Luther Martin’s Objections

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Yates, Robert. Secret proceedings and debates of the Convention assembled at Philadelphia, in the year 1787 : for the purpose of forming the Constitution of the United States of America. (Richmond, Va: W. Curtiss, 1839).

(Mr. Martin, the Attorney-General from Maryland, spoke on this subject upwards of three hours. As his arguments were too diffuse, and in many instances desultory, it was not possible to trace him through the whole, or to methodize his ideas into a systematic or argumentative arrangement. I [Robert Yates] shall therefore only note such points as I conceive merit most particular notice.)

The question is important, said Mr. Martin, and I have already expressed my sentiments on the subject. My opinion is, that the general government ought to protect and secure the State governments; others, however, are of a different sentiment, and reverse the principle.

The present reported system is a perfect medley of confederated and national government, without example and without precedent. Many, who wish the general government to protect the State governments, are anxious to have the line of jurisdiction well drawn and defined, so that they may not clash. This suggests the necessity of having this line well detailed. Possibly this may be done. If we do this, the people will conceive that we meant well to the state governments; and should there be any defects, they will trust a future convention with the power of making further amendments.

A general government may operate on individuals in cases of general concern, and still be federal. This distinction is with the states, as states, represented by the people of those states. States will take care of their internal police and local concerns. The general government has no interest but the protection of the whole. Every other government must fail. We are proceeding on forming this government, as if there were no state governments at all. The States must approve, or you will have none at all. I have never heard of a confederacy having two legislative branches. Even the celebrated Mr. Adams, who talks so much of checks and balances, does not suppose it necessary in a confederacy. Public and domestic debts are our great distress. The treaty between Virginia and Maryland about the navigation of the Chesapeake and Potomac, is no infraction of the confederacy. The cornerstone of a federal government is equality of votes. States may surrender this right; but if they do, their liberties are lost. If I err on this point, it is the error of the head, not of the heart.

The first principle of government is founded on the natural right of individuals, and in perfect equality. Locke, Vattel, Lord Somers, and Dr. Priestly, all confirm this principle. This principle of equality, when applied to individuals, is lost in some degree, when he becomes a member of a society, to which it is transferred; and this society, by the name of state or kingdom, is, with respect to others, again on a perfect footing of equality,-- a right to govern themselves as they please. Nor can any other state, of right, deprive them of this equality. If such a state confederates, it is intended for the good of the whole; and if it again confederates, those rights must be well guarded. Nor can any state demand a surrender of any of those rights; if it can, equality is already destroyed. We must treat as free states with each other, upon the same terms of equality that men originally formed themselves into societies. Vattel, Rutherford, and Locke are united in support of the position, that states, as to each other, are in a state of nature.

Thus, said Mr. Martin, have I traveled with the most respectable authorities in support of principles, all tending to prove the equality of independent states. This is equally applicable to the smallest as well as the largest states on the true principles of reciprocity and political freedom.

Unequal confederacies can never produce good effects. Apply this to the Virginia Plan. Out of the number 90, Virginia has 16 votes, Massachusetts 14, Pennsylvania 12—in all 42. Add to this a state having four votes, and it gives a majority in the general legislature. Consequently a combination of these states will govern the remaining nine or ten states. Where is the safety and independency of those states? Pursue this subject farther. The executive is to be appointed by the legislature, and becomes the executive in consequence of this undue influence. And hence flows the appointment of all your officers, civil, military, and judicial. The executive is also to have a negative on all laws. Suppose the possibility of a combination of ten states. He negatives a law; it is totally lost, because those states cannot form two-thirds of the legislature. I am willing to give up private interest for the public good; but I must be satisfied first, that it is the public interest; and who can decide this point? A majority only of the union.

The Lacedemonians insisted, in the Amphictyonic council, to exclude some of the smaller states from a right to vote, in order that they might tyrannize over them. If the plan now on the table be adopted, three states in the union have the control, and they may make use of their power when they please.

If there exists no separate interests, there is no danger of an equality of votes; and if there be danger, the smaller States cannot yield. If the foundation of the existing confederation is well laid, powers may be added. You may safely add a third story to a house where the foundation is good. Read then the votes and proceedings of Congress on forming the confederation: Virginia only was opposed to the principle of equality. The smaller States yielded rights, not the large States. They gave up their claim to the unappropriated lands with the tenderness of the mother recorded by Solomon; they sacrificed affection to the preservation of others. New Jersey and Maryland rendered more essential services during the war than many of the larger States. The partial representation in Congress is no the cause of its weakness, but the want of power. I would not trust a government organized upon the reported plan for all the slaves of Carolina or the horses and oxen of Massachusetts. Price says, that laws made by one man or a set of men, and not by common consent, is slavery. And it is so when applied to States, if you give them an unequal representation. What are called human feelings in this instance are only the feelings of ambition and the lust of power. . . .

On federal grounds, it is said, that a minority will govern a majority; but, on the Virginia plan a minority would tax a majority. In a federal government, a majority of States must, and ought to tax. In the local government of States, counties may be unequal; still numbers, not property, govern. What is the government now forming, over States or persons? As to the latter, their rights cannot be the object of a general government. These are already secured by their guardians, the State governments. The general government is therefore intended only to protect and guard the rights of the States, as States.

This general government, I believe, is the first upon the earth which gives checks against democracies or aristocracies. The only necessary check in a general government ought to be a restraint to prevent it absorbing the powers of the State governments. Representation on federal principles can only flow from State societies. Representation and taxation are ever inseparable; not according to the quantum of property, but the quantum of freedom.

Will the representatives of a State forget State interests? The mode of election cannot change it. These prejudices cannot be eradicated. Your general government cannot be just or equal upon the Virginia Plan, unless you abolish State interests. If this cannot be done, you must go back to principles purely federal.

On this latter ground, the State legislatures and their constituents will have no interests to pursue different from the general government, and both will be interested to support each other. Under these ideas can it be expected, that the people can approve the Virginia Plan? But it is said, the people, not the State legislatures, will be called upon for approbation; with an evident design to separate the interest of the governors from the governed. What must be the consequence? Anarchy and confusion. We lose the idea of the powers with which we are intrusted. The legislatures must approve. By them it must, on your own plan, be laid before the people. How will such a government, over so many great States, operate? Wherever new settlements have been formed in large States, they immediately want to shake off their independency. Why? Because the government is too remote for their good. The people want it nearer home.

The basis of all ancient and modern confederacies is the freedom and the independency of the states composing it. The states forming the Amphictyonic council were equal, though Lacedemon, one of the greatest states, attempted the exclusion of three of the lesser states from this right. The plan reported, it is true, only intends to diminish those rights, not to annihilate them. It was the ambition and power of the great Grecian states which at last ruined this respectable council. The states as societies are ever respectful. Has Holland or Switzerland ever complained of the equality of the states which compose their respective confederacies? Bern and Zurich are larger than the remaining eleven cantons (so are many of the states of Germany); and yet their governments are not complained of. Bern alone might usurp the whole power of the Helvetic confederacy, but she is contented still with being equal.

The admission of the larger States into the confederation, on the principles of equality, is dangerous. But on the Virginia system, it is ruinous and destructive. Still it is the true interest of all the states to confederate. It is their joint efforts which must protect and secure us from foreign danger, and give us peace and harmony at home.

(Here Mr. Martin entered into a detail of the comparative powers of each state, and stated their probable weakness and strength.)

At the beginning of our troubles with Great Britain, the smaller States were attempted to be cajoled to submit to the views of that nation, lest the larger States should usurp their rights. We then answered them, Your present plan is slavery, which, on the remote prospect of a distant evil, we will not submit to.

I would rather confederate with any single state, than submit to the Virginia Plan. But we are already confederated, and no power on earth can dissolve it but by the consent of all the contracting powers; and four States, on this floor, have already declared their opposition to annihilate it. Is the old confederation dissolved, because some of the States wish a new confederation?

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