Elliot’s Debates: Volume 2

Convention of New York

Wednesday, July 2, 1788.

—Mr. G. LIVINGSTON. Sir, I perfectly agree, with every gentleman that has spoken on this clause, that it is most important; and I like wise agree with those of the honorable members who think that, if this section is not amended, there will not the shadow of liberty be left to the states, as states. The honorable member from New York, (Mr. Hamilton,) on Saturday, went largely into the jurisdiction of the section as it stands; asserted that the government was truly republican—good and safe; that it would never be the interest of the general government to dissolve the states; that there was a concurrent jurisdiction, independent as to every thing but imports; that the states had a supreme, uncontrolled, and uncontrollable power, in common with the general government, to every branch of revenue, except as to imposts, post-office, and the restraint with respect to exports; that, with respect to any productive source of revenue left, whichever (the general government or particular state) applied first would obtain it. As to the safety in the general government, considered as a complete republican government, several honorable members, as well as my worthy colleague, have fully considered, and in my humble opinion clearly shown, that it cannot be fully depended on as safe, on the score of representation. Therefore I conceive the state governments are necessary as the barrier between the people’s liberties and any invasion which may be attempted on them by the general government. The honorable gentleman from New York has given us a new kind of power, or rather endeavored to show that power can be equally exercised in a way I believe never before thought of; that is, two bodies, which have, or at least may have, separate and indeed contrary interests, to have at the same time uncontrollable power to derive support from, and have complete direction of, the same branch of revenue.

It seems, sir, to be agreed that state governments are necessary. The state governments will undoubtedly endeavor to support themselves. It also seems to be agreed that the general government will want all the money they can raise: it is in my mind as true (if they possibly can) that they will raise all they want. Now, sir, what will be the consequence, the probable consequence, in this taxing, collecting squabble? I think, sir, we may conclude, with great certainty, that the people will, between them, be pretty well taxed. An honorable member from New York, (chancellor,) on Friday last, endeavored to prove, and yesterday again tauntingly mentioned it, that, because taxes are annually collected in our counties, for state and county purposes, by the same collector, authorized by the same legislature, appointed by the same assessors, and to support the Same government,—that, therefore, the same sources of revenue may safely be applied to, without any danger of clashing interference, for different purposes and by different powers—nay, by powers between whom, it seems to be agreed, there will be a struggle for supremacy; and one of the gentlemen (Mr. Hamilton) declares his apprehensions to be that, in the issue, the state governments will get the victory, and totally supplant the general government. Others, I believe with great probability of truth, think the states will cut but a scurvy figure in the unequal contest. This, sir, however, seems certain, that a contention there must be between them. Is this wise, Mr. Chairman,—now, when we are deliberating on a form of government which we suppose will affect our posterity to many ages,—to adopt a system in which we see, clearly see, the seeds of feud, contest, jealousy, and confusion? Further, sir, it is agreed that the support of the general government is of the utmost importance on the great scale; it is contended by some, as before mentioned, that, if both powers—the supreme, coëxisting, coëqual powers—should tax the same objects, the state taxes would be best paid. What, sir, would be the consequence? Why, the others Would be badly paid, or not paid at all. What, then, is to become of your government? In this case, it must be annihilated indeed Will this do? This bantling, sir, ought to be better provided for. For my part, I like it too well—if a little amended—to agree to a provision which is manifestly not sufficient for its support; for, if the gentleman’s arguments have weight in them, (and that I would not wish to contest,) this government must fail; the states will be too many for it My opinion is, sir, that a line be drawn. Certain and sufficient resources ought to be left solely to the states, as states, which the amendment does. And as the general government has some particular ones altogether at its command, so also ought there to be a right of requisition for what the specific funds may be deficient in. Sir, this requisition will have, in my opinion, directly a contrary effect to what some gentlemen suppose. It will serve to impress both the general government, as well as the particular state governments, with this important idea—that they conjointly are the guardians of the rights of the whole American family, different parts of the administration of the concerns of which being intrusted to them respectively. In the one case, Congress, as the head, will take care of the general concerns of the whole: in the other, the particular legislatures, as the stewards of the people, will attend to the more minute affairs. Thus, sir, I wish to see the whole transacted in amity and peace, and no other contest than what may arise in the strife which may best answer the general end proposed,—to wit, peace, happiness, and safety.

Further, sir. It has been frequently remarked, from one side of the house, that most of the amendments proposed go on the supposition that corruption may possibly creep into the general government, and seem to discard the idea, as totally improbable. Of what kind of beings, sir, is the general government to be composed? If of men, I think it probable, at least, they may be corrupt. Indeed, if it were not for the depravity of human nature, we should stand in no need of human government at all.

Sir, I should not have added, but I am led to do it,—thus publicly to hold up my testimony to the world against the illiberal treatment we met with yesterday, and that from a quarter I little expected. Had I not been present, I should hardly have believed it possible that the honorable member from New York, who harangued the committee yesterday with such a torrent of illiberality, was the same man who, at the opening of the debates of this Convention, could wish that we should investigate with candor.

Will men, sir, by being called children, be convinced there is no reason in their arguments, or that there is strength in those of their opponents? I confess, sir, in the case before us, they will see strength in the gentleman’s argument, (if what was said might be called an argument;) it was strong; and (to use one of the member’s own similes) it consisted wholly of brass, without any mixture of clay; and by a luxuriancy of fancy which that member is famous for, and I suppose for the sake of variety, he has taken it from the feet and toes, where, on another occasion, he had emphatically placed it, and now has displayed it wholly in front.

The honorable member, sir, wrought himself up into such a strain of ridicule, that, after exhausting his admirable talents in this sublime and gentlemanlike science on his opponents, he finds another subject to display them on, in the emblem of liberty, the pillar and cap, which the friend and assertor of the rights of his fellow-citizens, John Holt, late printer of the New York Journal, in perilous times dared to use, as expressive of his own whiggish sentiments; who must be hauled from his grave for the purpose—but whose memory, maugre all the invectives which disdain may wish to throw upon it, will be dear to this country as long as the friends of liberty will dare to show their heads in it. Indeed, sir, this is not the first time that this emblem of liberty has been endeavored to be held up in a ridiculous point of light. And let me tell you, Mr. Chairman, it has the same effect on me now it had the first time. It roused every spark of whiggish resentment about my heart. In or about the year 1775, this cap of liberty was the subject of the tory wit of Vardel, or some of his associates about King’s College, (as was supposed.) The member, who now exactly follows their track, (if they were the authors of it,) at that time found it not to his purpose openly to avow the sentiment.

But, sir, from the light in which he appears to hold the wavering conduct of up, up, up—and down, down, down—and round, round, round,—we are led to suppose, that his real sentiments are not subject to vary, but have been uniform throughout. I will leave the gentleman himself to reflect, what are the consequences which will naturally follow from these premises. If he does not like them, I cannot help it; he must be more careful, in future, in laying down propositions from which such consequences will follow.

I repeat, sir, that the member, in the first place, endeavors to ridicule the gentlemen opposed to him in sentiment. That was not enough; he must next attack the memory of the distinguished emblem of that good old whig, Mr. Holt. But, sir, as he laughed at a worthy member for making what he termed an anti-climax, he appears to be determined to make his own complete; and, for want of a third part more to his purpose, he finishes by an indirect though fashionable attempt to ridicule the sacred gospel itself, and the faith necessary for a sinner to partake of the benefits contained in it.

Before I sit down, sir, I must lament the occasion of the remarks I have last made. When gentlemen will, for the sake of displaying their own parts, or perhaps for worse purposes, depart from the line of propriety, then they are fair game. I cannot suppose, however, that it is disagreeable to the member himself, as he appears to delight to dabble in dirty water.

Mr. WILLIAMS. Mr. Chairman, although I think the speech of an honorable gentleman from New York totally undeserving of notice, with regard to argument, yet, as he has taken upon himself to misstate some of my sentiments, and attribute improper motives to me, I shall make a very short reply. He observed, that I said the state government was imperfect, because it answered my purpose. With equal justice I might retort that the honorable gentleman has been frequently talking of the defects of the articles of the Confederation, because it answered his purpose. But, sir, I said no more of the state Constitution than I can say with propriety of every thing else—that nothing is perfect. Even the honorable gentleman’s wit and fancy cannot lay claim to perfection, or he would not have introduced the vulgar idea of children’s tottering with boards. The gentleman observed, that I alleged that the Congress would rob the people of the light of heaven, and pick their pockets. This egregious misstatement I cannot account for. I have heard that a great philosopher endeavored to prove that ridicule was the test of truth; but, with the honorable gentleman, misrepresentation is the test of ridicule.

I think, sir, that no prudent people will trust power with their rulers, that cannot be exercised without injuring them. This I suppose to be the case with poll taxes, But the honorable gentleman hath not attempted to overthrow either the arguments of the honorable gentlemen who have spoken in favor of the amendment I had the honor to propose, or my own. He hath indeed attacked us with wit and fancy. If, however, we supposed him a formidable adversary, upon these considerations, and attempted to combat him with the same weapons, would it not be as ridiculous as it was for Don Quixote to fight with a windmill, upon the mad supposition that it was a giant? The gentleman had also observed, that every member of the committee was convinced, by the arguments of an honorable gentleman from New York, of the propriety of this paragraph, except the honorable gentleman from Duchess. Now, sir, how the honorable gentleman came to discover this, I cannot say: this I can say, for myself, that I am not convinced. The gentleman must, indeed, possess some wonderful faculties, if he can penetrate into the operations of the mind; he must, sir, possess the second sight in a surprising degree. Sir, I should, however, be very uncandid, if I attributed the gentleman’s satirical remarks to a malevolent disposition: I do not, sir. I impute them to his politeness, which is the art of pleasing. Now, sir, every person must acknowledge that the honorable gentleman gave a great deal of pleasure yesterday, if laughter is a sign of pleasure; consequently, he was very polite. Sir, I shall not enter seriously into the subject until I hear serious answers to what I have offered to the committee. Sir, to conclude, the honorable gentleman, in my eye, from New York, may substitute his fanciful notions in the room of arguments; he may, sir, by his ridiculous I—mean ridiculing—powers, excite laughter and occasion smiles; but, trust me, sir, they will, instead of having the desired effect—instead of frightening—be considered with contempt.

The Hon. Mr. SMITH. Mr. Chairman, the honorable gentleman who spoke yesterday animadverted, in a very ludicrous manner, upon my arguments, and endeavored to place them in a ridiculous point of view. Perhaps it was necessary that the Convention should be diverted with something fanciful, and that they should be relieved from the tediousness of a dull debate by a few flashes of merriment. I suppose it was for this purpose that the gentleman was induced to make so handsome a display of his comic talents, to the no small entertainment of the ladies and gentlemen without the bar. It is well known that, in theatrical exhibitions, the farce succeeds the tragedy. Now, as another honorable gentleman (Mr. Duane) had, but the day before, called to our minds, in a most dismal picture, the tragic scenes of war, devastation, and bloodshed, it was entirely proper that our feelings should be relieved from the shocking impression by a light and musical play. I think the gentleman has acquitted himself admirably. However, his attack seems to have thrown him off his guard, and to have exposed him to his own weapons. The gentleman might well have turned his strictures upon his own contradictions; for, at one time, he argues that a federal republic is impracticable; at another, he argues that the proposed government is a federal republic. At one time, he says the old Confederation has no power at all; at another, he says it has nearly as many as the one proposed. He seems to bean enemy to creeds; and yet, with respect to concurrent jurisdiction, he presents us with his creed, which we are bound to believe. Let us hear it. “I believe that the general government is supreme, and that the state governments are supreme; and yet they are not two supremes, but one supreme; and this cannot be doubted.” He says there is a concurrent jurisdiction in your mine, Mr. Chairman, and yet you do not concur; for the gentleman himself claims the soil, and there seems to be a difference between you. But, as the honorable gentleman considers his harangue as containing some reasoning, I shall take notice of a few remarks.

The gentleman has said that the committee seemed to be convinced by the arguments of an honorable member from New York. I suppose it was only a fancy of the moment that struck him, of which he can probably give no better account than the rest of us. I can only say for myself, that, the more I hear and reflect, the more convinced I am of the necessity of amendment. Whether the committee have received conviction can easily be settled by a vote.

The gentleman from Washington has said that even the state of New York was not a perfect form. In the course of my argument, I observed that the state legislatures were competent to good government, and that it was not proper to exchange governments at so great a risk. Where is the mighty contradiction? I said that the state governments were proper depositories of power, and were the proper guardians of the people. I did not say that any government was perfect, nor did I ascribe any extraordinary qualities to the states. The gentleman endeavors to fix another contradiction upon me. He charges me with saying that direct taxes are dangerous and yet impracticable. This is an egregious misrepresentation. My declaration was, that general direct taxes would be extremely difficult in the apportionment and collection, and that this difficulty would push the general government into despotic measures. The gentleman also ridicules our idea of the states losing their powers. He says this Constitution adds little or no power to the Union, and consequently takes little or nothing from the states. If this be true, what are the advocates of the system contending about? It is the reasoning among all reasoners, that nothing to something adds nothing. If the new plan does not contain any new powers, why advocate it? If it does, whence are they taken? The honorable member cannot understand our argument about the sword and the purse, and asks, Why should the states hold them? I say, the state governments ought to hold the purse, to keep people’s hands out of it. With respect to the sword, I say you must handle it, through your general government; but the states must have some agency, or the people will not be willing to put their hands to it. It is observed that we must talk a great deal, and that it is necessary to support here what we have said out of doors. Sir, I conceive that we ought to talk of this subject every where. Several gentlemen have observed that it is necessary these powers should be vested in Congress, that they may have funds to pledge for the payment of debts. This argument has not the least weight in my mind. The government ought not to have it in their power to borrow with too great facility. The funds which we agree to lodge with Congress will be sufficient for as much as they ought to borrow.

I submit to the candor of the committee, whether any evidence of the strength of a cause is afforded, when gentlemen, instead of reasoning fairly, assert roundly, and use all the powers of ridicule and rhetoric to abuse their adversaries. Any argument may be placed in a ridiculous light, by taking only detached parts. I wish, Mr. Chairman, that ridicule may be avoided. It can only irritate the passions, and has no tendency to convince the judgment.

The CHANCELLOR said, he was very unfortunate in provoking so many able antagonists. They had given a turn to his arguments and expressions which he did not expect. He was, however, happy that he could say, with Sir John Falstaff, that if he had no wit himself, he had been the occasion of wit in others; and therefore he supposed that the ladies, this day, had been as well entertained as yesterday. He went on to explain what the gentleman had imputed to him as contradictions. He had charged him with saying that a federal government could not exist, and vet that he had contended for one. This was false; he had maintained that a single league of states could not long exist, and had proved it by examples. This was fair reasoning; and he had not said any thing to contradict it. He then went through a review of his arguments, to prove that he had been misrepresented, and that he had been consistent throughout. But, said the chancellor, what most deeply wounds me is, that my worthy kinsman across the table, regardless of our common ancestry, and the tender ties of blood, should join his dagger with the rest, and compel me to exclaim, in the dying words of Cæsar, “And thou, too, Brutus!” The gentleman alleges, first, that I have treated the holy gospel with disdain. This is a serious charge. I deny it. If I have used a phrase disagreeable to him, I certainly have expressed nothing disrespectful of the Scriptures. If I have used a few words, there are gentlemen who have quoted, not only verses, but chapters. He tells you I have insulted the good Mr. Holt: I declare, I did not know the newspaper I referred to was his. He then tells you that my sentiments are illiberal, and that I insinuate that the worthy printer did not act on sound principles of whiggism. If this were true, my insinuations would indeed be both illiberal and false. Sir, if gentlemen will come forward with absurd arguments, imagine erroneous premises, and draw false conclusions, shall they not be exposed? and if their contradictions render them ridiculous, is it my fault? Are not the absurdities of public speakers ridiculed in all countries? Why not expose false reasoning? Why not pluck from Sophistry the delusive veil by which she imposes on the people? If I am guilty of absurdities, let them be detected and displayed. If the fool’s cap fits me, clap it on: I will wear it, and all shall laugh. Sir, the very day after I made my first speech to this committee, I was attacked with great severity, and with unusual weapons. A dreadful and terrible beast, with great iron claws and ghastly look, was made to grin horribly in my face. I appeal to this committee, sir, whether gentlemen have not said plainly, that the powers of Congress would be dangerous, and yet impracticable. If they will speak such nonsense, they must be exposed. Their other arguments are equally ridiculous; they reason in confusion. They form a government, to consist of thirteen governments; one controls thirteen, and thirteen control one. With regard to the sword and the purse, I could have no conception of Congress keeping a sword, and the states using it; of Congress using a purse, and the states keeping it; of Congress having power, and the states exercising it. I could not reconcile these things to my reason. Sir, when any argument, on such a subject as this, strikes me as being absurd and ridiculous, I cannot conceal my emotions; I think it my duty to expose it boldly; and I shall continue to do this, without any apprehensions from those virulent attacks which have been aimed at me from every quarter.

Mr. TREDWELL. Sir, little accustomed to speak in public, and always inclined, in such an assembly as this, to be a hearer rather than a speaker, on a less important occasion than the present I should have contented myself with a silent vote; but when I consider the nature of this dispute, that it is a contest, not between little states and great states, (as we have been told,) between little folks and great folks, between patriotism and ambition, between freedom and power; not so much between the navigating and non-navigating states, as between navigating and non-navigating individuals, (for not one of the amendments we contend for has the least reference to the clashing interests of states;) when I consider, likewise, that a people jealous of their liberties, and strongly attached to freedom, have reposed so entire a confidence in this assembly, that upon our determination depends their future enjoyment of those invaluable rights and privileges, which they have so lately and so gallantly defended at every risk and expense, both of life and property,—it appears to me so interesting and important, that I cannot be totally silent on the occasion, lest lisping babes should be taught to curse my name, as a betrayer of their freedom and happiness.

The gentleman who first opened this debate did (with an emphasis which I believe convinced every one present of the propriety of the advice) urge the necessity of proceeding, in our deliberations on this important subject, coolly and dispassionately. With how much candor this advice was given, appears from the subsequent parts of a long speech, and from several subsequent speeches almost totally addressed to our fears. The people of New Jersey and Connecticut are so exceedingly exasperated against us, that, totally regardless of their own preservation, they will take the two rivers of Connecticut and Delaware by their extremities, and, by dragging them over our country, will, by a sweeping deluge, wash us all into the Hudson, leaving neither house nor inhabitant behind them. But if this event should not happen, doubtless the Vermontese, with the British and tories, our natural enemies, would, by bringing down upend us the great Lake Ontario, sweep hills and mountains, houses and inhabitants, in one deluge, into the Atlantic. These, indeed, would be terrible calamities; but terrible as they are, they are not to be compared with the horrors and desolation of tyranny. The arbitrary courts of Philip in the Netherlands, in which life and property were daily confiscated without a jury, occasioned as much misery and a more rapid depopulation of the province, before the people took up arms in their own defence, than all the armies of that haughty monarch were able to effect afterwards; and it is doubtful, in my mind, whether governments, by abusing their powers, have not occasioned as much misery and distress, and nearly as great devastations of the human species, as all the wars which have happened since Milton’s battle of the angels to the present day. The end or design of government is, or ought to be, the safety, peace, and welfare of the governed. Unwise, therefore, and absurd in the highest degree, would be the conduct of that people, who, in forming a government, should give to their rulers power to destroy them and their property, and thereby defeat the very purpose of their institutions; or, in other words, should give unlimited power to their rulers, and not retain in their own hands the means of their own preservation. The first governments in the world were parental, the powers of which were restrained by the laws of nature; and doubtless the early succeeding governments were formed on the same plan, which, we may suppose, answered tolerably well in the first ages of the world, while the moral sense was strong, and the laws of nature well understood, there being then no lawyers to explain them away. But in after times, when kings became great, and courts crowded, it was discovered that governments should have a right to tyrannize, and a power to oppress; and at the present day, when the juris periti are become so skilful in their profession, and quibbling is reduced to a science, it is become extremely difficult to form a constitution which will secure liberty and happiness to the people, or laws under which property is safe. Hence, in modern times, the design of the people, in forming an original constitution of government, is not so much to give powers to their rulers, as to guard against the abuse of them; but, in a federal one, it is different.

Sir, I introduce these observations to combat certain principles which have been daily and confidently advanced by the favorers of the present Constitution, and which appear to me totally indefensible. The first and grand leading, or rather misleading, principle in this debate, and on which the advocates for this system of unrestricted powers must chiefly depend for its support, is that, in forming a constitution, whatever powers are not expressly granted or given the government, are reserved to the people, or that rulers cannot exercise any powers but those expressly given to them by the Constitution. Let me ask the gentlemen who advanced this principle, whether the commission of a Roman dictator, which was in these few words—to take care that the state received no harm—does not come up fully to their ideas of an energetic government; or whether an invitation from the people to one or more to come and rule over them, would not clothe the rulers with sufficient powers. If so, the principle they advance is a false one. Besides, the absurdity of this principle will evidently appear, when we consider the great variety of objects to which the powers of the government must necessarily extend, and that an express enumeration of them all would probably fill as many volumes as Pool’s Synopsis of the Critics. But we may reason with sufficient certainty on the subject, from the sense of all the public bodies in the United States, who had occasion to form new constitutions. They have uniformly acted upon a direct and contrary principle, not only in forming the state constitutions and the old Confederation, but also in forming this very Constitution, for we do not find in every state constitution express resolutions made in favor of the people; and it is clear that the late Convention at Philadelphia, whatever might have been the sentiments of some of its members, did not adopt the principle, for they have made certain reservations and restrictions, which, upon that principle, would have been totally useless and unnecessary; and can it be supposed that that wise body, whose only apology for the great ambiguity of many parts of that performance, and the total omission of some things which many esteem essential to the security of liberty, was a great desire of brevity, should so far sacrifice that great and important object, as to import a number of provisions which they esteemed totally useless? Why is it said that the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless, in cases of rebellion or invasion, the public safety may require it? What clause in the Constitution, except this very clause itself, gives the general government a power to deprive us of that great privilege, so sacredly secured to us by our state constitutions? Why is it provided that no bill of attainder shall be passed, or that no title of nobility shall be granted? Are there any clauses in the Constitution extending the powers of the general government to these objects? Some gentlemen say that these, though not necessary, were inserted for greater caution. I could have wished, sir, that a greater caution had been used to secure to us the freedom of election, a sufficient and responsible representation, the freedom of the press, and the trial by jury both in civil and criminal cases.

These, sir, are the rocks on which the Constitution should have rested; no other foundation can any man lay, which will secure the sacred temple of freedom against the power of the great, the undermining arts of ambition, and the blasts of profane scoffers—for such there will be in every age—who will tell us that all religion is in vain; that is, that our political creeds, which have been handed down to us by our forefathers as sacredly as our Bibles, and for which more of them have suffered martyrdom than for the creed of the apostles, are all nonsense; who will tell us that paper constitutions are mere paper, and that parchment is but parchment, that jealousy of our rulers is a sin, &c. I could have wished also that sufficient caution had been used to secure to us our religious liberties, and to have prevented the general government from tyrannizing over our consciences by a religious establishment—a tyranny of all others most dreadful, and which will assuredly be exercised whenever it shall be thought necessary for the promotion and support of their political measures. It is ardently to be wished, sir, that these and other invaluable rights of freemen had been as cautiously secured as some of the paltry local interests of some of the individual states. But it appears to me, that, in forming this Constitution, we have run into the same error which the lawyers and Pharisees of old were charged with; that is, while we have secured the tithes of mint, anise, and cumin, we have neglected the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith. Have we not neglected to secure to ourselves the weighty matters of judgment or justice, by empowering the general government to establish one supreme, and as many inferior, courts as they please, whose proceedings they have a right to fix and regulate as they shall think fit, so that we are ignorant whether they shall be according to the common, civil, the Jewish, or Turkish law? What better provisions have we made for mercy, when a man, for ignorantly passing a counterfeit continental note, or bill of credit, is liable to be dragged to a distant county, two or three hundred miles from home, deprived of the support and assistance of friends, to be tried by a strange jury, ignorant of his character, ignorant of the character of the witnesses, unable to contradict any false testimony brought against him by their own knowledge of facts, and with whom the prisoner being unacquainted, he must be deprived totally of the benefit of his challenge? and besides all that, he may be exposed to lose his life, merely for want of property to carry his witnesses to such a distance; and after all this solemn farce and mockery of a trial by jury, if they should acquit him, it will require more ingenuity than I am master of, to show that he does not hold his life at the will and pleasure of the Supreme Court, to which an appeal lies, and consequently depend on the tender mercies, perhaps, of the wicked, (for judges may be wicked;) and what those tender mercies are, I need nor tell you. You may read them in the history of the Star Chamber Court in England, and in the courts of Philip, and in your Bible.

This brings me to the third and last weighty matter mentioned in the text—to wit, faith. The word faith, may, with great propriety, be applied to the articles of our political creed, which, it is absolutely necessary, should be kept pure and Uncorrupted, if we mean to preserve the liberties of our country and the inestimable blessings of a free government. And, sir, I cannot but be seriously alarmed on this head, as has frequently been the case during the present discussion,—gentlemen of the first rank and abilities openly opposing some of the most essential principles of freedom, and endeavoring, by the most ingenious sophistry, and the still more powerful weapons of ridicule, to shake or corrupt our faith therein. Have we not been told that, if government is but properly organized, and the powers were suitably distributed among the several members, it is unnecessary to provide any other security against the abuse of its power? that power thus distributed needs no restriction? Is this a whig principle? Does not every constitution on the continent contradict this position? Why are we told that all restrictions of power are found to be inconvenient? that we ought to put unlimited confidence in our rulers? that it is not our duty to be jealous of men in power? Have we not had an idea thrown out of establishing an aristocracy in our own country,—a government than which none is more dreadful and oppressive?

What the design of the preacher on this occasion is, I will not attempt to determine; far be it from me to judge men’s hearts: but thus much I can say, from the best authority, they are deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. But whatever be the design of the preachers, the tendency of their doctrines is clear; they tend to corrupt our political faith, to take us off our guard, and lull to sleep that jealousy which, we are told by all writers,—and it is proved by all experience,—is essentially necessary for the preservation of freedom. But notwithstanding the strongest assertions that there are no wolves in our country, if we see their footsteps in every public path, we should be very credulous and unwise to trust our flocks abroad, and to believe that those who advised us to do it were very anxious for their preservation.

In this Constitution, sir, we have departed widely from the principles and political faith of ’76, when the spirit of liberty ran high, and danger put a curb on ambition. Here we find no security for the rights of individuals, no security for the existence of our state governments; here is no bill of rights, no proper restriction of power; our lives, our property, and our consciences, are left wholly at the mercy of the legislature, and the powers of the judiciary may be extended to any degree short of almighty. Sir, in this Constitution we have not only neglected,—we have done worse,—we have openly violated, our faith,—that is, our public faith.

The seventh article, which is in these words, “The ratifications of the Conventions of nine states shall be sufficient for the establishment of this Constitution between the states so ratifying the same,” is so flagrant a violation of the public faith of these states, so solemnly pledged to each other in the Confederation, as makes me tremble to reflect upon; for, however lightly some may think of paper and parchment constitutions, they are recorded, sir, in that high court of appeals, the Judge of which will do right, and I am confident that no such violation of public faith ever did, or ever will, go unpunished.

The plan of the federal city, sir, de parts from every principle of freedom, as far as the distance of the two polar stars from each other; for, subjecting the inhabitants of that district to the exclusive legislation of Congress, in whose appointment they have no share or vote, is laying a foundation on which may be erected as complete a tyranny as can be found in the Eastern world. Nor do I see how this evil can possibly be prevented, without razing the foundation of this happy place, where men are to live, without labor, upon the fruit of the labors of others; this political hive, where all the drones in the society are to be collected to feed on the honey of the land. How dangerous this city may be, and what its operation on the general liberties of this country, time alone must discover; but I pray God, it may not prove to this western world what the city of Rome, enjoying a similar constitution, did to the eastern.

There is another clause in this Constitution, which, though there is no prospect of getting it amended, I think ought not to be passed over in silence, lest such a silence should be construed into a tacit approbation of it. I mean the clause which restricts the general government from putting a stop, for a number of years, to a commerce which is a stain to the commerce of any civilized nation, and has already blackened half the plains of America with a race of wretches made so by our cruel policy and avarice, and which appears to me to be already repugnant to every principle of humanity, morality, religion, and good policy. There are other objections to this Constitution, which are weighty and unanswerable; but they have been so clearly stated, and so fully debated, in the course of this discussion, that it would be an unjustifiable intrusion on the patience of the house to repeat them. I shall therefore content myself with a few observations on the general plan and tendency. We are told that this is a federal government. I think, sir, there is as much propriety in the name, as in that which its advocates assume, and no more; it is, in my idea, as complete a consolidation as the government of this state, in which legislative powers, to a certain extent, are exercised by the several towns and corporations. The sole difference between a state government under this Constitution, and a corporation under a state government, is, that a state being more extensive than a town, its powers are likewise proportionally extended, but neither of them enjoys the least share of sovereignty; for, let me ask, what is a state government? What sovereignty, what power is left to it, when the control of every source of revenue, and the total command of the militia, are given to the general government? That power which can command both the property and the persons of the community, is the sovereign, and the sole sovereign. The idea of two distinct sovereigns in the same country, separately possessed of sovereign and supreme power, in the same matters at the same time, is as supreme an absurdity, as that two distinct separate circles can be bounded exactly by the same circumference. This, sir, is demonstration; and from it I draw one corollary, which, I think, clearly follows, although it is in favor of the Constitution, to wit—that at least that clause in which Congress guaranties to the serial states a republican form of government, speaks honestly; that is, that no more is intended by it than is expressed; and I think it is clear that, whilst the mere form is secured, the substance—to wit, the whole power and sovereignty of our state governments, and with them the liberties of the country—is swallowed up by the general government; for it is well worth observing, that, while our state governments are held up to us as the great sufficient security of our rights and privileges, it is carefully provided that they shall be disarmed of all power, and made totally dependent on the bounty of Congress for their support, and consequently for their existence,—so that we have scarce a single right secured under either.

Is this, sir, a government for freemen? Are we thus to be duped out of our liberties? I hope, sir, our affairs have not yet arrived to that long-wished-for pitch of confusion, that we are under the necessity of accepting such a system of government as this.

I cannot, sir, express my feelings on a late occasion, when I consider with what unspeakable indignation the spirit of a Montgomery, a Herkimer, a Paris, &c., must have fired at the insults offered to their memories on this floor, and that not by a stranger, but by a brother, when their names, which will ever be dear to freemen, were profanely called upon as an inducement for us to surrender up those rights and privileges, in the defence of which they so gallantly fought, and so gloriously died. We are called upon at this time (I think it is an early day) to make an unconditional surrender of those rights which ought to be dearer to us than our lives.

But I hope, sir, that the memory of these patriot heroes will teach us a duty on this occasion. If we follow their example, we are sure not to err. We ought, sir, to consider—and it is a most solemn consideration—that we may now give away, by a vote, what it may cost the dying groans of thousands to recover; that we may now surrender, with a little ink, what it may cost seas of blood to regain; the dagger of Ambition is now pointed at the fair bosom of Liberty, and, to deepen and complete the tragedy, we, her sons, are called upon to give the fatal thrust. Shall we not recoil at such a deed, and all cry out with one voice, “Hands off!” What distraction has seized us? Is she not our mother, and if the frenzy of any should persist in the parricidal attempt, shall we not instantly interpose, and receive the fatal point into our own bosom? A moment’s hesitation would ever prove us to be bastards, not sons. The liberties of the country are a deposit, a trust, in the hands of individuals; they are an entailed estate, which the possessors have no right to dispose of; they belong to our children, and to them we are bound to transmit them as a representative body. The trust becomes tenfold more sacred in our hands, especially as it was committed to us with the fullest confidence in our sentiments, integrity, and firmness. If we should betray that trust on this occasion, I fear (think there is reason to fear) that it will teach a lesson dangerous to liberty—to wit, that no confidence is to be placed in men.

But why, sir, must we be guilty of this breach of trust? Why surrender up the dear-bought liberties of our country? Because we are told, in very positive terms, that nothing short of this will satisfy, or can be accepted by, our future rulers? Is it possible that we can be at a loss for an answer to such declarations as these? Can we not, ought we not, to speak like freemen on this occasion, (this perhaps may be the last time when we shall dare to do it,) and declare, in as positive terms, that we cannot, we will not, give up our liberties; that, if we cannot be admitted into the Union as freemen, we will not come in as slaves? This I fully believe to be the language of my constituents; this is the language of my conscience; and, though I may not dare longer to make it the language of my tongue, yet I trust it will ever be the language of my heart, If we act with coolness, firmness, and decision, on this occasion, I have the fullest confidence that the God who has so lately delivered us out of the paw of the lion and the bear, will also deliver us from this Goliath, this uncircumcised Philistine. This government is founded in sin, and reared up in iniquity; the foundations are laid in a most sinful breach of public trust, and the top-stone is a most iniquitous breach of public faith; and I fear, if it goes into operation, we shall be justly punished with the total extinction of our civil liberties. We are invited, in this instance, to become partakers in other men’s sins; if we do, we must likewise be content to take our share in the punishment.

We are told, sir, that a government is like a mad horse, which, notwithstanding all the curb you can put upon him, will sometimes run away with his rider. The idea is undoubtedly a just one. Would he not, therefore, justly be deemed a mad man, and deserve to have his neck broken, who should trust himself on this horse without any bridle at all? we are threatened, sir, if we do not come into the Union, with the resentment of our neighboring states. I do not apprehend we have much to fear from this quarter, for our neighbors must have the good sense to discover that not one of our objections is founded on motives of particular state interest. They must see likewise, from the debates, that every selfish idea that has been thrown out has come from those who very improperly call themselves the federal side of the house. A union with our sister states I as ardently desire as any man, and that upon the most generous principles; but a union under such a system as this, I think, is not a desirable thing. The design of a union is safety, but a union upon the proposed plan is certain destruction to liberty. In one sense, indeed, it may bring us to a state of safety; for it may reduce us to such a condition that we may be very sure that nothing worse can happen to us, and consequently we shall have nothing to fear.

This, sir, is a dreadful kind of safety; but I confess it is the only kind of safety I can see in this union. There are no advantages that can possibly arise from a union which can compensate for the loss of freedom, nor can any evils be apprehended from a disunion which are as much to be dreaded as tyranny.

The committee then proceeded through sections 8, 9, and 10, of this article, and the whole of the next, with little or no debate. As the secretary read the paragraphs, amendments were moved, in the order and form hereafter recited.

To the paragraph respecting the borrowing of money, Mr. LANSING proposed the following amendment:—

Provided, That no money be borrowed on the credit of the United States, without the assent of two thirds of the members of both houses present.”

To the clause respecting the establishment of post-offices, &c., Mr. JONES moved the following amendment:—

Resolved, as the opinion of the committee, that the power of Congress to establish post-offices and post-roads is not to be construed to extend to the laying out, making, altering, or repairing highways, in any state, without the consent of the legislature of such state.”

To the clause respecting the raising and supporting armies, Mr. LANSING proposed the following: —

Provided, That no standing army, or regular troops, shall be raised, or kept up, in time of peace, without the consent of two thirds of the members of both houses present.”

Respecting the organization and arming the militia, &c.,—

Provided, That the militia of any state shall not be marched out of such state without the consent of the executive thereof, nor be continued in service out of the state, without the consent of the legislature thereof, for a longer term than six weeks; and provided, that the power to organize, arm, and discipline the militia, shall not be construed to extend further than to prescribe the mode of arming and disciplining the same.”

Moved by Mr. SMITH.

Respecting the power to make all laws necessary for the carrying the Constitution into execution, —

Provided, That no power shall be exercised by Congress, but such as is expressly given by this Constitution; and all others, not expressly given, shall be reserved to the respective states, to be by them exercised.”

Moved by Mr. LANSING.

To the clause respecting the power of regulating Commerce, —

Resolved, as the opinion of this committee, that nothing in the said Constitution contained shall be construed to authorize Congress to grant monopolies, or erect any company with exclusive advantages of commerce.”

Moved by Mr. M. SMITH.

Relative to the right of declaring war

Resolved, as the opinion of this committee, that the Congress ought not to have the power or right to declare war, without the concurrence of two thirds of the members of each house.”

Moved by Mr. TREDWELL.

Sec. 9. Respecting the privilege of habeas corpus

Provided, That, whenever the privilege of habeas corpus shall be suspended, such suspension shall in no case exceed the term of six months, or until the next meeting of the Congress.”

Moved by Mr. LANSING.

Respecting ex post facto laws, —

Provided, That the meaning of ex post facto laws shall not be construed to prevent calling public defaulters to account, but shall extend only to crimes.”

Moved by Mr. TREDWELL.

Respecting the ratio in which taxes shall be laid, —

Resolved, as the opinion of this committee, that no capitation tax ought ever to be laid.”

Moved by Mr. TREDWELL.

Clause relative to the publication of the receipts and expenditures, —

Provided, That the words from time to time shall be so construed, as that the receipts and expenditures of public money shall be published at least once in every year, and be transmitted to the executives of the several states, to be laid before the legislatures thereof.”

Moved by Mr. TREDWELL.

Clause relating to the granting titles of nobility

Resolved, as the opinion of this committee, that the Congress shall at no time consent that any person, holding any office of profit or trust in or under the United States, shall accept of any title of nobility from any king, prince, or foreign state.”

Moved by Mr. M. SMITH.

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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.

View Interactive

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