Elliot’s Debates: Volume 2

Convention of Massachusetts, February 4, 1788

Monday, February 4, P. M.—Rev. Mr. THACHER. Mr. President, while the different paragraphs of the proposed Constitution have been debated, I have not troubled this honorable Convention with any observations of my own upon the subject. Conscious that there were men of deeper political knowledge, and of better abilities, than myself, I conceived it my duty to attend to their instruction, that, having heard with attention, I might decide with integrity. I view the object before us as of greater moment than ever was known within the memory of man, or that hath been recorded by the historic page. Were we, Mr. President, this day to decide on the lives and fortunes of a hundred the best citizens of this commonwealth, solemn would that province be; but much more interesting is the present question; for, in this case, not a single city, not a single state, but a continent, wide and extended, may be happy or wretched, according to our judgment; and posterity will either bless us for laying the foundation of a wise and equal government, or curse us for neglecting their important interests, and for forging chains for them, when we disdained to wear them ourselves. Having, therefore, as I trust, a full view of the magnitude of the object, I hope I shall be pardoned if I offer my sentiments with freedom. I am sensible of the prejudices that subsist against the profession to which I belong; but yet, intrusted by my constituents with a solemn charge, I think they have a right to expect from me the reasons why I shall finally consent to ratify the proposed form of government.

There are three circumstances which deserve notice in considering the subject. These are, the necessity that all the states have of some general bond of union; the checks upon the government in the form offered for our adoption; and, lastly, the particular disadvantages to which we shall he exposed if we reject it.

With respect to the first of these considerations, I trust them is no man in his senses, but what will own, that the whole country hath largely felt the want of energy in the general government. While we were at war with Britain, common danger produced a common union; but, the cause being removed, the effect ceased also. Nay, I do not know but we may safely add, that that union, produced by uniform danger, was still inadequate to general and national purposes. This commonwealth, with a generous, disinterested regard to the good of the whole, appeared foremost in the day of danger. At the conclusion of the late war, two thirds of the Continental army were from Massachusetts; their provision and their clothing proceeded, also, in a great measure, from our extraordinary exertions. The people did this in the fullest confidence, that, when peace and tranquility were restored, from the honor and justice of our sister states our supernumerary expenses would be abundantly repaid. But, alas! how much hath our expectation been blasted! The Congress, though willing, yet had no power to do us justice. The small district of Rhode Island put a negative upon the collected wisdom of the continent. This was done, not by those who are the patrons of their present infamous system of paper currency, but by that part of them who now call themselves honest men. We have made exertions to stop the importation of foreign luxuries. Our brethren in the neighboring states, from the view of local advantages, have taken occasion to distress us upon the same account. They have encouraged where we have prohibited; and by those iniquitous measures have made our virtue and public spirit an additional cause of our calamity. Nor have our calamities been local; they have reached to all parts of the United States, and have produced dissipation and indigence at home, and contempt in foreign countries. On the one hand, the haughty Spaniard has deprived us of the navigation of the River Mississippi; on the other, the British nation are, by extravagant duties, ruining our fishery. Our sailors are enslaved by the pirates of Algiers. Our credit is reduced to so low an ebb, that American faith is a proverbial expression for perfidy, as Punic faith was among the Romans. Thus have we suffered every species of infamy abroad, and poverty at home. Such, in fact, have been our calamities, as are enough to convince the most skeptical among us of the want of a general government, in which energy and vigor should be established, and at the same time, the rights and liberties of the people preserved.

A Constitution hath been presented to us, which was composed and planned by men, who, in the council and field, have, in the most conspicuous offices, served their country in the late war. It comes authenticated by a man who, without any pecuniary reward, commanded our army, and who retired to a private station with more pleasure than he left it. I do not say, Mr. President, that this proves the form of government to be perfect, or that it is an unanswerable argument that we should adopt it; but it is a reason why we should examine it with care and caution, and that we ought not rashly and precipitately to reject it.

It will be objected, “There are more powers granted than are necessary, and that it tends to destroy the local governments of the particular states, and that it will eventually end either in aristocracy or despotism.” To answer the objection, two considerations should be taken into view—the situation of the continent when a Constitutions was formed, and the impossibility of preserving a perfect sovereignty in the states, after necessary powers were ceded to a supreme council of the whole. As to the first, let us candidly examine the state of these republics from New Hampshire to Georgia, and see how far vigor and energy were required. During the session of the late Convention, Massachusetts was on the point of civil war. In Vermont and New Hampshire, a great disaffection to their several governments prevailed among the people. New York absolutely refused complying with the requisitions of Congress. In Virginia, armed men endeavored to stop the courts of justice. In South Carolina, creditors, by law, were obliged to receive barren and useless land for contracts made in silver and gold. I pass over the instance of Rhode Island: their conduct was notorious. In some states, laws were made directly against the treaty of peace; in others, statutes were enacted which clashed directly against any federal union—new lands sufficient to discharge a great part of the Continental debt intruded upon by needy adventurers—our frontier settlements exposed to the ravages of the Indians—white the several states were unable or unwilling to relieve their distress. Lay all those circumstances together, and you will find some apology for those gentlemen who framed this Constitution. I trust you may charitably assign other motives for their conduct, than a design to enslave their country, and to parcel out for themselves its honors and emoluments.

The second consideration deserves its weight. Can these local governments be sufficient to protect us from foreign enemies, or from disaffection at home? Thirteen states are formed already. The same number are probably to be formed from the lands not yet cultivated.

Of the former, yet smaller divisions may be made. The province of Maine hath desired a separation; in time, a separation may take place. Who knows but what the same may happen with respect to the old colony of Plymouth. Now, conceive the number of states increased, their boundaries lessened, their interests, clashing; how easy a prey to a foreign power! how liable to, war among themselves!

Let these arguments be weighed, and I dare say, sir, there is no man but what would conceive that a coercive power over the whole, searching through all parts of the system, is necessary to the preservation and happiness of the whole people.

But I readily grant all these reasons are not sufficient to surrender up the essential liberties of the people. But do we surrender them? This Constitution hath been compared, both by its defenders and opponents, to the British government. In my view of it, there is a great difference. In Britain, the government is said to consist of three forms—monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy; but, in fact, is but a few removes from absolute despotism. In the crown is vested the power of adding at pleasure to the Second branch; of nominating to all the places of honor and emolument; of purchasing, by its immense revenues, the suffrages of the House of Commons. The voice of the people is but the echo of the king; and their boasted privileges lie entirely at his mercy. In this proposed form, each branch of power is derived, either mediately or directly, from the people. The lower house are elected directly by those persons who are qualified to vote for the representatives of the state; and, at the expiration of two years, become private men, unless their past conduct entitles them to a future election. The Senate are elected by the legislatures of the different states, and represent their sovereignty.

These powers are a check on each other, and can never be made either dependent on one another, or independent of the people. The President is chosen by the electors, who are appointed by the people. The high courts of justice arise from the President and Senate; but yet the ministers of them can be removed only upon bad behavior; The independence of judges is one of the most favorable circumstances to public liberty; for when they become the slaves of a venal, corrupt court, and the hirelings of tyranny, all property is precarious, and personal security at an end; a man may be stripped of all his possessions, and murdered, without the forms of law. Thus it appears that all parts of this system arise ultimately from the people, and are still independent of each other. There are other restraints, which, though not directly named in this Constitution, yet are evidently discerned by every man of common observation These are, the government of the several states, and the spirit of liberty in the people. Are we wronged or injured, our immediate representatives are those to whom we ought to apply. Their power and influence will still be great. But should any servants of the people, however eminent their stations, attempt to enslave them, from this spirit of liberty such opposition would arise as would bring them to the scaffold. But, admitting that there are dangers in accepting this general government; yet are there not greater hazards in rejecting it? Such is, Mr. President, the state of our affairs, that it is not in our power to carve for ourselves. To avoid the greatest and choose the least of these two evils, is all that we can do. What, then, will be the probable effects if this Constitution be rejected? Have we not reason to fear new commotions in this commonwealth? If they arise, can we be always certain that we shall be furnished with a citizen, who, though possessed of extensive influence and the greatest abilities, will make no other use of them than to quiet the tumult of the people, to prevent civil war, and to restore the usual course of law and justice? Are we not in danger from other states, when their interests or prejudices are opposite to ours? And in such scenes of hostile contention, will not some Sylla drench the land in blood, or some Cromwell or Cæsar lay our liberties prostrate at his feet? Will not foreign nations attack us in our weak, divided condition, and once more render us provinces to some potentate of Europe? Or will those powers to whom we are indebted lie quiet? They certainly will not. They are now waiting for our decision; but when they once see that our union is broken, and that we are determined to neglect them, they will issue out letters of marque and reprisal, and entirely destroy our commerce.

If this system is broken up, will thirteen, or even nine states, ever agree to another? And will Providence smile on a people who despise the privileges put into their hands, and who neglect the plainest principles of justice and honesty? After all, I by no means pretend that there is complete perfection in this proposed Constitution. Like all other human productions, it hath its faults. Provision is made for an amendment, whenever, from practice, it is found oppressive. I would add, the proposals which his excellency hath condescended to lay before this honorable Convention, respecting future alterations, are real improvements for the better; and we have no reason to doubt but they will be equally attended to by other states, as they lead to common security and preservation.

Some of the gentlemen in the opposition have quoted ancient history, and applied it to the question now under debate. They have shown us the danger which arises from vesting magistrates with too much power. I wish they had gone on to tell the whole truth. They might have shown how nearly licentiousness and tyranny are allied; that they who will not be governed by reason must submit to force; that demagogues, in all free governments, have at first held out an idea of extreme liberty, and have seized on the rights of the people under the mask of patriotism. They might have shown us a republic in which wisdom, virtue, and order, were qualities for which a man was liable to banishment; and, on the other hand, boasting, sedition, and falsehood, the sure road to honor and promotion.

I am sorry that it hath been hinted by some gentlemen in this house, as if there were a combination of the rich, the learned, and those of liberal professions, establish and support an arbitrary form of government. far be it from me to retort so uncharitable and unchristian a suggestion. I doubt not but the gentlemen who are of different sentiments from myself, are actuated by the purest motives. Some of them I have the pleasure to be particularly acquainted with, and can safely pronounce them to be men of virtue and honor. They have, no doubt, a laudable concern for the liberties of their country; but I would beg them to remember that extreme jealousy and suspicion may be as fatal to freedom as security and negligence.

With respect to myself, I am conscious of no motive which guides me in this great and solemn question, but what I could justify to my own heart, both on the bed of death, and before the tribunal of omnipotence. I am a poor man; I have the feelings of a poor man. If there are honors and emoluments in this proposed Constitution, I shall, by my profession and circumstances in life, be forever excluded from them. It is my wish and prayer, that, in the solemn verdict we are very soon to pronounce, we may be directed to that measure which will be for the glory, freedom, and felicity of my country.

I shall trouble this house no further than by joining sincerely in the wish of the honorable gentleman from Topsham, that the people, in their day, may know the things which belong to their peace.

[The committee appointed, on Saturday, to consider his excellency's propositions, by their chairman, honarable Mr. Bowdoin, reported a few alterations to the amendments submitted to them; and that, at the decision, the committee consisted of twenty-four, fifteen of whom agreed in the report, seven were against it, one was absent, and one declined giving his opinion. For the report, see the form of ratification, at the end of the debates.]

Major LUSK concurred in the idea already thrown out in the debate, that, although the insertion of the amendments in the Constitution was devoutly wished, yet he did not see any reason to suppose they ever would be adopted. Turning from the subject of amendments, the major entered largely into the consideration of the 9th section, and, in the most pathetic and feeling manner, described the miseries of the poor natives of Africa, who are kidnapped and sold for slaves. With the brightest colors he painted their happiness and ease on their native shores, and contrasted them with their wretched, miserable, and unhappy condition, in a state of slavery. From this subject he passed to the article dispensing with the qualification of a religious test, and concluded by saying, that he shuddered at the idea that Roman Catholics, Papists, and Pagans might be introduced into office, and that Popery and the Inquisition may be established in America.

Rev. Mr. BACKUS. Mr. President, I have said very little in this honorable Convention; but I now beg leave to offer a few thoughts upon some points in the Constitution proposed to us, and I shall begin with the exclusion of any religious test. Many appear to be much concerned about it; but nothing is more evident, both in reason and the Holy Scriptures, than that religion is ever a matter between God and individuals; and, therefore, no man or men can impose any religious test, without invading the essential prerogatives of our Lord Jesus Christ. Ministers first assumed this power under the Christian name; and then Constantine approved of the practice, when he adopted the profession of Christianity, as an engine of state policy. And let the history of all nations be searched from that day to this, and it will appear that the imposing of religious tests hath been the greatest engine of tyranny in the world. And I rejoice to see so many gentlemen, who are now giving in their rights of conscience in this great and important matter. Some serious minds discover a concern lest, if all religious tests should be excluded, the Congress would hereafter establish Popery, or some other tyrannical way of worship. But it is most certain that no such way of worship can be established without any religious test.

Much, sir, hath been said about the importation of slaves into this country. I believe that, according to my capacity, no man abhors that wicked practice more than I do; I would gladly make use of all lawful means towards the abolishing of slavery in all parts of the land. But let us consider where we are, and what we are doing. In the Articles of Confederation, no provision was made to hinder the importation of slaves into any of these states; but a door is now open hereafter to do it, and each state is at liberty now to abolish slavery as soon as they please. And let us remember our former connection with Great Britain, from whom many in our land think we ought not to have revolted. How did they carry on the slave trade? I know that the bishop of Gloucester, in an annual sermon in London, in February, 1776, endeavored to justify their tyrannical claims of power over us by casting the reproach of the slave trade upon the Americans. But at the close of the war, the bishop of Chester, in an annual sermon, in February, 1783, ingenuously owned that their nation is the most deeply involved in the guilt of that trade of any nation in the world; and, also, that they have treated their slaves in the West Indies worse than the French or Spaniards have done theirs. Thus slavery grows more and more odious through the world; and as honorable gentleman said some days ago, “Though we cannot say that slavery is struck with an apoplexy, yet may hope it will die with a consumption.” And a main source, sir, of that iniquity, hath been an abuse of the covenant of circumcision, which gave the seed of Abraham to destroy the inhabitants of Canaan, and to take their houses, vineyards, and all their estates, as their own; and also to buy and hold others as servants. And, as Christian privileges are greater than those of the Hebrews were, many have imagined that they have a right to seize upon the lands of the heathen, and to destroy or enslave them as far as they could extend their power. And from thence the mystery of iniquity carried many into the practice of making merchandise of slaves and souls of men. But all ought to remember that, when God promised the land of Canaan to Abraham and his seed, he let him know that they were not to take possession of that land until the iniquity of the Amorites was full; and then they did it under the immediate direction of Heaven; and they were as real executors of the judgment of God upon those heathens as any person ever was an executor of a criminal justly condemned. And in doing it they were not allowed to invade the lands of the Edomites, who sprang from Esau, who was not only of the seed of Abraham, but was born at the same birth with Israel; and yet they were not of that church. Neither were Israel allowed to invade the lands of the Moabites, or of the children of Ammon, who were of the seed of Lot. And no officer in Israel had any legislative power, but such as were immediately inspired. Even David, the man after God’s own heart, had no legislative power, but only as he was inspired from above; and he is expressly called a prophet in the New Testament. And we are to remember that Abraham and his seed, for four hundred years, had no warrant to admit any stranger into that church, but by buying of him as a servant, with motley. And it was a great privilege to be bought, and adopted into a religious family for seven years, and then to have their freedom. And that covenant was expressly repealed in various parts of the New Testament, and particularly in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, where it is said, “Ye are bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.” And again, “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping of the commandments of God. Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants of men.” Thus the gospel sets all men upon a level, very contrary to the declaration of an honorable gentleman in this house, that “the Bible was contrived for the advantage of a particular order of men.”

Another great advantage, sir, in the Constitution before us, is, its excluding all titles of nobility, or hereditary succession of power, which hath been a main engine of tyranny in foreign countries. But the American revolution was built upon the principle that all men are born with an equal right to liberty and property, and that officers have no right to any power but what is fairly given them by the consent of the people. And in the Constitution now proposed to us, a power is reserved to the people constitutionally to reduce every officer again to a private station; and what a guard is this against their invasion of others’ rights, or abusing of their power! Such a door is now opened for the establishment of righteous government, and for securing equal liberty, as never was before opened to any people upon earth.

Dr. JARVIS. Mr. President, the objections which gentlemen have made to the form of ratification which has been submitted by your excellency, have arisen either from a doubt of our having a right to propose alterations, or from the supposed improbability that any amendments recommended by this assembly will ever become a part of the federal system. If we have no right, sir, to propose alterations, there remains nothing further to be attempted, but to take the final question, independent of the propositions for amendment. But I hope the mere assertion of any one is not to operate as an argument in this assembly; and we are not yet waiting, for evidence to prove this very singular position, which has been so often repeated. If we have a right, sir, to receive or reject the Constitution, surely we have an equal authority to determine in what way this right shall be exercised. It is a maxim, I believe, universally admitted, that, in every instance, the manner in which every power is to be exerted, must be in its nature discretionary with that body to which this power is delegated. If this principle be just, sir, the ground which has been taken to oppose your excellency’s proposals, by disputing the right of recommending alterations, must be necessarily relinquished. But gentlemen say, that they find nothing about amendments in the commission under which they are acting, and they conceive it neither agreeable to the resolution of the legislature, nor to the sense of their constituents, that such a scheme should be adopted. Let us inquire, then, sir, under what authority we are acting, and to what tribunal we are amenable. Is it, then, sir, from the late federal Convention that we derive that authority? Is it from Congress, or is it even from the legislature itself? It is from neither, sir. We are convened in right of the people, as their immediate representatives, to execute the most important trust which it is possible to receive; we are accountable, in its execution, to God only, and our own consciences. When gentlemen assert, then, that we have no right to recommend alterations, they must have ideas strangely derogatory to the influence and authority of our constituents, whom we have the honor of representing. But should it be thought there was even a part of the people who conceived we were thus restricted as to the forms of our proceedings, we are still to recollect that their aggregate sense, on this point, can only be determined by the voices of the majority in this Convention. The arguments of those gentlemen who oppose any propositions of amendments, amount simply to this, sir,—that the whole people of Massachusetts, assembled by their delegates, on the most solemn and interesting occasion, are not at liberty to resolve in what form this trust shall be executed. When we reflect seriously and coolly on this point, I think, sir, we shall doubt no longer.

But, with respect to the prospect of these amendments, which are the subject of discussion, being adopted by the first Congress which shall be appointed under the new Constitution, I really think, sir, that it is not only far from being improbable, but is in the highest degree likely. I have thought long and often on the subject of amendments, and I know no way in which they would be more likely to succeed. If they were made conditional to our receiving the proposed Constitution, it has appeared to me that a conditional amendment must operate as a total rejection. As so many other states have received the Constitution as it is, how can it be made to appear that they will not adhere to their own resolutions? and should they remain as warmly and pertinaciously attached to their opinion as we might be decidedly in favor of our own sentiments, a long and painful interval might elapse before we should have the benefit of a federal Constitution. I have never yet heard an argument to remove this difficulty. Permit me to inquire of gentlemen what reason we have to suppose that the states which have already adopted the Constitution will suddenly consent to call a new convention at the request of this state. Are we going to expose the commonwealth to the disagreeable alternative of being forced into a compliance, or of remaining in opposition, provided nine others should agree to receive it? As highly as some persons talk of the force of this state, I believe we should be but a feeble power, unassisted by others, and detached from the general benefit of a national government. We are told that, under the blessing of Providence, we may do much. It is very true, sir, but it must be proved that we shall be most likely to secure the approbation of Heaven by refusing the proposed system.

It has been insinuated, sir, that these amendments have been artfully introduced to lead to a decision which would not otherwise be had. Without stopping to retook on the total want of candor in which such an idea has arisen, let us inquire whether there is even the appearance of reason to support this insinuation. The propositions are annexed, it is true, to the ratification; but the assent is complete and absolute without them. It is not possible it can be otherwise understood by a single member in this honorable body. Gentlemen, therefore, when they make such an unjust observation, do no honor to the sagacity of others. Supposing it possible that any single member can be deceived by such a shallow artifice, permit me to do justice to the purity of intention ill which they have arisen, by observing, that I am satisfied nothing can be farther from you excellency’s intentions. The propositions are general, and not local; they are not calculated for the peculiar interest of this state, but, with indiscriminate justice, comprehend the circumstances of the individual on the banks of the Savannah, as well as the hardy and industrious husbandman on the margin of the Kennebeck. Why, then, they should not be adopted, I confess I cannot conceive. There is one of them, in a particular manner, which is very agreeable to me. When we talk of our wanting a bill of rights to the new Constitution, the first article proposed must remove every doubt on this head; as, by positively securing what is not expressly delegated, it leaves nothing to the uncertainty of conjecture, or to the refinements of implication, but is an explicit reservation of every right and privilege which is nearest and most agreeable to the people. There has been Scarcely an instance where the influence of Massachusetts has not been felt and acknowledged in the Union. In such a case, her voice will be heard, sir, and I am fully in sentiment, if these amendments are not ingrafted on the Constitution, it will be our own fault. The remaining seven states will have our example before them; and there is a high probability that they, or at least some of them, will take our conduct as a precedent, and will perhaps assume the same mode of procedure. Should this be the fact, their influence will be united to ours. But your delegates will, besides, be subjected to a perpetual instruction, until its object is completed; and it will be always in the power of the people and legislature to renew those instructions. But, if they should fall, we must then acquiesce in the decision of the majority; and this is the known condition on which all free governments depend.

Would gentlemen who are opposed to the Constitution wish to have no amendments? This does not agree with their reiterated objections to the proposed system. Or are they afraid, sir, that these propositions will secure a larger majority? On such an occasion we cannot be too generally united. The Constitution is a great political experiment. The amendments have a tendency to remove many objections which have been made to it; and I hope, sir, when it is adopted, they will be annexed to the ratification, in the manner which your excellency has proposed.

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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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