Elliot’s Debates: Volume 1

Report of the States on the Regulation of Commerce

Friday, March 3, 1786.—The committee, consisting of Mr. Kean, Mr. Gorham, Mr. Pinckney, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Grayson, to whom were recommended sundry papers and documents relative to commerce, and the acts passed by the states in consequence of the recommendations of Congress of the 30th of April, 1784, report,—

“That in examining the laws passed by the states, in consequence of the act of 30th April, 1784, they find that four states—namely, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Virginia—have enacted laws conformable to the recommendations contained in the act, but have restrained their operation until the other states shall have substantially complied.

“That three states—namely, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Maryland—have passed laws conforming to the same, but have determined the time from which they are to commence; the first, from the time of passing their act in May, 1785; and the two latter, from the 30th of April, 1784.

“That New Hampshire, by an act passed the 23d of June, 1785, has granted full powers to regulate their trade, by restrictions or duties, for fifteen years, with a proviso that the law shall be suspended until the other states have substantially done the same.

“That Rhode Island, by acts passed in February and October, 1785, has granted power, for the term of twenty—five years, to regulate trade between the respective states, and of prohibiting, restraining, or regulating, the importation only of all foreign goods in any ships or vessels other than those owned by citizens of the United States, and navigated by a certain proportion of citizens, and also with a proviso restrictive of its operation until the other states shall have substantially complied.

“That North Carolina, by an act passed the 2d June, 1784, has granted powers similar to those granted by Rhode Island, relative to foreign commerce, but unrestrained in duration, and clogged with a clause, that, when all the states shall have substantially complied therewith, it shall become an article of confederation and perpetual union.

“That they cannot find that the three other states—namely, Delaware, South Carolina, and Georgia—have passed any laws in consequence of the recommendations. The result is, that four states have fully complied; three others have also complied, but have determined the time of commencement, so that there will be a dissimilarity in the duration of the power granted; that three other states have passed laws in pursuance of the recommendations, but so inconsonant to them, both in letter an spirit, that they cannot be deemed compliances; and that three other states have passed no acts whatever.

“That, although the powers to be vested by the recommendations, do not embrace every object which may be necessary in a well—formed system, yet, as many beneficial effects may be expected from them, the committee think it the duty of Congress again to call the attention of the states to this subject, the longer delay of which must be attended with very great evils; whereupon,

Resolved, That the recommendations of the 30th April, 1784, be again presented to the view of the states of Delaware, South Carolina, and Georgia, and that they be most earnestly called upon to grant powers conformable thereto.

Resolved, That the states of New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and North Carolina, be solicited to reconsider their acts, and to make them agreeable to the recommendations of the 30th April, 1784.

Resolved, That the time for which the power under the recommendations of the 30th April, 1784, is to continue, ought to commence on the day that Congress shall begin to exercise it; and that it be recommended to the states of Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Maryland, to amend their acts accordingly.”

Friday, September 29, 1786.—The delegates for Georgia laid before Congress an act of that state, in pursuance of the recommendations of the 30th April, 1784, passed the 2d of August, 1786, vesting the United States in Congress assembled, for the term of fifteen years, commencing on the day Congress shall begin to exercise the powers, with a power to prohibit the importation or exportation of goods, wares, or merchandise, in ships belonging to, or navigated by, subjects of powers with whom the United States shall not have formed treaties of commerce, and to prohibit the subjects of foreign states, unless authorized by treaty, from importing goods, wares, or merchandise, which shall not be the produce or manufacture of the dominion of the sovereign whose subjects they are; provided, that nine states agree in the exercise of this power, and that it do not extend to prohibit the importation of negroes, and that the act shall not have force until the other twelve states have substantially complied with the recommendation above mentioned.

Monday, October 23, 1786.—The committee, consisting of Mr. Pinckney, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Henry, to whom was referred an act of the legislature of the state of Georgia, passed in consequence of the resolutions of the 30th of April 1784, respecting commerce, and the subject of the said recommendation, having reported,—

“That it appears, by the said resolutions, the United States in Congress assembled recommended to the legislatures of the several states to vest them, for the term of fifteen years, with powers 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; that they also recommended to the legislatures of the said 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. The committee have carefully examined the acts passed by the several states, in pursuance of the above recommendation, and find that the state of Delaware has passed an act in full compliance with the same; that the acts of the states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, and Georgia, are in conformity to the said recommendation, but restrained in their operation until the other states should have granted powers equally extensive; that the states of Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, have passed laws agreeable to the said resolutions, but have fixed the time at which the powers thereby invested shall begin to operate, and not left the same to commence at the time at which Congress shall begin to exercise it, which your committee conceive to have been the intention of the same; that South Carolina, by an act passed the 11th March, 1786, has invested the United States in Congress assembled with the power of regulating the trade of the United States with the West Indies, and all other external or foreign trade of the said states, for the term of fifteen years from the passing of the said act; that New Hampshire, by their act of the 23d of June, 1785, invested the United States in Congress assembled with the full power of regulating trade for fifteen years, by restrictions or duties, with a proviso suspending its operation until all the other states shall have done the same; that North Carolina, by their act of the 2d of June, 1784, has authorized their delegates to agree to and ratify an article or articles by which Congress shall be empowered to prohibit the importation of all foreign goods, in any other than vessels owned by citizens of the United States, or navigated by such a proportion of seamen, citizens of the United States, as may be agreed to by Congress, which, when agreed to by all the states, shall be considered as a part of the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union.

“From the above review of the acts passed by the several states, in consequence of the said recommendation, it appears that though, in order to make the duration of the powers equal, it will be necessary for the states of Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and South Carolina, so far to amend their acts as to permit the authorities therein granted to commence their operation at the time Congress shall begin to exercise them, yet still the powers granted by them, and by the states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, and Georgia, are otherwise in such compliance with the recommendation, that if the states of New Hampshire, and North Carolina had conformed their acts to the said resolution, agreeably to the urgent recommendation of Congress of the 3d of March last, the powers therein requested might immediately begin to operate. The committee, however, are of opinion, that the acts of the states of New Hampshire and North Carolina manifest so liberal a disposition to grant the necessary powers upon this subject, that their not having complied with the recommendation of March last must be attributed to other reasons than a disinclination in them to adopt measures similar to those of their sister states. The committee, therefore, conceive it unnecessary to detail to them the situation of our commerce, languishing under the most ruinous restrictions in foreign ports, or the benefits which must arise from the due and equal use of powers competent to its protection and support, by that body which can alone beneficially, safely, and effectually, exercise the same—whereupon—

Resolved, That it be again earnestly recommended to the legislatures of the states of New Hampshire and North Carolina, at their next session, to reconsider their acts, and pass them in such conformity with the resolutions of the 20th April, 1784, as to enable, on their part, the United States in Congress assembled to exercise the powers thereby invested, as soon as possible.

Resolved, That as the extent and duration of the powers to be exercised by the United States in Congress assembled, under the recommendation above mentioned, ought to be equal, it be recommended to the legislatures of Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and South Carolina, so far to amend their acts as to vest the powers therein contained for the term of fifteen years, from the day on which Congress shall begin to exercise the same.”

Wednesday, July 13, 1785. — Congress took into consideration the report of a committee, consisting of Mr. Monroe, Mr. Spaight, Mr. Houstoun, Mr. Johnson, and Mr. King, on motion of Mr. Monroe, for vesting the United States in Congress assembled with the power of regulating trade; and the same being read,—

Ordered, That it be referred to a committee of the whole.

Congress was then resolved into a committee of the whole. Mr. Holten was elected to the chair.

The president resumed the chair, and Mr. Holten reported that the committee of the whole have had under consideration the subject referred to them, but, not having come to a conclusion, desire leave to sit again to—morrow.

Resolved, That leave be granted.

[The following is the report referred to. It was afterwards further considered; but Congress did not come to any final determination with respect to the constitutional alteration which it proposed. It was deemed most advisable, at the time, that any proposition for perfecting the Act of confederation should originate with the state legislatures.]

“The committee, consisting of Mr. Monroe, Mr. Spaight, Mr. Houstoun, Mr. Johnson, and Mr. King, to whom was referred the motion of Mr. Monroe, submit the following report:—

“That the 1st paragraph of the 9th of the Articles of Confederation be altered, so as to read thus, viz.:—

“The United States in Congress assembled shall have the sole and exclusive right and power of determining on peace and war, except in the cases mentioned in the 6th article—of sending and receiving ambassadors—entering into treaties and alliances—of regulating the trade of the states, as well with foreign nations as with each other, and of laying such imposts and duties, upon imports and exports, as may be necessary for the purpose; provided, that the citizens of the states shall in no instance be subjected to pay higher imposts and duties than those imposed on the subjects of foreign powers; provided, also, that the legislative power of the several states shall not be restrained from prohibiting the importation or exportation of any species of goods or commodities whatever; provided, also, that all such duties as may be imposed shall be collected under the authority and accrue to the use of the state in which the same shall be payable; and provided, lastly, that every act of Congress, for the above purpose, shall have the assent of nine states in Congress assembled—of establishing rules for deciding, in all cases, what captures on land or water shall be legal, and in what manner prizes taken by land or naval forces in the service of the United States shall be divided or appropriated—of granting letters of marque and reprisal in time of peace—appointing courts for the trial of piracies and felonies committed on the high seas, and establishing courts for receiving and determining finally appeals in all cases of captures; provided, that no member of Congress shall be appointed judge of any of the said courts.

“That the following letter be addressed to the legislatures of the several states, showing the principles on which the above alteration is proposed:—

“‘The United States having formed treaties of commerce with the most Christian king, the king of Sweden, and the States—General of the United Netherlands; and having appointed ministers with full authority to enter into treaties with other powers, upon such principles of reciprocity as may promote their peace, harmony, and respective interests; it becomes necessary that such internal arrangements should be made as may strictly comport with the faith of those treaties, and insure success to their future negotiations. But in the pursuit of the means necessary for the attainment of these ends, considerable difficulties arise. If the legislature of each state adopts its own measures, many and very eminent disadvantages must, in their opinion, necessarily result therefrom. They apprehend it will be difficult for thirteen different legislatures, acting separately and distinctly, to agree in the same interpretation of a treaty, to take the same measures for carrying it into effect, and to conduct their several operations upon such principles as to satisfy those powers, and at the same time to preserve the harmony and interests of the Union; or to concur in those measures which may be necessary to counteract the policy of those powers with whom they shall not be able to form commercial treaties, and who avoid it merely from an opinion of their imbecility and indecision. And if the several states levy different duties upon their particular produce, exported to the ports of those powers, or upon the produce and manufactures of those powers imported into each state, either in vessels navigated by and belonging to the citizens of these states, or the subjects of those powers, it will, they apprehend, induce, on their part, similar discriminations in the duties upon the commercial intercourse with each state, and thereby defeat the object of those treaties, and promote the designs of those who wish to profit from their embarrassment.

“‘Unless the United States in Congress assembled are authorized to make those arrangements which become necessary under their treaties, and are enabled to carry them into effect, they cannot complain of a violation of them on the part of other powers. And unless they act in concert, in the system of policy which may be necessary to frustrate the designs of those powers who lay injurious restraints on their trade, they must necessarily become the victims of their own indiscretion.

“‘The common principle upon which a friendly commercial intercourse is conducted between independent nations, is that of reciprocal advantages; and if this is not obtained, it becomes the duty of the losing party to make such further regulations, consistently with the faith of treaties, as will remedy the evil, and secure its interests. If, then, the commercial regulations of any foreign power contravene the interests of any particular state.—if they refuse admittance to its produce into its ports upon the same terms that the state admits its manufactures here—what course will it take to remedy the evil? If it makes similar regulations to counteract those of that power, by reciprocating the disadvantages which it feels, by impost or otherwise, will it produce the desired effect? What operation will it have upon the neighboring states? Will they enter into similar regulations, and make it a common cause? On the contrary, will they not, in pursuit of the same local policy, avail themselves of this circumstance, to turn it to their particular advantage? Thus, then, we behold the several states taking separate measures in pursuit of their particular interests, in opposition to the regulations of foreign powers, and separately aiding those powers to defeat the regulations of each other; for, unless the states act together, there is no plan of policy, into which they can separately enter, which they will not be separately interested to defeat, and of course all their measures must prove vain and abortive.

“‘The policy of each nation, in its commercial intercourse with other powers, is to obtain, if possible, the principal share of the carriage of the materials of either party; and this can only be effected by laying higher duties upon imports and exports in foreign vessels, navigated by the subjects of foreign powers, than in those which belong to, and are navigated by, those of its own dominions. This principle prevails, in a greater or less degree, in the regulations of the oldest and wisest commercial nations, with respect to each other, and will, of course, be extended to these states. Unless, therefore, they possess a reciprocal power, its operation must produce the most mischievous effects. Unable to counteract the restrictions of those powers by similar restrictions here, or to support the interests of their citizens by discriminations in their favor, their system will prevail. Possessing no advantages in the ports of his own country, and subjected to much higher duties and restrictions in those of other powers, it will necessarily become the interest of the American merchant to ship his produce in foreign bottom; of course, their prospects of national consequence must decline, their merchants become only the agents and retailers of those of foreign powers, their extensive forests be hewn down and laid waste, to add to their strength and national resources, and the American flag be rarely seen on the face of the seas.

“‘But if they act as a nation, the prospect is more favorable to them. The particular interests of every state will then be brought forward, and receive a federal support. Happily for them, no measures can be taken to promote the interests of either which will not equally promote that of the whole. If their commerce is laid under injurious restrictions in foreign ports, by going hand in hand, in confidence, together, by wise and equitable regulations, they will the more easily sustain the inconvenience or remedy the evil. If they wish to cement the Union by the strongest ties of interest and affection; if they wish to promote its strength and grandeur, founded upon that of each individual state; every consideration of local, as well as of federal policy, urges them to adopt the following recommendations:—

“‘The situation of the commercial affairs of the Union requires that the several legislatures should come to the earliest decision on the subject which they now submit to their consideration. They have weighed it with that profound attention which is due to so important an object, and are fully convinced of its expediency: a further delay must be productive of inconvenience. The interests which will vest in every part of the Union must soon take root and have their influence. The produce raised upon the banks of those great rivers and lakes, which have their sources high up in the interior parts of the continent, will empty itself into the Atlantic in different directions; and of course, as the states rearing to the westward attain maturity and get admission into the Confederation, their government will become more complicated. Whether this will be the source of strength and wealth to the Union, must, therefore, in a great degree, depend upon the measures which may be now adopted.

“‘A temporary power would not, in their opinion, enable the United States to establish the interests, nor attain the salutary object, which they propose; the expectation that it will revert to the states, and remain with them for the future, would lessen its weight with foreign powers; and while the interests of each state, and of the federal government, continue to be the same, the same evils will always require the same correction, and of course the necessary powers should always be lodged in the same hands. They have, therefore, thought proper to propose an efficient and perpetual remedy.’”

[The subject was afterwards brought forward, in the House of Delegates of the commonwealth of Virginia, by Mr. Madison, whose proposed resolution, and the proceedings thereupon,are annexed.]

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In 1787 and 1788, following the Constitutional Convention, a great debate took place throughout America over the Constitution that had been proposed.

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