Elliot’s Debates: Volume 2

Convention of Massachusetts, January 22, 1788

Tuesday, January 22.—Section 8th still under consideration.

Judge SUMNER. The powers proposed to be delegated in this section are very important, as they will, in effect, place the purse-strings of the citizens in the hands of Congress for certain purposes. In order to know whether such powers are necessary, we ought, sir, to inquire what the design of uniting under one government is. It is that the national dignity may be supported, its safety preserved, and necessary debts paid. Is it not necessary, then, to afford the means by which alone those objects can be attained? Much better, it appears to me, would it be for the states not to unite under one government, which will be attended with some expense, than to unite, and at the same time withhold the powers necessary to accomplish the design of the union. Gentlemen say, the power to raise money may be abused. I grant it; and the same may be said of any other delegated power. Our General Court have the same power; but did they ever dare abuse it? Instead of voting themselves 6s. 3d., they might vote themselves £12 a day; but there never was a complaint of their voting themselves more than what was reasonable. If they should make an undue use of their power, they know a loss of confidence in the people would be the consequence, and they would not be re-elected; and this is one security in the hands of the people. Another is, that all money bills are to originate with the House of Representatives. And can we suppose the representatives of Georgia, or any other state, more disposed to burden their constituents with taxes, than the representatives of Massachusetts? It is not to be supposed; for, whatever is for the interest of one state, in this particular, will be the interest of all the states, and no doubt attended to by the House of Representatives. But why should we alarm ourselves with imaginary evils? An impost will probably be a principal source of revenue; but if that should be insufficient, other taxes, especially in time of war, ought to supply the deficiency. It is said that requisitions on the states ought to be made in cases of emergency; but we all know there can be no dependence on requisitions. The honorable gentleman from Newburyport gave us an instance from the history of the United Provinces to prove it, by which it appears they would have submitted to the arms of Spain, had it not been for the surprising exertions of one province. But there can be no need of recurring to ancient records, when the history of our country furnishes an instance where requisitions have had no effect. But some gentlemen object further, and say the delegation of these great powers will destroy the state legislatures ; but I trust this never can take place, for the general government depends on the state legislatures for its very existence. The President is to be chosen by electors under the regulation of the state legislature; the Senate is to be chosen by the state legislatures; and the representative body by the people, under like regulations of the legislative body in the different states. If gentlemen consider this, they will, I presume, alter their opinion; for nothing is clearer than that the existence of the legislatures, in the different states, is essential to the very being of the general government. I hope, sir, we shall all see the necessity of a federal government, and not make objections, unless they appear to us to be of some weight.

Mr. GORE. This section, Mr. President, has been the subject of many observations, founded on real or pretended jealousies of the powers herein delegated to the general government; and, by comparing the proposed Constitution with things in their nature totally different, the mind may be seduced from a just determination on the subject. Gentlemen have compared the authority of Congress to levy and collect taxes from the people of America to a similar power assumed by the Parliament of Great Britain. If we but state the relation which these two bodies bear to America, we shall see that no arguments drawn from one can be applicable to the other. The House of Commons, in the British Parliament, which is the only popular branch of that assembly, was composed of men, chosen exclusively by the inhabitants of Great Britain, in no sort amenable to, or dependent upon, the people of America, and secured, by their local situation, from every burden they might lay on this country. By impositions on this part of the empire, they might be relieved from their own taxes, but could in no case be injured themselves. The Congress of the United States is to be chosen, either mediately or immediately, by the people. They can impose no burdens but what they participate in common with their fellow-citizens. The senators and representatives, during the time for which they shall be elected, are incapable of holding any office which shall be created, or the emoluments thereof be increased, during such time. This is taking from candidates every lure to office, and from the administrators of the government every temptation to create or increase emoluments to such degree as shall be burdensome to their constituents.

Gentlemen, who candidly consider these things, will not say that arguments against the assumption of power by Great Britain can apply to the Congress of the United States. Again, sir, it has been said, that because ten men of Rome, chosen to compile a body of laws for that people, remained in office after the time for which they were chosen, therefore the Congress of America will perpetuate themselves in government. The decemviri, in their attainment to their exalted station, had influence enough over the people to obtain a temporary sovereignty, which superseded the authority of the senate and the consuls, and gave them unlimited control over the lives and fortunes of their fellow-citizens. They were chosen for a year. At the end of this period, under pretence of not having completed their business, they, with the alteration of some few of their members, were continued for another year. At the end of the second year, notwithstanding the business for which they were chosen was completed, they refused to withdraw from their station, and still continued in the exercise of their power. But to what was this owing? If history can be credited, it was to an idea universally received by the Roman people, that the power of the magistrate was supposed to determine by his own resignation, and not by expiration of the time for which he was chosen. This is one, among many instances, which might be produced of the small attainments of the Roman people in political knowledge; and I submit it, sir, to the candor of this Convention, whether any conclusions can be fairly drawn against vesting the proposed government with the powers mentioned in this section, because the magistrates of the ancient republics usurped power, and frequently attempted to perpetuate themselves in authority.

Some gentlemen suppose it is unsafe and unnecessary to vest the proposed government with authority to “lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises.” Let us strip the subject of every thing that is foreign, and refrain from likening it with governments, which, in their nature and administration, have no affinity; and we shall soon see that it is not only safe, but indispensably necessary to our peace and dignity, to vest the Congress with the powers described in this section. To determine the necessity of investing that body with the authority alluded to, let us inquire what duties are incumbent on them. To pay the debts, and provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States; to declare war, &c.; to raise and support armies; to provide and maintain a navy;—these are authorities and duties incident to every government. No one has, or, I presume, will deny, that whatever government may be established over America, ought to perform such duties. The expense attending these duties is not within the power of calculation; the exigencies of government are in their nature illimitable; so, then, must be the authority which can meet these exigencies. Where we demand an object, we must afford the means necessary to its attainment. Whenever it can be clearly ascertained what will be the future exigencies of government, the expense attending them, and the product of any particular tax, duty, or impost, then, and not before, can the people of America limit their government to amount and fund. Some have said, that the impost and excise would be sufficient for all the purposes of government in times of peace; and that, in war, requisitions should be made on the several states for sums to supply the deficiencies of this fund. Those who are best informed suppose this sum inadequate to, and none pretend that it can exceed, the expenses of a peace establishment. What, then, is to be done? Is America to wait until she is attacked, before she attempts a preparation at defence? This would certainly be unwise; it would be courting our enemies to make war upon us. The operations of war are sudden, and call for large sums of money; collections from states are at all times slow and uncertain; and, in case of refusal, the non-complying state must be coerced by arms, which, in its consequences, would involve the innocent with the guilty, and introduce all the horrors of a civil war. But, it is said, we need not fear war; we have no enemies. Let the gentlemen consider the situation of our country; they will find we are circumscribed with enemies from Maine to Georgia. I trust, therefore, that, upon a fair and candid consideration of the subject, it will be found indispensably requisite to peace, dignity, and happiness, that the proposed government should be vested with all the powers granted by the section under debate.

Hon. Mr. PHILLIPS, (of Boston.) I rise to make a few observations on this section, as it contains powers absolutely necessary. If social government did not exist, there would be an end of individual government. Therefore our very being depends on social government. On this article is founded the main pillar of the building; take away this pillar, and where is your government? Therefore, I conceive, in this view of the case, this power is absolutey necessary. There seems to be a suspicion that this power will be abused; but is not all delegation of power equally dangerous? If we have a castle, shall we delay to put a commander into it, for fear he will turn his artillery against us? My concern is for the majesty of the people. If there is no virtue among them, what will the Congress do? If they had the meekness of Moses, the patience of Job, and the wisdom of Solomon, and the people were determined to be slaves, sir, could the Congress prevent them? If they set Heaven at defiance, no arm of flesh can save them. Sir, I shall have nothing to do in this government. But we see the situation we are in. We are verging towards destruction, and every one must be sensible of it. I suppose the New England States have a treasure offered to them better than the mines of Peru; and it cannot be to the disadvantage of the Southern States. Great Britain and France come here with their vessels, instead of our carrying our produce to those countries in American vessels, navigated by our citizens. When I consider the extensive sea-coast there is to this state alone, so well calculated for commerce, viewing matters in this light, I would rather sink all this continent owes me, than this power should be withheld from Congress. Mention is made that Congress ought to be restricted of the power to keep an army except in time of war. I apprehend that great mischief would ensue from such a restriction. Let us take means to prevent war, by granting to Congress the power of raising an army. If a declaration of war is made against this country, and the enemy’s army is coming against us, before Congress could collect the means to withstand this enemy, they would penetrate into the bowels of our country, and every thing dear to us would be gone in a moment. The honorable gentleman from Topsham has made use of the expression, “O my country!” from an apprehension that the Constitution should be adopted; I will cry out, “O my country!” if it is not adopted. I see nothing but destruction and inevitable ruin if it is not. The more I peruse and study this article, the more convinced am I of the necessity of such a power being vested in Congress. The more I hear said against it, the more I am confirmed in my sentiments of its expediency; for it is like the pure metal—the more you rub it, the brighter it shines. It is with concern I hear the honorable gentleman from Topsham make use of language against the gentlemen of the law. Sir, I look on this order of men to be essential to the liberties and rights of the people, and whoever speaks against them as speaking against an ordinance of Heaven. Mr. President, I hope every gentleman will offer his sentiments candidly on this momentous affair; that he will examine for himself, and consider that he has not only the good of this commonwealth under consideration, but the welfare of the United States.

Dr. WILLARD entered largely into the field of ancient history, and deduced therefrom arguments to prove that where power had been trusted to men, whether in great or small bodies, they had always abused it, and that thus republics had soon degenerated into aristocracies. He instanced Sparta, Athens, and Rome. The Amphictyonic league, he said, resembled the Confederation of the United States; while thus united, they defeated Xerxes, but were subdued by the gold of Philip, who brought the council to betray the interest of their country.

Hon. Mr. GORHAM (in reply to the gentleman from Uxbridge) exposed the absurdity of conclusions and hypotheses, drawn from ancient governments, which bore no relation to the confederacy proposed; for those governments had no idea of representations as we have. He, however, warned us against the evil which had ruined those states, which he thought was the want of an efficient federal government. As much as the Athenians rejoiced in the extirpation of a Lacedemonian, will, if we are disunited, a citizen of Massachusetts at the death of a Connecticut man, or a Yorker. With respect to the proposed government degenerating into an aristocracy, the honorable gentleman observed, that the nature and situation of our country rendered such a circumstance impossible; as, from the great preponderance of the agricultural interest in the United States, that interest would always have it in its power to elect such men as would, he observed, effectually prevent the introduction of any other than a perfectly democratical form of government.

Hon. Mr. CABOT went fully into a continuation of the arguments of the honorable gentleman last up. In a clear and elegant manner, he analyzed the ancient governments mentioned by Dr. Willard, and, by comparing them with the proposed system, fully demonstrated the superiority of the latter, and in a very particular manner the proposed section under debate.

Mr. RANDALL said, the quoting of ancient history was no more to the purpose than to tell how our forefathers dug clams at Plymouth; he feared a consolidation of the thirteen states. Our manners, he said, were widely different from the Southern States; their elections were not so free and unbiased; therefore, if the states were consolidated, he thought it would introduce manners among us which would set us at continual variance.

Mr. BOWDOIN pointed out other instances of dissimilarity, between the systems of the ancient republics and the proposed Constitution, than those mentioned by the honorable gentlemen from Charlestown and Beverly, in the want of the important checks in the former which were to be found in the latter; to the want of which, in the first, was owing, he said, the usurpation which took place. He instanced the decemviri, who, though chosen for a short period, yet, unchecked, soon subverted the liberties of the Romans; and concluded with a decided opinion in favor of the Constitution under debate.

Afternoon.—Mr. SYMMES. Mr. President, in such an assembly as this, and on a subject that puzzles the oldest politicians, a young man, sir, will scarcely dare to think for himself; but, if he venture to speak, the effort must certainly be greater. This Convention is the first representative body in which I have been honored with a seat, and men will not wonder that a scene at once so new and so august should confuse, oppress; and almost disqualify me to proceed.

Sir, I wish to bespeak the candor of the Convention—that candor, which, I know, I need but ask, to have it extended to me, while I make a few indigested observations on the paragraph now in debate. I have hitherto attended with diligence, but no great anxiety, to the reasoning of the ablest partisans on both sides of the question. Indeed, I could have wished for a more effectual, and, if I may term it so, a more feeling representation in the Lower House, and for a representation of the people in the Senate. I have been, and still am, desirous of a rotation in office, to prevent the final perpetuation of power in the same men; and I have not been able clearly to see why the place and manner of holding elections should be in the disposal of Congress.

But, sir, in my humble opinion, these things are comparative by the lesser things of the law. They, doubtless, have their influence in the grand effect, and so are essential to the system. But, sir, I view the section to which we have at length arrived, as the cement of the fabric, and this clause as the keystone, or (if I may apply the metaphor) the magic talisman, on which the fate of it depends.

Allow me, sir, to recall to your remembrance that yesterday, when states were in doubt about granting to Congress a 5 per cent. impost, and the simple power of regulating trade—the time when, so delicate was the patriotic mind, that power was to be transferred with a reluctant, with a sparing hand, and the most obvious utility could scarcely extort it from the people. It appears to me of some importance to consider this matter, and to demand complete satisfaction upon the question, why an unlimited power in the affair of taxation is so soon required. Is our situation so vastly different, that the powers so lately sufficient are now but the dust of the balance? I observe, sir, that many men, who, within a few years past, were strenuous opposers of an augmentation of the power of Congress, are now the warmest advocates of power so large as not to admit of a comparison with those which they opposed. Cannot some of them state their reasons then, and their reasons now, that we may judge of their consistency? or shall we be left to suppose that the opinions of politicians, like those of the multitude, vibrate from one extreme to the other, and that we have no men among us to whom we can intrust the philosophic task of pointing out the golden mean?

At present, Congress have no power to lay taxes, &c., not even to compel a compliance with their requisitions. May we not suppose that the members of the great Convention had severely felt the impotency of Congress, while they were in, and, therefore, were rather too keenly set for an effectual increase of power? that the difficulties they had encountered in obtaining decent requisitions, had wrought in them a degree of impatience, which prompted them to demand the purse-strings of the nation, as if we were insolvent, and the proposed Congress were to compound with our creditors? Whence, sir, can this great, I had almost said, this bold demand have originated? Will it be said that it is but a consistent and necessary part of the general system? I shall not deny these gentlemen the praise of inventing a system completely consistent with itself, and pretty free from contradiction; but I would ask,—I Shall expect to be answered,—how a system can be necessary for us, of which this is a consistent and necessary part. But, sir, to the paragraph in hand: Congress, &c. Here, sir, (however kindly Congress may be pleased to deal with us,) is a very good and valid conveyance of all the property in the United States,—to certain uses indeed, but those uses capable of any construction the trustees may think proper to make. This body is not amenable to any tribunal, and therefore this Congress can do no wrong. It will not be denied that they may tax us to any extent; but some gentlemen are fond of arguing that this body never will do any thing but what is for the common good. Let us consider that matter.

Faction, sir, is the vehicle of all transactions in public bodies; and when gentlemen know this so well, I am rather surprised to hear them so sanguine in this respect. The prevalent faction is the body; these gentlemen, therefore, must mean that the prevalent faction will always be right, and that the true patriots will always outnumber the men of less and selfish principles. From this it would follow that no public measure was ever wrong, because it must have been passed by the majority; and so, I grant, no power ever was, or ever will be, abused. In short, we know that all governments have degenerated, and consequently have abused the powers reposed in them; and why we should imagine better of the proposed Congress than of myriads of public bodies who have gone before them, I cannot at present conceive.

Sir, we ought (I speak it with submission) to consider that what we now grant from certain motives, well grounded at present, will be exacted of posterity as a prerogative, when we are not alive, to testify the tacit conditions of the grant; that the wisdom of this age will then be pleaded by those in power; and that the cession we are now about to make will be actually clothed with the venerable habit of ancestral sanction.

Therefore, sir, I humbly presume we ought not to take advantage of our situation in point of time, so as to bind posterity to be obedient to laws they may very possibly disapprove, nor expose them to a rebellion which, in that period, will very probably end only in their further subjugation.

The paragraph in question is an absolute decree of the people. The Congress shall have power. It does not say that they shall exercise it; but our necessities say they must, and the experience of ages say that they will; and finally, when the expenses of the nation, by their ambition, are grown enormous, that they will oppress and subject; for, sir, they may lay taxes, duties, imposts, and excises! One would suppose that the Convention, sir, were not at all afraid to multiply words when any thing was to be got by it. By another clause, all imposts or duties on exports and imports, wherever laid, go into the federal chest; so that Congress may not only lay imposts and excises, but all imposts and duties that are laid on imports and exports, by any state, shall be a part of the national revenue; and besides, Congress may lay an impost on the produce and manufactures of the country, which are consumed at home. And all these shall be equal through the states. Here, sir, I raise two objections; first, that Congress should have this power. It is a universal, unbounded permission, and as such, I think, no free people ought ever to consent to it, especially in so important a matter as that of property. I will not descend, sir, to an abuse of the future Congress, until it exists; nor then, until it misbehaves; nor then, unless I dare. But I think that some certain revenue, amply adequate to all necessary purposes, upon a peace establishment, but certain and definite, would have been better; and the collection of it might have been guarantied by every state to every other. We should then have known to what we were about to subscribe, and should have cheerfully granted it. But now we may indeed grant, but who can cheerfully grant he knows not what?

Again, sir, I object to the equality of these duties through the states. It matters not with me, in the present argument, which of them will suffer by this proportion. Some probably will, as the consumption of dutied articles will not, if we may judge from experience, be united in all.

But some say, with whom I have conversed, it was for this reason that taxes were provided; that, by their assistance, the defect of duties in some states ought to be supplied. Now, then, let us suppose that the duties are so laid, that, if every state paid in proportion to that which paid most, the duties alone would supply a frugal treasury. Some states will pay but half their proportion, and some will scarcely pay any thing. But those in general who pay the least duty, viz., the inland states, are least of all able to pay a land tax; and therefore I do not see but that this tax would operate most against those who are least able to pay it.

I humbly submit it, sir, whether, if each state had its proportion of some certain gross sum assigned, according to its numbers, and a power was given to Congress to collect the same, in case of default in the state, this would not have been a safer Constitution. For, sir, I also disapprove of the power to collect, which is here vested in Congress. It is a power, sir, to burden us with a standing army of ravenous collectors,—harpies, perhaps, from another state, but who, however, were never known to have bowels for any purpose, but to fatten on the life-blood of the people. In an age or two, this will be the case; and when the Congress shall become tyrannical, these vultures, their servants, will be the tyrants of the village, by whose presence all freedom of speech and action will be taken away.

Sir, I shall be told that these are imaginary evils; but I hold to this maxim, that power was never given, (of this kind especially,) but it was exercised; nor ever exercised, but it was finally abused. We must not be amused with handsome probabilities; but we must be assured that we are in no danger, and that this Congress could not distress us, if they were ever so much disposed.

To pay the debts, &c.

These words, sir, I confess, are an ornament to the page, and very musical words; but they are too general to be understood as any kind of limitation of the power of Congress, and not very easy to be understood at all. When Congress have the purse, they are not confined to rigid economy; and the word debts, here, is not confined to debts already contracted; or, indeed, if it were, the term “general welfare” might be applied to any expenditure whatever. Or, if it could not, who shall dare to gainsay the proceedings of this body at a future day, when, according to the course of nature, it shall be too firmly fixed in the saddle to be overthrown by any thing but a general insurrection?—an event not to be expected, considering the extent of this continent; and, if it were to be expected, a sufficient reason in itself for rejecting this or any constitution that would tend to produce it.

This clause, sir, contains the very sinews of the Constitution. And I hope the universality of it may be singular; but it may be easily seen, that it tends to produce, in time, as universal powers in every other respect. As the poverty of individuals prevents luxury, so the poverty of public bodies, whether sole or aggregate, prevents tyranny. A nation cannot, perhaps, don more politic thing than to supply the purse of its sovereign with that parsimony which results from a sense of the labor it costs, and so to compel him to comply with the genius of his people, and to conform to their situation, whether he will or not. How different will be our conduct, if we give the entire disposal of our property to a body as yet almost unknown in theory, in practice quite heterogeneous in its composition, and whose maxims are yet entirely unknown!

Sir, I wish the gentlemen who so ably advocate this instrument would enlarge upon this formidable clause; and I most sincerely wish that the effect of their reasoning may be my conviction. For, sir, I will not dishonor my constituents, by supposing that they expect me to resist that which is irresistible—the, force of reason. No, sir; my constituents wish for a firm, efficient Continental government, but fear the operation of this which is now proposed. Let them be convinced that their fears are groundless, and I venture to declare in their name, that no town in the commonwealth will sooner approve the form, or be better subjects under it.

Mr. JONES (of Boston) enlarged on the various checks which the Constitution provides, and which, he said, formed a security for liberty, and prevention against power being abused; the frequency of elections of the democratic branch; representation apportioned to numbers; the publication of the journals of Congress, &c. Gentlemen, he said, had compared the people of this country to those of Rome; but, he observed, the comparison was very erroneous: the Romans were divided into two classes, the nobility and plebeians; the nobility kept all kinds of knowledge to their own class; and the plebeians were, in general, very ignorant, and when unemployed, in time of peace, were ever ready for revolt, and to follow the dictates of any designing patrician. But, continued the worthy gentleman, the people of the United States are an enlightened, well-informed people, and are, therefore, not easily imposed on by designing men. Our right of representation, concluded Mr. J., is much more just and equitable than the boasted one of Great Britain, whose representatives are chosen by corporations or boroughs, and those boroughs, in general are the property, or at the disposal, of the nobility and rich gentry of the kingdom.

[The vice-president having informed the Convention, in the forenoon, that he had received a long letter from the Hon. Mr. Gerry, the same was read as soon as the Convention proceeded to business in the afternoon. When the vice-president had read the letter, Mr. Gore rose, and objected to the reading a state of facts respecting the construction of the Senate in the federal Convention, which accompanied the letter; not, he said, "from a wish to preclude information from his own mind, or from the minds of the Convention, but from his duty to his constituents, and the desire he had to guard against infringements on the orders of the Convention." Mr. Gore was interrupted, as being out of order, but was proceeding on his objection, when the Hon. Judge Dana begged Mr. Gore's leave to say a few words, which he did; after which he retired from the Convention, until the consideration of the letter should be gone through with.]

Back to Table of Contents

Contents

General Overview

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

View in-depth studies of the Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York state ratifying conventions.

The Federal Pillars

View drawings of the federal pillars rising published by the Massachusetts Centinel during the ratification debate.

View Feature

The Stages of Ratification: An Interactive Timeline

View the six stages of the ratification of the Constitution with links to many other features on this site.

View Feature

Interactive Ratification Map

View interactive maps showing the breakdown of Federalist-Antifederalist strength at the state level during the Ratification debate.

View Interactive

TeachingAmericanHistory.org is a project of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University

401 College Avenue | Ashland, Ohio 44805 (419) 289-5411 | (877) 289-5411 (Toll Free)

info@TeachingAmericanHistory.org