Elliot’s Debates: Volume 2

Convention of Massachusetts, January 17, 1788

Thursday, January 17.— The 4th section still under deliberation.

Hon. Mr. TURNER. Mr. President, I am pleased with the ingenuity of some gentlemen in defence of this section. I am so impressed with the love of our liberty, so dearly bought, that I heartily acquiesce to compulsory laws, for the people ought to be obliged to attend to their interest. But I do not wish to give Congress a power which they can abuse; and I wish to know whether such a power is not contained in this section? I think it is I now proceed, sir, to the consideration of an idea, that Congress may alter the place for choosing representatives in the general Congress: they may order that it may be at the extremity of a state, and, by their influence, may there prevail that persons may be chosen, who otherwise would not; by reason that a part of the qualified voters, in part of the state, would be so incommoded thereby, as to be debarred from their right as much as if they were hound at home. If so, such a circumstance would militate against the Constitution, which allows every man to vote. Altering the place will put it so far in the power of Congress, as that the representatives chosen will not be the true and genuine representatives of the people, but creatures of the Congress; and so far as they are so, so far are the people deprived of their rights, and the choice will be made in an irregular and unconstitutional manner. When this alteration is made by Congress, may we not suppose whose reelection will be provided for? Would it not be for those who were chosen before? The great law of self-preservation will prevail. It is true, they might, one time in a hundred, provide for a friend; but most commonly for themselves. But, however honorable the Convention may be who proposed this article, I think it is a genuine power for Congress to perpetuate themselves—power that cannot be unexceptionably exercised in any case whatever. Knowing the numerous arts that designing men are prone to, to secure their election and perpetuate themselves, it is my hearty wish that a rotation may be provided for. I respect and revere the Convention who proposed this Constitution. In order that the power given to Congress may be more palatable, some gentlemen are pleased to hold up the idea, that we may be blessed with sober, solid, upright men in Congress. I wish that we may be favored with such rulers; but I fear they will not all, if most, be the best moral or political characters. It gives me pain, and I believe it gives pain to others, thus to characterize the country in which I was born. I will endeavor to guard against any injurious reflections against my fellow-citizens. But they must have their true characters; and if I represent them wrong, I am willing to make concessions. I think that the operation of paper money, and the practice of privateering, have produced a gradual decay of morals; introduced pride, ambition, envy, lust of power; produced a decay of patriotism, and the love of commutative justice; and I am apprehensive these are the invariable concomitants of the luxury in which we are unblessedly involved, almost to our total destruction. In the lower ranks of people, luxury and avarice operate to the want of public duty and the payment of debts. These demonstrate the necessity of an energetic government. As people become more luxurious, they become more incapacitated for governing themselves. And are we not so? Alike people, alike prince. But suppose it should so happen, that the administrators of this Constitution should be preferable to the corrupt mass of the people, in point of manners, morals, and rectitude; power will give a keen edge to the principles I have mentioned. Ought we not, then, to put all checks and controls on governors for the public safety? Therefore, instead of giving Congress powers they may not abuse, we ought to withhold our hands from granting such as must be abused if exercised. This is a general observation. But to the point; at the time of the restoration, the people of England were so vexed and worn down by the anarchical and confused state of the nation, owing to the commonwealth not being well digested, that they took an opposite career; they run mad with loyalty, and would have given Charles any thing he could have asked. Pardon me, sir, if I say I feel the want of an energetic government, and the dangers to which this dear country is reduced, as much as any citizen of the United Statutes; but I cannot prevail on myself to adopt a government which wears the face of power, without examining it. Relinquishing a hair’s breadth in a constitution, is a great deal; for by small degrees has liberty, in all nations, been wrested from the hands of the people. I know great powers are necessary to be given to Congress, but I wish they may be well guarded.

Judge SUMNER, remarking on Gen. Thompson’s frequent exclamation of “O my country!” expressed from an apprehension that the Constitution would be adopted, said, that expression might be used with great propriety, should this Convention reject it. The honorable gentleman then proceeded to demonstrate the necessity of the 4th section; the absurdity of the supposition that Congress would remove the places of election to remote parts of the states; combated the idea that Congress would, when chosen, act as bad as possible; and concluded by asking, if a war should take place, (and it was supposable,) if France and Holland should send an army to collect the millions of livres they have lent us in the time of our distresses, and that army should be in possession of the seat of government of any particular state, (as was the case when Lord Cornwallis ravaged Carolina,) and that the state legislature could not appoint electors,—is not a power to provide for such elections necessary to be lodged in the general Congress?

Mr. WIDGERY denied the statement of Dr. Jarvis (that every 30,000 persons can elect one representative) to be just, as the Constitution provides that the number shall not exceed one to every 30,000; it did not follow, he thought, that the 30,000 shall elect one. But, admitting that they have a right to choose one,—we will suppose Congress should order an election to be in Boston in January, and from the scarcity of money, &c., not a fourth part could attend; would not three quarters of the people be deprived of their right?

Rev. Mr. WEST. I rise to express my astonishment at the, arguments of some gentlemen against this section. They have only started possible objections. I wish the gentlemen would show us that what they so much deprecate is probable. Is it probable that we shall choose men to ruin us? Are we to object to all governments? and because power may be abused, shall we be reduced to anarchy and a state of nature? What hinders our state legislatures from abusing their powers? They may violate the Constitution; they may levy taxes oppressive and intolerable, to the amount of all our property. An argument which proves too much, it is said, proves nothing. Some say Congress may remove the place of elections to the state of South Carolina. This is inconsistent with the words of the Constitution, which says, “that the elections, in each state, shall be prescribed by the legislature thereof,” &c., and that representation be apportioned according to numbers; it will frustrate the end of the Constitution, and is a reflection on the gentlemen who formed it. Can we, sir, suppose them so wicked, so vile, as to recommend an article so dangerous? Surely, gentlemen who argue these possibilities, show they have a very weak cause. That we may all be free from passions, prepossessions, and party spirit, I sincerely hope; otherwise, reason will have no effect. I hope there are none here but who are open to conviction, as it is the surest method to gain the suffrage of our consciences. The honorable gentleman from Scituate has told us that the people of England, at the restoration, on account of the inconveniences of the confused state of the commonwealth, run mad with loyalty. If the gentleman means to apply this to us, we ought to adopt this Constitution; for if the people are running mad after an energetic government, it is best to stop now, as by this rule they may run farther, and get a worse one; therefore the gentleman’s arguments turn right against himself. Is it possible that imperfect men can make a perfect constitution? Is it possible that a frame of government can be devised by such weak and frail creatures, but what must savor of that weakness? Though there are some things that I do not like in this Constitution, yet I think it necessary it should be adopted. For may we not rationally conclude, that the persons we shall choose to administer it will be, in general, good men?

Gen. THOMPSON. Mr. President, I have frequently heard of the abilities of the learned and reverend gentleman last speaking, and now I am witness to them; but, sir, one thing surprises me: it is, to hear the worthy gentleman insinuate that our federal rulers would undoubtedly be good men , and that, therefore, we have little to fear from their being intrusted with all power. This, sir, is quite contrary to the common language of the clergy, who are continually representing mankind as reprobate and deceitful, and that we really grow worse and worse day after day. I really believe we do, sir, and I make no doubt to prove it before I sit down, and from the Old Testament. When I consider the man that slew the lion and the bear, and that he was a man after God’s own heart ,—when I consider his son, blessed with all wisdom , and the errors they fell into,—I extremely doubt the infallibility of human nature. Sir, I suspect my own heart, and I shall suspect our rulers.

Dr. HOLTON thought this paragraph necessary to a complete system of government. [But the honorable gentleman spoke so low that he could not be heard distinctly throughout .]

Capt. SNOW. It has been said, Mr. President, that there is too much power delegated to Congress by the section under consideration. I doubt it; I think power the hinge on which the whole Constitution turns. Gentlemen have talked about Congress moving the place of election from Georgia to the Mohawk River; but I never can believe it. I will venture to conjecture we shall have some honest men in our Congress. We read that there were two who brought a good report —Caleb and Joshua. Now, if there are but two in Congress who are honest men, and Congress should attempt to do what the gentlemen say they will, (which will be high treason ,) they will bring a report of it; and I stand ready to leave my wife and family, sling my knapsack, travel westward, to cut their heads off. I, sir, since the war, have had commerce with six different nations of the globe; I have inquired in what estimation America is held; and if I may believe good, honest, credible men, I find this country held in the same light, by foreign nations, as a well-behaved negro is in a gentleman’s family. Suppose, Mr. President, I had a chance to make a good voyage, but I tie my captain up to such strict orders, that he can go to no other island to sell my cargo, although there is a certainty of his doing well; the consequence is, he returns, but makes a bad voyage, because he had not power enough to act his judgment; (for honest men do right.) Thus, sir, Congress cannot save us from destruction, because we tie their hands, and give them no power; (I think people have lost their privileges by not improving them;) and I like this power being vested in Congress as well as any paragraph in the Constitution; for, as the man is accountable for his conduct, I think there is no danger. Now, Mr. President, to take all things into consideration, something more must be said to convince me to the contrary.

[Several other gentlemen went largely into the debate on the 4th section, which those in favor of it demonstrated to be necessary; first, as it may be used to correct a negligence in elections; secondly, as it will prevent the dissolution of the government by designing and refractory states; thirdly, as it will operate as a check, in favor of the people, against any designs of the federal Senate, and their constituents, the state legislatures, to deprive the people of their right of election; and fourthly, as it provides a remedy for the evil, should any state, by invasion, or other cause, not have it in its power to appoint a place, where the citizens thereof may meet to choose their federal representatives. Those against it urged that the power is unlimited and unnecessary.] [The committee appointed to provide a more suitable place for the Convention to sit in, reported that the meeting-house in Long Lane, in Boston, was prepared for that purpose; whereupon, Voted, That when this Convention adjourn, they will adjourn to that place.]

Afternoon. —The second paragraph of the 2d section of the 1st article was reverted to, and some debate had thereon.

Gen. THOMPSON thought that there should have been some qualification of property in a representative; for, said he when men have nothing to lose, they have nothing to fear.

Hon. Mr. SEDGWICK said, that this objection was founded on an anti-democratical principle, and was surprised that gentlemen who appeared so strenuously to advocate the rights of the people, should wish to exclude from the federal government a good man, because he was not a rich one.

Mr. KING said, that gentlemen had made it a question, why a qualification of property in a representative is omitted, and that they thought the provision of such a qualification necessary. He thought otherwise; he never knew that property was an index to abilities. We often see men, who, though destitute of property, are superior in knowledge and rectitude. The men who have most injured the country have most commonly been rich men. Such a qualification was proposed in Convention; but by the delegates of Massachusetts it was contested that it should not obtain. He observed, that no such qualification is required by the Confederation. In reply to Gem Thompson’s question, why disqualification of age was not added, the honorable gentleman said, that it would not extend to all parts of the continent alike. Life, says he, in a great measure, depends on climate. What in the Southern States would be accounted long life, would be but the meridian in the Northern; what here is the time of ripened judgment is old age there. Therefore the want of such a disqualification cannot be made an objection to the Constitution.

The third paragraph of the 2d section being read,

Mr. KING rose to explain it. There has, says he, been much misconception of this section. It is a principle of this Constitution, that representation and taxation should go hand in hand. This paragraph states that the number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other persons. These persons are the slaves. By this rule are representation and taxation to be apportioned. And it was adopted, because it was the language of all America. According to the Confederation, ratified in 1781, the sums for the general welfare and defence should be apportioned according to the surveyed lands, and improvements thereon, in the several states; but that it hath never been in the power of Congress to follow that rule, the returns from the several states being so very imperfect.

Dr. TAYLOR thought that the number of members to be chosen for the House of Representatives was too small. The whole Union was entitled to send but 65; whereas, by the old Confederation, they send 91—a reduction of 30 per cent. He had heard it objected, that, if a larger number was sent, the house would be unwieldy. He thought our House of Representatives, which sometimes consists of 150, was not unwieldy; and if the number of the federal representatives was enlarged to twice 65, he thought it would not be too large. He then proceeded to answer another objection, “that an increase of numbers would be an increase of expense,” and by calculation demonstrated that the salaries of the full number he wished, would; in a year, amount only to £2,980, about one penny on a poll; and by this increase, he thought every part of the commonwealth would be represented. The distresses of the people would thereby be more fully known and relieved.

Mr. WIDGERY asked, if a boy of six years of age was to be considered as a free person.

Mr. KING, in answer, said, all persons born free were to be considered as freemen; and, to make the idea of taxation by numbers more intelligible, said that five negro children of South Carolina are to pay as much tax as the three governors of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.

Mr. GORHAM thought the proposed section much in favor of Massachusetts; and if it operated against any state, it was Pennsylvania, because they have more white persons bound than any other. Mr. G. corrected an observation of Dr. Taylor’s that the states now send 91 delegates to Congress; which was not the case. The states do not, he said, send near the number, and instanced Massachusetts, which sends but four. He concluded by saying that the Constitution provides for an increase of members as numbers increase, and that in fifty years there will be 360; in one hundred years, 14 or 1500, if the Constitution last so long.

Judge DANA, remarking on the assertions of Dr. Taylor, that the number of representatives was too small; that the whole Union was now entitled to send but 65, whereas by the Confederation they might send 91,—a reduction of 30 per cent.,—said, if the Constitution under consideration was in fact what its opposers had often called it, a consolidation of the states, he should readily agree with that gentleman that the representation of the people was much too small; but this was a charge brought against it without any foundation in truth. So far from it, that it must be apparent to every one, that the federal government springs out of, and can alone be brought into existence by, the state governments. Demolish the latter, and there is an end of the former. Had the Continental Convention, then, doubled the representation, agreeably to that gentleman’s ideas, would not the people of this Commonwealth have been the first to complain of it as an unnecessary burden laid upon them—that, in addition to their own domestic government, they have been charged with the support of so numerous a national government? Would they not have contended for the demolition of the one or the other, as being unable to support both? Would they have been satisfied by being told that doubling the representation would yearly amount only “to about one penny upon a poll”? Does not the gentleman know that the expense of our own numerous representation has excited much ill-will against the government? Has he never heard it said among the people that our public affairs would be as well conducted by half the number of representatives? If he has not, I have, sir, and believe it to be true. But the gentleman says that there is a reduction of 30 per cent. in the federal representation, as the whole Union can send but 65, when under the Confederation they may send 91. The gentleman has not made a fair calculation. For, if to the 65 representatives under the proposed Constitution we add 2 senators from each state, amounting to 26 in all, we shall have the same number, 91; so that in this respect there is no difference. Besides, this representation will increase with the population of the states, and soon become sufficiently large to meet that gentleman’s ideas. I would just observe, that by the Confederation this state has a right to send seven members to Congress; yet, although the legislature hath sometimes chosen the whole number, I believe at no time have they had, or wished to have, more than four of them actually in Congress. Have any ill consequences arisen from this small representation in the national council? Have our liberties been endangered by it? No one will say they have. The honorable gentleman drew a parallel between the Eastern and Southern States, and showed the injustice done the former by the present mode of apportioning taxes, according to surveyed land and improvements, and the consequent advantage therefrom to the latter, their property not lying in improvements, in buildings, &c.

In reply to the remark of some gentlemen, that the Southern States were favored in this mode of apportionment, by having five of their negroes set against three persons in the Eastern, the honorable judge observed, that the negroes of the Southern States work no longer than when the eye of the driver is on them. Can, asked he, that land flourish like this, which is cultivated by the hands of freemen? and are not three of these independent freemen of more real advantage to a state than five of those poor slaves? As a friend to equal taxation, he rejoiced that an opportunity was presented, in this Constitution, to change this unjust mode of apportionment. Indeed, concluded he, from a survey of every part of the Constitution, I think it the best that the wisdom of men could suggest.

Mr. NASSON remarked on the statement of the Hon. Mr. King, by saying that the honorable gentleman should have gone further, and shown us the other side of the question. It is a good rule that works both ways; and the gentleman should also have told us, that three of our infants in the cradle are to be rated as five of the working negroes of Virginia. Mr. N. adverted to a statement of Mr. King, who had said that five negro children of South Carolina were equally ratable as three governors of New England, and wished, he said, the honorable gentleman had considered this question upon the other side, as it would then appear that this state will pay as great a tax for three children in the cradle, as any of the Southern States will for five hearty, working negro men. He hoped, he said, while we were making a new government, we should make it better than the old one; for, if we had made a bad bargain before, as had been hinted, it was a reason why we should make a better one now.

Mr. RANDALL begged leave to answer a remark of the Hon. Mr. Dana, which, he thought, reflected on the barrenness of the Southern States. He spoke from his own personal knowledge, he said, and he could say, that the land in general, in those states, was preferable to any he ever saw.

Judge DANA rose to set the gentleman right; he said it was not the quality of the land he alluded to, but the manner of tilling it that he alluded to.

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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.

In-Doors Debate

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