Elliot’s Debates: Volume 2

Convention of Massachusetts, January 25, 1788

Friday, January 25.—The 8th section still under debate; but the conversation continued desultory; and much attention was paid to the inquiries of gentlemen on different parts of the Constitution, by those who were in favor of it.

Mr. AMES, in a short discourse, called on those who stood forth in 1775 to stand forth now; to throw aside all interested and party views; to have one purse and one heart for the whole; and to consider that, as it was necessary then, so was it necessary now, to unite,—or die we must.

Hon. Mr. SINGLETARY. Mr. President, I should not have troubled the Convention again, if some gentlemen had not called on them that were on the stage in the beginning of our troubles, in the year 1775. I was one of them. I have had the honor to be a member of the court all the time, Mr. President, and I say that, if any body had proposed such a constitution as this in that day, it would have been thrown away at once. It would not have been looked at. We contended with Great Britain, some said for a threepenny duty on tea; but it was not that; it was because they claimed a right to tax us and bind us in all cases whatever. And does not this Constitution do the same? Does it not take away all we have—all our property? Does it not lay all taxes, duties, imposts, and excises? And what more have we to give? They tell us Congress won’t lay dry taxes upon us, but collect all the money they want by impost. I say, there has always been a difficulty about impost. Whenever the General Court was going to lay an Impost, they would tell us it was more than trade could bear, that it hurt the fair trader, and encouraged smuggling; and there will always be the same objection: they won’t be able to raise money enough by impost, and then they will lay it on the land, and take all we have got. These lawyers, and men of learning, and moneyed men, that talk so finely, and gloss over matters so smoothly, to make us poor illiterate people swallow down the pill, expect to get into Congress themselves; they expect to be the managers of this Constitution, and get all the power and all the money into their own hands, and then they will swallow up all us little folks, like the great Leviathan, Mr. President; yes, just as the whale swallowed up Jonah. This is what I am afraid of; but I won’t say any more at present, but reserve the rest to another opportunity.

Hon. Mr. SMITH. Mr. President, I am a plain man, and get my living by the plough. I am not used to speak in public, but I beg your leave to say a few words to my brother ploughjoggers in this house. I have lived in a part of the country where I have known the worth of good government by the want of it. There was a black cloud that rose in the east last winter, and spread over the west. [Here Mr. Widgery interrupted. Mr. President, I wish to know what the gentleman means by the east.] I mean, sir, the county of Bristol; the cloud rose there, and burst upon us, and produced a dreadful effect. It brought on a state of anarchy, and that led to tyranny. I say, it brought anarchy. People that used to live peaceably, and were before good neighbors, got distracted, and took up arms against government. [Here Mr. Kingsley called to order, and asked, what had the history of last winter to do with the Constitution. Several gentlemen, and among the rest the Hon. Mr. Adams, said the gentleman was in order—let him go on in his own way.] I am going, Mr. President, to show you, my brother farmers, what were the effects of anarchy, that you may see the reasons why I wish for good government. People, I say, took up arms; and then, if you went to speak to them, you had the musket of death presented to your breast. They would rob you of your property; threaten to burn your houses; oblige you to be on your guard night and day; alarms spread from town to town; families were broken up; the tender mother would cry, “O, my son is among them! What shall I do for my child!” Some were taken captive, children taken out of their schools, and carried away. Then we should hear of an action, and the poor prisoners were set in the front, to be killed by their own friends. How dreadful, how distressing was this! Our distress was so great that we should have been glad to snatch at any thing that looked like a government. Had any person, that was able to protect us, come and set up his standard, we should all have flocked to it, even if it had been a monarch; and that monarch might have proved a tyrant;—so that you see that anarchy leads to tyranny, and better have one tyrant than so many at once.

Now, Mr. President, when I saw this Constitution, I found that it was a cure for these disorders. It was just such a thing as we wanted. I got a copy of it, and read it over and over. I had been a member of the Convention to form our own state constitution, and had learnt something of the checks and balances of power, and I found them all here. I did not go to any lawyer, to ask his opinion; we have no lawyer in our town, and we do well enough without. I formed my own opinion, and was pleased with this Constitution. My honorable old daddy there [pointing to Mr. Singletary] won’t think that I expect to be a Congress-man, and swallow up the liberties of the people. I never had any post, nor do I want one. But I don’t think the worse of the Constitution because lawyers, and men of learning, and moneyed men, are fond of it. I don’t suspect that they want to get into Congress and abuse their power. I am not of such a jealous make. They that are honest men themselves are not apt to suspect other people. I don’t know why our constituents have not a good right to be as jealous of us as we seem to be of the Congress; and I think those gentlemen, who are so very suspicious that as soon as a man gets into power he turns rogue, had better look at home.

We are, by this Constitution, allowed to send ten members to Congress. Have we not more than that number fit to go? I dare say, if we pick out ten, we shall have another ten left, and I hope ten times ten; and will not these be a check upon those that go? Will they go to Congress, and abuse their power, and do mischief, when they know they must return and look the other ten in the face, and be called to account for their conduct? Some gentlemen think that our liberty and property are not safe in the hands of moneyed men, and men of learning? I am not of that mind.

Brother farmers, let us suppose a case, now: Suppose you had a farm of 50 acres, and your title was disputed, and there was a farm of 5000 acres joined to you, that belonged to a man of learning, and his title was involved in the same difficulty; would you not be glad to have him for your friend, rather than to stand alone in the dispute? Well, the case is the same. These lawyers, these moneyed men, these men of learning, are all embarked in the same cause with us, and we must all swim or sink together; and Shall we throw the Constitution overboard because it does not please us alike? Suppose two or three of you had been at the pains to break up a piece of rough land, and sow it with wheat; would you let it lie waste because you could not agree what sort of a fence to make? Would it not be better to put up a fence that did not please every one’s fancy, rather than not fence it at all, or keep disputing about it until the wild beasts came in and devoured it? Some gentlemen say, Don’t be in a hurry; take time to consider, and don’t take a leap in the dark. I say, Take things in time; gather fruit when it is ripe. There is a time to sow and a time to reap; we sowed our seed when we sent men to the federal Convention; now is the harvest, now is the time to reap the fruit of our labor; and if we won’t do it now, I am afraid we never shall have another opportunity.

Mr. PARSONS considered the several charges of ambiguity which gentlemen had laid to the Constitution, and, with a great deal of accuracy, stated the obvious meaning of the clauses thus supposed to be ambiguous. He concluded his explanation by saying, that no compositions, which men can pen, could be formed, but what would be liable to the same charge.

Afternoon.—Hon. Mr. DALTON. Mr. President, it has been demanded by some gentlemen in opposition to this Constitution, why those who were opposed to the augmentation of the powers of Congress a few years since, should now be the warmest advocates for the powers to be granted by the section under debate. Sir, I was opposed to the five per cent. impost being granted to Congress; and I conceived that such a grant, under the Confederation, would produce great difficulties and embarrassments. But, sir, as Congress is, by the proposed Constitution, to be differently constructed, as a proportionate voice of the states in that body is to be substituted for the present equal (or rather unequal) one, my objections will be removed. In my opinion, the delegating of power to a government in which the people have so many checks, will be perfectly safe, and consistent with the preservation of their liberties.

Mr. AMES said, that, in the course of the debates, gentlemen had justified the Confederation; but he wished to ask whether there was any danger in this Constitution which is not in the Confederation. If gentlemen are willing to confederate, why, he asked, ought not Congress to have the powers granted by this section? In the Confederation, said Mr. A., the checks are wanting which are to be found in this Constitution. And the fears of gentlemen that this Constitution will provide for a permanent aristocracy are therefore ill-founded; for the rulers will always be dependent on the people, like the insects of a sunshiny day, and may, by the breath of their displeasure, be annihilated.

Mr. WIDGERY. Mr. President, enough has, I think, been said on the 8th section. It has been repeated, over and over again, that the adoption of the Constitution will please all ranks; that the present inefficiency of the Confederation is obvious; and that blessed things will surely be the result of this Constitution. Many say, Ask the mechanics, ask the yeomanry. But they do not tell us what the answer of these will be. All we hear is, that the merchant and farmer will flourish, and that the mechanics and tradesmen are to make their fortunes directly, if the Constitution goes down. Is it, sir, because the seat of government is to be carried to Philadelphia? Who, sir, is to pay the debts of the yeomanry and others? Sir, when oil will quench fire, I will believe all this, and not till then. On the contrary, I think the adopting this Constitution makes against them, though it may be something in favor of the merchants. Have not Congress power to tax polls,—for there is no other way of levying a dry tax,—and by this means the, poor will pay as much as the rich. Gentlemen say we are undone, and that there is no resource, unless this Constitution is adopted. I cannot see why we need, for the sake of a little meat, swallow a great bone, which, if it should happen to stick in our throats, can never be got out. Some gentlemen have given out, that we are surrounded by enemies, that we owe debts, and that the nations will make war against us, and take our shipping, &c. Sir, I ask, Is this a fact? Or whether gentlemen think as they say? I believe they do not; for I believe they are convinced that the nations we owe do not wish us at present to pay more than the interest.

Mr. W., after considering some other observations which had dropped from gentlemen in the course of the debates on the 8th section, concluded by saying, that he could not see the great danger that would arise from rejecting the Constitution.

The Hon. Mr. GORHAM adverted to the suggestion of some gentlemen, that, by granting the impost to Congress, this state would pay more than its proportion, and said that it could be made an objection as much against one government as another. But he believed gentlemen would accede that the impost was a very proper tax. As to the tax on polls, which the gentleman from New Gloucester had said would take place, he saw, he said, no article in the Constitution which warranted the assertion; it was, he said, a distressful tax, and would never be adopted. By impost and excise, the man of luxury will pay; and the middling and the poor parts of the community, who live by their industry, will go clear; and as this would be the easiest mode of raising a revenue, it was the most natural to suppose it would be resorted to. Twenty per cent., he said, may as well be paid for some luxuries as five; nay, one hundred per cent. impost on some articles might be laid on, as is done in England and France. How often, observed the honorable gentleman, has Mr. Adams tried to accomplish a commercial treaty with England, with but feeble power! They prohibit our oil, fish, lumber, of and pearl ashes, from being imported into their territories, in order to favor Nova Scotia, for they know we Cannot make general retaliating laws. They have a design in Nova Scotia to rival us in the fishery, and our situation at present favors their design. From the abundance of our markets, we could supply them with beef, butter, pork, &c., but they lay what restrictions on them they please; which they durst not do, were there an adequate power lodged in the general government to regulate commerce.

Mr. JONES, Col. PORTER, and Col. VARNUM, said a few words in favor of the article, when the Convention proceeded to the consideration of the 9th section.

Mr. NEAL (from Kittery) went over the ground of objection to this section, on the idea that the slave trade was allowed to be continued for twenty years. His profession, he said, obliged him to bear witness against any thing that should favor the making merchandise of the bodies of men, and, unless his objection was removed, he could not put his hand to the Constitution. Other gentlemen said, in addition to this idea, that there was not even a proposition that the negroes ever shall be free; and Gen. THOMPSON exclaimed, Mr. President, shall it be said that, after we have established our own independence and freedom, we make slaves of others? O! Washington, what a name has he had! How he has immortalized himself! But he holds those in slavery who have as good a right to be free as he has. He is still for self; and, in my opinion, his character has sunk fifty per cent.

On the other side, gentlemen said, that the step taken in this article towards the abolition of slavery was one of the beauties of the Constitution. They observed, that in the Confederation there was no provision whatever for its being abolished; but this Constitution provides that Congress may, after twenty years, totally annihilate the slave trade; and that, as all the states, except two, have passed laws to this effect, it might reasonably be expected that it would then be done. In the interim, all the states were at liberty to prohibit it.

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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.

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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.

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Interactive Ratification Map

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

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