Wednesday, May 30 | Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787

by James Madison

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This Day in the Four Act Drama 

ROGER SHERMAN, from Connecticut, took his seat.

The House went into Committee of the Whole on the state of the Union. Mr. GORHAM was elected to the Chair by ballot.

The propositions of  Mr. RANDOLPH which had been referred to the Committee being taken up, he moved, on the suggestion of Mr. G. MORRIS, that the first of his propositions, — to wit: “Resolved, that the Articles of Confederation ought to be so corrected and enlarged, as to accomplish the objects proposed by their institution; namely, common defence, security of liberty, and general welfare,” — should mutually be postponed, in order to consider the three following:

“1. That a union of the States merely federal will not accomplish the objects proposed by the Articles of Confederation, namely, common defence, security of liberty, and general welfare.

“2. That no treaty or treaties among the whole or part of the States, as individual sovereignties, would be sufficient.

“3. That a national government ought to be established, consisting of a supreme Legislative, Executive and Judiciary.”

The motion for postponing was seconded by Mr. G. MORRIS, and unanimously agreed to.

Some verbal criticisms were raised against the first proposition, and it was agreed, on motion of Mr. BUTLER, seconded by Mr. RANDOLPH, to pass on to the third, which underwent a discussion, less, however, on its general merits than on the force and extent of the particular terms national and supreme.

Mr. CHARLES PINCKNEY wished to know of Mr. RANDOLPH, whether he meant to abolish the State governments altogether.  Mr. RANDOLPH replied, that he meant by these general propositions merely to introduce the particular ones which explained the outlines of the system he had in view.

Mr. BUTLER said, he had not made up his mind on the subject, and was open to the light which discussion might throw on it. After some general observations, he concluded with saying, that he had opposed the grant of powers to Congress heretofore, because the whole power was vested in one body. The proposed distribution of the powers with different bodies changed the case, and would induce him to go great lengths.

General PINCKNEY expressed a doubt whether the act of Congress recommending the Convention, or the commissions of the Deputies to it, would authorize a discussion of a system founded on different principles from the Federal Constitution.

Mr. GERRY seemed to entertain the same doubt.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS explained the distinction between a federal and a nationalsupreme government; the former being a mere compact resting on the good faith of the parties; the latter having a complete and compulsive operation. He contended, that in all communities there must be one supreme power, and one only.

Mr. MASON observed, not only that the present Confederation was deficient in not providing for coercion and punishment against delinquent States, but argued very cogently, that punishment could not in the nature of things be executed on the States collectively, and therefore that such a government was necessary as could directly operate on individuals, and would punish those only whose guilt required it.

Mr. SHERMAN admitted that the Confederation had not given sufficient power to Congress, and that additional powers were necessary; particularly that of raising money, which he said would involve many other powers. He admitted also, that the general and particular jurisdictions ought in no case to be concurrent. He seemed, however, not to be disposed to make too great inroads on the existing system; intimating, as one reason, that it would be wrong to lose every amendment by inserting such as would not be agreed to by the States.

It was moved by Mr. READ, and seconded by Mr. CHARLES COTESWORTH PINCKNEY, to postpone the third proposition last offered by Mr. RANDOLPH, viz. “that a national government ought to be established, consisting of a supreme Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary,” in order to take up the following, viz. “Resolved, that, in order to carry into execution the design of the States in forming this Convention, and to accomplish the objects proposed by the Confederation, a more effective government, consisting of a Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary, ought to be established.” The motion to postpone for this purpose was lost:

Massachusetts, Connecticut, Delaware, South Carolina, aye — 4; New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, no — 4.

On the question, as moved by Mr. BUTLER, on the third proposition, it was resolved, in Committee of the Whole, “that a national government ought to be established, consisting of a supreme Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary,” — Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, aye — 6; Connecticut, no — 1; New York, divided (Colonel HAMILTON, aye, Mr. YATES, no).

The following Resolution, being the second of those proposed by Mr. RANDOLPH, was taken up, viz. “that the rights of suffrage in the National Legislature ought to be proportioned to the quotas of contribution, or to the number of free inhabitants, as the one or the other rule may seem best in different cases.”

Mr. MADISON, observing that the words “or to the number of free inhabitants,” might occasion debates which would divert the Committee from the general question whether the principle of representation should be changed, moved that they might be struck out.

Mr. KING observed, that the quotas of contribution, which would alone remain as the measure of representation, would not answer; because, waiving every other view of the matter, the revenue might hereafter be so collected by the General Government that the sums respectively drawn from the States would not appear, and would besides be continually varying.

Mr. MADISON admitted the propriety of the observation, and that some better rule ought to be found.

Colonel HAMILTON moved to alter the resolution so as to read, “that the rights of suffrage in the National Legislature ought to be proportioned to the number of free inhabitants.”  Mr. SPAIGHT seconded the motion.

It was then moved that the resolution be postponed; which was agreed to.

Mr. RANDOLPH and Mr. MADISON then moved the following resolution: “That the rights of suffrage in the National Legislature ought to be proportioned.”

It was moved and seconded, to amend it by adding, “and not according to the present system;” which was agreed to.

It was then moved and seconded to alter the resolution so as to read, “that the rights of suffrage in the National Legislature ought not to be according to the present system.”

It was then moved and seconded to postpone the resolution moved by Mr. RANDOLPH and Mr. MADISON; which being agreed to, —

Mr. MADISON moved, in order to get over the difficulties, the following resolution: “that the equality of suffrage established by the Articles of Confederation ought not to prevail in the National Legislature; and that an equitable ratio of representation ought to be substituted.” This was seconded by Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS, and, being generally relished, would have been agreed to; when —

Mr. READ moved, that the whole clause relating to the point of representation be postponed; reminding the Committee that the Deputies from Delaware were restrained by their commission from assenting to any change of the rule of suffrage, and in case such a change should be fixed on, it might become their duty to retire from the Convention.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS observed, that the valuable assistance of those members could not be lost without real concern; and that so early a proof of discord in the Convention as the secession of a State, would add much to the regret; that the change proposed was, however, so fundamental an article in a national government, that it could not be dispensed with.

Mr. MADISON observed, that, whatever reason might have existed for the equality of suffrage when the Union was a federal one among sovereign States, it must cease when a national government should be put into the place. In the former case, the acts of Congress depended so much for their efficacy on the co-operation of the States, that these had a weight, both within and without Congress, nearly in proportion to their extent and importance. In the latter case, as the acts of the General Government would take effect without the intervention of the State Legislatures, a vote from a small state would have the same efficacy and importance as a vote from a large one, and there was the same reason for different numbers of representatives from different States, as from counties of different extents within particular States. He suggested as an expedient for at once taking the sense of the members on this point, and saving the Delaware Deputies from embarrassment, that the question should be taken in Committee, and the clause, on report to the House, be postponed without a question there. This, however, did not appear to satisfy Mr. READ.

By several it was observed, that no just construction of the act of Delaware could require or justify a secession of her Deputies, even if the resolution were to be carried through the House as well as the Committee. It was finally agreed, however, that the clause should be postponed; it being understood that, in the event, the proposed change of representation would certainly be agreed to, no objection or difficulty being started from any other quarter than from Delaware.

The motion of Mr. READ to postpone being agreed to, —

The Committee then rose; the Chairman reported progress; and the House, having resolved to resume the subject in Committee tomorrow, —

Adjourned to ten o’clock.

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