Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787

by James Madison


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Tuesday, August 7

In Convention, – The Report of the Committee of Detail being taken up, –
Mr. PINCKNEY moved that it be referred to a Committee of the Whole. This was strongly opposed by Mr. GORHAM and several others, as likely to produce unnecessary delay; and was negatived, — Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, only being in the affirmative.

The preamble of the Report was agreed to, nem. con. So were Articles 1 and 2.

Article 3 being considered, — Col. MASON doubted the propriety of giving each branch a negative on the other “in all cases.” There were some cases in which it was, he supposed, not intended to be given, as in the case of balloting for appointments.

Mr. G. MORRIS moved to insert “legislative acts,” instead of “all cases.” Mr. WILLIAMSON seconds him.

Mr. SHERMAN. This will restrain the operation of the clause too much. It will particularly exclude a mutual negative in the case of ballots, which he hoped would take place.

Mr. GORHAM contended, that elections ought to be made by joint ballot. If separate ballots should be made for the President, and the two branches should be each attached to a favorite, great delay, contention, and confusion may ensue. These inconveniences have been felt in Massachusetts, in the election of officers of little importance compared with the Executive of the United States. The only objection against a joint ballot is, that it may deprive the Senate of their due weight; but this ought not to prevail over the respect due to the public tranquillity and welfare.

Mr. WILSON was for a joint ballot in several cases at least; particularly in the choice of a President; and was therefore for the amendment. Disputes between the two Houses, during and concerning the vacancy of the Executive, might have dangerous consequences.

Col. MASON thought the amendment of Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS extended too far. Treaties are in a subsequent part declared to be laws; they will therefore be subjected to a negative, although they are to be made, as proposed, by the Senate alone. He proposed that the mutual negative should be restrained to “cases requiring the distinct assent” of the two Houses. Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS thought this but a repetition of the same thing; the mutual negative and distinct assent being equivalent expressions. Treaties he thought, were not laws.

Mr. MADISON moved to strike out the words, “each of which shall in all cases have a negative on the other;” the idea being sufficiently expressed in the preceding member of the Article, vesting “the legislative power” in “distinct bodies”; especially as the respective powers, and mode of exercising them, were fully delineated in a subsequent Article.

General PINCKNEY seconded the motion.

On the question for inserting, “legislative acts,” as moved by Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS, it passed in the negative, the votes being equally divided, — New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, aye, — 5; Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, no, — 5.

On the question for agreeing to Mr. MADISON’S motion to strike out, &c., — New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, aye, — 7; Connecticut, Maryland, North Carolina, no, — 3.

Mr. MADISON wished to know the reasons of the Committee for fixing by the Constitution the time of meeting for the Legislature; and suggested, that it be required only that one meeting at least should be held every year, leaving the time to be fixed or varied by law.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS moved to strike out the sentence. It was improper to tie down the Legislature to a particular time, or even to require a meeting every year. The public business might not require it. Mr. PINCKNEY concurred with Mr. MADISON.

Mr. GORHAM. If the time be not fixed by the Constitution, disputes will arise in the Legislature; and the States will be at a loss to adjust thereto the times of their elections. In the New England States, the annual time of meeting had been long fixed by their charters and constitutions, and no inconvenience had resulted. He thought it necessary that there should be one meeting at least every year, as a check on the executive department.

Mr. ELLSWORTH was against striking out the words. The Legislature will not know, till they are met, whether the public interest required their meeting or not. He could see no impropriety in fixing the day, as the Convention could judge of it as well as the legislature. Mr. WILSON thought, on the whole, it would be best to fix the day.

Mr. KING could not think there would be a necessity for a meeting every year. A great vice in our system was that of legislating too much. The most numerous objects of legislation belong to the States. Those of the National Legislature were but few. The chief of them were commerce and revenue. When these should be once settled, alterations would be rarely necessary and easily made.

Mr. MADISON thought if the time of meeting should be fixed by a law, it would be sufficiently fixed, and there would be no difficulty then, as had been suggested, on the part of the States in adjusting their elections to it. One consideration appeared to him to militate strongly against fixing a time by the Constitution. It might happen that the Legislature might be called together by the public exigencies and finish their session but a short time before the annual period. In this case it would be extremely inconvenient to reassemble so quickly, and without the least necessity. He thought one annual meeting ought to be required; but did not wish to make two unavoidable.

Colonel MASON thought the objections against fixing the time insuperable; but that an annual meeting ought to be required as essential to the preservation of the Constitution. The extent of the country will supply business. And if it should not, the Legislature, besides legislative, is to have inquisitorial powers, which cannot safely be long kept in a state of suspension.

Mr. SHERMAN was decided for fixing the time as well as for frequent meetings of the legislative body. Disputes and difficulties will arise between the two houses, and between both and the States, if the time be changeable. Frequent meetings of parliament were required at the Revolution in England, as an essential safeguard of liberty. So also are annual meetings in most of the American charters and constitutions. There will be business enough to require it. The western country, and the great extent and varying state of our affairs in general, will supply objects.

Mr. RANDOLPH was against fixing any day irrevocably; but as there was no provision made any where in the Constitution for regulating the periods of meeting, and some precise time must be fixed, until the Legislature shall make provision, he could not agree to strike out the words altogether. Instead of which he moved to add the words following: “unless a different day shall be appointed by law.”

Mr. MADISON seconded the motion; and, on the question, — Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, aye, — 8; New Hampshire, Connecticut, no, — 2.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS moved to strike out “December,” and insert “May.” It might frequently happen that our measures ought to be influenced by those in Europe, which were generally planned during the winter, and of which intelligence would arrive in the spring.

Mr. MADISON seconded the motion. He preferred May to December, because the latter would require the travelling to and from the seat of government in the most inconvenient seasons of the year.

Mr. WILSON. The winter is the most convenient season for business.

Mr. ELLSWORTH. The summer will interfere too much with private business, that of almost all the probable members of the Legislature being more or less connected with agriculture.

Mr. RANDOLPH. The time is of no great moment now, as the Legislature can vary it. On looking into the Constitutions of the States, he found that the times of their elections, with which the elections of the National Representatives would no doubt be made to coincide, would suit better with December than May, and it was advisable to render our innovations as little incommodious as possible.

On the question for “May” instead of “December,” — South Carolina, Georgia, aye, — 2; New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, no, — 8.

Mr. READ moved to insert after the word, “Senate,” the words, “subject to the negative to be hereafter provided.” His object was to give an absolute negative to the Executive. He considered this as so essential to the Constitution, to the preservation of liberty, and to the public welfare, that his duty compelled him to make the motion.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS seconded him; and, on the question, —

Delaware, aye, — 1; New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, no, — 9.

Mr. RUTLEDGE. Although it is agreed on all hands that an annual meeting of the Legislature should be made necessary, yet that point seems not to be free from doubt as the clause stands. On this suggestion, “once at least in every year,” were inserted, nem. con.

Article 3, with the foregoing alterations, was agreed to, nem. con., and is as follows: “The Legislative power shall be vested in a Congress to consist of two separate and distinct bodies of men, a House of Representatives and a Senate. The Legislature shall meet at least once in every year; and such meeting shall be on the first Monday in December, unless a different day shall be appointed by law.”

Article 4, Sect. 1, was taken up.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS moved to strike out the last member of the section, beginning with the words, “qualifications of Electors,” in order that some other provision might be substituted which would restrain the right of suffrage to freeholders.

Mr. FITZSIMONS seconded the motion.

Mr. WILLIAMSON was opposed to it.

Mr. WILSON. This part of the Report was well considered by the Committee, and he did not think it could be changed for the better. It was difficult to form any uniform rule of qualifications for all the States. Unnecessary innovations, he thought, too, should be avoided. It would be very hard and disagreeable for the same persons, at the same time, to vote for representatives in the State Legislature, and to be excluded from a vote for those in the National Legislature.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS. Such a hardship would be neither great nor novel. The people are accustomed to it, and not dissatisfied with it, in several of the States. In some, the qualifications are different for the choice of the Governor and of the Representatives; in others, for different houses of the Legislature. Another objection against the clause, as it stands, is, that it makes the qualifications of the National Legislature depend on the will of the States, which he thought not proper.

Mr. ELLSWORTH thought the qualifications of the electors stood on the most proper footing. The right of suffrage was a tender point, and strongly guarded by most of the State Constitutions. The people will not readily subscribe to the National Constitution if it should subject them to be disfranchised. The States are the best judges of the circumstances and temper of their own people.

Colonel MASON. The force of habit is certainly not attended to by those gentlemen who wish for innovations on this point. Eight or nine States have extended the right of suffrage beyond the freeholders. What will the people there say, if they should be disfranchised? A power to alter the qualifications would be a dangerous power in the hands of the Legislature.

Mr. BUTLER. There is no right of which the people are more jealous than that of suffrage. Abridgments of it tend to the same revolution as in Holland, where they have at length thrown all power into the hands of the Senates, who fill up vacancies themselves, and form a rank aristocracy.

Mr. DICKINSON had a very different idea of the tendency of vesting the right of suffrage in the freeholders of the country. He considered them as the best guardians of liberty; and the restriction of the right to them as a necessary defence against the dangerous influence of those multitudes without property and without principle, with which our country, like all others, will in time abound. As to the unpopularity of the innovation, it was, in his opinion, chimerical. The great mass of our citizens is composed at this time of freeholders, and will be pleased with it.

Mr. ELLSWORTH. How shall the freehold be defined? Ought not every man who pays a tax, to vote for the representative who is to levy and dispose of his money? Shall the wealthy merchants and manufacturers, who will bear a full share of the public burdens, be not allowed a voice in the imposition of them? Taxation and representation ought to go together.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS. He had long learned not to be the dupe of words. The sound of aristocracy, therefore, had no effect upon him. It was the thing, not the name, to which he was opposed; and one of his principal objections to the Constitution, as it is now before us, is, that it threatens the country with an aristocracy. The aristocracy will grow out of the House of Representatives. Give the votes to people who have no property, and they will sell them to the rich, who will be able to buy them. We should not confine our attention to the present moment. The time is not distant when this country will abound with mechanics and manufacturers, who will receive their bread from their employers. Will such men be the secure and faithful guardians of liberty? Will they be the impregnable barrier against aristocracy? He was as little duped by the association of the words, “taxation and representation.” The man who does not give his vote freely, is not represented. It is the man who dictates the vote. Children do not vote. Why? Because they want prudence; because they have no will of their own. The ignorant and the dependent can be as little trusted with the public interest. He did not conceive the difficulty of defining “freeholders” to be insuperable. Still less that the restriction could be unpopular. Nine tenths of the people are at present freeholders, and these will certainly be pleased with it. As to merchants, &c., if they have wealth, and value the right, they can acquire it. If not, they don’t deserve it.

Colonel MASON. We all feel too strongly the remains of ancient prejudices, and view things too much through a British medium. A freehold is the qualification in England, and hence it is imagined to be the only proper one. The true idea, in his opinion, was, that every man having evidence of attachment to, and permanent common interest with, the society, ought to share in all its rights and privileges. Was this qualification restrained to freeholders? Does no other kind of property but land evidence a common interest in the proprietor? Does nothing besides property mark a permanent attachment? Ought the merchant, the moneyed man, the parent of a number of children whose fortunes are to be pursued in his own country, to be viewed as suspicious characters, and unworthy to be trusted with the common rights of their fellow citizens?

Mr. MADISON. The right of suffrage is certainly one of the fundamental articles of republican government, and ought not to be left to be regulated by the Legislature. A gradual abridgment of this right has been the mode in which aristocracies have been built on the ruins of popular forms. Whether the constitutional qualification ought to be a freehold, would with him depend much on the probable reception such a change would meet with in the States where the right was now exercised by every description of people. In several of the States a freehold was now the qualification. Viewing the subject in its merits alone, the freeholders of the country would be the safest depositories of republican liberty. In future times, a great majority of the people will not only be without landed, but any other sort of property. These will either combine, under the influence of their common situation, — in which case the rights of property and the public liberty will not be secure in their hands, — or, what is more probable, they will become the tools of opulence and ambition; in which case, there will be equal danger on another side. The example of England has been misconceived (by Colonel MASON.) A very small proportion of the Representatives are there chosen by freeholders. The greatest part are chosen by the cities and boroughs, in many of which the qualification of suffrage is as low as it is in any one of the United States; and it was in the boroughs and cities, rather than the counties, that bribery most prevailed and the influence of the Crown on elections was most dangerously exerted.

Doctor FRANKLIN. It is of great consequence that we should not depress the virtue and public spirit of our common people; of which they displayed a great deal during the war, and which contributed principally to the favorable issue of it. He related the honorable refusal of the American seamen, who were carried in great numbers into the British prisons during the war, to redeem themselves from misery or to seek their fortunes, by entering on board the ships of the enemies to their country; contrasting their patriotism with a contemporary instance, in which the British seamen made prisoners by the Americans readily entered on the ships of the latter, on being promised a share of the prizes that might be made out of their own country. This proceeded, he said, from the different manner in which the common people were treated in America and Great Britain. He did not think that the elected had any right in any case, to narrow the privileges of the electors. He quoted, as arbitrary, the British statute setting forth the danger of tumultuous meetings, and, under that pretext, narrowing the right of suffrage to persons having freeholds of a certain value; observing that this statute was soon followed by another, under the succeeding parliament, subjecting the people who had no votes to peculiar labors and hardships. He was persuaded, also, that such a restriction as was proposed would give great uneasiness in the populous States. The sons of a substantial farmer, not being themselves freeholders, would not be pleased at being disfranchised, and there are a great many persons of that description.

Mr. MERCER. The Constitution is objectionable in many points, but in none more than the present. He objected to the footing on which the qualification was put, but particularly to the mode of election by the people. The people cannot know and judge of the characters of candidates. The worst possible choice will be made. He quoted the case of the Senate in Virginia, as an example in point. The people in towns can unite their votes in favor of one favorite; and by that means always prevail over the people of the country; who being dispersed, will scatter their votes among a variety of candidates.

Mr. RUTLEDGE thought the idea of restraining the right of suffrage to the freeholders a very unadvised one. It would create division among the people; and make enemies of all those who should be excluded.

On the question for striking out, as moved by Mr.  GOUVERNEUR MORRIS, from the word “qualifications” to the end of the third article, — Delaware, aye, — 1; New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, no, — 7; Maryland, divided; Georgia, not present.

 


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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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