Elliot’s Debates: Volume 2

Convention of Massachusetts, January 30, 1788

Wednesday, January 30.—Mr. HOLMES. Mr. President, I rise to make some remarks on the paragraph under consideration, which treats of the judiciary power.

It is a maxim universally admitted, that the safety of the subject consists in having a right to a trial as free and impartial as the lot of humanity will admit of. Does the Constitution make provision for such a trial? I think not; for in a criminal process, a person shall not have a right to insist on a trial in the vicinity where the fact was committed, where a jury of the peers would, from their local situation, have an opportunity to form a judgment of the character of the person charged with the crime, and also to judge of the credibility of the witnesses. There a person must be tried by a jury of strangers; a jury who may be interested in his conviction; and where he may, by reason of the distance of his residence from the place of trial, be incapable of making such a defence as he is, in justice, entitled to, and which he could avail himself of, if his trial was in the same county where the crime is said to have been committed.

These circumstances, as horrid as they are, are rendered still more dark and gloomy, as there is no provision made in the Constitution to prevent the attorney-general from filing information against any person, whether he is indicted by the grand jury or not; in consequence of which the most innocent person in the commonwealth may be taken by virtue of a warrant issued in consequence of such information, and dragged from his home, his friends, his acquaintance, and confined in prison, until the next session of the court, which has jurisdiction of the crime with which he is charged, (and how frequent those sessions are to be we are not yet informed of,) and after long, tedious, and painful imprisonment, though acquitted on trial, may have no possibility to obtain any kind of satisfaction for the loss of his liberty, the loss of his time, great expenses, and perhaps cruel sufferings.

But what makes the matter still more alarming is, that the mode of criminal process is to be pointed out by Congress, and they have no constitutional check on them, except that the trial is to be by a jury: but who this jury is to be, how qualified, where to live, how appointed, or by what rules to regulate their procedure, we are ignorant of as yet: whether they are to live in the county where the trial is; whether they are to be chosen by certain districts, or whether they are to be appointed by the sheriff ex officio; whether they are to be for one session of the court only, or for a certain term of time, or for good behavior, or during pleasure, are matters which we are entirely ignorant of as yet.

The mode of trial is altogether indetermined; whether the criminal is to be allowed the benefit of counsel; whether he is to be allowed to meet his accuser face to face; whether he is to be allowed to confront the witnesses, and have the advantage of cross-examination, we are not yet told.

These are matters of by no means small consequence; yet we have not the smallest constitutional security that we shall be allowed the exercise of these privileges, neither is it made certain, in the Constitution, that a person charged with the crime shall have the privilege of appearing before the court or jury which is to try him.

On the whole, when we fully consider this matter, and fully investigate the powers granted, explicitly given, and specially delegated, we shall find Congress possessed of powers enabling them to institute judicatories little less inauspicious than a certain tribunal in Spain, which has long been the disgrace of Christendom: I mean that diabolical institution, the Inquisition.

What gives an additional glare of horror to these gloomy circumstances is the consideration, that Congress have to ascertain, point out, and determine, what kind of punishments shall be inflicted on persons convicted of crimes. They are nowhere restrained from inventing the most cruel and unheard-of punishments, and annexing them to crimes; and there is no constitutional check on them, but that racks and gibbets may be amongst the most mild instruments of their discipline.

There is nothing to prevent Congress from passing laws which shall compel a man, who is accused or suspected of a crime, to furnish evidence against himself, and even from establishing laws which shall order the court to take the charge exhibited against a man for truth, unless he can furnish evidence of his innocence.

I do not pretend to say Congress will do this; but, sir, I undertake to say that Congress (according to the powers proposed to be given them by the Constitution) may do it; and if they do not, it will be owing entirely—I repeat it, it will be owing entirely—to the goodness of the men, and not in the least degree owing to the goodness of the Constitution.

The framers of our state constitution took particular care to prevent the General Court from authorizing the judicial authority to issue a warrant against a man for a crime, Unless his being guilty of the crime was supported by oath or affirmation, prior to the warrant being granted; why it should be esteemed so much more safe to intrust Congress with the power of enacting laws, which it was deemed so unsafe to intrust our state legislature with, I am unable to conceive.

Mr. GORE observed, in reply to Mr. Holmes, that it had been the uniform conduct of those in opposition to the proposed form of government, to determine, in every case where it was possible that the administrators thereof could do wrong, that they would do so, although it were demonstrable that such wrong would be against their own honor and interest, and productive of no advantage to themselves. On this principle alone have they determined that the trial by jury would be taken away in civil cases; when it had been clearly shown, that no words could be adopted, apt to the situation and customs of each state in this particular. Jurors are differently chosen in different states, and in point of qualification the laws of the several states are very diverse; not less so in the causes and disputes which are entitled to trial by jury. What is the result of this? That the laws of Congress may and will be conformable to the local laws in this particular, although the Constitution could not make a universal rule equally applying to the customs and statutes of the different states. Very few governments (certainly not this) can be interested in depriving the people of trial by jury, in questions of meum et tuum. In criminal cases alone are they interested to have the trial under their own control; and, in such cases, the Constitution expressly stipulates for trial by jury; but then, says the gentleman from Rochester, (Mr. Holmes,) to the safety of life it is indispensably necessary the trial of crimes should be in the vicinity; and the vicinity is construed to mean county; this is very incorrect, and gentlemen will see the impropriety, by referring themselves to the different local divisions and districts of the several states. But further, said the gentleman, the idea that the jury coming from the neighborhood, and knowing the character and circumstances of the party in trial, is promotive of justice, on reflection will appear not founded in truth. If the jury judge from any other circumstances but what are part of the cause in question, they are not impartial. The great object is to determine on the real merits of the cause, uninfluenced by any personal considerations; if, therefore, the jury could be perfectly ignorant of the person in trial, a just decision would be more probable. From such motives did the wise Athenians so constitute the famed Areopagus, that, when in judgment, this court should sit at midnight, and in total darkness, that the decision might be on the thing, and not on the person. Further, said the gentleman, it has been said, because the Constitution does not expressly provide for an indictment by grand jury in criminal cases, therefore some officer under this government will be authorized to file informations, and bring any man to jeopardy of his life, and indictment by grand jury will be disused. If gentlemen who pretend such fears will look into the constitution of Massachusetts, they will see that no provision is therein made for an indictment by grand jury, or to oppose, the danger of an attorney-general filing informations; yet no difficulty or danger has arisen to the people of this commonwealth from this defect, if gentlemen please to call it so, If gentlemen would be candid, and not consider that, wherever Congress may possibly abuse power, they certainly will, there would be no difficulty in the minds of any in adopting the proposed Constitution.

Mr. DAWES said, he did not see that the right of trial by jury was taken away by the article. The word court does not, either by a popular or technical construction, exclude the use of a jury to try facts. When people, in common language, talk of a trial at the Court of Common Pleas, or the Supreme Judicial Court, do they not include all the branches and members of such court—the jurors as well as the judges? They certainly do, whether they mention the jurors expressly or not. Our state legislators have construed the word court in the same way; for they have given appeals from a justice of peace to the Court of Common Pleas, and from thence to the Supreme Court, without saying any thing of the jury; but in cases which, almost time out of mind, have been tried without jury, there the jurisdiction is given expressly to the justices of a particular court, as may be instanced by suits upon the absconding act, so called.

Gentlemen have compared the article under consideration to that power which the British claimed, and we resisted, at the revolution; namely, the power of trying the Americans without a jury. But surely there was no parallel in the cases; it was criminal cases in which they attempted to make this abuse of power. Mr. D. mentioned one example of this, which, though young, he well remembered; and that was the case of Nickerson, the pirate, who was tried without a jury, and whose judges were the governors of Massachusetts and of some neighboring provinces, together with Admiral Montague, and some gentlemen of distinction. Although this trial was without a jury, yet, as it was a trial upon the civil law, there was not so much clamor about it as otherwise there might have been; but still it was disagreeable to the people, and was one of the then complaints. But the trial by jury was not attempted to be taken from civil causes. It was no object of power, whether one subject’s property was lessened, while another’s was increased; nor can it be now an object with the federal legislature. What interest can they have in constituting a judiciary, to proceed in civil causes without a trial by jury? In criminal causes, by the proposed government, there must be a jury. It is asked, why is nor the Constitution as explicit in securing the right of jury in civil as in criminal cases? The answer is, Because it was out of the power of the Convention. The several states differ so widely in their modes of trial, some states using a jury in causes wherein other states employ only their judges, that the Convention have very wisely left it to the federal legislature to make such regulations as shall, as far as possible, accommodate the whole. Thus our own state constitution authorizes the General Court to erect judicatories, but leaves the nature, number, and extent of them, wholly to the discretion of the legislature. The bill of rights, indeed, secures the trial by jury, in civil causes, except in cases where a contrary practice has obtained. Such a clause as this some gentlemen wish were inserted in the proposed Constitution, but such a clause would be abused in that Constitution, as has been clearly stated by the honorable gentleman from Charlestown, (Mr. Gorham,) because the “exception of all cases where a jury have not heretofore been used,” would include almost all cases that could be mentioned, when applied to all the states, for they have severally differed in the kinds of causes where they have tried without a jury.

Gen. HEATH. Mr. President, by my indisposition and absence, I have lost several important opportunities. I have lost the opportunity of expressing my sentiments with a candid freedom, on some of the paragraphs of the system, which have lain heavy on my mind. I have lost the opportunity of expressing my warm approbation on some of the paragraphs. I have lost the opportunity of asking some questions for my own information, touching some of the paragraphs, and which naturally occurred, as the system unfolded. I have lost the opportunity of hearing those judicious, enlightening, and convincing arguments, which have been advanced during the investigation of the system. This is my misfortune, and I must bear it. The paragraph respecting the migration or importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit, &c., is one of those considered during my absence, and I have heard nothing on the subject, save what has been mentioned this morning; but I think the gentlemen who have spoken have carried the matter rather too far on both sides. I apprehend that it is not in our power to do any thing for or against those who are in slavery in the Southern States, No gentleman, within these walls, detests every idea of slavery more than I do it is generally detested by the people of this commonwealth; and I ardently hope that the time will soon come when our brethren in the Southern States will view it as we do, and put a stop to it; but to this we have no right to compel them. Two questions naturally arise: If we ratify the Constitution, shall we do any thing by our act to hold the blacks in slavery? or shall we become the partakers of other men’s sins? I think, neither of them. Each state is sovereign and independent to a, certain degree, and the states have a right, and they will regulate their own internal affairs as to themselves appears proper, and shall we refuse to eat, or to drink, or to be united, with those who do not think, or act, just as we do? Surely not. We are not, in this case, partakers of other men’s sins; for in nothing do we voluntarily encourage the slavery of our fellowmen. A restriction is laid on the federal government, which could not be avoided, and a union take place. The federal Convention went as far as they could. The migration or importation, &c., is confined to the states now existing only; new states cannot claim it. Congress, by their ordinance for erecting new states, some time since, declared that the new states shall be republican, and that there shall, be no slavery in them. But whether those in slavery in the Southern States will be emancipated after the year 1808, I do not pretend to determine. I rather doubt it.

After the 5th article was read at the table,—

The Hon. Mr. KING observed, that he believed gentlemen had not, in their, objections to the Constitution, recollected that this article was a part of it; for many of the arguments of gentlemen were founded on the idea of future amendments being impracticable. The honorable gentleman observed on the superior excellence of the proposed Constitution in this particular, and called upon gentlemen to produce an instance, in any other national constitution, where the people had so fair an opportunity to correct any abuse which might take place in the future administration of the government under it.

Dr. JARVIS. Mr. President, I cannot suffer the present article to be passed, without rising to express my entire and perfect approbation of it. Whatever may have been my private opinion of any other part, or whatever faults or imperfections I have remarked, or fancied I have seen, in any other instance, here, sir, I have found complete satisfaction: this has been a resting place, on which I have reposed myself in the fullest security, whenever a doubt has occurred, in considering any other passage in the proposed Constitution. The honorable gentleman last speaking has called upon those persons who are opposed to our receiving the present system, to show another government, in which such a wise precaution has been taken to secure to the people the right of making such alterations and amendments, in a peaceable way, as experience shall have proved to be necessary. Allow me to say, sir, as far as the narrow limits of my own information extend, I know of no such example. In other countries, sir,—unhappily for mankind,—the history of flair respective revolutions has been written in blood; and it is in this only that any great or important change in our political situation has been effected, without public commotions. When we shall have adopted the Constitution before us, we shall have in this article an adequate provision for all the purposes of political reformation. If, in the course of its operation, this government shall appear to be too severe, here are the means by which this severity may be assuaged and corrected. If, on the other hand, it shall become too languid in its movements, here, again, we have a method designated, by which a new portion of health and spirit may be infused into the Constitution.

There is, sir, another view, which I have long since taken of this subject, which has produced the fullest conviction, in my own mind, in favor of our receiving the government which we have now in contemplation Should it be rejected, I beg gentlemen would observe, that a concurrence of all the states must be had before a new convention can be called to form another Constitution; but the present article provides, upon nine states’ concurring in any alteration or amendment to be proposed either by Congress or any future convention, that this alteration shall be a part of the Constitution, equally powerful and obligatory with any other part. If it be alleged that this union is not likely to happen, will it be more likely that a union of a greater number of concurring sentiments may be had, as must be, in case we reject the Constitution in hopes of a better? But that this is practicable, we may safely appeal to the history of this country as a proof, in the last twenty years. We have united against the British; we have united in calling the late federal Convention; and we may certainly unite again in such alterations as in reason shall appear to be important for the peace and happiness of America.

In the constitution of this state, the article providing for alterations is limited in its operation to a given time; but in the present Constitution, the article is perfectly at large, unconfined to any period, and may admit of measures being taken in any moment after it is adopted. In this point it has undoubtedly the advantage. I shall not sit down, sir, without repeating, that, as it is clearly more difficult for twelve states to agree to another convention, than for nine to unite in favor of amendments, so it is certainly better to receive the present Constitution, in the hope of its being amended, than it would be to reject it altogether, with, perhaps, the vain expectation of obtaining another more agreeable than the present. I see no fallacy in the argument, Mr. President; but, if there is, permit me to call upon any gentleman to point it out, in order that it may be corrected; for, at present, it seems to me of such force as to give me entire satisfaction.

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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

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The Stages of Ratification: An Interactive Timeline

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Interactive Ratification Map

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