Speech at the Virginia Ratifying Convention

Edmond Pendleton

June 12, 1788

Mr. Chairman,-When I spoke formerly, I endeavored to account for the uneasiness of the public mind-that it arose from objections to Governments drawn from mistaken sources. I stated the General Governments of the world to have been either dictated by a conquerer, at the point of his sword, or the offspring of confusion, when a great popular leader, seizing the occasion, if he did not produce it, restored order at the expence of liberty, and became the tyrant. In either case the interest and ambition of the despot, and not the good of the society, give the tone to the Government, and establish contending interests. A war is commenced, and kept up, where there ought to be union; and the friends of liberty have sounded the alarm to the people, to regain that liberty which circumstances had thus deprived them of. Those alarms, misrepresented and improperly applied to this Government, have produced uneasiness in the public mind. I said improperly applied, because the people by us are peaceably assembled, to contemplate in the calm lights of mild philosophy, what Government is best calculated to promote their happiness, and secure their liberty. This I am sure we shall effect, if we do not lose sight of them by too
much attachment to pictures of beauty, or horror, in our researches into antiquity, our travels for examples into remote regions-or severe criticisms upon, or unfriendly applications of expressions which may drop in the effusions of honest zeal.-The term herd was thus produced- meaning to express a multitude. It was capable of an odious application, that of placing the citizens in a degrading character. I wish it had not been used, and I wish the Gentleman on the other side had thought himself at liberty to have let it pass, without pointing its odious meaning. However, I claim no right to prescribe to him. It is done, and it must rest with the candour of the attending citizens whom it concerns, to give it the innocent meaning, which I am sure the Honorable Gentleman intended.

On the subject of Government the worthy member (Mr. Henry) and I differ at the threshold. I think Government necessary to protect liberty. He supposes the American spirit all-sufficient for the purpose. What say the most respectable writers-Montesquieu, Locke, Sidney, Harrington, &c.? They have presented us with no such idea. They properly discard from their system, all the severity of cruel punishments, such as tortures, inquisitions, and the like-shocking to human nature, and only calculated to coerce the dominion of tyrants over slaves. But they recommend making the ligaments of Government firm, and a rigid execution of the laws as more necessary than in a Monarchy- to preserve that virtue, which they all declare to be the pillar on which the Government, and liberty its object, must stand. They are not so visionary, as to suppose, there ever did or ever will exist a society, however large their aggregate fund of virtue may be, but hath among them persons of a turbulent nature, restless in themselves, and disturbing the peace of others-Sons of rapine and violence, who unwilling to labour themselves, are watching every opportunity to snatch from the industrious peasant the fruits of his honest labour. Was I not then correct in my inference, that such a Government and liberty were friends and allies, and that their common enemy was turbulence, faction, and violence? ’Tis those therefore that will be offended by good Government, and for those I suppose no Gentleman will profess himself an advocate. The writers just mentioned, point out licentiousness as the natural offspring of liberty, and that therefore all free Governments should endeavor to suppress it, or else it will ultimately overthrow that liberty of which it is the result. Is this speculation only? Alas! reason and experience too fatally prove its truth in all instances. A Republican Government is the nursery of science. It turns the bent of it to eloquence, as a qualification for the representative character, which is, as it ought to be, the road to our public offices. I have pleasure in beholding these characters already produced in our councils-and a rising fund equal to a constant supply-May heaven prosper their indeavors, and direct their eloquence to the real good of their country. I am unfortunate enough to differ from the worthy member in another circumstance. He professes himself an advocate for the middling and lower classes of men. I profess to be a friend to the equal liberty of all men, from the palace to the cottage, without any other distinction than between good and bad men. I appeal to my public life and private behaviour, to decide whether I have departed from this rule. Since distinctions have been brought forth and communicated to the audience; and will be therefore disseminated, I beg Gentlemen to take with them this observation, that distinctions have been produced by the opposition. From the friends of the new Government, they have heard none.-None such are to be found in the organization of the
paper before you.

Why bring into debate the whims of writers-introducing the distinction of well born from others?-I consider every man well born who comes into the world with an intelligent mind, and with all his parts perfect. I am an advocate for fixing our Government on true republican principles, giving to the poor man free liberty in his person and property. Whether a man be great or small he is equally dear to me. I wish, Sir, for a regular Government, in order to secure and protect those honest citizens who have been distinguished-I mean the industrious farmer and planter. I wish them to be protected in the enjoyment of their honestly and industriously acquired property. I wish commerce to be fully protected and encouraged, that the people may have an opportunity of disposing of their crops at market, and of procuring such supplies as they may be in want of. I presume that there can be no political happiness, unless industry be cherished and
protected, and property secured.-Suppose a poor man becomes rich by honest labour, and increases the public stock of wealth, shall his reward be the loss of that liberty he set out with? Will you take away every stimulus to industry, by declaring that he shall not retain the fruits of it? The idea of the poor becoming rich by assiduity is not mere fancy. I am old enough, and have had sufficient experience to know the effects of it. I have often known persons commencing in life without any other stock but industry and economy; by the mere efforts of these, rise to opulence and wealth. This could not have been the case without a Government to protect their industry.-In my mind the true principles of republicanism, and the greatest security of liberty,
is regular Government. Perhaps I may not be a republican, but this is my idea. In reviewing the history of the world, shall we find an instance where any society retained its liberty without Government? As I before hinted, the smallest society in extent, to the greatest empire, can only be preserved by a regular Government, to suppress that faction and turbulence so natural to many of our species. What do men do with those passions when they come into society? Do they leave them? No-they bring them with them.-These passions which they thus bring into society will produce disturbances which without any check will overturn it.

A distinction has been made which surprised me, between the illumined mind and the ignorant. I have heard with pleasure in other places, that worthy Gentleman expatiate on the advantages of learning, among other things as friendly to liberty. I have seen in our code of laws, the public purse applied to cherish private seminaries. This is not strictly just, but with me the end sanctified the means, and I was satisfied. But did we thus encourage learning, to set up those who attained its benefits, as butts of inviduous distinction? Surely the worthy member [George Mason], on reflection, will disavow the idea. He learns to little purpose indeed, who vainly supposes himself become, from that circumstance, of an order of beings superior to the honest citizens-peasants if you please to term them so-who in their labour produce great good to the community. But those illumined minds who apply their knowledge to promote and cherish liberty-equal liberty to all, the peasant as well as others-give to society the real blessings of learning. I have seen learning used both ways-but have had pleasure in observing, that lately the latter fruits only have generally appeared, which I attribute to the influence of republican principles, and a regard for true liberty. Am I still suspected of want of attachment for my worthy fellow-citizens, whom the Gentleman calls peasants and cottagers? Let me add one more observation.-I cannot leave them in the state in which he has placed them-in the parallel between them and those of Switzerland-the United Netherlands and Great-Britain. The peasants of the Swiss Cantons, trade in war-Trained in arms, they become the mercenaries of the best bidder, to carry on the destruction of mankind, as an occupation, where they have not even resentment. Are these a fit people for a comparison with our worthy planters and farmers-in their drawing food and raiment, and even wealth, by honest labour from the bowels of the earth, where an inexhaustible store is placed by a bountiful Creator?

The citizens of the United Netherlands have no right of suffrage. There they lose that distinguished badge of freedom. Their representation to their State Assemblies is of towns and cities, and not of the people at large.

The people of Britain have the right of suffrage, but sell it for a mess of pottage.

The happiness of the people is the object of this Government, and the people are therefore made the fountain of all power. They cannot act personally and must delegate powers. Here the worthy Gentleman who spoke last [William Grayson], and I, travelling not together indeed, but in sight, are placed at an immeasurable distance-as far as the poles asunder. He recommends a Government more energetic and strong than this-abundantly too strong ever to receive my approbation. A first Magistrate borrowed from Britain, to whom you are to make a surrender of your liberty, and you give him a seperate interest from yours. You intrench that interest by powers and prerogatives undefined-implant in him self-love, from the influence of which he is to do, what-to promote your interest in opposition to his own? An operation of self-love, which is new! Having done this, you accept from him a charter of the right you have parted with-present him a Bill of Rights-telling him, thus far shall you oppress us and no farther. It still depends on him whether he will give you that charter, or allow the operation of the Bill of Rights. He will do it as long as he cannot do otherwise, but no longer. Did ever any free people in the world, not dictated to, by the sword of a conquerer, or by circumstances into which licentiousness may have plunged them, place themselves in so degrading a situation, or make so disgraceful a sacrifice of their liberty? If they did, sure I am that the example will not be followed by this Convention. This is not all; we are to look some where for the chosen few to go into the ten miles square, with extensive powers for life, and thereby destroy every degree of true responsibility. Is there no medium, or shall we recur to extremes? As a republican, Sir, I think that the security of the liberty and happiness of the people, from the highest to the lowest, being the object of Government, the people are consequently the fountain of all power. They must, however, delegate it to agents, because from their number, dispersed situation, and many other circumstances, they cannot exercise it in person. They must therefore by frequent, and certain elections, choose Representatives to whom they trust it. Is there any distinction in the exercise of this delegation of power? The man who possesses twenty-five acres of land, has an equal right of voting for a Representative, with the man who has twenty-five thousand acres. This equality of suffrage, secures the people in their property. While we are in pursuit of checks and balances, and proper security in the delegation of power, we ought never to loose sight of the representative character. By this we preserve the great principle, of the primary right of power in the people, and should deviations happen from our interests, the spirit of liberty in future elections will correct it.-A security I esteem far superior to Paper-Bills of Rights.

When the bands of our former society were dissolved, and we were under the necessity of forming a new Government, we established a Constitution, founded on the principle of representation, preserving therein frequency of elections, and guarding against inequality of suffrage. I am one of those who are pleased with that Constitution, because it is built on that foundation. I believe that if the Confederation had the principles and efficacy of that Constitution, we should have found that peace and happiness which we are all in search of. In this State Constitution, to the Executive you commit the sword,-to the Legislative you commit the purse, and every thing else without any limitation. In both cases the representative character is in full effect, and thereby responsibility is secured.-The Judiciary is separate and distinct from both the other branches, has nothing to do with either the purse or sword, and for obvious reasons, the judges hold their office during good behaviour.

There will be deviations even in our State Legislature thus constituted. I say, (and I hope to give no offence when I do) there have been some. I believe every Gentleman will see that it is unconstitutional to condemn any man without a fair trial. Such a condemnation is repugnant to the principles of justice. It is contrary to the Constitution, and the spirit of the common law. Look at the Bill of Rights. You find there, that no man should be condemned without being confronted
with his accusers and witnesses-that every man has a right to call for evidence in his favor, and above all, to a speedy trial by an impartial jury of the vicinage, without whose unanimous consent he cannot be found guilty.-These principles have not been attended to. An instance has been mentioned already, where they have been in some degree violated. (Here Mr. Pendleton spoke so very low that he could not be heard) My brethem in that department (the judicial) felt great uneasiness in their minds, to violate the Constitution by such a law. They have prevented the operation of some unconstitutional acts. Notwithstanding those violations, I rely upon the principles of the Government-that it will produce its own reform, by the responsibility resulting from frequent elections.-We are finally safe while we preserve the representative character. I made these observations as introductory to the consideration of the paper on your table. I conceive that in those respects where our State Constitution has not been disapproved of, objections will not apply against that on your table: When we were forming our State Constitution we were confined to local circumstances. In forming a Government for the Union, we must consider our situation as connected with our neighbouring States. We have seen the advantages and blessings of the Union. Every intelligent and patriotic mind must be convinced that it is essentially necessary to our happiness. God grant we may never see the disadvantages of disunion.

To come to the great subject of direct taxation, more immediately under consideration-If we find it our interest to be intimately connected with the other 12 States, to establish one common Government, and bind in one ligament the strength of 13 States, we will find it necessary to delegate powers proportionate to that end; for the delegation of adequate powers in this Government is no less necessary than in our State Government. To whom do we delegate these powers?-To our own Representatives. Why should we fear so much greater dangers from our Representatives there than from those we have here?-Why make so great a distinction between our Representatives here, and in the Federal Government, where every branch is formed on the same principles-preserving throughout-the Representative responsible character? We have trusted our lives and every thing to our State Representatives. We have particularly committed our purse to them with unlimited confidence. I never heard any objection to it-I am sure I make none.-We ought to contribute our share of fixing the principles of the Government. Here the Representative character is still preserved. We are to have an equal share in the representation
of the General Government, should we ratify this Constitution. We have hitherto paid more than our share of taxes for the support of the Government, &c. But by this system we are to pay our equal rateable share only. Where is the danger of confiding in our Federal Representatives? We must choose those in whom we can put the greatest confidence. They are only to remain two years in office. Will they in that time loose all regard for the principles of honor, and their character, and become abandoned prostitutes of our rights? I have no such fear.-When power is in the hands of my Representatives, I care not whether they meet here or 100 miles off.

A Gentleman (Mr. Monro) has said, that the power of direct taxation was unnecessary, because the impost and back lands would be abundantly sufficient to answer all federal purposes-If so, what are we disputing about? I ask the Gentleman who made the observation, and this Committee, if they believe that Congress will ever lay direct taxes if the other funds are sufficient? It will then remain a harmless power upon paper, and do no injury. If it should be necessary, will Gentlemen run the risque of the Union by withholding it? I was sorry to hear the subjects of requisitions and taxation misinterpreted. The latter has been compared to taxation by Great-Britain without our own consent. The two cases are by no means similar. The King of Great-Britain has not the purse, though he holds the sword. He has no means of using the sword but by requisitions on them who hold the purse.-He applied to the British Parliament, and they were pleased to trust him with our money. We declared, as we had a right, that we ought to be taxed by our own Representatives, and that therefore their disposing of our money without our consent was unjust.-Here requisitions are to be made by one body of our Representatives to another. Why should this be the case, when they are both possessed of our equal confidence both chosen in the same manner, and equally responsible to us? But we are told, that there will be a war between the two bodies equally our Representatives, and that the State Government will be destroyed and consolidated into the General Government. I stated before that this could not be so.-The two Governments act in different manners, and for different purposes-The General Government in great national concerns, in which we are interested in common with other members of the Union-The State Legislature in our mere local concerns.-Is it true, or merely imaginary, that the State Legislatures will be confined to the care of bridges and roads? I think that they are still possessed of the highest powers-Our dearest rights-life, liberty, and property,
as Virginians, are still in the hands of our State Legislature. If they prove too feeble to protect us, we resort to the aid of the General Government for security. The true distinction is, that the two Governments are established for different purposes and act on different objects.-So that notwithstanding what the worthy Gentleman [William Grayson] said, I believe I am still correct, and insist that if each power is confined within its proper bounds, and to Its proper objects, an
interference can never happen. Being for two different purposes, as long as they are limited to their different objects, they can no more clash, than two parallel lines can meet.-Both lay taxes, but for different purposes.-The same officers may be used by both Governments, which will prevent a number of inconveniences.-If an invasion or insurrection, or other misfortune, should make it necessary for the General Government to interpose, this will be for the general purposes of the Union, and for the manifest interest of the States.-I mentioned formerly that it would never be the interest of the. General Government, to destroy the State Governments. From these it will derive great strength, for if they be possessed of power, they will assist it.-If they become feeble, or decay, the General Government must likewise become weak, or moulder away.

But we are alarmed on account of Kentucky-We are told, that the Mississippi is taken away.-When Gentlemen say, that seven States are now disposed to give it up, and that it will be given up by the operation of this Government; are they correct? It must be supposed that on occasions of great moment, the Senators from all the States will attend- If they do, there will be no difference between this Constitution and the Confederation in this point.-When they are all present, two-thirds of them will consist of the Senators from nine States, which is the number required by the existing system to form treaties.-The consent of the President, who is the Representative of the Union, is also necessary. The right to that river must be settled by the sword or negotiation.-I understood that the purpose of that negotiation which has been on foot, was, that Spain should have the navigation of that river for 25 years, after which we were peaceably to retain it forever. This, I was told, was all that Spain required. If so, the Gentlemen who differed in opinion from others, in wishing to gratify Spain, must have been actuated from a conviction, that it would be better to have the right fixed in that manner, than trust to uncertainty. I think the inhabitants of that country, as well as of every other part of the Union, will be better protected by an efficient firm Government, than by the present feeble one. We shall have also a much better chance for a favorable negotiation, if our Government be respectable, than we have
now. It is also suggested, that the citizens of the Western District run the risk of loosing their lands, if this Constitution be adopted.-I am not acquainted with the circumstances of the title set up to those lands.-But this I know, that it is founded, not upon any claim commenced during the revolution, but on some latent claim that existed before that period.-It was brought before our Assembly and rejected, I suppose, because they thought it would at this late period, involve the just and unjust, indiscriminately, in distresses. I am bold to say, that no assistance can be given by the Constitution to the claimants. The Federal Legislature is not authorised to pass any law affecting claims that existed before. If the claim is brought forth, it must be before the Court of the State, on the ground on which it now stands, and must depend on the same principles on which it now depends. Whether this Constitution be adopted or not, will not affect the parties in this case. It will make no difference, as to the principles on which the decision will be made, whether it will come before the State Court or the Federal Court.-They will be both equally independent, and ready to decide in strict conformity to justice. I believe the Federal Courts will be as independent as the State Courts.-I should no more hesitate to trust my liberty and property to the one, than the other. Whenever, in any country in the world, the Judges are independent, property is secure. The existence of Great-Britain depends on that purity with which justice is administered. When Gentlemen will therefore find that the Federal Legislature cannot affect pre-existing claims by their legislation, and the Federal Courts are on the same ground with the State
Courts, I hope there will be no ground of alarm.

Permit me to deliver a few sentiments on the great and important subject of previous and subsequent amendments. When I sat down to read that paper, I did not read it with an expectation that it was perfect, and that no man would object to it.-I had learned, Sir, that an expectation of such perfection in any institution devised by man, was as vain as the search for the philosopher’s stone. I discovered objections-I thought I saw there sown some seeds of disunion-not in the immediate operation of the Government, but which might happen in some future time.-I wish amendments to remove these. But these remote possible errors may be eradicated by the amendatory clause in the Constitution.-I see no danger in making the experiment, since the system itself points out an easy mode of removing any errors which shall have been experienced. In this view then, I think we may safely trust in the Government. With respect to the eight States who have already acceded to it, do Gentlemen believe, that, should we propose amendments, as the sine qua non of our adoption, they would listen to our proposal? I concieve, Sir, that they would not retract.-They would tell us-No Gentlemen, we cannot accept of your conditions. You put yourselves upon the ground of opposition. Your amendments are dictated by local considerations. We, in our adoption have been influenced by considerations of general utility to the Union. We cannot abandon principles like these to gratify you.-Thus, Sir, by previous amendments, we present a hostile countenance. If on the contrary we imitate the conduct of those States, our language will be conciliatory and friendly.-Gentlemen, we put ourselves on the same ground that you are on. We are not actuated by local considerations, but by such as affect the people of America in general.-This conduct will give our amendments full weight. I was surprised when I heard introduced, the opinion of a Gentleman (Mr. Jefferson) whom I highly respect. I know the great abilities of that Gentleman. Providence has, for the good of mankind, accompanied those extensive abilities with a disposition to make use of them for the
good of his fellow beings; and I wish with all my heart that he was here to assist us on this interesting occasion. As to his letter, impressed as I am with the force of his authority, I think it was improper to introduce it on this occasion. The opinion of a private individual, however enlightened, ought not to influence our decision. But admitting that this opinion ought to be conclusive with us, it strikes me in a different manner from the honorable Gentleman [Patrick Henry]. I have seen the letter in which this Gentleman has written his opinion upon this subject-It appears that he is possessed of that Constitution, and has in his mind the idea of amending it-He has in his mind the very question of subsequent or previous amendments, which is now
under consideration.-His sentiments on this subject are as follows-”I wish with all my soul that the nine first Conventions may accept the New Constitution, because it will secure to us the good it contains, which I think great and important. I wish the four latest which ever they be, may refuse to accede to it, till amendments are secured”-He then enumerates the amendments which he wishes to be secured, and adds, “We must take care however, that neither this, nor any other
objection to the form, produce a schism in our Union. That would be an incurable evil; because friends falling out never cordially re-unite.” Are these sentiments in favor of those who wish to prevent its adoption by previous amendments? He wishes the first nine States to adopt it-What
are his reasons? Because he thinks it will secure to us the good it contains, which he thinks great and important, and he wishes the other four may refuse it, because he thinks it will tend to obtain necessary amendments. But he would not wish that a schism should take place in the Union on any consideration. If then we are to be influenced by his opinion at all, we will ratify it, and secure thereby the good it contains.-The Constitution points out a plain and ordinary method of reform without any disturbance or convulsions whatever. I therefore think that we ought to ratify it in order to secure the Union, and trust to this method for removing those inconveniences which experience shall point out.

Mr. Pendleton added several other observations, but spoke too low to be heard.

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