George Mason Speech

Virginia Ratifying Convention

June 04, 1788

Mr. Chairman—Whether the Constitution be good or bad, the present clause clearly discovers, that it is a National Government, and no longer a confederation. I mean that clause which gives the first hint of the General Government laying direct taxes. The assumption of this power of laying direct taxes, does of itself, entirely change the confederation of the States into one consolidated Government. This power being at discretion, unconfined, and without any kind of controul, must carry every thing before it. The very idea of converting what was formerly confederation, to a consolidated Government, is totally subversive of every principle which has hitherto governed us. This power is calculated to annihilate totally the State Governments. Will the people of this great community submit to be individually taxed by two different and distinct powers? Will they suffer themselves to be doubly harrassed? These two concurrent powers cannot exist long together; the one will destroy the other: The General Government being paramount to, and in every respect more powerful than, the State governments, the latter must give way to the former. Is it to be supposed that one National Government will suit so extensive a country, embracing so many climates, and containing inhabitants so very different in manners, habits, and customs? It is ascertained by history, that there never was a Government, over a very extensive country, without destroying the liberties of the people: History also, supported by the opinions of the best writers, shew us, that monarchy may suit a large territory, and despotic Governments ever so extensive t a country; but that popular Governments can only exist in small territories —Is there a single example, on the face of the earth, to support t a contrary opinion? Where is there one exception to this general rule? Was there ever an instance of a general National Government extending over so extensive a country, abounding in such a variety of climates, where the people retained their liberty? I solemnly declare that no man is a greater friend to a firm Union of the American States than I am: But, Sir, if this great end can be obtained without hazarding the rights of the people, why should we recur to such dangerous principles? Requisitions have been often refused, sometimes from an impossibility of complying with them; often from that great variety of circumstances which retard the collection of monies, and, perhaps, sometimes from a wilful design of procrastinating. But why shall we give up to the National Government this power, so dangerous in its nature, and for which its members will not have sufficient information—Is it not well known, that what would be a proper tax in one State would be grievous in another? The Gentleman [George Nicholas] who hath favored us with an eulogium in favor of this system, must, after all the encomiums he has been pleased to bestow upon it, acknowledge, that our Federal Representatives must be unacquainted with the situation of their constituents: Sixty-five members cannot possibly know the situation and circumstances of all the inhabitants of this immense continent: When a certain sum comes to be taxed, and the mode of levying to be fixed, they will lay the tax on that article which t will be most productive, and easiest in the collection, without consulting the real circumstances or convenience of a country, with which, in fact, they cannot be sufficiently acquainted. The mode of levying I taxes is of the utmost consequence, and yet here it is to be determined by those who have neither knowledge of our situation, nor a common interest with us, nor a fellow feeling for us:—The subjects of taxation differ in three-fourths; nay, I might say with truth, in four-fifths of the States—If we trust the National Government with an effectual way of raising the necessary sums, ’tis sufficient; every thing we do furtheris trusting the happiness and rights of the people: Why then should we give up this dangerous power of individual taxation? Why leave the manner of laying taxes to those, who in the nature of things, cannot be acquainted with the situation of those on whom they are to impose them, when it can be done by those who are well acquainted with it? If instead of giving this oppressive power, we give them such an effectual alternative as will answer the purpose, without encountering the evil and danger that might arise from it, then I would chearfully acquiesce: And would it not be far more eligible? I candidly acknowledge the inefficacy of the confederation; but requisitions have been made, which were impossible to be complied with: Requisitions for more gold and silver than were in the United States: If we give the General Government the power of demanding their quotas of the States, with an alternative of laying direct taxes, in case of non compliance, then the mischief would be avoided; and the certainty of this conditional power would, in all human probability, prevent the application, and the sums necessary for the Union would be then laid by the States; by those who know how it can best be raised; by those who have a fellow feeling for us. Give me leave to say, that the same sum raised one way with convenience and ease, would be very oppressive another way: Why then not leave this power to be exercised by those who know the mode most convenient for the inhabitants, and not by those who must necessarily apportion it in such manner as shall be oppressive? With respect to the representation so much applauded, I cannot think it such a full and free one as it is represented; but I must candidly acknowledge, that this defect results from the very nature of the Government. It would be impossible to have a full and adequate representation in the General Government; it would be too expensive and too unweildy: We are then under the necessity of having this a very inadequate representation: Is this general representation to be compared with the real, actual, substantial representation of the State Legislatures? It cannot bear a comparison. To make representation real and actual, the number of Representatives ought to be adequate; they ought to mix with the people, think as they think, feel as they feel, ought to be perfectly amenable to them, and thoroughly acquainted with their interest and condition: Now these great ingredients are, either not at all, or in so small a degree, to be found in our Federal Representatives, that we have no real, actual, substantial representation; but I acknowledge it results from the nature of the Government: The necessity of this inconvenience may appear a sufficient reason not to argue against it: But, Sir, it clearly shews, that we ought to give power with a sparing hand to a Government thus imperfectly constructed. To a Government, which, in the nature of things, cannot but be defective, no powers ought to be given, but such as are absolutely necessary: There is one thing in it which I conceive to be, extremely dangerous. Gentlemen may talk of public virtue and confidence; we shall be told that the House of Representatives will consist t of the most virtuous men on the Continent, and that in their hands we may trust our dearest rights. This, like all other assemblies, will be composed of some bad and some good men; and considering the natural lust of power so inherent in man, I fear the thirst of power will prevail to oppress the people—What I conceive to be so dangerous, is the provision with respect to the number of Representatives: It does not expressly provide, that we shall have one for every 30,000, but that the number shall not exceed that proportion: The utmost that we can expect (and perhaps that is too much) is, that the present number shall be continued to us—”The number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every 30,000.” Now will not this be complied with, although the present number should never be increased; nay, although it should be decreased? Suppose Congress should say, that we should have one for every 200000, will not the Constitution be complied with? For one for every 200,000 does not exceed one for every 30,000. There is a want of proportion that ought to be strictly guarded against: The worthy Gentleman [George Nicholas] tells us, we have no reason to fear; but I always fear for the rights of the people: I do not pretend to inspiration, but I think, it is apparent as the day, that the members will attend to local partial interests to prevent an augmentation of their number: I know not how they will be chosen, but whatever be the mode of choosing, our present number is but ten: And suppose our State is laid off in ten districts; those Gentlemen who shall be sent from those districts will lessen their own power and influence, in their respective districts, if they increase their number; for the greater the number of men among whom any given quantum of power is divided, the less the power of each individual Thus they will have a local interest to prevent the increase of and perhaps they will lessen their own number: This is evident on the face of the Constitution—so loose an expression ought to be guarded against; for Congress will be clearly within the requisition of the Constitution, although the number of Representatives should always continue what it is now, and the population of the country should increase to an immense number. Nay, they may reduce the number from 65, to one from each State, without violating the Constitution; and thus the number which is now too small would then be infinitely too much so: But my principal objection is, that the confederation is converted to one general consolidated Government, which, from my best judgment of it (and which perhaps will be shewn in the course of this discussion, to be really well founded) is one of the worst curses that can possibly befal a nation. Does any man suppose, that one general National Government can exist in so extensive a country as this? I hope that a Government may be framed which may suit us, by drawing the line between the general and State Governments, and prevent that dangerous clashing of interest and power, which must, as it now stands, terminate in the destruction of one or the other. When we come to the Judiciary, we shall be more convinced, that this Government will terminate in the annihilation of the State Governments: The question then will be, whether a consolidated Government can preserve the freedom, and secure the great rights of the people.

If such amendments be introduced as shall exclude danger, I shall most gladly put my hand to it. When such amendments, as shall, from the best information, secure the great essential rights of the people, shall be agreed to by Gentlemen, I shall most heartily make the greatest concessions, and concur in any reasonable measure to obtain the desirable end of conciliation and unanimity. An indispensible amendment in this case, is, that Congress shall not exercise the power of raising direct taxes till the States shall have refused to comply with the requisitions of Congress. On this condition it may be granted, but I see no reason to grant unconditionally; as the States can raise the taxes with more ease, and lay them on the inhabitants with more propriety, than it is possible for the General Government to do. If Congress hath this power without controul, the taxes will be laid by those who have no fellow feeling acquaintance with the people. This is my objection to the article now under consideration. It is a very great and important one. I therefore beg Gentlemen seriously to consider it Should this power be restrained, I shall withdraw my objections to this part of the Constitution: But as it stands, it is an objection so strong in my mind, that its amendment is with me, a sine qua non, of its adoption. I wish for such amendments, and such only, as are necessary to secure the dearest rights of the people. Mr. Madison—Mr. Chairman—It would give me great pleasure to concur with my honorable colleague in any conciliatory plan. The clause to which the worthy member alludes, is only explanatory of the proportion which representation and taxation shall respectively bear to one another: The power of laying direct taxes will be more properly discussed, when we come to that part of the Constitution which vests that power in Congress. At present I must endeavour to reconcile our proceedings to the resolution we have taken, by postponing the examination of this power till we come properly to it. With respect to converting the confederation to a complete consolidation, I think no such consequence will follow from the Constitution; and that with more attention he will see that he is mistaken: And with respect to the number of Representatives, I reconcile it to my mind, when I consider, that it may be increased to the proportion fixed; and that, as it may be so increased, it shall, because it is the interest of those who alone can prevent it, who are our Representatives, and who depend on their good behaviour for their re-election. Let me observe also, that as far as the number of Representatives may seem to be inadequate to discharge their duty; they will have sufficient information from the laws of particular States, from the State Legislatures, from their own experience, and from a great number of individuals: And as to our security against them, I conceive, Sir, that the general limitation of their powers, and the general watchfulness of the States, will be a sufficient guard. As it is now late, I shall defer any further investigation till (a) more convenient time.

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