Elliot’s Debates: Volume 2

Convention of Massachusetts, January 31, 1788

In the conversation on Thursday, on the sixth article, which provides that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office,” &c., several gentlemen urged that it was a departure from the principles of our forefathers, who came here for the preservation of their religion; and that it would admit deists, atheists, &c., into the general government; and, people being apt to imitate the examples of the court, these principles would be disseminated, and, of course, a corruption of morals ensue. Gentlemen on the other side applauded the liberality of the clause, and represented, in striking colors, the impropriety, and almost impiety, of the requisition of a test, as practised in Great Britain and elsewhere. In this conversation, the following is the substance of the observations of the

Rev. Mr. SHUTE. Mr. President, to object to the latter part of the paragraph under consideration, which excludes a religious test, is, I am sensible, very popular; for the most of men, somehow, are rigidly tenacious of their own sentiments in religion, and disposed to impose them upon others as the standard of truth. If, in my sentiments upon the point in view, I should differ from some in this honorable body, I only wish from them the exercise of that candor, with which true religion is adapted to inspire the honest and well-disposed mind.

To establish a religious test as a qualification for offices in the proposed federal Constitution, it appears to me, sir, would be attended with injurious consequences to some individuals, and with no advantage to the whole.

By the injurious consequences to individuals, I mean, that some, who, in every other respect, are qualified to fill some important post in government, will be excluded by their not being able to stand the religious test; which I take to be a privation of part of their civil rights.

Nor is there to me any conceivable advantage, sir, that would result to the whole from such a test. Unprincipled and dishonest men will not hesitate to subscribe to any thing that may open the way for their advancement, and put them into a situation the better to execute their base and iniquitous designs. Honest men alone, therefore, however well qualified to serve the public, would be excluded by it, and their country be deprived of the benefit of their abilities.

In this great and extensive empire, there is, and will be, a great variety of sentiments in religion among its inhabitants. Upon the plan of a religious test, the question, I think, must be, Who shall be excluded from national trusts? Whatever answer bigotry may suggest, the dictates of candor and equity, I conceive, will be, None.

Far from limiting my charity and confidence to men of my own denomination in religion, I suppose, and I believe, sir, that there are worthy characters among men of every denomination—among the Quakers, the Baptists, the Church of England, the Papists; and even among those who have no other guide, in the way to virtue and heaven, than the dictates of natural religion.

I must therefore think, sir, that the proposed plan of government, in this particular, is wisely constructed; that, as all have an equal claim to the blessings of the government under which they live, and which they support, so none should be excluded from them for being of any particular denomination in religion.

The presumption is, that the eyes of the people will be upon the faithful in the land; and, from a regard to their own safety, they will choose for their rulers men of known abilities, of known probity, of good moral characters. The apostle Peter tells us that God is no respecter of persons, but, in every nation, he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is acceptable to him. And I know of no reason why men of such a character, in a community of whatever denomination in religion, cæteris paribus, with other suitable qualifications, should not be acceptable to the people, and why they may not be employed by them with safety and advantage in the important offices of government. The exclusion of a religious test in the proposed Constitution, therefore, clearly appears to me, sir, to be in favor of its adoption.

Col. JONES (of Bristol) thought, that the rulers ought to believe in God or Christ, and that, however a test may be prostituted in England, yet he thought, if our public men were to be of those who had a good standing in the church, it would be happy for the United States, and that a person could not be a good man without being a good Christian.

The conversation on the Constitution, by paragraphs, being ended,

Mr. PARSONS moved, that this Convention do assent to, and ratify, this Constitution.

Mr. NEAL rose, and said, that, as the Constitution at large was now under consideration, he would just remark, that the article which respected the Africans was the one which lay on his mind; and, unless his objections to that were removed, it must, how much soever he liked the other parts of the Constitution, be a sufficient reason for him to give his negative to it.

Col. JONES said, that one of his principal objections was, the omission of a religious test.

Rev. Mr. PAYSON. Mr. President, after what has been observed, relating to a religious test, by gentlemen of acknowledged abilities, I did not expect that it would again be mentioned, as an objection to the proposed Constitution, that such a test was not required as a qualification for office. Such were the abilities and integrity of the gentlemen who constructed the Constitution, as not to admit of the presumption, that they would have betrayed so much vanity as to attempt to erect bulwarks and barriers to the throne of God. Relying on the candor of this Convention, I shall take the liberty to express my sentiments on the nature of a religions test, and shall endeavor to do it in such propositions as will meet the approbation of every mind.

The great object of religion being God supreme, and the seat of religion in man being the heart or conscience, i.e., the reason God has given us, employed on our moral actions, in their most important consequences, as related to the tribunal of God, hence I infer that God alone is the God of the conscience, and, consequently, attempts to erect human tribunals for the consciences of men are impious encroachments upon the prerogatives of God. Upon these principles, had there been a religious test as a qualification for office, it would, in my opinion, have been a great blemish upon the instrument.

Gen. HEATH. Mr. President, after a long and painful investigation of the federal Constitution, by paragraphs, this honorable Convention are drawing nigh to the ultimate question—a question as momentous as ever invited the attention of man. We are soon to decide on a system of government, digested, not for the people of the commonwealth of Massachusetts only—not for the present people of the United States only—but, in addition to these, for all those states which may hereafter rise into existence within the jurisdiction of the United States, and for millions of people yet unborn; a system of government, not for a nation of slaves, but for a people as free and virtuous as any on earth; not for a conquered nation, subdued to our will, but for a people who have fought, who have bled, and who have conquered; who, under the smiles of Heaven, have established their independence and sovereignty, and have taken equal rank among the nations of the earth. In short, sir, it is a system of government for ourselves and for our children, for all that is near and dear to us in life; and on the decision of the question is suspended our political prosperity or infelicity, perhaps our existence as a nation. What can be more solemn? What can be more interesting? Everything depends on our union. I know that some have supposed, that, although the union should be broken, particular states may retain their importance; but this cannot be. The strongest-nerved state, even the right arm, if separated from the body, must wither. If the great union be broken, our country, as a nation, perishes; and if our country so perishes, it will be as impossible to save a particular state as to preserve one of the fingers of a mortified hand.

By one of the paragraphs of the system, it is declared that the ratifications of the conventions of nine states shall he sufficient for the establishment the Constitution between the states so ratifying the same. But, sir, how happy will it be, if not only nine, but even all the states, should ratify it! It will be a happy circumstance if only a small majority of this Convention should ratify the federal system; but how much more happy if we could be unanimous! It will be a happy circumstance if a majority of the people of this commonwealth should be in favor of the federal system; but how much more so, if they should be unanimous! and, if there are any means whereby they may be united, every exertion should be made to effect it. I presume, sir, that there is not a single gentleman within these walls who does not wish for a federal government—for an efficient federal government; and that this government should be possessed of every power necessary to enable it to shed on the people the benign influence of a good government. But I have observed, from the first, that many gentlemen appear opposed to the system; and this, I apprehend, arises from their objections to some particular parts of it. Is there not a way in which their minds may be relieved from embarrassment? I think there is; and if there is, no exertions should be spared in endeavoring to do it.

If we should ratify the Constitution, and instruct our first members to Congress to exert their endeavors to have such checks and guards provided as appear to be necessary in some of the paragraphs of the Constitution, communicate what we may judge proper to our sister states, and request their concurrence,—is there not the highest probability that every thing which we wish may be effectually secured? I think there is; and I cannot but flatter myself that in this way the gentlemen of the Convention will have the difficulties under which they now labor removed from their minds. We shall be united: the people of this commonwealth and our sister states may he united. Permit me, therefore, most earnestly to recommend it to the serious consideration of every gentleman in this honorable Convention.

After Gen. Heath sat down, his excellency, the PRESIDENT, rose, and observed, that he was conscious of the impropriety, situated as he was, of his entering into the deliberations of the Convention; that, unfortunately, through painful indisposition of body, he had been prevented from giving his attendance in his place; but, from the information he had received, and from the papers, there appeared to him to be a great dissimilarity of sentiments in the Convention. To remove the objections of some gentlemen, he felt himself induced, he said, to hazard a proposition for their consideration; which, with the permission of the Convention, he would offer in the afternoon.

Afternoon.—When the Convention met in the afternoon, his excellency, the PRESIDENT, observed, that a motion had been made and seconded, that this Convention do assent to and ratify the Constitution which had been under consideration; and that he had, in the former part of the day, intimated his intention of submitting a proposition to the Convention. My motive, says he, arises from my earnest desire to this Convention, my fellow-citizens, and the public at large, that this Convention may adopt such a form of government as may extend its good influence to every part of the United States, and advance the prosperity of the whole world. His situation, his excellency said, had not permitted him to enter into the debates of this Convention: it, however, appeared to him necessary, from what had been advanced in them, to adopt the form of government proposed; but, observing a diversity of sentiment in the gentlemen of the Convention, he had frequently had conversation with them on the subject, and from this conversation he was induced to propose to them, whether the introduction of some general amendments would not be attended with the happiest consequences. For that purpose, he should, with the leave of the honorable Convention, submit to their consideration a proposition, in order to remove the doubts and quiet the apprehensions of gentlemen; and if, in any degree, the object should be acquired, he should feel himself perfectly satisfied. He should therefore submit them; for he was, he said, unable to go more largely into the subject, if his abilities would permit him; relying on the candor of the Convention to bear him witness that his wishes for a good constitution were sincere. [His excellency then read his proposition.]—This, gentlemen, concluded his excellency, is the proposition which I had to make; and I submit it to your consideration, with the sincere wish that it may have a tendency to promote a spirit of union.

[The proposition submitted by his excellency having been committed to a large committee, who reported some amendments, we think it expedient to refer the reader to the form of ratification for it.]

Hon. Mr. ADAMS. Mr. President, I fed myself happy in contemplating the idea that many benefits will result from your excellency’s conciliatory proposition to this commonwealth and to the United States; and I think it ought to precede the motion made by the gentleman from Newburyport, and to be at this time considered by the Convention. I have said that I have had my doubts of this Constitution. I could not digest every part of it as readily as some gentlemen; but this, sir, is my misfortune, not my fault. Other gentlemen have had their doubts; but, in my opinion, the proposition submitted will have a tendency to remove such doubts, and to conciliate the minds of the Convention, and the people without doors. This Subject, sir, is of the greatest magnitude, and has employed the attention of every rational man in the United States; but the minds of the people are not so well agreed on it as all of us could wish. A proposal of this sort, coming from Massachusetts, from her importance, will have its weight. Four or five states have considered and ratified the Constitution as it stands; but we know there is a diversity of opinion even in these states, and one of them is greatly agitated. If this Convention should particularize the amendments necessary to be proposed, it appears to me it must have weight in other states, where Conventions have not yet met. I have observed the sentiments of gentlemen on the subject as far as Virginia, and I have found that the objections were similar, in the newspapers, and in some of the Conventions. Considering these circumstances, it appears to me that such a measure will have the most salutary effect throughout the Union. It is of the greatest importance that America should still be united in sentiment. I think I have not, heretofore, been unmindful of the advantage of such a union. It is essential that the people should be united in the federal government, to withstand the common enemy, and to preserve their valuable rights and liberties. We find, in the great state of Pennsylvania, one third of the Convention are opposed to it: should, then, there be large minorities in the several states, I should fear the consequences of such disunion.

Sir, there are many parts of it I esteem as highly valuable, particularly the article which empowers Congress to regulate commerce, to form treaties, &c. For want of this power in our national head, our friends are grieved, and our enemies insult us. Our ambassador at the court of London is considered as a mere cipher, instead of the representative of the United States. Therefore it appears to me, that a power to remedy this evil should be given to Congress, and the remedy applied as soon as possible.

The only difficulty on gentlemen’s minds is, whether it is best to accept this Constitution on conditional amendments, or to rely on amendments in future, as the Constitution provides. When I look over the article which provides for a revision, I have my doubts. Suppose, sir, nine states accept the Constitution without any conditions at all, and the four stares should wish to have amendments,—where will you find nine states to propose, and the legislatures of nine states to agree to, the introduction of amendments? Therefore it seems to me that the expectation of amendments taking place at some future time, will be frustrated. This method, if we take it, will be the most likely to bring about the amendments, as the Conventions of New Hampshire, Rhode Island, New York, Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina, have not yet met. I apprehend, sir, that these states will be influenced by the proposition which your excellency has submitted, as the resolutions of Massachusetts have ever had their influence. If this should be the case, the necessary amendments would be introduced more early and more safely. From these considerations, as your excellency did not think it proper to make a motion, with submission, I move that the paper read by your excellency be now taken under consideration by the Convention.

The motion being seconded, the proposition was read by the secretary at the table.

Dr. TAYLOR liked the idea of amendments; but, he said, he did not see any constitutional door open for the introduction of them by the Convention. He read the several authorities which provided for the meeting of Conventions, but did not see in any of them any power given to propose amendments. We are, he said, therefore, treading on unsafe ground to propose them; we must take the whole, or reject the whole. The honorable gentleman was in favor of the adjournment, and, in a speech of some length, deprecated the consequences, which, he said, must arise, if the Constitution was adopted or rejected by a small majority; and that the expenses which would accrue from the adjournment would not exceed fourpence per poll throughout the commonwealth.

Hon. Mr. CABOT rose, and observed, on what fell kern the honorable gentleman last speaking, that the reason why no provision for the introduction of amendments was made in the authorities quoted by the honorable gentleman, was, that they were provided for in the 5th article of the Constitution.

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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

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The Federal Pillars

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