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Elliot’s Debates: Volume 2

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Convention of Massachusetts, January 14, 1788

Monday, January 14.— The Constitution for the United States of America, as reported by the Convention of delegates, held at Philadelphia, in May last, together with the resolutions of the General Court of this commonwealth, for calling a Convention, agreeably to the recommendation of Congress, were ordered to be read.

On motion of Mr. Strong, Voted, That this Convention, sensible how important it is that the great subject submitted to their determination should be discussed and considered with moderation, candor, and deliberation, will enter into a free conversation on the several parts thereof, by paragraphs, until every member shall have had an opportunity to express his sentiments on the same; after which the Convention will consider and debate at large the question whether this Convention will adopt and ratify the proposed Constitution, before any vote is taken expressive of the sense of the Convention, upon the whole or any part thereof.

The resolve of the General Court of this commonwealth, of March, 1787, appointing delegates for the Convention of the states, held at Philadelphia, was ordered to be read.

A motion was made and passed, that the Hon. Elbridge Gerry be requested to take a seat in the Convention, to answer any question of fact, from time to time, that the Convention may ask, respecting the passing of the Constitution.

Afternoon.— Ordered, That a committee of three be appointed to wait upon the Hon. Elbridge Gerry, and acquaint him with the vote of this morning, requesting him to take a seat in the Convention, to answer to any questions of fact, from time to time, that the Convention may ask, respecting the passing the Constitution.

Agreeably to the resolution passed in the forenoon, the Convention proceeded to consider the first section of the Constitution, and, after a short conversation, entered upon the discussion of the second section, the first paragraph of which caused a lengthy debate.

The Convention entered upon the consideration of the proposed Constitution, and, having debated thereon through the day, postponed the further consideration thereof to the next morning.

It had been mentioned by some gentlemen, that the introduction of tyranny into several nations had been by lengthening the duration of their parliaments or legislative bodies; and the fate of those nations was urged as a caution against lengthening the period for which Congress is to be chosen. Mr. SEDGWICK wished to know what were the nations which had been thus deprived of their liberties; he believed they were few in number; in fact, he did not recollect any. After showing, by several examples, how nations had been deprived of their liberties, he continued,—Is it not necessary, Mr. President, that the federal representatives should be chosen for two years? Annual elections, in a single state, may be the best for a variety of reasons; but when the great affairs of thirteen states—where their commerce may be extended, and where it is necessary to be restricted—what measures may be most expedient, and best adapted to promote the general prosperity thereof, are to be the objects of deliberation, is not such a period too short? Can a man, called into public life, divest himself of local concerns, and instantly initiate himself into a general knowledge of such extensive and weighty matters? After several other arguments in favor of the section, he begged the indulgence of the Convention while he made a personal observation: “It has been given out, sir, by several persons, that I have said the Constitution must go down, right or wrong; I beg leave to declare, sir, on my honor, that, so far from having made such a declaration, the idea of it has not ever entered my mind.”

Mr. G. DENCH wished to know how the representation was secured; as, by the 4th section, Congress were empowered to make or alter the regulation of the times, places, and manner of holding elections. Mr. D. was continuing, but was called to order by Mr. Parsons, who said the subject in debate was the expediency of biennial elections, and that an answer to the gentleman from Hopkinton would more properly be given when the 4th section was under consideration.

Dr. TAYLOR. Mr. President, I am opposed to biennial, and am in favor of annual elections. Annual elections have been the practice of this state ever since its settlement, and no objection to such a mode of electing has ever been made. It has, indeed, sir, been considered as the safeguard of the liberties of the people; and the annihilation of it, the avenue through which tyranny will enter. By the Articles of Confederation, annual elections are provided for, though we have additional securities in a right to recall any or all of our members from Congress, and a provision for rotation. In the proposed Constitution, there is no provision for rotation; we have no right by it to recall our delegates. In answer to the observations, that, by frequency of elections, good men will be excluded, I answer, if they behave well, it is probable they will be continued; but if they behave ill, how shall we remedy the evil? It is possible that rulers may be appointed who may wish to root out the liberties of the people. Is it not, Mr. President, better, if such a case should occur, that at a short period they should politically die, than that they should be proceeded against by impeachment? These considerations, and others, said the doctor, make me in favor of annual elections; and the further we deviate therefrom, the greater is the evil.

The Hon. Mr. SPRAGUE was in favor of the section as it stood. He thought the same principles ought not to guide us when considering the election of a body whose jurisdiction was co-extensive with a great continent, as when regulating that of one whose concerns are only those of a single state.

Mr. T. DAWES, after a short exordium, said he had not heard it mentioned by any gentleman who had spoken in the debate, that the right of electing representatives in the Congress, as provided for in the proposed Constitution, will be the acquisition of a new privilege by the people, as it really will be. The people will then be immediately represented in the federal government; at present they are not; therefore it will be in favor of the people, if they are chosen for forty instead of two years;—and he adduced many reasons to show that it would not conduce to the interests of the United States, or the security of the people, to have them for a shorter period than two years.

The Hon. Mr. WHITE said he was opposed to the section; he thought the security of the people lay in frequent elections; for his part, he would rather they should be for six months than for two years;—and concluded by saying he was in favor of annual elections.

Dr. JARVIS, Gen. BROOKS, Gen. HEATH, and Mr. TURNER, each spoke a few words on the subject, when a motion was made to postpone the consideration of the 2d section until the next meeting, which passing, the Convention adjourned.

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