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Elliot’s Debates: Volume 2

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Convention of Massachusetts, January 24, 1788

Thursday, January 24.—Mr. NASON renewed his motion for reconsidering a former vote to discuss the Constitution by paragraphs, so that the whole may be taken up.

The Hon. Mr. ADAMS said, he was one of those who had difficulties and doubts respecting some parts of the proposed Constitution. He had, he said, for several weeks after the publication of it, laid by all the writings in the public papers on the subject, in order to be enabled leisurely to consider them. He had, he said, still more difficulties on his mind; but that he had chosen rather to be an auditor than an objector, and he had particular reasons therefor. As this was the case with him, and others, he believed, were in a similar situation, he was desirous to have a full investigation of the subject; that thereby such might be confirmed, either in favor or against the Constitution; and was, therefore, against the motion. We ought not, he said, to be stingy of our time, or the public money, when so important an object demanded them; and the public expect that we will not. He was sorry, he said, for gentlemen’s necessities; but he would rather support the gentlemen who were so necessitated, or lend them money to do it, than they should hurry so great a subject. He, therefore, hoped that the question would be put, and that we should proceed as we began.

Mr. PITTS said, it was impossible to consider the whole until the parts had been examined. Our constituents, said he, have a right to demand of us the reasons which shall influence us to vote as we shall do. He must, he said, therefore oppose the motion.

The Hon. Mr. KING, Col. SMITH, and several other gentlemen, spoke against the motion.

Mr. WIDGERY opposed the motion’s being winked out of sight. He wished, he said, the question might be put, that the sense of the Convention respecting it might be taken.

Gen. THOMPSON said, it was not essential how the matter was considered; but he wished to have the whole subject at large open to discussion, so that every body might speak to it. A member, says he, gets up and speaks, but he is called to order, as not confining himself to the particular paragraph under debate; and this puts him out. In his opinion, he said, the Constitution, and the reasons which induced gentlemen to frame it, ought to have been sent to the several towns to be considered by them. My town, said he, considered it seven hours, and after this there was not one in favor of it. If this had been done, we should have known the minds of the people on it; and should we dare, he asked, to act different from the sense of the people? It is strange, he said, that a system, which its planners say is so plain, that he that runs may read it, should want so much explanation.

[The question being generally called for, the motion was put, and negatived, without a return of the house. The endeavors of gentlemen to hush to silence a small buzz of congratulation, among a few citizens in the gallery, being mistaken by some of the members for a hiss, created a momentary agitation in the Convention, which, however, after a short conversation, subsided.]

The eighth section was again read.

The Hon. Mr. SEDGWICK went into a general answer to the objections which had been started against the powers to be granted to Congress by this section. He showed the absolute necessity there was that the body which had the security of the whole for their object, should have the necessary means allowed them to effect it; and in order to secure the people against the abuse of this power, the representatives and people, he said, are equally subject to the laws, and can, therefore, have but one and the same interest; that they would never lay unnecessary burdens, when they themselves must bear a part of them; and from the extent of their objects, their power ought necessarily to be illimitable. Men, said he, rarely do mischief for the sake of being mischievous. With respect to the power, in this section, to raise armies, the honorable gentleman said, although gentlemen had thought it a dangerous power, and would be used for the purpose of tyranny, yet they did not object to the Confederation in this particular; and by this, Congress could have kept the whole of the late army in the field, had they seen fit. He asked, if gentlemen could think it possible that the legislature of the United States should raise an army unnecessarily, which, in a short time, would be under the control of other persons; for, if it was not to be under their control, what object could they have in raising it? It was, he said, a chimerical idea to suppose that a country like this could ever be enslaved. How is an army for that purpose to be obtained from the freemen of the United States? They certainly, said he, will know to what object it is to be applied. Is it possible, he asked, that an army could be raised for the purpose of enslaving themselves and their brethren? or, if raised, whether they could subdue a nation of freemen, who know how to prize liberty, and who have arms in their hands? He said, it was a deception in gentlemen to say that this power could be thus used. The honorable gentleman said, that in the Constitution every possible provision against an abuse of power was made; and if gentlemen would candidly investigate for themselves, they would find that the evils they lament cannot ensue therefrom.

Mr. DAWES observed, upon the authority of Congress to raise and support armies, that all the objections which had been made by gentlemen against standing armies, were inapplicable to the present question, which was, that, as there must be an authority somewhere to raise and support armies, whether that authority ought to be in Congress. As Congress are the legislature upon the proposed plan of government, in them only, said he, should be lodged the power under debate. Some gentlemen seem to have confused ideas about standing armies: that the legislature of a country should not have power to raise armies, is a doctrine he had never heard before. Charles II., in England, kept in pay an army of five thousand men, and James II. augmented them to thirty thousand. This occasioned a great and just alarm through the nation; and, accordingly, when William III. came to the throne, it was declared unconstitutional to raise or keep a standing army, in time of peace, without the consent of the legislature. Most of our own state constitutions have borrowed this language from the English declaration of rights, but none of them restrain their legislatures from raising and supporting armies. Those who never objected to such an authority in Congress, as vested by the old Confederation, surely ought not to object to such a power in Congress, where there is to be a new branch of representation, arising immediately from the people, and which branch alone must originate those very grants that are to maintain an army. When we consider that this branch is to be elected every two years, there is great propriety in its being restrained from making any grants in support of the army for a longer space than that of their existence. If the election of this popular branch were for seven years, as in England, the men who would make the first grant, might also be the second and third, for the continuance of the army; and such an acquaintance might exist between the representatives in Congress and the leaders of the army as might be unfavorable to liberty. But the wisdom of the late Convention has avoided this difficulty. The army must expire of itself in two years after it shall be raised, unless renewed by representatives, who, at that time, will have just come fresh from the body of the people. It will share the same fate as that of a temporary law, which dies at the time mentioned in the act itself, unless revived by some future legislature.

Capt. DENCH said, it had been observed, and he was not convinced that the observation was wrong, that the grant of the powers in this section would produce a consolidation of the states, and the moment it begins, a dissolution of the state governments commences. If mistaken, he wished to be set right.

Afternoon.—Dr. TAYLOR asked why there was not to be a federal town, over which Congress is to exercise exclusive legislation.

Hon. Mr. STRONG said, every gentleman must think that the erection of a federal town was necessary, wherein Congress might remain protected from insult. A few years ago, said the honorable gentleman, Congress had to remove, because they were not protected by the authority of the state in which they were then sitting. He asked whether this Convention, though convened for but a short period, did not think it was necessary that they should have power to protect themselves from insult; much more so must they think it necessary to provide for Congress, considering they are to be a permanent body.

Hon. Mr. DAVIS (of Boston) said it was necessary that Congress should have a permanent residence; and that it was the intention of Congress, under the Confederation, to erect a federal town. He asked, would Massachusetts, or any other state, wish to give to New York, or the state in which Congress shall sit, the power to influence the proceedings of that body, which was to act for the benefit of the whole, by leaving them liable to the outrage of the citizens of such states?

Dr. TAYLOR asked, why it need be ten miles square, and whether one mile square would not be sufficient.

Hon. Mr. STRONG said, Congress was not to exercise jurisdiction over a district of ten miles, but one not exceeding ten miles square.

Rev. Mr. STILLMAN said, that, whatever were the limits of the district, it would depend on the cession of the legislature of one of the states.

Mr. DENCH said, that he wished further light on the subject; but that from the words, “We, the people,” in the first clause, ordaining this Constitution, he thought it was an actual consolidation of the states, and that, if he was not mistaken, the moment it took place, a dissolution of the state governments will also take place.

Gen. BROOKS (of Lincoln) rose, he said, to consider the idea suggested by the gentleman last speaking, that this Constitution would produce a dissolution of the state governments, or a consolidation of the whole; which, in his opinion, he said, was ill founded—or rather a loose idea. In the first place, says he, the Congress, under this Constitution, cannot be organized without repeated acts of the legislatures of the several states; and, therefore, if the creating power is dissolved, the body to be created cannot exist. In the second place, says the general, it is impossible the general government can exist, unless the governments of the several states are forever existing; as the qualifications of the electors of the federal representatives are to be the same as those of the electors of the most numerous branch of the state legislatures. It was, therefore, he said, impossible that the state governments should be annihilated by the general government, and it was, he said, strongly implied, from that part of the section under debate which gave Congress power to exercise exclusive jurisdiction over the federal town, that they shall have it over no other place. When we attend to the Constitution, we shall see, says the general, that the powers to be given to Congress amount only to a consolidation of the strength of the Union, and that private rights are not consolidated. The general mentioned the rights which Congress could not infringe upon, and said that their power to define what was treason was much less than is vested in the legislature of this state by our own constitution; as it was confined, in the third section of article third, to levying war, or adhering to and comforting enemies, only. He mentioned the restraint upon Congress in the punishment of treason, and compared it with the extended powers lodged in the Parliament of Great Britain on like crimes; and concluded by observing, that, as the United States guaranty to each state a republican form of government, the state governments were as effectually secured as though this Constitution should never be in force.

Hon. Mr. KING said, in reply to the inquiry respecting a federal town, that there was now no place for Congress to reside in, and that it was necessary that they should have a permanent residence, where to establish proper archives, in which they may deposit treaties, state papers, deeds of cession, &c.

Hon. Mr. SINGLETARY said, that all gentlemen had Said about a bill of rights to the Constitution, was, that what is written is written; but he thought we were giving up all power, and that the states will be like towns in this state. Towns, said he, have a right to lay taxes, to raise money, and the states possibly may have the same we have now, said he, a good republican Constitution, and we do not want it guarantied to us. He did not understand what gentlemen meant by Congress guarantying a republican form of government; he wished they would not play round the subject with their fine stories, like a fox round a trap, but come to it. Why don’t they say that Congress will guaranty our state constitution?

Gen. THOMPSON said, Congress only meant to guaranty a form of government.

Hon. Mr. KING asked whether, if the present constitution of this state had been guarantied by the United States, the honorable gentleman from Sutton would not have considered it as a great defect in the proposed Constitution, as it must have precluded the state from making any alteration in it, should they see fit so to do at the time mentioned in the Constitution.

[Several other gentlemen spoke, in a desultory conversation, on various parts of the Constitution; in which, several articles from the constitution of this state, and the Confederation, were read; many questions asked the honorable gentlemen who framed the Constitution, to which answers apparently satisfactory were given.]

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