Thursday, June 21 | Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787

by James Madison

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This Day in the Four Act Drama

In Convention, — Mr. JONATHAN DAYTON, from New Jersey, took his seat.

The second Resolution in the Report from the Committee of the Whole being under consideration, —

Doctor JOHNSON. On a comparison of the two plans which had been proposed from Virginia and New Jersey, it appeared that the peculiarity which characterized the latter was its being calculated to preserve the individuality of the States. The plan from Virginia did not profess to destroy this individuality altogether; but was charged with such a tendency. One gentleman alone (Col. HAMILTON), in his animadversions on the plan of New Jersey, boldly and decisively contended for an abolition of the State Governments. Mr. WILSON and the gentleman from Virginia, who also were adversaries of the plan of New Jersey, held a different language. They wished to leave the States in possession of a considerable, though a subordinate, jurisdiction. They had not yet, however, shewn how this could consist with, or be secured against, the general sovereignty and jurisdiction which they proposed to give to the National Government. If this could be shewn, in such a manner as to satisfy the patrons of the New Jersey propositions, that the individuality of the States would not be endangered, many of their objections would no doubt be removed. If this could not be shewn, their objections would have their full force. He wished it, therefore, to be well considered, whether, in case the States, as was proposed, should retain some portion of sovereignty at least, this portion could be preserved, without allowing them to participate effectually in the General Government, without giving them each a distinct and equal vote for the purpose of defending themselves in the general councils.

Mr. WILSON’S respect for Doctor JOHNSON, added to the importance of the subject, led him to attempt, unprepared as he was, to solve the difficulty which had been started. It was asked, how the General Government and individuality of the particular States could be reconciled to each other, — and how the latter could be secured against the former? Might it not, on the other side, be asked, how the former was to be secured against the latter? It was generally admitted, that a jealousy and rivalship would be felt between the general and particular Governments. As the plan now stood, though indeed contrary to his opinion, one branch of the General Government (the Senate, or second branch) was to be appointed by the State Legislatures. The State Legislatures, therefore, by this participation in the General Government, would have an opportunity of defending their rights. Ought not a reciprocal opportunity to be given to the General Government of defending itself, by having an appointment of some one constituent branch of the State Governments? If a security be necessary on one side, it would seem reasonable to demand it on the other. But taking the matter in a more general view, he saw no danger to the States from the General Government. In case a combination should be made by the large ones, it would produce a general alarm among the rest, and the project would be frustrated. But there was no temptation to such a project. The States having in general a similar interest, in case of any propositions in the National Legislature to encroach on the State Legislatures, he conceived a general alarm would take place in the National Legislature itself; that it would communicate itself to the State Legislatures; and would finally spread among the people at large. The General Government will be as ready to preserve the rights of the States, as the latter are to preserve the rights of individuals, — all the members of the former having a common interest, as representatives of all the people of the latter, to leave the State Governments in possession of what the people wish them to retain. He could not discover, therefore, any danger whatever on the side from which it was apprehended. On the contrary, he conceived that, in spite of every precaution, the General Government would be in perpetual danger of encroachments from the State Governments.

Mr. MADISON was of opinion, — in the first place, that there was less danger of encroachment from the General Government than from the State Governments; and in the second place, that the mischiefs from encroachments would be less fatal if made by the former, than if made by the latter.

  1. All the examples of other confederacies prove the greater tendency, in such systems, to anarchy than to tyranny; to a disobedience of the members than usurpations of the Federal head. Our own experience had fully illustrated this tendency. But it will be said, that the proposed change in the principles and form of the Union will vary the tendency; that the General Government will have real and greater powers, and will be derived, in one branch at least, from the people, not from the Governments of the States. To give full force to this objection, let it be supposed for a moment that indefinite power should be given to the General Legislature, and the States reduced to corporations dependent on the General Legislature, — why should it follow that the General Government would take from the States any branch of their power, as far as its operation was beneficial, and its continuance desirable to the people? In some of the States, particularly in Connecticut, all the townships are incorporated, and have a certain limited jurisdiction, — have the representatives of the people of the townships in the Legislature of the State ever endeavoured to despoil the townships of any part of their local authority? As far as this local authority is convenient to the people, they are attached to it; and their representatives, chosen by and amenable to them, naturally respect their attachment to this, as much as their attachment to any other right or interest. The relation of a General Government to State Governments is parallel.
  2. Guards were more necessary against encroachments of the State Governments on the General Government, than of the latter on the former. The great objection made against an abolition of the State Governments was, that the General Government could not extend its care to all the minute objects which fall under the cognizance of the local jurisdictions. The objection as stated lay not against the probable abuse of the general power, but against the imperfect use that could be made of it throughout so great an extent of country, and over so great a variety of objects. As far as its operation would be practicable, it could not in this view be improper; as far as it would be impracticable, the convenience of the General Government itself would concur with that of the people in the maintenance of subordinate governments. Were it practicable for the General Government to extend its care to every requisite object without the co-operation of the State Governments, the people would not be less free as members of one great Republic, than as members of thirteen small ones. A citizen of Delaware was not more free than a citizen of Virginia; nor would either be more free than a citizen of America. Supposing, therefore, a tendency in the General Government to absorb the State Governments, no fatalconsequence could result. Taking the reverse as the supposition, that a tendency should be left in the State Governments towards an independence on the General Government, and the gloomy consequences need not be pointed out. The imagination of them must have suggested to the States the experiment we are now making to prevent the calamity, and must have formed the chief motive with those present to undertake the arduous task.

On the question for resolving, “that the Legislature ought to consist of two branches,” — Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, aye — 7; New York, New Jersey, Delaware, no — 3; Maryland, divided.

The third Resolution of the Report being taken into consideration —

General PINCKNEY moved, “that the first branch, instead of being elected by the people, should be elected in such manner as the Legislature of each State should direct.” He urged, — first, that this liberty would give more satisfaction, as the Legislatures could then accommodate the mode to the convenience and opinions of the people; secondly, that it would avoid the undue influence of large counties, which would prevail if the elections were to be made in districts, as must be the mode intended by the report of the Committee; thirdly, that otherwise disputed elections must be referred to the General Legislature, which would be attended with intolerable expense and trouble to the distant parts of the Republic.

Mr. L. MARTIN seconded the motion.

Col. HAMILTON considered the motion as intended manifestly to transfer the election from the people to the State Legislatures, which would essentially vitiate the plan. It would increase that State influence which could not be too watchfully guarded against. All, too, must admit the possibility, in case the General Government should maintain itself, that the State Governments might gradually dwindle into nothing. The system, therefore, should not be engrafted on what might possibly fail.

Mr. MASON urged the necessity of retaining the election by the people. Whatever inconvenience may attend the democratic principle, it must actuate one part of the Government. It is the only security for the rights of the people.

Mr. SHERMAN would like an election by the Legislatures best, but is content with the plan as it stands.

Mr. RUTLEDGE could not admit the solidity of the distinction between a mediate and immediate election by the people. It was the same thing to act by one’s self, and to act by another. An election by the Legislature would be more refined than an election immediately by the people; and would be more likely to correspond with the sense of the whole community. If this Convention had been chosen by the people in districts, it is not to be supposed that such proper characters would have been preferred. The Delegates to Congress, he thought, had also been fitter men than would have been appointed by the people at large.

Mr. WILSON considered the election of the first branch by the people not only as the corner-stone, but as the foundation of the fabric; and that the difference between a mediate and immediate election was immense. The difference was particularly worthy of notice in this respect, that the Legislatures are actuated not merely by the sentiment of the people; but have an official sentiment opposed to that of the General Government, and perhaps to that of the people themselves.

Mr. KING enlarged on the same distinction. He supposed the Legislatures would constantly choose men subservient to their own views, as contrasted to the general interest; and that they might even devise modes of election that would be subversive of the end in view. He remarked several instances in which the views of a State might be at variance with those of the General Government; and mentioned particularly a competition between the National and State debts, for the most certain and productive funds.

General PINCKNEY was for making the State Governments a part of the general system. If they were to be abolished, or lose their agency, South Carolina and the other States would have but a small share of the benefits of government.

On the question for General PINCKNEY’S motion, to substitute “election of the first branch in such mode as the Legislatures should appoint,” instead of its being “elected by the people,” — Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, South Carolina, aye — 4; Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, no — 6; Maryland, divided.

General PINCKNEY then moved, “that the first branch be elected by the people in such mode as the Legislatures should direct;” but waived it on its being hinted that such a provision might be more properly tried in the detail of the plan.

On the question for the election of the first branch “by the people,” — Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, aye — 9; New Jersey, no — 1; Maryland divided.

The election of the first branch “for the term of three years,” being considered, —

Mr. RANDOLPH moved to strike out “three years,” and insert “two years.” He was sensible that annual elections were a source of great mischiefs in the States, yet it was the want of such checks against the popular intemperance as were now proposed, that rendered them so mischievous. He would have preferred annual to biennial, but for the extent of the United States, and the inconvenience which would result from them to the representatives of the extreme parts of the Empire. The people were attached to frequency of elections. All the Constitutions of the States, except that of South Carolina, had established annual elections.

Mr. DICKINSON. The idea of annual elections was borrowed from the ancient usage of England, a country much less extensive than ours. He supposed biennial would be inconvenient. He preferred triennial; and in order to prevent the inconvenience of an entire change of the whole number at the same moment, suggested a rotation, by an annual election of one-third.

Mr. ELLSWORTH was opposed to three years, supposing that even one year was preferable to two years. The people were fond of frequent elections, and might be safely indulged in one branch of the Legislature. He moved for “one year.”

Mr. STRONG seconded and supported the motion.

Mr. WILSON, being for making the first branch an effectual representation of the people at large, preferred an annual election of it. This frequency was most familiar and pleasing to the people. It would not be more inconvenient to them than triennial elections, as the people in all the States have annual meetings with which the election of the national Representatives might be made to coincide. He did not conceive that it would be necessary for the National Legislature to sit constantly, perhaps not half, perhaps not one-fourth of the year.

Mr. MADISON was persuaded that annual elections would be extremely inconvenient, and apprehensive that biennial would be too much so; he did not mean inconvenient to the electors, but to the Representatives. They would have to travel seven or eight hundred miles from the distant parts of the Union; and would probably not be allowed even a reimbursement of their expenses. Besides, none of those who wished to be re-elected would remain at the seat of government, confiding that their absence would not affect them. The members of Congress had done this with few instances of disappointment. But as the choice was here to be made by the people themselves, who would be much less complaisant to individuals, and much more susceptible of impressions from the presence of a rival candidate, it must be supposed that the members from the most distant States would travel backwards and forwards at least as often as the elections should be repeated. Much was to be said, also, on the time requisite for new members, who would always form a large proportion, to acquire that knowledge of the affairs of the States in general, without which their trust could not be usefully discharged.

Mr. SHERMAN preferred annual elections, but would be content with biennial. He thought the Representatives ought to return home and mix with the people. By remaining at the seat of government they would acquire the habits of the place, which might differ from those of their constituents.

Colonel MASON observed, that, the States being differently situated, such a rule ought to be formed as would put them as nearly as possible on a level. If elections were annual, the middle States would have a great advantage over the extreme ones. He wished them to be biennial, and the rather as in that case they would coincide with the periodical elections of South Carolina, as well of the other States.

Colonel HAMILTON urged the necessity of three years. There ought to be neither too much nor too little dependence on the popular sentiments. The checks in the other branches of the Government would be but feeble, and would need every auxiliary principle that could be interwoven. The British House of Commons were elected septennially, yet the democratic spirit of the Constitution had not ceased. Frequency of elections tended to make the people listless to them; and to facilitate the success of little cabals. This evil was complained of in all the States. In Virginia it had been lately found necessary to force the attendance and voting of the people by severe regulations.

On the question for striking out “three years,” — Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, aye — 7; New York, Delaware, Maryland, no — 3; New Jersey divided.

The motion for “two years” was then inserted, nem. con.


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