Elliot’s Debates: Volume 2

Convention of Massachusetts, February 5, 1788

Tuesday February 5.—Mr. AMES observed that, at length, it is admitted that the Constitution, connected with the amendments, is good. Almost every one, who has appeared against the Constitution, has declared that he approves it, with the amendments. One gentleman, who has been distinguished by his zealous opposition, has declared that he would hold up both hands for it, if they could be adopted. I admire this candid manner of discussing the subject, and will endeavor to treat it myself with equal care and fairness. The only question which seems to labor is this: the amendments are not a part of the Constitution, and there is nothing better than a probability to trust to, that they will ever be adopted. The nature of the debate is totally shifted, and the inquiry is now, not what the Constitution is, but what degree of probability there is that the amendments will hereafter be incorporated into it.

Before he proceeded to discuss this question, he wished to notice two objections, which had been urged against his excellency’s proposition—that this Convention, being confined in their powers to reject or ratify the Constitution as it is, have no right to propose amendments; and that the very propositions imply the Constitution is not perfect, and amount to a confession that it ought to be rejected. It is well that these objections were not made by a lawyer: they would have been called quibbles, and he would have been accused of having learned them at the bar. Have we no right to propose amendments? This is the fullest representation of the people ever known, and if we may not declare their opinion, and upon a point for which we have been elected, how shall it ever be known? A majority may not fully approve the Constitution, and yet they may think it unsafe to reject it; and they may fully approve his excellency’s propositions. What shall they say? That they accept, or reject, and no more?—that they be embarrassed, perhaps, to do either. But let them say the truth, that they accept it, in the hope that amendments will obtain. We are chosen to consider the Constitution, and it is clearly incident to our appointment to declare the result of our deliberations. This very mode of obtaining amendments is pointed out in the Constitution itself. How can it be said that we have no right to propose them? If, however, there was any irregularity in this proceeding, the General Court would not delay to conform it.

If it is insisted that the Constitution is admitted to be imperfect, let those objectors consider the nature of their own argument. Do they expect a perfect constitution? Do they expect to find that perfection in government which they well know is not to be found in nature? There is not a man who is not more or less discontented with his condition in life, and who does not experience a mixture of good and evil; and will he expect that a whole society of men can exclude that imperfection which is the lot of every individual in it? The truth is, we call that condition good and happy, which is so upon the whole. But this Constitution may be good without any amendments, and yet the amendments may be good; for they are not repugnant to the Constitution. It is a gratification to observe how little we disagree in our sentiments; but it is not my purpose to compare the amendments with the Constitution. Whatever opinion may be formed of it by others, Mr. Ames professed to think it comparatively perfect. There was not any government which he knew to subsist, or which he had ever heard of, that would bear a comparison with the new Constitution. Considered merely as a literary performance, it was an honor to our country: legislators have at length condescended to speak the language of philosophy; and if we adopt it, we shall demonstrate to the sneering world, who deride liberty because they have lost it, that the principles of our government are as free as the spirit of our people.

I repeat it, debates have been profitable, because, upon every leading point, we are at last agreed. Very few among us now deny that a federal government is necessary to save us from ruin; that the Confederation is not that government; and that the proposed Constitution, connected with the amendments, is worthy of being adopted. The question recurs, Will the amendments prevail, and become part of the system? In order to obtain such a system as the Constitution and the amendments, there are but three ways of proceeding—to reject the whole, and begin anew; to adopt this plan upon condition that the amendments be inserted into it; or to adopt his excellency’s proposition.

Those who propose to reject the whole, are bound to show that we shall possess some advantage in forming a system which we do not enjoy at present, or that some obstacles will be removed which impede us now. But will that be the case? Shall we adopt another constitution with more unanimity than we expect to find in this Convention? Do gentlemen so soon forget their own arguments? We have been told that the new Constitution will be rebellion against the Confederation; that the interests of the states are too dissimilar for a union; and that Massachusetts can do without the union, and is a match for all the world. We have been warned of the tendency of all power towards tyranny, and of the danger of trusting Congress with the power of the purse and of the sword; that the system is not perfect; there is no religious test, and slavery is not abolished. Now, sir, if we reject the Constitution, and, after two or three years’ exertion, another constitution should be submitted to another convention of Massachusetts, shall we escape the opposition which is made in this assembly? Will not the same objections then apply with equal force to another system? Or do gentlemen expect that a constitution may be formed which will not be liable to those objections? Do they expect one which will not annul the Confederation, or that the persons and properties of the people shall not be included in the compact, and that we shall hear no more about armies and taxes? But suppose that it was so framed, who is there, even amongst the objectors, who would give his vote for so paltry system? If we reject, we are exposed to the risk of having no constitution, of being torn with factions, and at last divided into distinct confederacies.

If we accept upon condition, shall we have a right to send members to the new Congress? We shall not; and, of course, this state would lose its voice and influence in obtaining the adoption of the amendments. This is too absurd to need any further discussion.

But, in objection to your excellency’s propositions, it is said that it is no more than probable that they will be agreed to by the other states. I ask, What is any future thing that we devise more than probable? What more is another constitution? All agree that we must have one; and it is easy to perceive that such a one as the majority of the people approve must be submitted to by this state; for what right have an eighth or tenth part of the people to dictate a government for the whole? It comes to this point, therefore: Is any method more likely to induce the people of the United States to concur with Massachusetts, than that proposed by your excellency? If it is answered that there is none, as I think it must be, then the objection, that the chance of obtaining the amendments is no more than probable, will come to the ground, and it will appear that, of all chances, we depend upon that which is the safest. For when will the voice of Massachusetts have so powerful an influence as at present? There is not any government now to counteract or awe the people. The attention of the people is excited from one end of the states to the other, and they will watch and control the conduct of their members in Congress. Such amendments as afford better security to liberty will be supported by the people. There will be a Congress in existence to collect their sentiments, and to pursue the objects of their wishes. Nine states may insert amendments into the Constitution; but if we reject it, the vote must be unanimous. Our state, in that case, would lose the advantage of having representatives according to numbers, which is allowed by the Constitution. Upon a few points, and those not of a local nature, unanimity may be expected; but, in discussing a whole Constitution, in which the very amendments, that, it is said, will not be agreed to by the states, are to be inserted, unanimity will be almost a miracle. Either the amendments will he agreed to by the Union, or they will not. If it is admitted that they will be agreed to by the Union, or they will not. If it is admitted that they will be agreed to, there is an end of the objection to your excellency’s propositions, and we ought to be unanimous for the Constitution. If it is said that they will not be agreed to, then it must be because they are not approved by the United States, or at least nine of them. Why shall we reject the Constitution, then, for the sole purpose of obtaining that unanimous vote of thirteen states, which, it is confidently said, it is impossible we ever shall obtain from nine only? An object which is impossible is out of the question. The argument that the amendments will not prevail, is not only without force, but directly against those who use it, unless they admit that we have no need of a government, or assert that, by ripping up the foundations of the compact, upon which we now stand, and setting the whole Constitution afloat, and introducing an infinity of new subjects of controversy, we pursue the best method to secure the entire unanimity of thirteen states.

But shall we put every thing that we hold precious to the hazard by rejecting this Constitution? We have great advantages by it in respect of navigation; and it is the general interest of the states that we should have them. But if we reject it, what security have we that we shall obtain them a second time, against the local interests and prejudices of the other states? Who is there, that really loves liberty, that will not tremble for its safety, if the federal government should be dissolved. Can liberty be safe without government?

The period of our political dissolution is approaching. Anarchy and uncertainty attend our future state. But this we know—that Liberty, which is the soul of our existence, once fled, can return no more.

The Union is essential to our being as a nation. The pillars that prop it are crumbling to power. The Union is the vital sap that nourishes the tree. If we reject the Constitution,—to use the language of the country,—we girdle the tree, its leaves will wither, its branches drop off, and the mouldering trunk will be torn down by the tempest. What security has this single state against foreign enemies? Could we defend the mast country, which the Britons so much desire? Can we protect our fisheries, or secure by treaties a sale for the produce of our lauds in foreign markets? Is there no loss, no danger, by delay? In spite of our negligence and perverseness, are we to enjoy, at all times, the privilege of forming a constitution, which no other nation has ever enjoyed at all? We approve our own form of state government, and seem to think ourselves in Safety under, its protection. We talk as if there was no danger in deciding wrong. But when the inundation comes, shall we stand on dry land? The state government is a beautiful structure. It is situated, however, upon the naked beach. The Union is the dike to fence out the flood. That dike is broken and decayed; and, if we do not repair it, when the next spring the comes, we shall be buried in one common destruction.

Mr. BARRELL, (of York.) Awed in the presence of this august assembly; conscious of my inability to express my mind fully on this important occasion; and sensible how little I must appear in the eyes of those giants in rhetoric, who have exhibited such a pompous display of declamation; without any of those talents calculated to draw attention; without the pleasing eloquence of Cicero, or the blaze of Demosthenian oratory,—I rise, sir, to discharge my duty to my constituents, who, I know, expect something more from me than merely a silent vote. With no pretensions to talents above the simple language adapted to the line of my calling,—the plain husbandman,—I hope the gentlemen who compose this honorable body will fully understand me when I attempt to speak my mind of the federal Constitution as it now stands. I wish, sir, to give my voice for its amendment before it can be salutary for our acceptance; because, sir, notwithstanding the Wilsonian oratory, and all the learned arguments I have seen written, notwithstanding the many labored speeches I have heard in its defence, and after, the best investigation I am able to give this subjects,—I fear it is pregnant with baneful effects, although I may not live to feel them.

Because, sir, as it now stands, Congress will be vested with more extensive powers than ever Great Britain exercised over us; too great, in my opinion, to intrust with any class of men, let their talents or virtues be ever so conspicuous, even though composed of such exalted, amiable characters as the great Washington; for, while we consider them as men of like passions, the same spontaneous, inherent thirst for power with ourselves, great and good as they may be, when they enter upon this all-important charge, what security can we have that they will continue so? And, were we sure they would continue the faithful guardians of our liberties, and prevent any infringement on the privileges of the people, what assurance can we have that such men will always hold the reins of government—that their successors will be such? History tells us Rome was happy under Augustus, though wretched under Nero, who could have no greater power than Augustus; and yet this same Nero, when young in government, could Shed tears on signing a death-warrant, though afterwards he became so callous to the tender feelings of humanity as to behold, with pleasure, Rome in flames.

Because, sir, I think that six years is too long a term for any set of men to be at the helm of government; for in that time they may get so firmly rooted, and their influence be so great, as to continue themselves for life.

Because, sir, I am not certain we are able to support the additional expense of such a government.

Because, sir, I think a Continental collector will not be so likely to do us justice in collecting the taxes, as collectors of our own.

Because, sir, I think a frame of government on which all laws are founded, should be so simple and explicit, that the most illiterate may understand it; whereas this appears to me so obscure and ambiguous, that the most capacious mind cannot fully comprehend it.

Because, sir, the duties of excise and impost, and to be taxed besides, appear too great a sacrifice; and when we have given them up, what shall we have to pay our debts, but a dry tax?

Because, sir, I do not think this will produce the efficient government we are in pursuit of.

Because, sir, they fix their own salaries, without allowing any control.

And because, sir, I think such a government may be disagreeable men with the high notions of liberty we Americans have.

And, sir, I could wish this Constitution had not been, in some parts of the continent, hurried on, like the driving of Jehu, very furiously; for such important transactions should be without force, and with cool deliberation. These, sir, were my objections, and those of my constituents, as they occur to my memory; some of which have been removed, in the course of the debates, by the ingenious reasonings of the speakers. I wish I could say the whole were. But, after all, there are some yet remaining on my mind, enough to convince me, excellent as this system is, in some respects it needs alterations; therefore I think it becomes us, as wise men, as the faithful guardians of the people’s rights, and as we wish well to posterity, to propose such amendments as will secure to us and ours that liberty without which life is a burden.

Thus, sir, have I ventured to deliver my sentiments, in which are involved those of my constituents, on this important subject; cautiously avoiding every thing like metaphysical reasoning, lest I should invade the prerogative of those respectable gentlemen of the law, who have so copiously displayed their talents on the occasion. But, sir, although you may perceive, by what I have said, that this is not, in my view, the most perfect system I could wish, yet, as I am possessed with an assurance that the proposed amendments will take place; as I dread the fatal effects of anarchy; as I am convinced the Confederation is essentially deficient, and that it will be more difficult to amend that than to reform this; and as I think this Constitution, with all its imperfections, is excellent, compared with that, and that it is the best constitution we can now obtain;—as the greatest good I can do my country at present, I could wish for an adjournment, that I might have an opportunity to lay it before my constituents, with the arguments which have been used in the debates, which have eased my mind, and I trust would have the effect on theirs so as heartily to join me in ratifying the same, But, sir, if I cannot be indulged on this desirable object, I am almost tempted to risk their displeasure, and adopt it without their consent.

Dr. TAYLOR examined the observations of several gentlemen, who had said, that, had the Constitution been so predicated as to require a bill of rights to be annexed to it, it would have been the work of a year, and could not be contained but in volumes. This, if true, he said, was an argument in favor of one being annexed; but so far from its being the case, he believed any gentleman in that Convention could form one in a few hours, as he might take the bill of rights of Massachusetts for a guide. He concluded by objecting to the amendments, because no assurance was given that they ever Would become a part of the system.

Mr. PARSONS demonstrated the impracticability of forming a bill, in a national constitution, for securing individual rights, and showed the inutility of the measure, from the ideas, that no power was given to Congress to infringe on any one of the natural rights of the people by this Constitution; and, should they attempt it without constitutional authority, the act would be a nullity, and could not be enforced.

Several other gentlemen spoke in a desultory conversation on the amendments. It was urged again and again, on one side, that it was uncertain whether they ever would be interwoven in the Constitution, and that, therefore, they could not vote for it, on that precarious condition. On the other side, the importance of the opinion of Massachusetts, in other states, in determining on great political questions, the general nature of the amendments proposed, &c., were repeatedly urged in favor of their being a part of the ratification.

[A motion was made by Mr. DENCH, and seconded, "That, for the purpose of informing the good people of this commonwealth of the principles of the proposed federal Constitution, and the amendments offered by his excellency, the president, and reported by the committee, and of uniting their opinions respecting the same, this Convention do adjourn to a future day." After debate, (which continued the best part of the day,) the question was put, and was determined in the negative, 329 members being present, and 115 only voting in the affirmative.]

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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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