Elliot’s Debates: Volume 2

Convention of New York

Friday, June 20, 1788.

—Convention met pursuant to adjournment. Went into committee of the whole, Mr. Outhoudt in the chair.

The Hon. Mr. LANSING then rose, and addressed the chair as follows:—

Mr. Chairman, I am equally disposed with the honorable gentleman from New York, who favored the committee with his sentiments yesterday, to a candid and dispassionate investigation of the important business now under consideration, and to receive every possible information on the occasion.

I do not mean to state any objections to the clause now read, but wish the indulgence of the committee, while I make some observations in answer to those which were given to the committee by the honorable gentleman from New York.

Sir, the project devised by Henry IV., in his closet, to form a confederated republic of the European states, may perhaps be considered as visionary in its object, but originating in motives which were in some measure peculiar to himself, as, from the power and importance he possessed, he might have flattered himself that he should have been at the head of it. But a difference in language, manners, religion, and interests of their sovereigns, would have defeated it, if it had been attempted. Here a confederated republic is only more attainable from the circumstances of all the powers existing in, or originating from, the people, and a similarity of language and manners. We ought, therefore, to be extremely cautious how we establish a government which may give distinct interests to the rulers and governed, so as to induce the former to pursuits adverse to the happiness of the United States.

It has been observed, that, as the people must, of necessity, delegate essential powers either to the individual general sovereignties, it is perfectly immaterial where they are lodged; but, as the state governments will always possess a better representation of the feelings and interests of the people at large, it is obvious that those powers can be deposited with much greater safety with the state than the general government.

I am equally averse to cherishing, on this occasion, the idea of obtaining a perfection which never existed, and to despairing of making important amendments to the system now offered for consideration; for, sir, however much I may be disposed to perpetuate union, however sensible of the defects of the existing Confederation, I cannot help differing from those gentlemen who are of opinion it is incapable of amelioration.

I would ask, What are the objections which have been so ably urged against it? They are comprised under two heads. First, it affords no defence against foreign assault; second, no security to domestic tranquillity. Both these objects might be compassed if Congress could be vested with a power to raise men and money.

Requisitions made under the existing Confederation by Congress, it is allowed, are insufficient; but this defect might, in a teat measure, have been remedied by permitting the United States to legislate on individuals after the requisitions had been made, and not been complied with. If the requisition could be thus enforced, loans of money might be negotiated when necessary, and Congress be authorized to raise money to replace them.

The languishing situation of our commerce has also been attributed to the impotence of Congress; but I think their journals will justify me in the assertion that all the states, excepting two, had passed laws to enable Congress to regulate commerce, and that those two were not indisposed to vest that power.

The conduct of the king of Great Britain, with respect to the western posts, has also been urged as the result of the inefficiency of our government; but, however organized our general government might be, I should doubt whether it was either prudent or expedient to risk a war, which would expose our coast to depredation by an enemy, against whose attacks in that point we must remain defenceless, until we can create a fleet to repel their invasions. Will any government enable us to do this in a few years? I am convinced it will not.

That we have to encounter embarrassments, and are distressed for want of money, is undoubted; but causes which could not be controlled by any system of government, have principally contributed to embarrass and distress us. On the termination of war, which operated to exhaust our resources, we launched into every species of extravagance, and imported European goods to an amount far beyond our ability to pay. The difficulties which arose from this and several other causes, equally uninfluenced by the system of government, were without hesitation attributed to its want of energy.

Sir, the instance adduced from the history of the Jewish theocracy evinces that there are certain situations in communities which will unavoidably lead to results similar to those we experience. The Israelites were unsuccessful in war; they were sometimes defeated by their enemies: instead of reflecting that these calamities were occasioned by their sins, they sought relief in the appointment of a king, in imitation of their neighbors.

The united Dutch provinces have been instanced as possessing a government parallel to the existing Confederation; but I believe it will be discovered that they were never organized, as a general government, on principles so well calculated to promote the attainment of national objects as that of the United States. They were obliged to resort to subordinate societies to collect the sense of the state, before the deputies were authorized to assent to any public measure binding on their states. Sir William Temple relates that an important measure was prevented from taking place by the dissent of a single town, till one of its citizens was accommodated with a commission.

The Germanic confederacy consists of a heterogeneous mass of powerful princes, petty despots, and republics, differently organized, divided by religious jealousies, and existing only in its forms by the pressure of the great controlling powers of the emperor. I know not that history furnishes an example of a confederated republic coercing the states composing it by the mild influence of laws operating on the individuals of those states. This, therefore, I suppose to be a new experiment in politics; and, as we cannot always accurately ascertain the results of political measures, and as reasoning on them has been frequently found fallacious, we should not too confidently predict those to be produced by the new system.

The dangers to which we shall be exposed by a dissolution of the Union, have been represented; but, however much I may wish to preserve the Union, apprehensions of its dissolution ought not to induce us to submit to any measure which may involve in its consequences the loss of civil liberty. Conquest can do no more, in the state of civilization, than to subject us to be ruled by persons in whose appointment we have no agency. This, sir, is the worst we can apprehend at all events; and, as I suppose a government so organized, and possessing the powers mentioned in the proposed Constitution, will unavoidably terminate in the depriving us of that invaluable privilege, I am content to risk a probable, but, on this occasion, a mere possible evil, to avoid a certain one. But if a dissolution of the Union should unfortunately ensue, what have we to apprehend? We are connected, both by interest and affection, with the New England States; we harbor no animosities against each other; we have no interfering territorial claims; our manners are nearly similar, and they are daily assimilating, and mutual advantages will probably prompt to mutual concessions, to enable us to form a union with them. I, however, contemplate the idea of a possible dissolution with pain, and I make these remarks with the most sincere reluctance, only in answer to those which were offered by the honorable gentleman from New York.

Sir, I have formerly had occasion to declare to the public my apprehensions that a consolidated government, partaking in a great degree of republican principles, and which had in object the control of the inhabitants of the extensive territory of the United States, by its sole operations could not preserve the essential rights and liberties of the people. I have not as yet discovered any reason to change that sentiment; on the contrary, reflection has given it additional force. But I stand here the representative of others, and, as far as I can ascertain the views of my constituents, it is my duty to promote them with the utmost assiduity; and in no one pursuit can I be better supported by the almost unanimous opinion of my fellow-citizens in the county I have the honor to represent, than in proposing amendments to the Constitution which is now the subject of our deliberations, as the mode of introducing amendments was the only point of difference. Influenced by these considerations, every amendment which I am convinced will have a tendency to lessen the danger of invasion of civil liberty by the general government, will receive my sincere approbation. But none which can, in the remotest degree, originate in local views, will meet my concurrence; and I trust an intention will not be attributed to me to preserve the consequence of official state establishments.

Sir, when motives of this kind are supposed to actuate men in office, by persons who have imbibed prejudices from a want of information—when they originate from an illiberality of sentiment which would disgrace the worst cause—every man who feels the imputation, while he laments the misguided zeal which aims, by the sacrifice of private feelings, to obtain a favorite object, will disregard the attempt, and consign it to merited oblivion. But when an honorable gentleman, distinguished for his liberal turn of thinking, who is possessed of one of the most lucrative offices of the state, deliberately gives his name to the public, as impliedly sanctioning the sentiment, silence must unavoidably be construed into a tacit confession of its justice. The committee will therefore indulge me in remarking that, if the operations of the general government will subvert those of the individual states, the interest of the state officers may be affected in some measure, otherwise their emoluments will remain undiminished—their consequence not so much impaired as not to compensate men of interested pursuits by the prospect of sharing the offices of the general government. Does this imputation only apply to the officers of this state? Are they more discerning in distinguishing their interest, or are they only capable of being warped by apprehensions of loss? In the neighboring states, the officers of government are among the warmest advocates of the new system; and even in this state they are perhaps more divided in sentiment than any other class of men whatsoever. But, sir, I trust we shall divest ourselves, on this occasion, of every consideration of a private nature, and determine on the Constitution with caution and moderation.

Mr. R. R. LIVINGSTON rose to reply.

The CHANCELLOR, in explanation, said, it gave him pain to observe a meaning attributed to him which was totally foreign from his mind. He by no means had intended to insinuate that the opposition to the Constitution flowed from interested or improper motives. He knew that the officers of this state had taken different sides; he himself held a public station, and many of the officers of the several states were among its warmest advocates. He was sensible that every man in place felt, in a delicate degree, the dignity attached to his office. Far from aiming an improper suggestion of the previous or present disposition of any member, his only view was to express a hope, and at the same time a caution, that, in the prosecution of this business, gentlemen might not suffer themselves to be influenced by partial views or private prejudices. For, said he, we sit here as simple citizens, and every species of official authority is lost in this equal assembly. But, sir, as the officers of government were selected from the mass of the people, with an expectation that they would be their wisest and best friends, it is to be hoped that, if this Constitution is proved in be a good one, and friendly to the liberties of the people, those men who are highest in office will be the most urgent to adopt, and most active to execute it. He begged leave to take notice of an observation which had just been made. He should notice it, because it tended to establish a new and singular opinion; that is, that, if a conditional power of coercion only was lodged in the government, the purpose of the union might be answered. The idea was, that Congress should make requisitions on the states, and, on their non-compliance, the compulsory authority should be exercised on individuals. This idea includes an acknowledgment that the old Confederation is totally incompetent to federal purposes.

But let us view, said he, the operation of a system founded on such a principle. In the first place, the necessary revenue officers must be appointed. Congress will then send out the requisitions, and, on refusal or neglect, will resort to individual coercion. If the states punctually comply with the requisitions, an expensive establishment must be supported, without object or employment. If, on the contrary, they are delinquent, what an alarming image of disorder is presented to our view! A body of federal officers, in the heart of a state, acting in direct opposition to the declared sense of the legislature! Would not this be a source of eternal disorder? Would not a government, thus calculated to promote a spirit of civil dissension, be forever impracticable? Such a government must be attended with every delay, with every expense—must defeat itself, and be its own destruction.

The Hon. Mr. SMITH said, he conceived that the Constitution ought to be considered by paragraphs. An honorable gentleman yesterday had opened the debate with some general observations; another honorable gentleman had just answered him by general observations. He wished the Constitution to be examined by paragraphs. In going through it, he should offer his objections to such parts of it as he thought defective.

The first section of the first article was then read, and passed by without remark.

The second section being read,

Mr. SMITH again rose. He most heartily concurred in sentiment with the honorable gentleman who opened the debate, yesterday, that the discussion of the important question now before them ought to be entered on with a spirit of patriotism; with minds open to conviction; with a determination to form opinions only on the merits of the question, from those evidences which should appear in the course of the investigation.

How far the general observations made by the honorable gentleman accorded with these principles, he left to the house to determine.

It was not, he said, his intention to follow that gentleman through all his remarks. He should only observe that what had been advanced did not appear to apply to the Subject under consideration.

He was as strongly impressed with the necessity of a union as any one could be. He would seek it with as much ardor. In the discussion of this question, he was disposed to make every reasonable concession, and, indeed, to sacrifice every thing for a union, except the liberties of his country, than which he could contemplate no greater misfortune. But he hoped we were not reduced to the necessity of sacrificing, or even endangering, our liberties, to preserve the Union. If that was the case, the alternative was dreadful. But he would not now say that the adoption of the Constitution would endanger our liberties; because that was the point to be debated, and the premises should be laid down previously to the drawing of any conclusion. He wished that all observations might be confined to this point, and that declamations and appeals to the passions might be omitted.

Why, said he, are we told of our weakness? of the defenceless condition of the southern parts of our state? of the exposed situation of our capital? of Long Island, surrounded by water, and exposed to the incursions of our neighbors in Connecticut? of Vermont having separated from us, and assumed the powers of a distinct government? and of the north-west parts of our state being in the hands of a foreign enemy? Why are we to be alarmed with apprehensions that the Eastern States are inimical, and disinclined to form alliances with us? He was sorry to find that such suspicions were entertained. He believed that no such disposition existed in the Eastern States. Surely it could not be supposed that those states would make war upon us for exercising the rights of freemen, deliberating and judging for ourselves, on a subject the most interesting that ever came before any assembly. If a war with our neighbors was to be the result of not acceding, there was no use in debating here; we had better receive their dictates, if we were unable to resist them. The defects of the old Confederation needed as little proof as the necessity of a union. But there was no proof in all this that the proposed Constitution was a good one. Defective as the old Confederation is, he said, no one could deny but it was possible we might have a worse government. But the question was not whether the present Confederation be a bad one, but whether the proposed Constitution be a good one.

It had been observed, that no example of federal republics had succeeded. It was true that the ancient confederated republics were all destroyed; so were those which were not confederated; and all ancient governments, of every form, had shared the same fate. Holland had, no doubt, experienced many evils from the defects in her government; but, with all these defects, she yet existed: she had, under her confederacy, made a principal figure among the nations of Europe, and he believed few countries had experienced a greater share of internal peace and prosperity. The Germanic confederacy was not the most pertinent example to produce on this occasion. Among a number of absolute princes, who consider their subjects as their property, whose will is law, and to whose ambition there are no bounds, it was no difficult task to discover other causes from which the convulsions in that country rose, than the defects of their confederation. Whether a confederacy of states, under any form, be a practicable government, was a question to be discussed in the course of investigating the Constitution.

He was pleased that, thus early in debate, the honorable gentleman had himself shown that the intent of the Constitution was not a confederacy, but a reduction of all the states into a consolidated government. He hoped the gentleman would be complaisant enough to exchange names with those who disliked the Constitution, as it appeared from his own concessions, that they were federalists, and those who advocated it were anti-federalists. He begged leave, however, to remind the gentleman, that Montesquieu, with all the examples of modern and ancient republics in view, gives it as Iris opinion, that a confederated republic has all the internal advantages of a republic, with the external force of a monarchical government. He was happy to find an officer of such high rank recommending to the other officers of government, and to those who are members of the legislature, to be unbiased by any motives of interest or state importance. Fortunately for himself, he was out of the verge of temptation of this kind, not having the honor to hold any office under the state. But, then, he was exposed, in common with other gentlemen of the Convention, to another temptation, against which he thought it necessary that we should be equally guarded. If, said he, this Constitution is adopted, there will be a number of honorable and lucrative offices to be filled; and we ought to be cautious lest an expectancy of some of them should influence us to adopt without due consideration.

We may wander, said he, in the fields of fancy without end, and gather flowers as we go. It may be entertaining, but it is of little service to the discovery of truth. We may, on one side, compare the scheme advocated by our opponents to golden images, with feet part of iron and part of clay; and on the other, to a beast dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly, having great iron teeth,—which devours, breaks in pieces, and stamps the residue with his feet; and direr all, said he, we shall find that both these allusions are taken from the same vision; and their true meaning must be discovered by sober reasoning.

He would agree with the honorable gentlemen that perfection in any system of government was not to be looked for. If that was the object, the debates on the one before them might soon be closed. But he would observe, that this observation applied, with equal force, against changing any system, especially against material and radical changes. Fickleness and inconstancy, he said, were characteristic, of a free people; and, in framing a constitution for them, it was, perhaps, the most difficult thing to correct this Spirit, and guard against the evil effects of it. He was persuaded it could not be altogether prevented without destroying their freedom. It would be like, attempting to correct a small indisposition in the habit of the body, fixing the patient in a confirmed consumption. This fickle and inconstant spirit was the more dangerous in bringing about changes in the government. The instance that had been adduced by the gentleman from sacred history, was an example in point to prove this. The nation of Israel, having received a form of civil government from Haven, enjoyed it for a considerable period; but, at length, laboring under pressures which were brought upon them by their own misconduct and imprudence, instead of imputing their misfortunes to their true causes, and making a proper improvement of their calamities, by a correction of their errors, they imputed them to a defect in their constitution; they rejected their divine Ruler, and asked Samuel to make them a king to judge them, like other nations. Samuel was grieved at their folly; but still, by the command of God, he hearkened to their voice, though not until he had solemnly declared unto them the manner in which the king should reign over them. “This (says Samuel) shall be the manner of the king that shall reign over you. He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and for his horsemen, and some shall run before his chariots; and he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties, and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots. And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your olive-yards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers and to his servants, and he will take your men-servants, and your maid-servants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your sheep; and ye shall be his servants. And ye shall cry out in that day, because of your king which ye have chosen you; and the Lord will not hear you in that day!” How far this was applicable to the subject, he would not now say; it could be better judged of when they had gone through it. On the whole, he wished to take up this matter with candor and deliberation.

He would now proceed to state his objections to the clause just read, (section 2, of article 1, clause 3.) His objections were comprised under three heads: 1st, the rule of apportionment is unjust; 2d, there is no precise number fixed on, below which the house shall not be reduced; 3d, it is inadequate. In the first place, the rule of apportionment of the representatives is to be according to the whole number of the white inhabitants, with three fifths of all others; that is, in plain English, each state is to send representatives in proportion to the number of freemen, and three fifths of the slaves it contains. He could not see any rule by which slaves were to be included in the ratio of representation. The principle of a representation being that every free agent should be concerned in governing himself, it was absurd in giving that power to a man who could not exercise it. Slaves have no will of their own. The very operation of it was to give certain privileges to those people who were so wicked as to keep slaves. He knew it would be admitted that this rule of apportionment was founded on unjust principles, but that it was the result of accommodation; which, he supposed, we should be under the necessity of admitting, if we meant to be in union with the Southern States, though utterly repugnant to his feelings. In the second place, the number was not fixed by the Constitution, but left at the discretion of the legislature; perhaps he was mistaken; it was his wish to be informed. He understood, from the Constitution, that sixty-five members were to compose the House of Representatives for three, years; that, after that time, the census was to be taken, and the numbers to be ascertained by the legislature, on the following principles: 1st, they shall be apportioned to the respective states according to numbers; 2d, each state shall have one, at least; 3d, they shall never exceed one to every thirty thousand. If this was the case, the first Congress that met might reduce the number below what it now is—a power inconsistent with every principle of a free government, to leave it to the discretion of the rulers to determine the number of representatives of the people. There was no kind of security—except in the integrity of the men who were intrusted; and if you have no other security, it idle to contend about constitutions In the third place, supposing Congress should declare that there should be one representative for every thirty thousand of the people, in his opinion, it would be incompetent to the great purposes of representation. It was, he said, the fundamental principle of a free government, that the people should make the laws by which they were to be governed. He who is controlled by another is a slave; and that government which is directed by the will of any one, or a few, or any number less than is the will of the community, is a government for slaves.

The new point was, How was the will of the community to be expressed? It was,not possible for them to come together; the multitude would be too great: in order, therefore, to provide against this inconvenience, the scheme of representation hurl been adopted, by which, the people deputed others to represent them. Individuals entering into society became one body, find that body ought to be animated by one mind; and he conceived that every form of government should have that complexion. It was true, notwithstanding all the experience we had from others, it had appeared that the experiment of representation had been fairly tried; there was something like it in the ancient republics, in which, being of small extent, the people could easily meet together, though, instead of deliberating, they only considered of those things which were submitted to them by their magistrates. In Great Britain, representation had been carried much further than in any government we knew of, except our own; but in that country it now had only a name. America was the only country in which the first fair opportunity had been offered. When we were colonies, our representation was better than any that was then known: since the revolution, we had advanced still nearer to perfection. He considered it as an object, of all others the most important, to have it fixed on its true principle; yet he was convinced that it was impracticable to have such a representation in a consolidated government. However, said he, we may approach a great way towards perfection by increasing the representation and limiting the powers of Congress. He considered that the great interests and liberties of the people could only be secured by the state governments. He admitted that, if the new government was only confined to great national objects, it would be less exceptionable; but it extended to every thing dear to human nature. That this was the case, would be proved without any long chain of reasoning; for that power which had both the purse and the sword had the government of the whole country, and might extend its powers to any and to every object. He had already observed that, by the true doctrine of representation, this principle was established—that the representative must be chosen by the free will of the majority of his constituents. It therefore followed that the representative should be chosen from small districts. This being admitted, he would ask, Could 65 men for 3,000,000, or 1 for 30,000, be chosen in this manner? Would they be possessed of the requisite information to make happy the great number of souls that were spread over this extensive country? There was another objection to the clause: if great affairs of government were trusted to few men, they would be more liable to corruption. Corruption, he knew, was unfashionable amongst us, but he supposed that Americans were like other men; and though they had hitherto displayed great virtues, still they were men; and therefore such steps should be taken as to prevent the possibility of corruption. We were now in that stage of society in which we could deliberate with freedom; how long it might continue, God only knew! Twenty years hence, perhaps, these maxims might become unfashionable. We already hear, said he, in all parts of the country, gentlemen ridiculing that spirit of patriotism, and love of liberty, which carried us through all our difficulties in times of danger. When patriotism was already nearly hooted out of society, ought we not to take some precautions against the progress of corruption?

He had one more observation to make, to show that the representation was insufficient. Government, the said, must rest, for its execution, on the good opinion of the people; for, if it was made heaven, and had not the confidence of the people, it could not be executed; that this was proved by the example given by the gentleman of the Jewish theocracy. It must have a good setting out, or the instant it takes place, there is an end of liberty. He believed that the inefficacy of the old Confederation had arisen from that want of confidence; and this caused, in a great degree, by the continual declamation of gentlemen of importance against it from one end of the continent to the other, who had frequently compared it to a rope of sand. It had pervaded every class of citizens; and their misfortunes, the consequences of idleness and extravagance, were attributed to the defects of that system. At the close of the war, our country had been left in distress; and it was impossible that any government on earth could immediately retrieve it; it must be time and industry alone that could effect it. He said, he would pursue these observations no further at present,—and concluded with making the following motion:—

Resolved, That it is proper that the number of representatives be fixed at the rate of one for every twenty thousand inhabitants, to be ascertained on the principles mentioned in the 2d section of the 1st article of the Constitution, until they amount to three hundred; after which they shall be apportioned among the states, in proportion to the number of inhabitants of the states respectively; and that, before the first enumeration shall be made, the several states shall be entitled to choose double the number of representatives, for that purpose mentioned in the Constitution.”

The Hon. Mr. HAMILTON then rose. Mr. Chairman, the honorable member who spoke yesterday went into an explanation of a variety of circumstances, to prove the expediency of a change in our national government, and the necessity of a firm union. At the same time, he described the great advantages which this state, in particular, receives from the confederacy, and its peculiar weaknesses when abstracted from the Union. In doing this, he advanced a variety of arguments, which deserve serious consideration. Gentlemen have this day come forward to answer him. He has been treated as having wandered in the flowery fields of fancy; and attempts have been made to take off from the minds of the committee that sober impression which might be expected from his arguments. I trust, sir, that observations of this kind are not thrown out to cast a light air on this important subject, or to give any personal bias on the great question before us. I will not agree with gentlemen who trifle with the weaknesses of our country, and suppose that they are enumerated to answer a party purpose, and to terrify with ideal dangers. No. I believe these weaknesses to be real, and pregnant with destruction. Yet, however weak our country may be, I hope we never shall sacrifice our liberties. If, therefore, on a full and candid discussion, the proposed system shall appear to have that tendency, for God’s sake, let us reject it! But let us not mistake words for things, nor accept doubtful surmises as the evidence of truth. Let us consider the Constitution calmly and dispassionately, and attend to those things only which merit consideration.

No arguments drawn from embarrassment or inconvenience ought to prevail upon us to adopt a system of government radically bad; yet it is proper that these arguments, among others, should be brought into view. In doing this, yesterday, it was necessary to reflect upon our situation; to dwell upon the imbecility of our union; and to consider whether we, as a state, could stand alone. Although I am persuaded this Convention will be resolved to adopt nothing that had, yet I think every prudent man will consider the merits of the plan in connection with the circumstances of our country, and that a rejection of the Constitution may involve most fatal consequences. I make these remarks to show that though we ought not to be actuated by unreasonable fear, yet we ought to be prudent.

This day, sir, one gentleman has attempted to answer the arguments advanced by my honorable friend; another has treated him as having wandered from the subject. This being the case, I trust I shall be indulged in reviewing the remarks that have been made

Sir, it appears to me extraordinary, that, while gentlemen in one breath acknowledge that the old Confederation requires many material amendments, they should in the next deny that its defects have been the cause of our political weakness, and the consequent calamities of our country. I cannot but infer from this, that there is still some lurking favorite imagination, that this system, with correctness, might become a safe and permanent one. It is proper that we should examine this matter. We contend that the radical vice in the old Confederation is, that the laws of the Union apply only to states in their corporate capacity. Has not every man who has been in our legislature experienced the truth of this position? It is inseparable from the disposition of bodies, who have a constitutional power of resistance, to examine the merits of a law. This has ever been the case with the federal requisitions. In this examination, not being furnished with those lights which directed the deliberations of the general government, and incapable of embracing the general interests of the Union, the states have almost uniformly weighed the requisitions by their own local interests, and have only executed them so far as answered their particular convenience or advantage. Hence there have ever been thirteen different bodies to judge of the measures of Congress, and the operations of government have been distracted by their taking different courses. Those which were to be benefited have complied with the requisitions; others have totally disregarded them. Have not all of us been witnesses to the unhappy embarrassments which resulted from these proceedings? Even during the late war, while the pressure of common danger connected strongly the bond of our union, and incited to vigorous exertion, we have felt many distressing effects of the important system. How have we seen this state, though most exposed to the calamities of the war, complying, in an unexampled manner, with the federal requisitions, and compelled by the delinquency of others to bear most unusual burdens! Of this truth we have the most solemn proof on our records. In 1779 and ’80, when the state, from the ravages of war, and from her great exertions to resist them, became weak, distressed, and forlorn, every man avowed the principle which we now contend for—that our misfortunes, in a great degree, proceeded from the want of vigor in the Continental government. These were our sentiments when we did not speculate, but feel. We saw our weakness, and found ourselves its victims. Let us reflect that this may again, in all probability, be our situation. This is a weak state, and its relative state is dangerous. Your capital is accessible by land, and by sea is exposed to every daring invader; and on the north-west you are open to the inroads of a powerful foreign nation. Indeed, this state, from its situation, will, in time of war, probably be the theater of its operations.

Gentlemen have said that the non-compliance of the states had been occasioned by their sufferings. This may in part be true. But has this state been delinquent? Amidst all our distresses, we have fully complied. If New York could comply wholly with the requisitions, is it not to be supposed that the other states could in part comply? Certainly every state in the Union might have executed them in some degree. But New Hampshire, which has not suffered at all, is totally delinquent. North Carolina is totally delinquent. Many others have contributed in a very small proportion. And Pennsylvania and New York are the only states which have perfectly discharged their federal duty.

From the delinquency of those states which have suffered little by the war, we naturally conclude, that they have made no efforts; and a knowledge of human nature will teach us that their ease and security have been a principal cause of their want of exertion. While danger is distant its impression is weak; and while it affects only our neighbors, we have few motives to provide against it. Sir, if we have national objects to pursue, we must have national revenues. If you make requisitions, and they are not complied with, what is to be done? It has been observed, to coerce the States is one of the maddest projects that was ever devised. A failure of compliance will never be confined to a single state; This being the case, can we suppose it wise to hazard a civil war? Suppose Massachusetts, or any large state, should refuse, and Congress should attempt to compel them, would they not have influence to procure assistance, especially from those states which are in the same situation as themselves? What picture does this idea present to our view? A complying state at war with a non-complying state; Congress marching the troops of one state into the bosom of another; this state collecting auxiliaries, and forming, perhaps, a majority against its federal head. Here is a nation at war with itself. Can any reasonable man be well disposed towards a government which makes war and carnage the only means of supporting itself—a government that can exist only by the sword? Every such war must involve the innocent with the guilty. This single consideration should be sufficient to dispose every peaceable citizen against such a government.

But can we believe that one state will ever suffer itself to be used as an instrument of coercion? The thing is a dream; it is impossible. Then we are brought to this dilemma—either a federal standing army is to enforce the requisitions, or the federal treasury is left without supplies, and the government without support. What, sir, is the cure for this great evil? Nothing, but to enable the national laws to operate on individuals, in the same manner as those of the states do. This is the true reasoning upon the subject, sir. The gentlemen appear to acknowledge its force; and yet, while they yield to the principle, they seem to fear its application to the government.

What, then, shall we do? Shall we take the old Confederation, as the basis of a new system? Can this be the object of the gentlemen? Certainly not. Will any man, who entertains a wish for the safety of his country, trust the sword and the purse with a single assembly organized on principles so defective—so rotten? Though we might give to such a government certain powers with safety, yet to give them the full and unlimited powers of taxation and the national forces, would be to establish a despotism; the definition of which is, a government in which all power is concentred a single body. To take the old Confederation, and fashion it upon these principles, would be establishing a power which would destroy the liberties of the people. These considerations show clearly that a government totally different must be instituted. They had weight in the Convention who formed the new system. It was seen that the necessary powers were too great to be trusted to a single body; they therefore formed two branches, and divided the powers, that each might be a check upon the other. This was the result of their wisdom; and I presume that every reasonable man will agree to it. The more this subject is explained, the more clear and convincing it will appear to every member of this body. The fundamental principle of the old Confederation is defective; we must totally eradicate and discard this principle before we can expect an efficient government. The gentlemen who have spoken to-day have taken up the subject of the ancient confederacies; but their view of them has been extremely partial and erroneous. The fact is, the same false and impracticable principle ran through the ancient governments. The first of these governments that we read of, was the Amphictyonic confederacy. The council which managed the affairs of this league possessed powers of a similar complexion to those of our present Congress. The same feeble mode of legislation in the head, and the same power of resistance in the members, prevailed. When a requisition was made, it rarely met a compliance; and a civil war was the consequence. Those that were attacked called in foreign aid to protect them; and the ambitious Philip, under the mask of an ally to one, invaded the liberties of each, and finally subverted the whole.

The operation of this principle appears in the same light in the Dutch republics. They have been obliged to levy taxes by an armed force. In this confederacy, one large province, by its superior wealth and influence, is commonly a match for all the rest; and when they do not comply, the province of Holland is obliged to compel them. It is observed, that the United Provinces have existed a long time; but they have been constantly the sport of their neighbors, and have been supported only by the external pressure of the surrounding powers. The policy of Europe, not the policy of their government, has saved them from dissolution. Besides, the powers of the stadtholder have given energy to the operations of this government, which is not to be found in ours. This prince has a vast personal influence; he has independent revenues; he commands an army of forty thousand men.

The German confederacy has also been a perpetual source of wars. They have a diet, like our Congress, who have authority to call for supplies. These calls are never obeyed and in time of war, the imperial army never takes the field till the enemy are returning from it. The emperor’s Austrian dominions, in which he is an absolute prince, alone enable him to make head against the common foe. The members of this confederacy are ever divided and opposed to each other. The king of Prussia is a member; yet he has been constantly in opposition to the emperor. Is this a desirable government?

I might go more particularly into the discussion of examples, and show that, wherever this fatal principle has prevailed, even as far back as the Lycian and Achæan leagues, as well as the Amphictyonic confederacy, it has proved the destruction of the government. But I think observations of this kind might have been spared. Had they not been entered into by others, I should nor have taken up so much of the time of the committee. No inference can be drawn kern these examples, that republics cannot exist: we only contend that they have hitherto been founded on false principles. We have shown how they have been conducted, and how they have been destroyed. Weakness in the head has produced resistance in the members; this has been the immediate parent of civil war: auxiliary force has been invited; and foreign power has annihilated their liberties and name. Thus Philip subverted the Amphictyonic, and Rome the Achæan republic.

We shall do well, sir, not to deceive ourselves with the favorable events of the late war. Common danger prevented the operation of the ruinous principle, in its full extent; but, since the peace, we have experienced the evils; we have felt the poison of the system in its unmingled purity.

Without dwelling any longer on this subject, I shall proceed to the question immediately before the committee.

In order that the committee may understand clearly the principles on which the general Convention acted, I think it necessary to explain some preliminary circumstances. Sir, the natural situation of this country seems to divide its interests into different classes. There are navigating and non-navigating states. The Northern are properly navigating states: the Southern appear to possess neither the means nor the spirit of navigation. This difference of situation naturally produces a dissimilarity of interests and views respecting foreign commerce. It was the interest of the Northern States that there should be no restraints on their navigation, and they should have full power, by a majority in Congress, to make commercial regulations in favor of their own, and in restraint of the navigation of foreigners. The Southern States wish to impose a restraint on the Northern, by requiring that two thirds in Congress should be requisite to pass an act in regulation of commerce. They were apprehensive that the restraints of a navigation law would discourage foreigners, and, by obliging them to employ the shipping of the Northern States, would probably enhance their freight. This being the case, they insisted strenuously on having this provision ingrafted in the Constitution; and the Northern States were as anxious in opposing it. On the other hand, the small states, seeing themselves embraced by the Confederation upon equal terms, wished to retain the advantages which they already possessed. The large states, on the contrary, thought it improper that Rhode Island and Delaware should enjoy an equal suffrage with themselves. From these sources a delicate and difficult contest arose. It became necessary, there, fore, to compromise, or the Convention must have dissolved without effecting any thing. Would it have been wise and prudent in that body, in this critical situation, to have deserted their country? No. Every man who hears me, every wise man in the United States, would have condemned them. The Convention were obliged to appoint, a committee for accommodation. In this committee, the arrangement was formed as it now stands, and their report was accepted. It was a delicate point, and it was necessary that all parties should be indulged. Gentlemen will see that, if there had not been a unanimity, nothing could have been done; for the Convention had no power to establish, but only to recommend, a government. Any other system would have been impracticable. Let a convention be called to-morrow; let them meet twenty times,—nay, twenty thousand times; they will have the same difficulties to encounter, the same clashing interests to reconcile.

But, dismissing these reflections, let us consider how far the arrangement is in itself entitled to the approbation of this body. We will examine it upon its own merits.

The first thing objected to is that clause which allows a representation for three fifths of the negroes. Much has been said of the impropriety of representing men who have no will of their own. Whether this be reasoning or declamation, I will not presume to say. It is the unfortunate situation of the Southern States to have a great part of their population, as well as property, in blacks. The regulation complained of was one result of the spirit of accommodation which governed the Convention; and without this indulgence no union could possibly have been formed. But, sir, considering some peculiar advantages which we derive from them, it is entirely just that they should be gratified. The Southern States possess certain staples,—tobacco, rice, indigo, &c.,—which must be capital objects in treaties of commerce with foreign nations; and the advantages which they necessarily procure in those treaties will be felt throughout all the states. But the justice of this plan will appear in another view. The best writers on government have held that representation should be compounded of persons and property. This rule has been adopted, as far as it could be, in the constitution of New York. It will, however, by no means be admitted that the slaves are considered altogether as property. They are men, though degraded to the condition of slavery. They are persons known to the municipal laws of the states which they inhabit, as well as to the laws of nature. But representation and taxation go together, and one uniform rule ought to apply to both. Would it be just to compute these slaves in the assessment of taxes, and discard them from the estimate in the apportionment of representatives? Would it be just to impose a singular burden, without conferring some adequate advantage?

Another circumstance ought to be considered. The rule we have been speaking of is a general rule, and applies to all the states. Now, you have a great number of people in your state, which are not represented at all, and have no voice in your government. These will be included in the enumeration—not two fifths, nor three fifths, but the whole. This proves that the advantages of the plan are not confined to the Southern States, but extend to other parts of the Union.

I now proceed to consider the objection with regard to the number of representatives, as it now stands. I am persuaded the system, in this respect, stands on a better footing than the gentlemen imagine.

It has been asserted that it will be in the power of Congress to reduce the number. I acknowledge that there are no direct words of prohibition, but contend that the true and genuine construction of the clause gives Congress no power whatever to reduce the representation below the number as it now stands. Although they may limit, they can never diminish the number. One representative for every thirty thousand inhabitants is fixed as the standard of increase; till, by the natural course of population, it shall become necessary to limit the ratio. Probably, at present, were this standard to be immediately applied, the representation would considerably exceed sixty-five. In three years, it would exceed one hundred. If I understand the gentlemen, they contend that the number may be enlarged, or may not. I admit that this is in the discretion of Congress; and I submit to the committee whether it be not necessary and proper. Still, I insist that an immediate limitation is not probable, nor was it in the contemplation of the Convention. But, sir, who will presume to say to what precise point the representation ought to be increased? This is a matter of opinion, and opinions are vastly different upon the subject. A proof of this is drawn from the representations in the state legislatures. In Massachusetts, the Assembly consists of about three hundred; in South Carolina, of nearly one hundred; in New York, there are sixty-five. It is observed generally that the number ought to be large; let the gentlemen produce their criterion. I confess it is difficult for me to say what number may be said to be sufficiently large. On one hand, it ought to be considered that a small number will act with more facility, system, and decision; on the other, that a large one may enhance the difficulty of corruption. The Congress is to consist, at first, of ninety-one members. This, to a reasonable man, may appear as near the proper medium as any number whatever, at least for the present. There is one source of increase, also, which does not depend upon any constructions of the Constitution; it is the creation of new states. Vermont, Kentucky, and Franklin,* will probably become independent. New members of the Union will also be formed from the unsettled tracts of western territory.

[Note: * Now Tennessee.]

These must be represented, and will all contribute to swell the federal legislature. If the whole number in the United States be, at present, three millions, as is commonly supposed, according to the ratio of one for thirty thousand, we shall have, on the first census, a hundred representatives. In ten years, thirty more will be added; and in twenty-five years, the number will be double. Then, sir, we shall have two hundred, if the increase goes on in the same proportion. The Convention of Massachusetts, who made the same objections, have fixed upon this number as the point to which they chose to limit the representation. But can we pronounce, with certainty, that it will not be expedient to go beyond this number? We cannot. Experience alone must determine. This matter may, with more safety, be left to the discretion of the legislature, as it will be the interest of the large and increasing states of Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, &c., to augment the representation. Only Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Maryland, can be interested in limiting it. We may, therefore, safely calculate upon a growing representation, according to the advance of population, and the circumstances of the country.

The state governments possess inherent advantages, which will ever give them an influence and ascendency over the national government, and will forever preclude the possibility of federal encroachments. That their liberties indeed can be subverted by the federal head, is repugnant to every rule of political calculation. Is not this arrangement, then, sir, a most wise and prudent one? Is not the present representation fully adequate to our present exigencies, and sufficient to answer all the purposes of the Union? I am persuaded that an examination of the objects of the federal government will afford a conclusive answer.

Many other observations might be made on this subject, but I cannot now pursue them; for I feel myself not a little exhausted. I beg leave, therefore, to waive, for the present the further discussion of the question.

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

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