Friday, August 10 | Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787

by James Madison

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This Day in the Four Act Drama 

In Convention, — Article 6, Sect. 2, was taken up.

Mr. PINCKNEY. The Committee, as he had conceived, were instructed to report the proper qualifications of property for the members of the National Legislature; instead of which they have referred the task to the National Legislature itself. Should it be left on this footing, the first Legislature will meet without any particular qualifications of property and, if it should happen to consist of rich men, they might fix such qualifications as may be too favorable to the rich; if of poor men, an opposite extreme might be run into. He was opposed to the establishment of an undue aristrocratic influence in the Constitution, but he thought it essential that the members of the Legislature, the Executive, and the Judges, should be possessed of competent property to make them independent and respectable. It was prudent, when such great powers were to be trusted, to connect the tie of property with that of reputation in securing a faithful administration. The Legislature would have the fate of the nation put into their hands. The President would also have a very great influence on it. The Judges would not only have important causes between citizen and citizen, but also where foreigners are concerned. They will even be the umpires between the United States and individual States; as well as between one State and another. Were he to fix the quantum of property which should be required, he should not think of less than one hundred thousand dollars for the President, half of that sum for each of the Judges, and in like proportion for the members of the National Legislature. He would, however, leave the sums blank. His motion was, that the President of the United States, the Judges, and members of the Legislature, should be required to swear that they were respectively possessed of a clear unincumbered estate, to the amount of — in the case of the President, &c., &c.

Mr. RUTLEDGE seconded the motion; observing, that the Committee had reported no qualifications, because they could not agree on any among themselves, being embarrassed by the danger, on one side of displeasing the people, by making them high, and, on the other, of rendering them nugatory, by making them low.

Mr. ELLSWORTH. The different circumstances of different parts of the United States, and the probable difference between the present and future circumstances of the whole, render it improper to have either uniformor fixed qualifications. Make them so high as to be useful in the Southern States, and they will be inapplicable to the Eastern States. Suit them to the latter, and they will serve no purpose in the former. In like manner, what may be accommodated to the existing state of things among us, may be very inconvenient in some future state of them. He thought for these reasons, that it was better to leave this matter to the Legislative discretion, than to attempt a provision for it in the Constitution.

Doctor FRANKLIN expressed his dislike to every thing that tended to debase the spirit of the common people. If honesty was often the companion of wealth, and if poverty was exposed to peculiar temptation, it was not less true that the possession of property increased the desire of more property. Some of the greatest rogues he was ever acquainted with were the richest rogues. We should remember the character which the Scripture requires in rulers, that they should be men hating covetousness. This Constitution will be much read and attended to in Europe; and if it should betray a great partiality to the rich, will not only hurt us in the esteem of the most liberal and enlightened men there, but discourage the common people from removing to this country.

The motion of Mr. PINCKNEY was rejected by so general a no, that the States were not called.

Mr. MADISON was opposed to the section, as vesting an improper and dangerous power in the Legislature. The qualifications of electors and elected were fundamental articles in a republican government, and ought to be fixed by the Constitution. If the Legislature could regulate those of either, it can by degrees subvert the Constitution. A Republic may be converted into an aristocracy or oligarchy, as well by limiting the number capable of being elected, as the number authorized to elect. In all cases where the representatives of the people will have a personal interest distinct from that of their constituents, there was the same reason for being jealous of them, as there was for relying on them with full confidence, when they had a common interest. This was one of the former cases. It was as improper as to allow them to fix their own wages, or their own privileges. It was a power, also, which might be made subservient to the views of one faction against another. Qualifications founded on artificial distinctions may be devised by the stronger in order to keep out partisans of a weaker faction.

Mr. ELLSWORTH admitted that the power was not unexceptionable; but he could not view it as dangerous. Such a power with regard to the electors would be dangerous, because it would be much more liable to abuse.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS moved to strike out “with regard to property,” in order to leave the Legislature entirely at large.

Mr. WILLIAMSON. This would surely never be admitted. Should a majority of the Legislature be composed of any particular description of men, of lawyers, for example, which is no improbable supposition, the future elections might be secured to their own body.

Mr. MADISON observed that the British Parliament possessed the power of regulating the qualifications both of the electors and the elected; and the abuse they had made of it was a lesson worthy of our attention.They had made the changes, in both cases, subservient to their own views, or to the views of political or religious parties.

On the question on the motion to strike out “with regard to property,” — Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Georgia, aye, — 4; New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Delaware,1 Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, no, — 7.

Mr. RUTLEDGE was opposed to leaving the power to the Legislature. He proposed that the qualifications should be the same as for members of the State Legislatures.

Mr. WILSON thought it would be best, on the whole, to let the section go out. A uniform rule would probably never be fixed by the Legislature; and this particular power would constructively exclude every other power of regulating qualifications.

On the question for agreeing to Article 6, Sect. 2, — New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Georgia, aye, — 3; Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, no, — 7.

On motion of Mr. WILSON to reconsider Article 4, Sect. 2, so as to restore “three,” in place of “seven,” years of citizenship, as a qualification for being elected into the House of Representatives, — Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, aye, — 6; New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New Jersey, South Carolina, Georgia, no, — 5.

Monday next was then assigned for the reconsideration; all the States being aye, except Massachusetts and Georgia.

Article 6, Sect. 3, was then taken up.

Mr. GORHAM contended that less than a majority in each House should be made a quorum; otherwise great delay might happen in business, and great inconvenience from the future increase of numbers.

Mr. MERCER was also for less than a majority. So great a number will put it in the power of a few, by seceding at a critical moment, to introduce convulsions, and endanger the Government. Examples of secession have already happened in some of the States. He was for leaving it to the Legislature to fix the quorum, as in Great Britain, where the requisite number is small, and no inconvenience has been experienced.

Colonel MASON. This is a valuable and necessary part of the plan. In this extended country, embracing so great a diversity of interests, it would be dangerous to the distant parts to allow a small number of members of the two Houses to make laws. The central States could always take care to be on the spot; and by meeting earlier than the distant ones, or wearying their patience, and outstaying them, could carry such measures as they pleased. He admitted that inconveniences might spring from the secession of a small number; but he had also known good produced by an apprehension of it. He had known a paper emission prevented by that cause in Virginia. He thought the Constitution, as now moulded, was founded on sound principles, and was disposed to put into it extensive powers. At the same time, he wished to guard against abuses as much as possible. If the legislature should be able to reduce the number at all, it might reduce it as low as it pleased, and the United States might be governed by a junto. A majority of the number which had been agreed on was so few, that he feared it would be made an objection against the plan.

Mr. KING admitted there might be some danger of giving an advantage to the central States; but was of opinion that the public inconvenience, on the other side, was more to be dreaded.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS moved to fix the quorum at thirty-three members in the House of Representatives, and fourteen in the Senate. This is a majority of the present number, and will be a bar to the Legislature. Fix the number low, and they will generally attend, knowing that advantage may be taken of their absence. The secession of a small number ought not to be suffered to break a quorum. Such events in the States may have been of little consequence. In the national councils they may be fatal. Besides other mischiefs, if a few can break up a quorum, they may seize a moment when a particular part of the continent may be in need of immediate aid, to extort, by threatening a secession some unjust and selfish measure.

Mr. MERCER seconded the motion.

Mr. KING said he had just prepared a motion which, instead of fixing the numbers proposed by Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS as quorums, made those the lowest numbers, leaving the Legislature at liberty to increase them or not. He thought the future increase of members would render a majority of the whole extremely cumbersome.

Mr. MERCER agreed to substitute Mr. KING’S motion in place of Mr. MORRIS’S.

Mr. ELLSWORTH was opposed to it. It would be a pleasing ground of confidence to the people, that no law or burden could be imposed on them by a few men. He reminded the movers that the Constitution proposed to give such a discretion, with regard to the number of Representatives, that a very inconvenient number was not to be apprehended. The inconvenience of secessions may be guarded against, by giving to each House an authority to require the attendance of absent members.

Mr. WILSON concurred in the sentiments of Mr. ELLSWORTH.

Mr. GERRY seemed to think that some further precautions, than merely fixing the quorum, might be necessary. He observed, that, as seventeen would be a majority of a quorum of thirty-three, and eight of fourteen, questions might by possibility be carried in the House of Representatives by two large States, and in the Senate by the same States with the aid of two small ones. He proposed that the number for a quorum in the House of Representatives should not exceed fifty, nor be less than thirty-three; leaving the intermediate discretion to the Legislature.

Mr. KING. As the quorum could not be altered, without the concurrence of the President, by less than two thirds of each House, he thought there could be no danger in trusting the Legislature.

Mr. CARROLL. This would be no security against the continuance of the quorums at thirty-three, and fourteen, when they ought to be increased.

On the question on Mr. KING’S motion, that not less than thirty-three in the House of Representatives, nor less than fourteen in the Senate should constitute a quorum, which may be increased by a law, on additions to the members in either House, —

Massachusetts, Delaware, aye, — 2; New Hampshire, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, no, — 9.

Mr. RANDOLPH and Mr. MADISON moved to add to the end of Article 6, Sect. 3, “and may be authorized to compel the attendance of absent members, in such manner, and under such penalties, as each House may provide.” Agreed to by all except Pennsylvania, which was divided.

Article 6, Sect. 3, was agreed to as amended, nem. con.

Sections 4 and 5, of Article 6, were then agreed to, nem. con.

Mr. MADISON observed that the right of expulsion (Article 6, Sect. 6,) was too important to be exercised by a bare majority of a quorum; and, in emergencies of faction, might be dangerously abused. He moved that, “with the concurrence of two thirds,” might be inserted between “may” and “expel.”

Mr. RANDOLPH and Mr. MASON approved the idea.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS. This power may be safely trusted to a majority. To require more may produce abuses on the side of the minority. A few men, from factious motives, may keep in a member who ought to be expelled.

Mr. CARROLL thought that the concurrence of two thirds, at least, ought to be required.

On the question requiring two thirds, in cases of expelling a member, — ten States were in the affirmative; Pennsylvania, divided.

Article 6, Sect. 6, as thus amended, was then agreed to, nem. con.

Article 6, Sect. 7, was then taken up.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS urged, that if the Yeas and Nays were proper at all, any individual ought to be authorized to call for them; and moved an amendment to that effect. The small States may otherwise be under a disadvantage, and find it difficult to get a concurrence of one fifth.

Mr. RANDOLPH seconded the motion.

Mr. SHERMAN had rather strike out the Yeas and Nays altogether. They have never done any good, and have done much mischief. They are not proper, as the reasons governing the voter never appear along with them.

Mr. ELLSWORTH was of the same opinion.

Colonel MASON liked the section as it stood. It was a middle way between two extremes.

Mr. GORHAM was opposed to the motion for allowing a single member to call the Yeas and Nays, and recited the abuses of it in Massachusetts; first, in stuffing the Journals with them on frivolous occasions; secondly, in misleading the people who never know the reasons determining the votes.

The motion for allowing a single member to call the Yeas and Nays, was disagreed to, nem con.

Mr. CARROLL and Mr. RANDOLPH moved to strike out the words, “each House,” and to insert the words, “the House of Representatives,” in Sect. 7, Article 6; and to add to the section the words, “and any member of the Senate shall be at liberty to enter his dissent.”

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS and Mr. WILSON observed, that, if the minority were to have a right to enter their votes and reasons, the other side would have a right to complain if it were not extended to them: and to allow it to both would fill the Journals, like the records of a court, with replications, rejoinders, &c.

On the question on Mr. CARROLL’S motion, to allow a member to enter his dissent, — Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, aye, — 3; New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, North Carolina, Georgia, no, — 8.

Mr. GERRY moved to strike out the words, “when it shall be acting in its legislative capacity,” in order to extend the provision to the Senate when exercising its peculiar authorities; and to insert, “except such parts thereof as in their judgment require secrecy,” after the words “publish them.” — (It was thought by others that provision should be made with respect to these, when that part came under consideration which proposed to vest those additional authorities in the Senate.)

On this question for striking out the words, “when acting in its legislative capacity,” — Massachusetts, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, aye, — 7; Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, no, — 3; New Hampshire, divided.


1 In the printed Journal, Delaware did not vote. 

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