Saturday, August 25 | Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787

by James Madison

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This Day in the Four Act Drama

In Convention. — The first clause of Article 7, Sect. 1, being reconsidered, —

Colonel MASON objected to the term “shall” fulfil the engagements and discharge the debts,” &c., as too strong. It may be impossible to comply with it. The creditors should be kept in the same plight. They will in one respect be necessarily and properly in a better. The Government will be more able to pay them. The use of the term shallwill beget speculations, and increase the pestilential practice of stock-jobbing. There was a great distinction between original creditors and those who purchased fraudulently of the ignorant and distressed. He did not mean to include those who have bought stock in the open market. He was sensible of the difficulty of drawing the line in this case, but he did not wish to preclude the attempt. Even fair purchasers, at four, five, six, eight for one, did not stand on the same footing with the first holders, supposing them not to be blamable. The interest they received, even in paper, is equal to their purchase money. What he particularly wished was, to leave the door open for buying up the securities, which he thought would be precluded by the term “shall,” as requiring nominal payment, and which was not inconsistent with his ideas of public faith. He was afraid, also, the word “shall” might extend to all the old continental paper.

Mr. LANGDON wished to do no more than leave the creditors in statu quo.

Mr. GERRY said, that, for himself, he had no interest in the question, being not possessed of more of the securities than would, by the interest, pay his taxes. He would observe, however, that as the public had received the value of the literal amount, they ought to pay that value to somebody. The frauds on the soldiers ought to have been foreseen. These poor and ignorant people, could not but part with their securities. There are other creditors, who will part with any thing, rather than be cheated of the capital of their advances. The interest of the States, he observed, was different on this point; some having more, others less than their proportion of the paper. Hence the idea of a scale for reducing its value had arisen. If the public faith would admit, of which he was not clear, he would not object to a revision of the debt, so far as to compel restitution to the ignorant and distressed, who have been defrauded. As to stock-jobbers, he saw no reason for the censures thrown on them. They keep up the value of the paper. Without them there would be no market.

Mr. BUTLER said he meant neither to increase nor diminish the security of the creditors.

Mr. RANDOLPH moved to postpone the clause, in favor of the following: “All debts contracted, and engagements entered into, by or under the authority of Congress, shall be as valid against the United States, under this Constitution, as under the Confederation.”

Doctor JOHNSON. The debts are debts of the United States, of the great body of America. Changing the Government cannot change the obligation of the United States, which devolves of course on the new Government. Nothing was, in his opinion, necessary to be said. If any thing, it should be a mere declaration, as moved by Mr. RANDOLPH.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS said, he never had become a public creditor, that he might urge with more propriety the compliance with public faith. He had always done so, and always would, and preferred the term “shall,” as the most explicit. As to buying up the debt, the term “shall” was not inconsistent with it, if provision be first made for paying the interest; if not, such an expedient was a mere evasion. He was content to say nothing, as the new Government would be bound of course; but would prefer the clause with the term “shall,” because it would create many friends to the plan.

On Mr. RANDOLPH’S motion, —

New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, aye, — 10; Pennsylvania, no, — 1.

Mr. SHERMAN thought it necessary to connect with the clause for laying taxes, duties, &c., an express provision for the object of the old debts, &c.; and moved to add to the first clause of Article 7, Sect. 1: “for the payment of said debts, and for the defraying the expenses that shall be incurred for the common defence and general welfare.”

The proposition, as being unnecessary, was disagreed to, — Connecticut alone being in the affirmative.

The Report of the Committee of eleven (see Friday, the twenty-fourth), being taken up, —

General PINCKNEY moved to strike out the words, “the year eighteen hundred,” as the year limiting the importation of slaves; and to insert the words “the year eighteen hundred and eight.”

Mr. GORHAM seconded the motion.

Mr. MADISON. Twenty years will produce all the mischief that can be apprehended from the liberty to import slaves. So long a term will be more dishonorable to the American character than to say nothing about it in the Constitution.

On the motion, which passed in the affirmative, — New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, aye, — 7; New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, no, — 4.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS was for making the clause read at once, “the importation of slaves into North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, shall not be prohibited, &c.” This he said would be most fair, and would avoid the ambiguity by which, under the power with regard to naturalization, the liberty reserved to the States might be defeated. He wished it to be known, also, that this part of the Constitution was a compliance with those States. If the change of language, however, should be objected to, by the members from those states, he should not urge it.

Colonel MASON was not against using the term “slaves,” but against naming North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, lest it should give offence to the people of those States.

Mr. SHERMAN liked a description better than the terms proposed, which had been declined by the old Congress, and were not pleasing to some people.

Mr. CLYMER concurred with Mr. SHERMAN.

Mr. WILLIAMSON said, that both in opinion and practice he was against slavery; but thought it more in favor of humanity, from a view of all circumstances, to let in South Carolina and Georgia on those terms, than to exclude them from the Union.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS withdrew his motion.

Mr. DICKINSON wished the clause to be confined to the States which had not themselves prohibited the importation of slaves; and for that purpose moved to amend the clause, so as to read: “The importation of slaves into such of the states as shall permit the same, shall not be prohibited by the legislature of the United States until the year 1808; which was disagreed to, nem. con.1

The first part of the Report was then agreed to, amended as follows: “The migration or importation of such persons as the several states now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the legislature prior to the year 1808,” —

New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, North Carolina. South Carolina, Georgia, aye, — 7; New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, no, — 4.

Mr. BALDWIN, in order to restrain and more explicitly define, “the average duty,” moved to strike out of the second part the words, “average of the duties laid on imports,” and insert “common impost on articles not enumerated”; which was agreed to, nem. con.

Mr. SHERMAN was against this second part, as acknowledging men to be property, by taxing them as such under the character of slaves.

Mr. KING and Mr. LANGDON considered this as the price of the first part.

General PINCKNEY admitted that it was so.

Colonel MASON. Not to tax, will be equivalent to a bounty on, the importation of slaves.

Mr. GORHAM thought that Mr. SHERMAN should consider the duty, not as implying that slaves are property, but as a discouragement to the importation of them.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS remarked, that, as the clause now stands, it implies that the Legislature may tax freemen imported.

Mr. SHERMAN, in answer to Mr. GORHAM, observed, that the smallness of the duty showed revenue to be the object, not the discouragement of the importation.

Mr. MADISON thought it wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men. The reason of duties did not hold, as slaves are not, like merchandise, consumed, &c.

Colonel MASON, in answer to Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS. The provision, as it stands, was necessary for the case of convicts, in order to prevent the introduction of them.

It was finally agreed, nem. con., to make the clause read: “but a tax or duty may be imposed on such importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each person”; and then the second part, as amended, was agreed to.

Article 7, Sect. 5, was agreed to, nem. con., as reported.

Article 7, Sect. 6, in the Report was postponed.

On motion of Mr. MADISON, seconded by Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS, Article 8 was reconsidered; and after the words “all treaties made,” were inserted, nem. con., the words, “or which shall be made.” This insertion was meant to obviate all doubt concerning the force of treaties preëxisting, by making the words, “all treaties made,” to refer to them, as the words inserted would refer to future treaties.

Mr. CARROLL and Mr. L. MARTIN expressed their apprehensions, and the probable apprehensions of their constituents, that under the power of regulating trade the General Legislature might favor the ports of particular States, by requiring vessels destined to or from other States to enter and clear thereat; as vessels belonging or bound to Baltimore, to enter and clear at Norfolk, &c. They moved the following proposition:

“The Legislature of the United States shall not oblige vessels belonging to citizens thereof, or to foreigners, to enter or pay duties or imposts in any other State than in that to which they may be bound, or to clear out in any other than the State in which their cargoes may be laden on board; nor shall any privilege or immunity be granted to any vessel on entering or clearing out, or paying duties or imposts in one State in preference to another.”

Mr. GORHAM thought such a precaution unnecessary: and that the revenue might be defeated, if vessels could run up long rivers, through the jurisdiction of different States, without being required to enter, with the opportunity of landing and selling their cargoes by the way.

Mr. McHENRY and General PINCKNEY made the following propositions:

“Should it be judged expedient by the Legislature of the United States, that one or more ports for collecting duties or imposts, other than those ports of entrance and clearance already established by the respective States, should be established, the Legislature of the United States shall signify the same to the Executives of the respective States, ascertaining the number of such ports judged necessary, to be laid by the said Executives before the Legislatures of the States at their next session; and the Legislature of the United States shall not have the power of fixing or establishing the particular ports for collecting duties or imposts in any State, except the Legislature of such State shall neglect to fix and establish the same during their first session to be held after such notification by the Legislature of the United States to the Executive of such State.

“All duties, imposts, and excises, prohibitions or restraints, laid or made by the Legislature of the United States, shall be uniform and equal throughout the United States.”

These several propositions were referred, nem. con., to a committee composed of a member from each State. The Committee, appointed by ballot, were, — Mr. LANGDON, Mr. GORHAM, Mr. SHERMAN, Mr. DAYTON, Mr. FITZSIMONS, Mr. READ, Mr. CARROLL, Mr. MASON, Mr. WILLIAMSON, Mr. BUTLER, Mr. FEW.

On the question now taken on Mr. DICKINSON’S motion of yesterday, allowing appointments to offices to be referred by the General Legislature to “the Executives of the several States,” as a further amendment to Article 10, Sect. 2, the votes were, — Connecticut, Virginia, Georgia, aye, — 3; New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Delaware, North Carolina, South Carolina, no, — 6; Maryland, divided.

In amendment of the same section, the words, “other public Ministers,” were inserted after “ambassadors.”

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS moved to strike out of the section, “and may correspond with the supreme Executives of the several States,” as unnecessary, and implying that he could not correspond with others.

Mr. BROOM seconded him.

On the question, — New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, aye, — 9; Maryland, no, — 1.

The clause, “Shall receive ambassadors and other public Ministers,” was agreed to, nem. con.

Mr. SHERMAN moved to amend the “power to grant reprieves and pardons,” so as to read, “to grant reprieves until the ensuing session of the Senate, and pardons with consent of the Senate.”

On the question — Connecticut, aye, — 1; New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, no, — 8.

The words, “except in cases of impeachment,” were inserted, nem. con., after “pardons.”

On the question to agree to, “but his pardon shall not be pleadable in bar,” it passed in the negative, — New Hampshire, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, aye, — 4; Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, Georgia, no, — 6.


1 In the printed Journals, Connecticut, Virginia, and Georgia voted in the affirmative.

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