Elliot’s Debates: Volume 5

Letters of Mr. Madison prior to the Convention of 1787


New York, February 25, 1787.

Dear Sir,—The secretary’s despatch will have communicated to you the resolution of Congress giving their sanction to the proposed meeting in May next. At the date of my last, a great division of opinion prevailed on the subject, it being supposed by some of the states that the interposition of Congress was necessary to give regularity to the proceeding, and by others that a neutrality on their part was a necessary antidote for the jealousy entertained of their wishes to enlarge the powers within their own administration. The circumstance which conduced much to decide the point, was an instruction from New York to its delegates, to move in Congress for some recommendation of a convention. The style of the instruction makes it probable that it was the wish of this state to have a new convention instituted, rather than the one on foot recognized. Massachusetts seemed also skittish on this point. Connecticut opposed the interposition of Congress altogether. The act of Congress is so expressed as to cover the proceedings of the states, which have already provided for the convention, without any pointed recognition of them.

Our situation is becoming every day more and more critical. No money comes into the federal treasury; no respect is paid to the federal authority; and people of reflection unanimously agree that the existing Confederacy is tottering to its foundation. Many individuals of weight, particularly in the eastern district, are suspected of leaning toward monarchy. Other individuals predict a partition of the states into two or more confederacies. It is pretty certain that, if some radical amendment of the single one cannot be devised and introduced, one or other of these revolutions—the latter no doubt—will take place. I hope you are bending your thoughts seriously to the great work of guarding against both.61



New York, March 11, 1787.

Dear Sir,—The appointments for the convention are still going on. Georgia has appointed her delegates to Congress, her representatives in that body also. The gentlemen from that state here at present are Colonel Few, and Major Pierce, formerly aid to General Greene. I am told just now, that South Carolina has appointed the two Rutledges and Major Butler. Colonel Hamilton, with a Mr. Yates and a Mr. Lansing, are appointed by New York. The two latter are supposed to lean too much towards state considerations to be good members of an assembly which will only be useful in proportion to its superiority to partial views and interests. Massachusetts has also appointed. Messrs. Gorham, Dana, King, Gerry, and Strong, compose her deputation. The resolution under which they are appointed restrains them from acceding to any departure from the principle of the fifth Article of Confederation. It is conjectured that this fetter, which originated with their senate, will be knocked off. Its being introduced at all denotes a very different spirit, in that quarter, from what some had been led to expect. Connecticut, it is now generally believed, will come into the measure.



New York, March 19, 1787.

Dear Sir,—I have already made known to you the light in which the subject [the sacrifice of the Mississippi] was taken up by Virginia. Mr. Henry’s disgust exceeds all measure, and I am not singular in ascribing his refusal to attend the convention to the policy of keeping himself free to combat or espouse the result of it according to the result of the Mississippi business, among other circumstances. North Carolina also has given pointed instructions to her delegates; so has New Jersey. A proposition for the like purpose was a few days ago made in the legislature of Pennsylvania, but went off without a decision on its merits. Her delegates in Congress are equally divided on the subject. The tendency of this project to foment distrust among the Atlantic States, at a crisis when harmony and confidence ought to have been studiously cherished, has not been more verified than its predicted effect on the ultramontane settlements.



New York, April 8, 1787.

Dear Sir,—I am glad to find that you are turning your thoughts towards the business of May next. My despair of your finding the necessary leisure, as signified in one of your letters, with the probability that some leading propositions at least would be expected from Virginia, had engaged me in a closer attention to the subject than I should otherwise have given. I will just hint the ideas that have occurred, leaving explanations for our interview.

I think, with you, that it will be well to retain as much as possible of the old Confederation, though I doubt whether it may not be best to work the valuable articles into the new system, instead of engrafting the latter on the former. I am also perfectly of your opinion, that, in framing a system, no material sacrifices ought to be made to local or temporary prejudices. An explanatory address must of necessity accompany the result of the convention on the main object. I am not sure that it will be practicable to present the several parts of the reform in so detached a manner to the states, as that a partial adoption will be binding. Particular states may view different articles as conditions of each other, and would only ratify them as such, Others might ratify them as independent propositions. The consequence would be that the ratifications of both would go for nothing. I have not, however, examined this point thoroughly. In truth, my ideas of a reform strike so deeply at the old Confederation, and lead to such a systematic change, that they scarcely admit of the expedient.

I hold it for a fundamental point, that an individual independence of the states is utterly irreconcilable with the idea of an aggregate sovereignty. I think, at the same time, that a consolidation of the states into one simple republic is not less unattainable than it would he inexpedient. Let it be tried, then, whether any middle ground can be taken, which will at once support a due supremacy of the national authority, and leave in force the local authorities so far as they can be subordinately useful.

The first step to be taken is, I think, a change in the principle of representation According to the present form of the Union, an equality of suffrage, if not just towards the larger members of it, is at least safe to them, as the liberty they exercise of rejecting or executing the acts of Congress is uncontrollable by the nominal sovereignty of Congress. Under a system which would operate without the intervention of the states, the case would be materially altered. A vote from Delaware would have the same effect as one from Massachusetts or Virginia.

Let the national government be armed with a positive and complete authority in all cases where uniform measures are necessary as in trade, &c. &c. Let it also retain the powers which it now possesses.

Let it have a negative, in all cases whatsoever, on the legislative acts of the states, as the king of Great Britain heretofore had. This I conceive to be essential, and the least possible abridgment of the state sovereignties. Without such a defensive power, every positive power that can be given on paper will be unavailing. It will also give internal stability to the states. There has been no moment, since the peace, at which the federal assent would have been given to paper money, &c. &c.

Let this national supremacy he extended also to the judiciary department. If the judges in the last resort depend on the states, and are bound by their oaths to them and not to the Union, the intention of the law and the interests of the nation may he defeated by the obsequiousness of the tribunals to the policy or prejudices of the states. It seems at least essential that an appeal should lie to some national tribunals in all cases which concern foreigners, or inhabitants of other states. The admiralty jurisdiction may be fully submitted to the national government.

A government formed of such extensive powers ought to be well organized. The legislative department may be divided into two branches—one of them to he chosen every—years by the legislatures, or the people at large; the other to consist of a more select number, holding their appointments for a longer term, and going out in rotation. Perhaps the negative on the state laws may be most conveniently lodged in this branch. A council of revision may be superadded, including the great ministerial officers.

A national executive will also be necessary. I have scarcely ventured to form my own opinion yet, either of the manner in which it ought to be constituted, or of the authorities with which it ought to be clothed.

An article ought to be inserted expressly guaranteeing the tranquillity of the states against internal as well as external dangers.

To give the new system its proper energy, it will be desirable to have it ratified by the authority of the people, and not merely by that of the legislatures.

I am afraid you will think this project, if not extravagant, absolutely unattainable, and unworthy of being attempted. Conceiving it myself to go no farther than is essential, the objections drawn from this source are to be laid aside. I flatter myself, however, that they may be less formidable on trial than in contemplation. The change in the principle of representation will be relished by a majority of the states, and those too of most influence. The Northern States will be reconciled to it by the actual superiority of their populousness; the southern by their expected superiority on this point. This principle established, the repugnance of the large states to part with power will in a great degree subside, and the smaller states must ultimately yield to the predominant will. It is also already seen by many, and must by degrees he seen by all, that, unless the Union be organized efficiently on republican principles, innovations of a much more objectionable form may be obtruded, or, in the most favorable event, the partition of the empire into rival and hostile confederacies will ensue.

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