Elliot’s Debates: Volume 1

Preface to the First Edition

The following volumes furnish a collection of the Debates and Proceedings which took place in the different states, on the adoption of the Federal Constitution, as submitted by the General Convention, on the 17th of September, 1787. In the compilation, care has been taken to search into contemporary publications, in order to make the work as perfect as possible. Still, however, the Editor is sensible, from the daily experience of the newspaper reports of the present time, that the sentiments they contain may, in some instances, have been inaccurately taken down, and, in others, probably, too faintly sketched, fully to gratify the inquisitive politician; but they nevertheless disclose the opinions of many of the most distinguished revolutionary patriots and statesmen, in relation to the powers intended to be granted to the Congress of the United States under the Constitution, and certainly may form an excellent guide in expounding many doubtful points in that instrument. In forming a History of the Constitution, the materials they furnish must be also considered of the greatest importance. The lights, too, which they throw on the character and the men of those extraordinary times, will always give them a sufficient interest, in the eyes of an intelligent community, to confer a peculiar value on their publication, rescued from the ephemeral prints of that day, and now, for the first time, presented in a uniform and durable form.

In another point of view, these Debates must be acceptable, at the present moment. In the recent Congresses, a vast number of resolutions have been submitted, proposing various amendments to the Constitution–a fact sufficiently striking to call the attention of the nation at large, seriously to consider the views and ponder on the arguments of those who opposed or advocated the Constitution at the time of its adoption. Hence, on entering the field of debate on constitutional topics, an acquaintance with these opinions and sentiments must certainly be of the first importance to public speakers. In exercising the powers of legislation, could Congress consult higher authority? In expounding parts of the Constitution which seem extremely doubtful, the publication of the Proceedings and Debates of the states must, at least, be useful; for what the states really intended to grant to the general government must be looked for in their acts, and in their discussions, which manifest their intentions, in a manner peculiarly satisfactory, touching constitutional topics, so frequently the subject of controversy in Congress, and in the legal tribunals of the country.

There is a further, and perhaps not much inferior interest, that attaches to these Debates: they abound, it will be seen, in many of the most bold and striking features of eloquence, which do not yield, in force of argument, strength of intellect, or in statesman-like views, to the productions of any modern orator. With prophetic vision, (in our days singularly verified,*) a distinguished individual, who participated in these debates, looked forward to the high destinies of this republic, and foretold that political prosperity and happiness which an excellent Constitution is daily developing for the benefit of posterity.


Washington, Feb. 8, 1830.

* General Hamilton’s prediction in relation to imposts.

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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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