advantage in one House, and the Northern in the other. He had been restrained from proposing this expedient by two considerations; one was his unwillingness to urge any diversity of interests on an occasion where it is but too apt to arise of itself; the other was the inequality of powers that must be vested in the two branches, and which would destroy the equilibrium of interests.

Mr. ELLSWORTH assured the House, that, whatever might be thought of the Representatives of Connecticut, the State was entirely Federal in her disposition. He appealed to her great exertions during the war, in supplying both men and money. The muster-rolls would show she had more troops in the field than Virginia. If she had been delinquent, it had been from inability, and not more so than other States.

Mr. SHERMAN. Mr. MADISON animadverted on the delinquency of the States; when his object required him to prove that the constitution of Congress was faulty. Congress is not to blame for the faults of the States. Their measures have been right, and the only thing wanting has been a further power in Congress to render them effctual.

Mr. DAVIE was much embarrassed, and wished for explanations. The Report of the Committee, allowing the Legislatures to choose the Senate, and establishing a proportional representation in it, seemed to be impracticable. There will, according to this rule, be ninety members in the outset, and the number will increase as new States are added. It was impossible that so numerous a body could possess the activity and other qualities required in it. Were he to vote on the comparative merits of the Report, as it stood, and the amendment, he should be constrained to prefer the latter. The appointment of the Senate by electors, chosen by the people for that purpose, was, he conceived, liable to an insuperable difficulty. The larger counties or districts, thrown into a general district, would certainly prevail over the smaller counties or districts, and merit in the latter would be excluded altogether. The Report, therefore, seemed to be right in referring the appointment to the Legislatures, whose agency in the general system did not appear to him objectionable, as it did to some others. The fact was, that the local prejudices and interests which could not be denied to exist, would find their way into the national councils, whether the Representatives should be chosen by the Legislatures, or by the people themselves. On the other hand, if a proportional representation was attended with insuperable difficulties, the making the Senate the representative of the States looked like bringing us back to Congress again, and shutting out all the advantages expected from it. Under this view of the subject, he could not vote for any plan for the Senate yet proposed. He thought that, in general, there were extremes on both sides. We were partly federal, partly national, in our union; and he did not see why the Government might not in some respects operate on the States, in others on the people.

Mr. WILSON admitted the question concerning the number of Senators to be embarrassing. If the smallest States be allowed one, and the others in proportion, the Senate will certainly be too numerous. He looked forward to the time when the smallest States will contain a hundred thousand souls at least. Let there be then one Senator in each, for every hundred thousand souls, and let the States not having that number of inhabitants be allowed one. He was willing himself to submit to this temporary concession to the small States; and threw out the idea as a ground of compromise.

Doctor FRANKLIN. The diversity of opinions turns on two points. If a proportional representation takes place, the small States contend that their liberties will be in danger. If an equality of votes is to be put in its place, the large States say their money will be in danger. When a broad table is to be made, and the edges of planks do not fit, the artist takes a little from both, and makes a good joint. In like manner, here, both sides must part with some of their demands, in order that they may join in some accommodating proposition. He had prepared one which he would read, that it might lie on the table for consideration. The proposition was in the words following:

“That the Legislatures of the several States shall choose and send an equal number of delegates, namely, —, who are to compose the second branch of the General Legislature.

“That in all cases or questions wherein the sovereignty of individual States may be affected, or whereby their authority over their own citizens may be diminished, or the authority of the General Government within the several States augmented, each State shall have equal suffrage.

“That in the appointment of all civil officers of the General Government, in the election of whom the second branch may by the constitution have part, each State shall have equal suffrage.

“That in fixing the salaries of such officers, and in all allowances for public services, and generally in all appropriations and dispositions of money to be drawn out of the general Treasury; and in all laws for supplying that Treasury, the Delegates of the several States shall have suffrage in proportion to the sums which their respective States do actually contribute to the Treasury.”

Where a ship had many owners, this was the rule of deciding on her expedition. He had been one of the ministers from this country to France during the joint war, and would have been very glad if allowed a vote in distributing the money to carry it on.

Mr. KING observed, that the simple question was, whether each State should have an equal vote in the second branch; that it must be apparent to those gentlemen who liked neither the motion for this equality, nor the Report as it stood, that the Report was as susceptible of melioration as the motion; that a reform would be nugatory and nominal only, if we should make another Congress of the proposed Senate; that if the adherence to an equality of votes was fixed and unalterable, there could not be less obstinacy on the other side; and that we were in fact cut asunder already, and it was in vain to shut our eyes against it. That he was, however, filled with astonishment, that, if we were convinced that every man in America was secured in all his rights, we should be ready to sacrifice this substantial good to the phantom of State sovereignty. That his feelings were more harrowed and his fears more agitated for his country than he could express; that he conceived this to be the last opportunity of providing for its liberty and happiness: that he could not, therefore, but repeat his amazement, that when a just government, founded on a fair representation of the people of America, was within our reach, we should renounce the blessing, from an attachment to the ideal freedom and importance of States. That should this wonderful illusion continue to prevail, his mind was prepared for every event, rather than sit down under a Government founded on a vicious principle of representation, and which must be as short-lived as it would be unjust. He might prevail on himself to accede to some such expedient as had been hinted by Mr. WILSON; but he never could listen to an equality of votes as proposed in the motion.

Mr. DAYTON. When assertion is given for proof, and terror substituted for argument, he presumed they would have no effect, however eloquently spoken. It should have been shown that the evils we have experienced have proceeded from the equality now objected to; and that the seeds of dissolution for the State Governments are not sown in the General Government. He considered the system on the table as a novelty, an amphibious monster; and was persuaded that it never would be received by the people.

Mr. MARTIN would never confederate, if it could not be done on just principles.

Mr. MADISON would acquiesce in the concession hinted by Mr. WILSON, on condition that a due independence should be given to the Senate. The plan in its present shape makes the Senate absolutely dependent on the States. The Senate, therefore, is only another edition of Congress. He knew the faults of that body, and had used a bold language against it. Still he would preserve the State rights as carefully as the trial by jury.

Mr. BEDFORD, contended, that there was no middle way between a perfect consolidation, and a mere confederacy of the States. The first is out of the question; and in the latter they must continue, if not perfectly, yet equally, sovereign. If political societies possess ambition, avarice, and all the other passions which render them formidable to each other, ought we not to view them in this light here? Will not the same motives operate in America as elsewhere? If any gentleman doubts it, let him look at the votes. Have they not been dictated by interest, by ambition? Are not the large States evidently seeking to aggrandize themselves at the expense of the small? They think, no doubt, that they have right on their side, but interest had blinded their eyes. Look at Georgia. Though a small State at present, she is actuated by the prospect of soon being a great one. South Carolina is actuated both by present interest and future prospects. She hopes, too, to see the other States cut down to her own dimensions. North Carolina has the same motives of present and future interest. Virginia follows. Maryland is not on that side of the question. Pennsylvania has a direct and future interest. Massachusetts has a decided and palpable interest in the part she takes. Can it be expected that the small States will act from pure disinterestedness. Look at Great Britain. Is the representation there less unequal? But we shall be told again, that that is the rotten part of the Constitution. Have not the boroughs, however, held fast their constitutional rights? And are we to act with greater purity than the rest of mankind? An exact proportion in the representation is not preserved in any one of the States. Will it be said that an inequality of power will not result from an inequality of votes. Give the opportunity, and ambition will not fail to abuse it. The whole history of mankind proves it. The three large States have a common interest to bind them together in commerce. But whether a combination, as we supposed, or a competition, as others supposed, shall take place among them, in either case the small States must be ruined. We must, like Solon, make such a government as the people will approve. Will the smaller States ever agree to the proposed degradation of them? It is not true that the people will not agree to enlarge the powers of the present Congress. The language of the people has been, that Congress ought to have the power of collecting an impost, and of coercing the States where it may be necessary. On the first point they have been explicit, and, in a manner, unanimous in their declarations. And must they not agree to this, and similar measures, if they ever mean to discharge their engagements? The little States are willing to observe their engagements, but will meet the large ones on no ground but that of the Confederation. We have been told, with a dictatorial air, that this is the last moment for a fair trial in favor of a good government. It will be the last, indeed, if the propositions reported from the Committee go forth to the people. He was under no apprehensions. The large States dare not dissolve the Confederation. If they do, the small ones will find some foreign ally, of more honor and good faith, who will take them by the hand, and do them justice. He did not mean, by this, to intimidate or alarm. It was a natural consequence, which ought to be avoided by enlarging the Federal powers, not annihilating the Federal system. This is what the people expect. All agree in the necessity of a more efficient government, and why not make such an one as they desire?

Mr. ELLSWORTH. Under a National Government, he should participate in the national security, as remarked by Mr. KING; but that was all. What he wanted was domestic happiness. The National Government could not descend to the local objects on which this depended. It could only embrace objects of a general nature. He turned his eyes, therefore, for the preservation of his rights, to the State Governments. From these alone he could derive the greatest happiness he expects in this life. His happiness depends on their existence, as much as a new-born infant on its mother for nourishment. If this reasoning was not satisfactory, he had nothing to add that could be so.

Mr. KING was for preserving the States in a subordinate degree, and as far as they could be necessary for the purposes stated by Mr. ELLSWORTH. He did not think a full answer had been given to those who apprehended a dangerous encroachment on their jurisdictions. Expedients might be devised, as he conceived, that would give them all the security the nature of things would admit of. In the establishment of societies, the Constitution was to the Legislature, what the laws were to individuals. As the fundamental rights of individuals are secured by express provisions in the State Constitutions, why may not a like security be provided for the rights of States in the National Constitution? The Articles of Union between England and Scotland furnish an example of such a provision, in favor of sundry rights of Scotland. When that union was in agitation, the same language of apprehension which has been heard from the smaller States, was in the mouths of the Scotch patriots. The articles, however, have not been violated, and the Scotch have found an increase of prosperity and happiness. He was aware that this will be called a mere paper security. He thought it a sufficient answer to say, that if fundamental articles of compact are no sufficient defence against physical power, neither will there be any safety against it, if there be no compact. He could not sit down without taking some notice of the language of the honorable gentleman from Delaware (Mr. BEDFORD). It was not he that had uttered a dictatorial language. This intemperance had marked the honorable gentleman himself. It was not he who, with a vehemence unprecedented in that House, had declared himself ready to turn his hopes from our common country, and court the protection of some foreign hand. This, too, was the language of the honorable member himself. He was grieved that such a thought had entered his heart. He was more grieved that such an expression had dropped from his lips. The gentleman could only excuse it to himself on the score of passion. For himself, whatever might be his distress, he would never court relief from a foreign power.



Previous Day | Full Calendar | Next Day



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 is a project of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University

401 College Avenue | Ashland, Ohio 44805 (419) 289-5411 | (877) 289-5411 (Toll Free)