Elliot’s Debates: Volume 3

In Convention, Richmond, Saturday, June 7, 1788

[The first and second sections still under consideration.]

Mr. CORBIN. Mr. Chairman, permit me to make a few observations on this great question. It is with great difficulty I prevail on myself to enter into the debate, when I consider the great abilities of those gentlemen who have already spoken on the subject. But as I am urged by my duty to my constituents, and as I conceive that the different manner of treating the subject may make different impressions, I shall offer my observations with diffident respect, but with firmness and independence. I will promise my acknowledgments to those honorable gentlemen who were in the federal Convention, for the able and satisfactory manner in which they discharged their duty to their country. The introductory expression of “We, the people,” has been thought improper by the honorable gentleman. I expected no such objection as this. Ought not the people, sir, to judge of that government whereby they are to be ruled? We are, sir, deliberating on a question of great consequence to the people of America, and to the world in general. We ought, therefore, to decide with extreme caution and circumspection: it is incumbent upon us to proceed without prejudice or prepossession. No member of the committee entertains a greater regard than myself for the gentleman on the other side, who has placed himself in the front of opposition, (Mr. Henry.) No man admires more than I do his declamatory talents; but I trust that neither declamation nor elegance of periods will mislead the judgment of any member here, and that nothing but the force of reasoning will operate conviction. He has asked, with an air of triumph, whether the Confederation was not adequate to the purposes of the federal government: permit me to say, No. If, sir, perfection existed in that system, why was the federal Convention called? Why did every state except Rhode Island send deputies to that Convention?

Was it not from a persuasion of its inefficacy? If this be not sufficient to convince him, let me call the recollection of the honorable gentleman to other circumstances. Let him go into the interior parts of the country, and inquire into the situation of the farmers. He will be told that tobacco, and other produce, are miserably low, merchandise dear, and taxes high. Let him go through the United States. He will perceive appearances of ruin and decay every where. Let him visit the sea-coast—go to our ports and inlets. In those ports, sir, where we had every reason to see the fleets of all nations, he will behold but a few trifling little boats; he will every where see commerce languish; the disconsolate merchant, with his arms folded, ruminating, in despair, on the wretched ruins of his fortune, and deploring the impossibility of retrieving it. The West Indies are blocked up against us. Not the British only, but other nations, exclude us from those islands; our fur trade gone to Canada; British sentinels within our own territories; our posts withheld. To these distresses we may add the derangement of our finances: yet the honorable gentleman tells us they are not sufficient to justify so radical a change. Does he know the consequences of deranged finances? What confusions, disorders, and even revolutions, have resulted from this cause, in many nations! Look at France at this time: that kingdom is almost convulsed; ministers of state, and first princes of the blood, banished; manufacturers and merchants become bankrupt, and the people discontented; all owing to the derangement of their finances.

The honorable gentleman must be well acquainted with the debts due by the United States, and how much is due to foreign nations. Has not the payment of these been shamefully withheld? How long, sir, shall we be able, by fair promises, to satisfy these creditors? How long can we amuse, by idle words, those who are amply possessed of the means of doing themselves justice? No part of the principal is paid to those nations; nor has even the interest been paid as honorably and punctually as it ought. Nay, we were obliged to borrow money last year to pay the interest. What! borrow money to discharge the interest of what was borrowed, and continually augment the amount of the public debt! Such a plan would destroy the richest country on earth. What is to be done? Compel the delinquent states to pay requisitions to Congress? How are they to be compelled? By the instrumentality of such a scheme as was proposed to be introduced in the year 1784?* Is this cruel mode of compulsion eligible? It consistent with the spirit of republicanism? This savage mode, which could be made use of under the Confederation, leads directly to civil war and destruction. How different is this from the genius of the proposed Constitution! By this proposed plan, the public money is to be collected by mild and gentle means; by a peaceable and friendly application to the individuals of the community: whereas, by the other scheme, the public treasury must be supplied through the medium of the sword, by desolation and murder—by the blood of the citizens. Yet we are told that there is too much energy in this system. Coercion is necessary in every government. Justice, sir, cannot be done without it. It is more necessary in federal governments than any other, because of the natural imbecility of such governments.

[Note *: * Alluding to a motion made in the House of Delegates, in the year 1784, to enable Congress to compel the delinquent states to pay their respective quotas, by means of an armed force.]

The honorable gentleman is possessed of much historical knowledge. I appeal to that knowledge therefore. Will he not agree that there was a coercive power in the federal government of the Amphictyonics? The coercive power of the Amphictyonic council was so great as to enable it to punish disobedience and refractory behavior in the most severe manner. Is there not an instance of its carrying fire and sword through the territories, and levelling to the ground the towns, of those who disobeyed it? [Here Mr. Corbin mentions particular instances.] Is there no coercion in the Germanic body? This body, though composed of three hundred different component sovereignties, principalities and cities, and divided into nine circles, is controlled by one superintending power, the emperor. Is there no coercive power in the confederate government of the Swiss? In the alliance between them and France, there is a provision whereby the latter is to interpose and settle differences that may arise among them; and this interposition has been more than once used. Is there none in Holland? What is the stadtholder? This power is necessary in all governments; a superintending coercive power is absolutely indispensable. This does not exist under the present Articles of Confederation. To vest it with such a power, on its present construction, without any alteration, would be extremely dangerous, and might lead to civil war. Gentlemen must, before this, have been convinced of the necessity of an alteration. Our state vessel has sprung a leak; we must embark in a new bottom, or sink into perdition.

The honorable gentleman has objected to the Constitution, on the old worn-out idea that a republican government is best calculated for a small territory. If a republic, sir, cannot be accommodated to an extensive country, let me ask, How small must a country be to suit the genius of republicanism? In what particular extent of country can a republican government exist? If contracted into as small a compass as you please, it must labor under many disadvantages. Too small an extent will render a republic weak, vulnerable, and contemptible. Liberty, in such a petty state, must be on a precarious footing; its existence must depend on the philanthropy and good nature of its neighbors. Too large an extent, it is said, will produce confusion and tyranny. What has been so often deprecated will be removed by this plan. The extent of the United States cannot render this government oppressive. The powers of the general government are only of a general nature, and their object is to protect, defend, and strengthen the United States; but the internal administration of government is left to the state legislatures, who exclusively retain such powers as will give the states the advantages of small republics, without the danger commonly attendant on the weakness of such governments.

There are controversies even about the name of this government. It is denominated by some a federal, by others a consolidated government. The definition given of it by my honorable friend (Mr. Madison) is, in my opinion, accurate. Let me, however, call it by another name—a representative federal republic, as contradistinguished from a confederacy. The former is more wisely constructed than the latter; it places the remedy in the hands which feel the disorder: the other places the remedy in those hands which cause the disorder. The evils that are most complained of in such governments (and with justice) are faction, dissension, and consequent subjection of the minority to the caprice and arbitrary decisions of the majority, who, instead of consulting the interest of the whole community collectively, attend sometimes to partial and local advantages. To avoid this evil is perhaps the great desideratum of republican wisdom; it may be termed the philosopher’s stone. Yet, sir, this evil will be avoided by this Constitution: faction will be removed by the system now under consideration, because all the causes which are generally productive of faction are removed. This evil does not take its flight entirely; for were jealousies and divisions entirely at an end, it might produce such lethargy as would ultimately terminate in the destruction of liberty, to the preservation of which, watchfulness is absolutely necessary. It is transferred from the state legislatures to Congress, where it will be more easily controlled. Faction will decrease in proportion to the diminution of counsellors. It is much easier to control it in small than in large bodies. Our state legislature consists of upwards of one hundred and sixty, which is a greater number than Congress will consist of at first. Will not more concord and unanimity exist in one than in thirteen such bodies? Faction will more probably decrease, or be entirely removed, if the interest of a nation be entirely concentrated, than if entirely diversified. If thirteen men agree, there will be no faction. Yet if opposite, and of heterogeneous dispositions, it is impossible that a majority of such clashing minds can ever concur to oppress the minority. It is impossible that this government, which will make us one people, will have a tendency to assimilate our situations, and is admirably calculated to produce harmony and unanimity, can ever admit of an oppressive combination by one part of the Union against the other.

A confederate government is, of all others, best calculated for an extensive country. Its component individual governments are, of all others, best calculated for an extensive country. Its component individual governments administer and afford all the local conveniences that the most compact governments can do; and the strength and energy of the confederacy may be equal to those of any government. A government of this kind may extend to all the western world; nay, I may say, ad infinitum. But it is needless to dwell any longer on this subject; for the objection that an extensive territory is repugnant to a republican government applies against this and every state in the Union, except Delaware and Rhode Island. Were the objection well founded, a republican government could exist in none of the states, except those two. Such an argument goes to the dissolution of the Union, and its absurdity is demonstrated by our own experience.

But an objection is urged against this government because of its power of laying direct taxes. Let me ask the honorable gentleman who opposes it on this ground, if he reflects whether this power be indispensable or not. Sir, if it be not vested with the power of commanding all the resources of the state when necessary, it will be trifling. Wars are as much (and more) carried on by the length of the purse, as by that of the sword. They cannot be carried on without money. Unless this power be given to Congress, foreign nations may crush you. The concession of this power is necessary to do Virginia justice, by compelling the delinquent states to pay as well as she: while she paid her quotas, and her citizens were much distressed to pay their taxes, other states most shamefully neglected or refused to pay their proportions. I trust gentlemen need not be alarmed on the subject of taxation, nor intimidated by the idea of double collectors, who, they tell us, will oppress and ruin the people. From our attention to our situation, we shall see that this mode of levying money, though indispensably necessary on great emergencies, will be but seldom recurred to. Let us attend to the finances of this country.

Mr. CORBIN then stated the probable annual amount of duties on imported articles throughout the continent, including West India produce, which, he said, from the best calculation he could procure, would exceed the annual expenses of the administration of the general government, including the civil list, contingent charges, and the interest of the foreign and domestic debts, by eighty or ninety thousand pounds; that, he said, would enable the United States to discharge, in a few years, the principal debts due to foreign nations; that, in the course of thirty years, that surplus would enable the United States to perform the most splendid enterprises. He then concluded that no danger was to be apprehended from the power of direct taxation, since there was every reason to believe it would be very seldom used. He then made an estimate of the state debt, and clearly proved that, with economical regulations, all the demands of the internal administration of government would be paid with facility and ease from the different resources of the state; and that there would also be a considerable surplus, which, with prudence and economy, might answer many valuable purposes.

Mr. Corbin then continued as follows: The honorable gentleman declared in the most solemn manner, that, if he could see one single trait in that government to secure liberty, he would not object to it. I meet him on this ground. Liberty is secured, sir, by the limitation of its powers, which are clearly and unequivocally defined, and which are to be exercised by our own representatives freely chosen. What power is given that will endanger liberty? I consider all the traits of this system as having a tendency to the security of our liberty. I consider all its powers necessary, and only given to avoid greater evils; and if this conclusion of mine be well founded, let me ask if public liberty is not secured by bars and adamantine bolts—secured by the strongest guards and checks which human ingenuity can invent. Will this dread power of taxation render liberty insecure? Sir, without this power, other powers will answer no purpose. Government cannot exist without the means of procuring money. My honorable friend told us he considered this clause as the vitals of the Constitution. I will change the phrase, and say that I consider this part as the lungs of the Constitution. If it be sick, the whole system is consumptive, and must soon decay; and this power can never be dangerous if the principles of equal and free representation be fully attended to. While the right of suffrage is secured, we have little to fear. This government, sir, fully secures us this noble privilege, on the purest and simplest principles of equality. That number which, in any one part of the country, has a right to send a representative, has the same right in another part. What does the Constitution say? That thirty thousand shall have one representative, no matter where. If this be not equal representation, what, in the name of God, is equal representation? But, says the honorable gentleman, the Constitution may be satisfied by one from each state. I conceive there is no fear of this. There is not a power to diminish the number. Does it not say that representatives shall be apportioned according to the number of the people, and that direct taxes shall be regulated by the same rules? Virginia, in the first instance, will have ten times as many as Delaware, and afterwards in proportion to their numbers. What is the criterion of representation? Do the people wish land only to be represented? They have their wish: for the qualifications which the laws of the states require to entitle a man to vote for a state representative are the qualifications required by this plan to vote for a representative to Congress; and in this state, and most of the others, the possession of a freehold is necessary to entitle a man to the privilege of a vote. Do they wish persons to be represented? Here also they are indulged; for the number of representatives is determined by the number of people: this idea is so well attended to, that even three fifths of those who are not free are included among those of whom thirty thousand shall have a right to elect one representative; so that, in either point of view, their wish is gratified. Is not liberty secured on this foundation? If it be not secured by one or the other mode, or by both, I am totally without reason. Liberty seems intrenched on this ground.

But the gentleman objects that the number is not sufficient. My opinion, with deference to that gentleman, and others who may be of different opinion from me, is, that it is fully sufficient. Being delegated solely for general purposes, a few intelligent men will suffice; at least one for every thirty thousand, aided by the Senate, seems sufficient. Are combinations, or factions, so often formed in small as in numerous bodies? Are laws better made in large than in small assemblies? Is not the influence of popular declaimers less in small than in great bodies? Would not a more numerous representation be very expensive? Is economy of no consideration? We ought, sir, to attend to the situation of the people; and our measures should be as economical as possible, without extending, however, our parsimony to a dangerous length. Objections should be founded on just and real grounds, and ought not to be urged out of a mere obstinacy. Besides, it is by no means certain that a very numerous body is more independent, or upright, than a small one. Why should the number of our representatives be greater, Mr. Chairman? The county of Middlesex, in England, which includes the cities of London and Westminster, contains upwards of nine hundred and ninety thousand souls, and yet sends to Parliament no more than eight members. Among all the clamors of the people there, it never entered into the brain of any of them that these eight were not enough. They complain that the boroughs of Old Sarum, Newton, and Gatton, and other such places, should send each two members to Parliament, although without houses or inhabitants, while the richest city sends but four. They also complain of the influence of the landed interest in some cases; that the county of Cornwall sends forty members to Parliament, although it pays but eighteen parts, out of five hundred and thirteen, to the subsidy and land tax, when the county of Middlesex, which is calculated to pay two hundred and fifty parts out of five hundred and thirteen, sends but eight members. In that country, it has been uniformly found that those members, who are chosen by numerous respectable electors, make the greatest opposition to oppression and corruption, and signalize themselves for the preservation of liberty. The collective body of the commons there have generally exerted themselves in the defence of freedom, and have been successful in their exertions, notwithstanding the inequality of their election. Our representatives are chosen in the fairest manner; their election is founded in absolute equality. Is the American spirit so degenerated, notwithstanding these advantages, that the love of liberty is more predominant and warm in the breast of a Briton than in that of an American? When liberty is on a more solid foundation here than in Britain, will Americans be less ready to maintain and defend it than Britons? No, sir; the spirit of liberty and independence of the people of this country, at present, is such that they could not be enslaved under any government that could be described. What danger is there, then, to be apprehended from a government which is theoretically perfect, and the possible blemishes of which can only be demonstrated by actual experience?

The honorable gentleman then urges an objection respecting the militia, who, he tells us, will be made the instruments of tyranny to deprive us of our liberty. Your militia, says he, will fight against you. Who are the militia? Are we not militia? Shall we fight against ourselves? No, sir; the idea is absurd. We are also terrified by the dread of a standing army. It cannot be denied that we ought to have the means of defence, and be able to repel an attack.

If some of the community are exclusively inured to its defence, and the rest attend to agriculture, the consequence will be, that the arts of war and defence, and of cultivating the soil, will be understood. Agriculture will flourish, and military discipline will be perfect. If, on the contrary, our defence be solely intrusted to militia, ignorance of arms and negligence of farming will ensue: the former plan is, in every respect, more to the interest of the state. By it we shall have good farmers and soldiers; by the latter we shall have neither. If the inhabitants be called out on sudden emergencies of war, their crops, the means of their subsistence, may be destroyed by it. If we are called in the time of sowing seed, or of harvest, the means of subsistence might be lost; and the loss of one year’s crop might have been prevented by a trivial expense, if appropriated to the purpose of supporting a part of the community, exclusively occupied in the defence of the whole. I conceive that this idea, if it be a new one, is yet founded on solid and very substantial reasons. But, sir, we are told of the expediency and propriety of previous amendments. What end would it answer to attempt it? Will the states which have adopted the Constitution rescind their adopting resolutions? Had we adopted it, would we recede from it to please the caprice of any other state? Pride, sir, revolts at the idea. Admitting this state proposes amendments previous to her adoption, must there not be another federal convention? Must there not be also a convention in each state? Suppose some of our proposed conditions to be rejected; will not our exclusion out of the Union be the consequence? Or would other conventions again be called, and would be eternally revolving and devising expedients, without coming to a final decision? The loss of the union, sir, must be the result of a pertinacious demand of precedent conditions. My idea is, that we should go hand in hand with Massachusetts: adopt it first, and then propose amendments of a general nature; for local ones cannot be expected. Consider the situation of Massachusetts, commanding the north, and the importance and respectability of Virginia to the south. These, sir, are the two most populous, wealthy, and powerful states in the Union. Is it not very probable that their influence would have very great weight in carrying any amendments? Would any gentleman turn a deaf ear to their solicitations? By union alone can we exist: by no other means can we be happy. Union must be the object of every gentleman here. I never yet have heard any gentleman so wild and frantic in his opposition as to avow an attachment to partial confederacies. By previous adoption, the union will be preserved; by insisting on alterations previous to our adoption, the union may be lost, and our political happiness destroyed by internal dissensions. I trust, therefore, that this Convention, after deliberate discussion, will not hesitate to determine on a previous ratification of a system which, even in its present form, seems competent to the perpetual preservation of our security and happiness.

Mr. HENRY then arose, and expressed a desire that the honorable gentleman on the other side (Gov. Randolph) should continue his observations on the subject he had left unfinished the day before; that he had before, and would now, give him a patient hearing, as he wished to be informed of every thing that gentlemen could urge in defence of that system which appeared to him so defective.

Gov. RANDOLPH. Mr. Chairman, as the gentleman who was last up has given us an opportunity of continuing our observations, I shall, in resuming the subject, endeavor to put this question in a more correct and accurate point of view than it has yet been put in.

I took the liberty, yesterday, of declaring to the house the necessity of a national rather than a federal government, and that the union was necessary for Virginia for many powerful reasons; that this necessity arose from the certainty of her being involved in disputes and war with the adjoining states, and the probability of an attack by foreign nations, particularly by those nations to which she is greatly in debt, and which she is unable to pay; from her inability to raise an army to protect her citizens from internal seditions and external attacks, and her inability to raise a navy to protect her trade and her coasts against descents and invasions. I also, in the course of my argument on this occasion, showed the imbecility of the present system, in order to obviate and detect the sophistry of that truly delusive opinion, which has taken possession of the minds of some gentlemen, that this shipwrecked vessel is sufficiently strong and safe for us to embark in. Whether I have succeeded or not, I have given the full effusions of my soul, in my attempt to prove the futility of that opinion. Permit me now to pursue the object of my inquiry respecting the powers necessary to be given to the general government. I shall discard general considerations at present, as I wish to be as brief as possible, and take up the particular idea of direct taxation. Is it necessary that the legislative power of the United States should be authorized to levy taxes? A strange question to be agitated in this house, after hearing the delinquency of other states, and even of Virginia herself! Money is the nerve—the life and soul of a government. It is the utmost folly to say that a government could be carried on without this great agent of human affairs. Wars cannot be carried on without a full and uncontrolled discretionary power to raise money in an eligible manner. Nay, sir, government cannot be administered in time of peace without this power. For how is it to be done? It is needless to impress any further on the minds of the gentlemen who hear me the necessity of this power in governments. If so, ought the general government to be more circumscribed in the power of providing for its own safety and existence than any other government? Ought it to depend for the means of its preservation on other bodies? This is actually the case with the Confederation. The power of raising money was nominally vested in that system. In March, 1781, even Maryland, the most backward state then, conceded that Congress should have the power of receiving and demanding their proportionate quotas of the states. This was an acknowledgment of the necessity of vesting a power in Congress to raise such sums as emergencies might require; but the means which were proposed have been found inadequate to compass the end: the propriety of the means is alone disputed. No doubt it is the universal opinion of the people of this commonwealth, that its legislature should have the power of raising money at its own will and pleasure. There are two ways whereby this may be effected—by requisitions, or taxation: there is no other manner; for it surpasses the ingenuity of man to devise any other mode of raising money than by one of these two methods. If the alternative of requisitions be determined upon, as more eligible, it will not avail without coercion. If that of taxation be preferred, it will be sufficient without any coercion. If our legislature were to depend on requisitions for money to answer the ends of government, then, sir, the absurdity and sophistry of the arguments urged in defence of such a mode of procuring money would strike the weakest intellect. If the mere pleasure of individuals were alone to be consulted, if it were left to the choice of your people to pay or not, your treasury would be much poorer than it is; and the advocates of this pernicious policy would perhaps be ashamed of their pertinacity. Suppose, for a moment, the only existing mode of raising a revenue in Virginia to be that of requisitions; suppose your requisitions sent on to every county; say that money is wanted; assume the most pressing language—”We earnestly entreat you; we humbly supplicate and solicit you would furnish us with one thousand or one hundred pounds, to defray the necessary charges of our government!” What would be the result of such applications for voluntary contributions? You would be laughed at for your folly, for thinking human nature could be thus operated upon. From my knowledge of human nature, and of my countrymen, I am perfectly certain this would be the case. The argument will be found good in all cases; it will admit of any extension. I ask any gentleman in this house, if states would comply with what even a few individuals would refuse? Would not the requisitions of Congress meet a similar fate? This, sir, has as often happened as it has been the pleasure of the states to withhold the quotas. Not a shilling has been put into the Continental treasury but with the utmost reluctance. The probable delinquency of other states has been the pretext of non-compliance, with every state. It has been thought hard that our General Assembly should pay when Congress ordered us. Our representatives have been supposed careless of our interest in paying the demands of Congress, while delinquencies happened in other states. Punctuality, sir, instead of being held in that estimation which it really merits, has been looked upon as an improvident expenditure of the substance of the people, and a subjection of the inhabitants to grievances and burdens to which the people of delinquent states were not exposed. This idea has been held in many states, and would hold again. Whosoever depends on the mere right to demand their respective proportions of the states, shows a total ignorance of human actions, and betrays an unacquaintance with the principles of sure policy. The principal ends of all political institutions are the happiness and safety of the community; but a reliance on congressional requisitions would leave the country exposed and open to those who should choose to invade us, or lead to such sedition and confusion among ourselves as must subvert and destroy every object of human society. If requisitions be not faithfully complied with, military coercion seems necessary: coercion, judiciously and moderately used, is proper; but, if severely and cruelly inflicted, begets unconquerable aversion and hatred. If the spirit of resentment actuates individuals, will not states be equally vindictive? What species of military coercion could the general government adopt for the enforcement of obedience to its demands? Either an army sent into the heart of a delinquent state, or blocking up its ports. Have we lived to this, then, that, in order to suppress and exclude tyranny, it is necessary to render the most affectionate friends the most bitter enemies?—set the father against the son, and make the brother slay the brother? Is this the happy expedient that is to preserve liberty? Will it not destroy it? If an army be once introduced to force us, if once marched into Virginia, figure to yourself what the dreadful consequence will be: the most lamentable civil war must ensue. Have we any troops but militia to confront those disciplined bands that would be sent to force our compliance with requisitions? The most virulent railings are vented against the federal executive. We are told that the President can fix himself in the chair of state, establish himself as a monarch, and destroy the liberties of the people.

It has too often happened that powers delegated for the purpose of promoting the happiness of a community have been perverted to the advancement of the personal emoluments of the agents of the people; but the powers of the President are too well guarded and checked to warrant this illiberal aspersion. Let us candidly consider the consequences of the favorite plan of requisitions, and see whether, instead of imaginary or problematical, there be not real, palpable dangers. To compel your obedience, a rapacious army will penetrate into the bosom of your country, carrying destruction and desolation before it. The commander of such an army will be liable to the corruptions and passions incident to other men. If he be possessed of military genius, address, and ambition, he may procure this army to proclaim him king. Who can tell the result? Who can oppose him with success? Who can say to him, Sir, you shall not be a despot! The reasoning, however inconclusive or illogical it may appear to some, is, in my estimation, more accurate than arguments drawn from the possibility of a President’s becoming a tyrant.

Mr. Chairman, I should object to the so-much-admired alternative of gentlemen, were there no other reason than the danger of an army to enforce requisitions, and the danger of its general becoming our master. I will not mention those nations that might be applied to for aid in such a case: it could easily be procured, but the remedy would be worse than the disease. I speak with respect to Virginia alone. Suppose our trade was to be taken into the hands of Congress; they would find little to satisfy their demands. If permitted by other nations, the compensation they could derive from the exclusive control of our trade would be but trivial. Great Britain, France, and Holland, are intimately concerned to carry on trade with us: those nations would disapprove of the measure; and such evasions would be practised on such an occasion as would render it totally ineffectual. If Congress were then to block up our ports, or send an army into our country, Virginia would be in such a horrid situation as would induce her to call for the aid of foreign nations: they have their eyes fixed on us; they watch every opportunity to avail themselves of our divisions. It is their interest we should be weak and divided. Any of them would readily engage in our dissensions; none of them would be displeased at our distractions. But what would be their object in assisting us? On what principles have auxiliaries ever been sent to the aid of a country? Show me an instance (except the conduct of France to America) where auxiliaries have not either attempted or actually made themselves masters of those they assisted. With respect to France, her magnanimity to America is almost unprecedented. She has displayed a degree of disinterestedness and generosity not often exemplified in the annals of mankind. Till France joined us, our troops were not able to withstand the enemy. Yet the fate of many other nations ought to convince us that the assistance of foreigners is the most dangerous and the last experiment that ought to be recurred to. Yet the predilection for retaining the power of direct taxation in not to be overcome.

An expedient, proposed by a gentleman whom I do not now see in the house, (Mr. George Mason,) is, that this power shall be only given to the general government as an alternative after requisitions shall have been refused. The most positive requisitions will be unavailable, and failure will produce war. A formal refusal, or negligent non-compliance with the demands of Congress, under a knowledge of the existence of this execrated alternative, would be a prelude to active opposition. I consider this expedient very little better than the ineffectual mode of simple requisitions. The only difference is, that it gives a little more time to a refractory state to provide itself with arms and foreign alliance, to enable it to oppose the operation of this alternative, and resist federal collectors, as was observed by the honorable gentleman in the chair. The proper time will be picked for the commencement of opposition, and for putting the bayonet to the breasts of their fellow-citizens. Suppose a requisition to be made on Virginia for two hundred thousand pounds: she fails to comply: taxes are then to be collected in the common manner. Is it not probable that the aversion to the exercise of this power by the general government will incite discontented minds to oppose it? Then, sir, the dogs of war are to be let loose, and inconceivable mischief to ensue. If the inability of the people requires an extension of the time of payment, let them be indulged as far as may be consistent with a regard for the public exigencies; but let us not be so infatuated as to choose an expedient which must either be inadequate to the destined purpose, or eventuate in bloodshed and war. Requisitions, sir, however modified, must come within this description; they strike me with horror and disgust. I would as soon see a separation from the Union, and trust to the genius, patriotism, vigilance, and activity—to the morals and natural uprightness—of the people, as ask a government with no other powers than those whereof our present system is possessed. This is an improvement on that system; and if we reject it, we are ruined.

Our credit is depressed and irretrievably gone, without a change of that system which has caused its depression. It is humiliating and disgraceful to recur to loans, situated as we are. It is ruinous on any condition on which our credit could be competent to obtain them; though, under a regular, judicious system of administration, they may be very salutary and beneficial. If some accounts be believed, your ambassador has received from the king of France those stipends which have supported him. Is this honorable? Is it safe for America? Safety, sir, forbids so dishonorable and despicable a conduct as to leave our representatives in a state of absolute dependence on another power. Will not this situation be freely and forcibly represented to him?—”Remember, sir, the bread you eat to-morrow depends on the bounty of the Count de Vergennes!” Is it possible that, in our present circumstances, we can inspire any one with confidence in our engagements? Where, in the hour of distress and calamity, shall Congress be able to borrow money? The present revenues are appropriated to different purposes, and are, from the incompetency of requisitions, inadequate to the public exigencies. Admitting the impost will be sufficiently productive to enable Congress to discharge its engagements, and answer all the demands of government, in case of a war, will not necessity and the fear of danger render it necessary for the general government to divert the revenues, from the usual appropriations, to the defence of the Union? The necessity of such a diversion does not lessen the certainty that the public credit would be destroyed by it. The interest on the public debt could not be paid; foreign and domestic creditors would be disappointed and irritated; and the displeasure of the former might lead to the most serious consequences. What could the general government do, in such a situation, without the power of providing money by taxation? Requisitions would be fruitless and ineffectual; nor could a government, which depended on such a slender and inefficient force, meet with credulity enough any where to trust it. Will you expose the Continental Congress to such a critical distress? Do you consult public liberty by reducing it to an extremity, whereof none can with certainty foretell the dangerous consequences? Is it not laying a train by which liberty is to be blown up? By withholding a necessary power, you may unwarily lay the foundation of usurpation itself.

I conclude with my firm belief, that I show my friendship for Virginia more steadfastly by discarding these requisitions, than by any proposition I could suggest.

The benefits arising from loans are innumerable. Every nation, even the most wealthy and the oldest nations, have found it necessary to recur to loans in time of war. This country has found it so even in time of peace; but on a supposition of war, we must borrow money. It will be inevitable. How can Congress have credit to borrow any sum to a considerable amount, on any reasonable conditions, unless it have full scope and complete command over the resources of the Union? Whatever may be the visionary and fanciful conclusions of political skeptics, the credit of a nation will be found to be coextensive with its ability. If Congress have an uncontrolled power to raise money as contingencies may render it necessary, it can borrow with ease; but if it have not this power, it is not possible that any confidence can be put in it.

The difficulty of justly apportioning the taxes among the states, under the present system, has been complained of; the rule of apportionment being the value of all lands and improvements within the states. The inequality between the rich lands of James River and the barrens of Massachusetts has been thought to militate against Virginia. If taxes could be laid according to the real value, no inconvenience could follow; but, from a variety of reasons, this value was very difficult to be ascertained; and an error in the estimation must necessarily have been oppressive to a part of the community. But in this new Constitution, there is a more just and equitable rule fixed—a limitation beyond which they cannot go. Representatives and taxes go hand in hand: according to the one will the other be regulated. The number of representatives is determined by the number of inhabitants; they have nothing to do but to lay taxes accordingly. I will illustrate it by a familiar example. At present, before the population is actually numbered, the number of representatives is sixty-five. Of this number, Virginia has a right to send ten; consequently she will have to pay ten parts out of sixty-five parts of any sum that may be necessary to be raised by Congress. This, sir, is the line. Can Congress go beyond the bounds prescribed in the Constitution? Has Congress a power to say that she shall pay fifteen parts out of sixty-five parts? Were they to assume such a power, it would be a usurpation so glaring, that rebellion would be the immediate consequence. Congress is only to say on what subject the tax is to be laid. It is a matter of very little consequence how it will be imposed, since it must be clearly laid on the most productive article in each particular state. I am surprised that such strong objections should have been made to, and such fears and alarms excited by, this power of direct taxation, since experience shows daily that it is neither inconvenient nor oppressive. A collector goes to a man’s house; the man pays him with freedom, or makes an apology for his inability to do it then: at a future day, if payment be not made, distress is made, and acquiesced in by the party. What difference is there between this and a tax imposed by Congress? Is it nor done by lawful authority? The distinction is between a Virginian and Continental authority. Yet, in both cases, it is imposed by ourselves, through the medium of our representatives. When a tax will come to be laid by Congress, the collector will apply in like manner, and in the same manner receive payment, or an apology; at a future day, likewise, the same consequences will result from a failure. I presume, sir, there is a manifest similarity between the two cases. When gentlemen complain of the novelty, they ought to advert to the singular one that must be the consequence of the requisitions—an army sent into your country to force you to comply. Will not this be the dissolution of the Union, if ever it takes effect? Let us be candid on this subject: let us see if the criterion here fixed be not equal and just. Were the tax laid on one uniform article through the Union, its operation would be oppressive on a considerable part of the people. When any sum is necessary for the general government, every state will immediately know its exact proportion of it, from the number of their people and representatives; nor can it be doubted that the tax will be laid on each state, in the manner that will best accommodate the people of such state, as thereby it will be raised with more facility; for an oppressive mode can never be so productive as the most easy for the people.

The system under consideration is objected to in an unconnected and irregular manner: detached parts are attacked without considering the whole: this, sir, is disingenuous and unreasonable. Ask if the powers be unnecessary. If the end proposed can be obtained by any other means, the powers may be unnecessary. Infallibility was not arrogated by the Convention: they included in the system those powers they thought necessary. If you do not think the ceding those powers indispensable, never give them up. But, I trust, this power of imposing direct taxes has been proved to be essential to the very existence of the Union. The advocates for the national government, circumstanced as they are, with the accession of so many states, never will give their assent to leave it in the power of the states to sacrifice the Union. It has been observed, by an honorable gentleman over the way, (Mr. George Mason,) that there could not be a fellow-feeling between the national representatives and their constituents, and that oppression must be inseparable from their exercise of the power of imposing taxes. I beg leave to remind you of a similar complaint made on a similar occasion. I allude to the Scotch union. If gentlemen cast their eyes to that period, they will find there an instructive similitude between our circumstances and the situation of those people. The advocates for a union with England declared that it would be a foundation of lasting peace, remove all jealousies between them, increase their strength and riches, and enable them to resist more effectually the efforts of the Pretender. These were irresistible arguments, one would be inclined to believe; arguments a priori, which challenge conviction, and which appear perfectly conclusive, since now verified by actual events. Yet the opposers of that union declaimed that the independence of Scotland was gone; that the peerage of Scotland was degraded; that the people of England would alone be gainers; and that the people of Scotland would be the losers. How are the facts? Both kingdoms have derived great benefits from that union, and the predictions of the advocates for that union have been fully verified. The arguments used on that occasion apply with more cogency to our situation.

The people of Rhode Island may say their independence will be lost by a union with the other states; that they will be degraded, their consequence lost, and their liberties endangered. Many such specious and plausible arguments may be urged by their great men, who would no longer retain the importance which their paper money, and other causes, give them in a single state; yet the topographical situation of that state renders union more essential to its existence than to that of any other state. It is urged that the independence of Virginia will be gone by the union. Will not all the happy effects of the union I have just mentioned, and more, redound to Virginia from this union? But our representatives are suspected. On a further inspection of the system before you, this objection must vanish. Ten representatives will have no fellow-feeling for their constituents! Will not the people choose men of integrity, and in similar circumstances with themselves, to represent them? What laws can they make that will not operate on themselves and friends, as well as on the rest of the people? Will the people reelect the same men to repeat oppressive legislation? Will the people commit suicide against themselves, and discard all those maxims and principles of interest and selfpreservation which actuate mankind in all their transactions? Will the ten miles square transform our representatives into brutes and tyrants? I see no grounds to distrust them: but suppose they will be inclined to do us mischief; how can they effect it? If the federal necessities call for the sum of sixty-five thousand pounds, our proportion of that sum is ten thousand pounds. If, instead of this just proportion, they should require a greater sum, a conflict would ensue. What steps could they take to enforce the payment of the unjust and tyrannical demand? They must summon up all the genius of better men; but in case of actual violence, they could not raise the thousandth part of ten thousand pounds. In case of a struggle, sir, the people would be irresistible. If they should be so liable to lapse from virtue, yet would not one man be found, out of a multitude, to guard the interests of the people—not one man to hold up his head to discover the tyrannical projects of a corrupt and depraved majority?

Suppose the House of Representatives all equally infatuated, and determined on so wicked an intention as to infringe the rights of the people; they have not the whole authority in their own hands. There are twenty-six senators, distinguished for their wisdom, not elevated by popular favor, but chosen by a select body of intelligent men: will they also be corrupt? Will their honor and virtue be contaminated and disgraced in one instant? Sixty-five representatives and twenty-six senators are then to be suddenly changed from upright men to monsters: ninety-one persons, selected for superior qualities, are to compose this Pandemonium of iniquity. The supposition of their degenerating to such a degree is unwarrantable, and inconsistent with an admission of their being freely chosen by a people capable of discerning merit; and should a majority ever be so forgetful of their duty as to wish to trample on the immunities of the people, there is no reason to doubt that some of them will be so far inspired with a zeal for liberty as to warn their country of any dangerous combinations against their privileges. The people, to heighten their security, may send those to the general government who have been signalized for their wisdom and virtue. What security have the people of Virginia against the possible abuses of their legislature, that is not here? But their number is objected to, as being too small. I should reluctantly assent to this representative body, did I conceive it consisted of too few.

It is an established maxim, that such a body ought to be numerous enough to be well acquainted with the interest of the people, to prevent corruption, and give a chance to men of merit to be elected. If the number be not sufficient for these purposes, I confess it to be a defect. The number is sixty-five, of which ten represent this state. Cannot they inform themselves of the situation of America? I appeal to those who hear me, if they could not rely on the intelligence of ten men they could fix upon, sooner than upon any crowd they could have. I do not reflect on my countrymen; but there is a certain listlessness and inattention to the interest of the community, such indecision or faction in numerous bodies, that I would rather depend on the virtue and knowledge of some few men than on ever so many. The mode of their election must induce us to believe that they will be men of experience and information. The state will be laid off and divided into ten districts: from each of these a man is to be elected. He must be really the choice of the people, not the man who can distribute the most gold; for the riches of Croesus would not avail. The qualifications of the electors being the same as those of the representatives for the state legislatures, and the election being under the control of the legislature, the prohibitory provisions against undue means of procuring votes to the state representation extend to the federal representatives: the extension of the sphere of election to so considerable a district will render it impossible for contracted influence, or local intrigues, or personal interest, to procure an election. Inquiries will be made, by the voters, into the characters of the candidates. Greater talents, and a more extensive reputation, will be necessary to procure an election for the federal than for the state representation. The federal representatives must therefore be well known for their integrity, and their knowledge of the country they represent. We shall have ten men thus elected. What are they going yonder for? Not to consult for Virginia alone, but for the interest of the United States collectively. Will not such men derive sufficient information from their own knowledge of their respective states, and from the codes of the different states? The want of information ought no longer to be urged as an objection.

With respect to merit, sir, the house must be satisfied that there is ample room for it. A cottager will receive the votes of this country, as well as the descendant of any aristocrat of this country. Is it not notorious that virtue and ability have been preferred generally, here, to virtue and connections? The present number, sixty-five, is to be increased according to the progressive augmentation of the number of the people. From the present number of inhabitants, which is estimated at three hundred and fifty-two thousand whites, and two hundred and thirty-six thousand blacks, we shall be entitled to fifteen representatives. But here another objection will be offered: it will be complained that the taxes will be increased according to the number of representatives; on which I will only observe here, that the same rule operates in all the states, and that it is not more unjust or oppressive in one state than in another. The number of representatives is as great as can be paid by America at this time; and whatever other gentlemen may conclude on that subject, I think, for my part, that it would be fortunate if the number was to continue as it is at present for a long time; or, at least, that it should be limited not to exceed a certain amount; for, if you swell the legislative list to such a degree as the increase of population, at a reasonable calculation, will, at a period not very remote, entitle the people to send, it will introduce corruption and confusion, and prevent that secrecy without which success can never be expected in negotiations or other transactions. It was my purpose to answer the objections against the power of the national government to lay direct taxes, and against the mode of representation.

It is needless to dwell much longer on the subject. Were one to rise from the dead to declare the expediency of that power, I could not be more firmly persuaded than I am now of its propriety. To dissuade us from conceding this power, gentlemen alarm us with apprehensions that the most intolerable oppressions will be committed by the federal collectors. Let us consider this dispassionately, and whether the idea be well founded, which is suggested, that a conflict will frequently happen between the state and congressional collector for property seized and claimed by both. If there be no necessity, or strong temptation, to increase the present number of officers, no addition will be made to them. Congress will have every inducement, and, from the mode of their appointment, must be inclined, to lighten the burdens of the people. They can derive no advantage from a contrary conduct. In other countries, where the fate of the poor is wretched, officers are created merely for the emolument of certain individuals; but, by the structure of this government, the interest of the people must always be considered; nor will any but necessary officers be created. The number of officers, and their compensations, will be as inconsiderable as the nature of their business will admit of. With respect to collectors of the general taxes, I have not the least doubt that Congress will employ the state officers and sheriffs, because it will be economical, and agreeable to the people; a considerable sum will be saved by it. They will employ such men, Mr. Chairman, unless they determine to throw away the public money in an unjustifiable manner. They will never adopt measures which may produce discontent in the country, when they can effect the same purpose by peaceable and satisfactory means. With regard to any personal abuse or misconduct of a collector, such an officer would be amenable to the laws, like any other citizen. He is only protected by the law where he acts lawfully: in such cases, the evil would not be repeated; it would not continue. Congress can take away their offices from such men as abuse them, and give them to others. It cannot be believed that they will carry their wickedness so far as to trust men of this stamp.

As to the mode of paying the taxes, little need be said: it is immaterial which way they are to be paid; for they are to be paid only once. I had an objection which pressed heavily on my mind: I was solicitous to know the objects of taxation. I wished to make some discrimination with regard to the demands of Congress, and of the states, on the same object. As neither can restrain the other in this case—as the power of both is unlimited—it will be their interest mutually to avoid interferences: it will most certainly be the interest of either to avoid imposing a tax on an article which shall have been previously taxed by the other. This consideration, and the structure of the government, satisfy me. I cannot foretell, in the course of human events, what Virginia and the United States may be exposed to, blindfolded as I am with respect to futurity; but I would not restrain Congress in this case, unless I meant to destroy the government itself. What will be the consequence of withholding this power from Congress? Will it not be reduced to the most dangerous distress, if a war should happen? The case has happened, and may again. In case of domestic war, or an invasion, every shilling they could lay their hands on would be necessary, but not sufficient, to carry it on. What could the general government do without this force to procure money, for the prosecution of the war and its other exigencies? I beg the friends of the Union to consider the necessity of this power: without it we may abandon the government altogether: it is the soul of the government; no substitute will answer in its stead. The history of other confederacies will instruct us that the general government must operate on the individuals of the community, or else be totally insufficient. Not ancient confederacies only, but certain modern ones, will point out to us the horrid situation in which these states must be involved, unless the general government be vested with this power. The history of those confederacies will discover to us the dreadful misfortunes which their people will have suffered by the imbecility of their governments. If some other gentleman will not, I shall discover, at another opportunity, that mournful history.

Mr. MADISON. Mr. Chairman, in considering this great subject, I trust we shall find that part which gives the general government the power of laying and collecting taxes indispensable, and essential to the existence of any efficient or well-organized system of government: if we consult reason, and be ruled by its dictates, we shall find its justification there: if we review the experience we have had, or contemplate the history of nations, here we find ample reasons to prove its expediency. There is little reason to depend for necessary supplies on a body which is fully possessed of the power of withholding them. If a government depends on other governments for its revenues—if it must depend on the voluntary contributions of its members—its existence must be precarious. A government which relies on thirteen independent sovereignties for the means of its existence, is a solecism in theory and a mere nullity in practice. Is it consistent with reason that such a government can promote the happiness of any people? It is subversive of every principle of sound policy, to trust the safety of a community with a government totally destitute of the means of protecting itself or its members. Can Congress, after the repeated unequivocal proofs it has experienced of the utter inutility and inefficacy of requisitions, reasonably expect that they would be hereafter effectual or productive? Will not the same local interests, and other causes, militate against a compliance? Whoever hopes the contrary must ever be disappointed. The effect, sir, cannot be changed without a removal of the cause. Let each county in this commonwealth be supposed free and independent; let your revenues depend on requisitions of proportionate quotas from them; let application be made to them repeatedly:—is it to be presumed that they would comply, or that an adequate collection could be made from partial compliances? It is now difficult to collect the taxes from them: how much would that difficulty be enhanced, were you to depend solely on their generosity! I appeal to the reason of every gentleman here, whether he is not persuaded that the present Confederation is as feeble as the government of Virginia would be in that case: to the same reason I appeal, whether it be compatible with prudence to continue a government of such manifest and palpable debility.

If we recur to history, and review the annals of mankind, I undertake to say that no instance can be produced, by the most learned man, of any confederate government that will justify a continuation of the present system, or that will not demonstrate the necessity of this change, and of substituting, for the present pernicious and fatal plan, the system now under consideration, or one equally energetic. The uniform conclusion drawn from a review of ancient and modern confederacies is, that, instead of promoting the public happiness, or securing public tranquillity, they have, in every instance, been productive of anarchy and confusion, ineffectual for the preservation of harmony, and a prey to their own dissensions and foreign invasions.

The Amphictyonic league resembled our Confederation in its nominal powers; it was possessed of rather more power. The component states retained their sovereignty, and enjoyed an equality of suffrage in the federal council. But, though its powers were more considerable in many respects than those of our present system, yet it had the same radical defect. Its powers were exercised over its individual members, in their political capacities. To this capital defect it owed its disorders and final destruction. It was compelled to recur to the sanguinary coercion of war to enforce its decrees. The struggles consequent on a refusal to obey a decree, and an attempt to enforce it, produced the necessity of applying to foreign assistance. By complying with such an application, together with his intrigues, Philip of Macedon acquired sufficient influence to become a member of the league. This artful and insidious prince soon after became master of their liberties.

The Ach

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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

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The Stages of Ratification: An Interactive Timeline

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Interactive Ratification Map

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

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