Elliot’s Debates: Volume 1

Powers of Congress to Regulate Commerce

Friday, April 30, 1784.—Congress took into consideration the report of a committee, consisting of Mr. Gerry, Mr. Reed, Mr. Williamson, Mr. Chase, and Mr. Jefferson, to whom were referred sundry letters and papers relative to commercial matters; and the following paragraph being under debate,—

“That it be recommended to the legislatures of the several states to vest the United States in Congress assembled, for the term of fifteen years, with a power to prohibit any goods, wares, or merchandise, from being imported into any of the states, except in vessels belonging to, and navigated by, citizens of the United States, or the subjects of foreign powers with whom the United States may have treaties of commerce,”—

A motion was made by Mr. Howell, seconded by Mr. Ellery, to postpone the consideration thereof, in order to take up the following:—

“That it be recommended to the legislatures of the several states to restrain, by imposts or prohibitions, any goods, wares, or merchandise, from being imported into them respectively, except in vessels belonging to, and navigated by, citizens of the United States, or the subjects of foreign powers with whom the United States may have treaties of commerce, or the subjects of such foreign powers as may admit of a reciprocity in their trade with the citizens of these states. That it be recommended to the legislatures of the several states to prohibit the subjects of any foreign state, kingdom, or empire, from importing into them, respectively, any goods, wares, or merchandise, unless such as are the produce or manufacture of that state, kingdom, or empire, whose subjects they are.”

And on the question to postpone, for the purpose above mentioned, the yeas and nays being required by Mr. Ellery,—

New Hampshire,… Mr. Foster, … No.
Mr. Blanchard, … No.
Massachusetts,… Mr. Gerry,… No.
Mr. Partridge,… No.
Rhode Island,… Mr. Ellery,… Ay.
Mr. Howell,… Ay.
Connecticut,… Mr. Sherman,… No.
Mr. Wadsworth,… Ay.
New York,… Mr. De Witt,… No.
Mr. Paine,… No.
New Jersey,… Mr. Beatty,… No.
Mr. Dick,… No.
Pennsylvania,… Mr. Mifflin,… No.
Mr. Montgomery,… No.
Maryland,… Mr. Stone,… No.
Mr. Chase,… No.
Virginia,… Mr. Mercer,… No.
Mr. Monroe,… No.
North Carolina,… Mr. Williamson,… No.
Mr. Spaight,… No.
South Carolina,… Mr. Reed,… No.

So it passed in the negative.

The report, being amended, was agreed to as follows:—

“The trust reposed in Congress renders it their duty to be attentive to the conduct of foreign nations, and to prevent or restrain, as far as may be, all such proceedings as might prove injurious to the United States. The situation of commerce at this time claims the attention of the several states, and few objects of greater importance can present themselves to their notice. The fortune of every citizen is interested in the success thereof; for it is the constant source of wealth and incentive to industry; and the value of our produce and our land must ever rise or fall in proportion to the prosperous or adverse state of trade.

“Already has Great Britain adopted regulations destructive of our commerce with her West India Islands. There was reason to expect that measures so unequal, and so little calculated to promote mercantile intercourse, would not be persevered in by an enlightened nation. But these measures are growing into a system. It would be the duty of Congress, as it is their wish, to meet the attempts of Great Britain with similar restrictions on her commerce; but their powers on this head are not explicit, and the propositions made by the legislatures of the several states render it necessary to take the general sense of the Union on this subject.

“Unless the United States in Congress assembled shall be vested with powers competent to the protection of commerce, they can never command reciprocal advantages in trade; and without these, our foreign commerce must decline, and eventually be annihilated. Hence it is necessary that the states should be explicit, and fix on some effectual mode by which foreign commerce not founded on principles of equality may be restrained.

“That the United States may be enabled to secure such terms, they have.

Resolved, That it be, and it hereby is, recommended to the legislatures of the several states, to vest the United States in Congress assembled, for the term of fifteen years, with power to prohibit any goods, wares, or merchandise, from being imported into, or exported from, any of the states, in vessels belonging to, or navigated by, the subjects of any power with whom these states shall not have formed treaties of commerce.

Resolved, That it be, and it hereby is, recommended to the legislatures of the several states, to vest the United States in Congress assembled, for the term of fifteen years, with the power of prohibiting the subjects of any foreign state, kingdom, or empire, unless authorized by treaty, from importing into the United States any goods, wares, or merchandise, which are not the produce or manufacture of the dominions of the sovereign whose subjects they are.

“Provided, That to all acts of the United States in Congress assembled, in pursuance of the above powers, the assent of nine states shall be necessary.”

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