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Elliot’s Debates: Volume 2

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Convention of New York

In Convention, Poughkeepsie, June 17, 1788.

On the 1st of February, 1788, the legislature of the state of New York passed a resolution in the words following, to wit:—

Whereas the United States, in Congress assembled, did, on the 28th day of September last, unanimously resolve, that the report of the Convention of the states lately assembled in Philadelphia, with the resolutions and letter accompanying the same, be transmitted to the several legislatures, in order to be submitted to a Convention of delegates, chosen in each state by the people thereof, in conformity to the resolves of the Convention, made and provided in that case,—Therefore,

Resolved, as the sense of the legislature, that the said report, with the said resolutions and letter accompanying the same, be Submitted to a Convention of delegates to be chosen by the people of this state; that it be recommended to the people of this state to choose, by ballot, delegates to meet in Convention for the purpose aforesaid; that the number of delegates to be elected be the same as the number of members of Assembly from the respective cities and counties; that all free male citizens of the age of twenty-one years and upwards be admitted to vote, and that any person of that description be eligible; that the election be held on the last Tuesday in April next, at the same respective places where the elections for members of Assembly shall be held, and be continued by adjournment from day to day, until the same shall be completed, not exceeding five days; that the inspectors, who shall inspect the election for members of Assembly, be also inspectors of the election of delegates; that the inspectors do also appoint two clerks, each of whom shall keep a poll list of the electors for delegates; that the inspectors do provide a box to receive the ballots for delegates; that the poll books or lists shall, after due examination and correction, be signed by the inspectors attending at the closing, of the poll, and the clerks who shall have kept the same poll books, respectively; and then the box containing the ballots for delegates shall be opened, and the ballots therein contained taken out, and, without being inspected, shall, together with the poll books or lists for delegates, be immediately put up under cover and enclosed, and the enclosure bound with tape, and sealed in such manner as to prevent its being opened without discovery; and the inspectors present at the closing of the poll shall then put their seals, and write their names, upon the same enclosure, and one of the inspectors then present, to be appointed by a majority of them, shall deliver the same enclosure, so sealed up as aforesaid, to the clerk of the county, without delay, who shall carefully preserve and keep the same, unbroken and unopened, until the meeting of the persons who are to canvass and estimate the ballots therein contained, when he shall deliver the same enclosure, unbroken and unopened, to them; that the person authorized by law to canvass and estimate the votes for members of Assembly, do, also, immediately after they shall have canvassed and estimated the votes to be taken at the election to be held on the last Tuesday in April next, for members of Assembly, proceed to open the said enclosures containing the ballots for the delegates, and canvass and estimate the votes taken for delegates; and when, as soon as they shall be able to determine, upon such canvass or estimate, who, by the greatest number of votes, shall have been chosen for delegates for the city and county, they shall determine the same, and thereupon, without delay, make, and subscribe with their own proper names and hand-writing, the requisite number of certificates of such determination, and cause one to be delivered to each of the persons so elected a delegate; and that the said election and canvass shall, in every other respect not herein provided for, be conducted in like manner as is provided for by law for holding elections for members of Assembly; that the delegates, so to be chosen, do meet in convention at the court-house in Poughkeepsie, in the county of Duchess, on the third Tuesday of June next; that the clerks of the Senate and Assembly do forthwith, after the Convention shall have assembled, deliver to them copies of the said report, and of the letter and resolutions which accompanied the same to Congress, and of the said resolution of Congress; that the delegates be allowed the same wages as the members of Assembly, and that it will be proper for the legislature, at their next meeting, to provide for the payment thereof.”

In pursuance of the above resolution, an election was held in the several counties, and the following gentlemen were returned:—

From the City and County of New York. —John Jay, Richard Morris, John Sloss Hobart, Alexander Hamilton, Robert R. Livingston, Isaac Roosevelt, James Duane, Richard Harrison, Nicholas Low.

From the City and County of Albany.—Robert Yates, John Lansing, Jun., Henry Outhoudt, Peter Vroman, Israel Thompson, Anthony Ten Eyck, Dirck Swart.

From the County of Suffolk.—Henry Scudder, Jonathan N. Havens, John Smith, Thomas Tredwell, David Hedges.

From the County of Ulster.—Governor Clinton, John Cantine, Cor. C. Schoonmaker, Ebenezer Clark, James Clinton. Dirck Wynkoop.

From the County of Queens.—Samuel Jones, John Schenck, Nathaniel Lawrence, Stephen Carman.

From the County of Kings.—Peter Lefferts, Peter Vandervoort.

From the County of Richmond.—Abraham Bancker, Gozen Ryerss.

From the County of Westchester.—Lewis Morris, Philip Livingston, Richard Hatfield, Philip Van Courtland, Thaddeus Crane, Lott W. Sarls.

From the County of Orange.—John Haring, Jesse Woodhull, Henry Wisner, John Wood.

From the County of Duchess.—Zephaniah Platt, Melancton Smith, Jacobus Swartwout, Jonathan Akins, Ezra Thompson, Gilbert Livingston, John De Witt.

From the County of Montgomery.—William Harper, Christopher P. Yates, John Frey, John Winn, Volkert Veeder, Henry Staring.

From the County of Columbia.—Peter Van Ness, John Bay, Matthew Adgate.

From the Counties of Washington, and Clinton.—Ichabod Parker, John Williams, Albert Baker, David Hopkins.

The Convention, having accordingly assembled on the 17th of June, unanimously elected his excellency, GEORGE CLINTON, president. After appointing the proper subordinate officers, and having ordered that the doors should be kept open, and the business of the Convention opened every morning with prayer, Mr. Duane, Mr. Jones, Mr. R. Morris, Mr. Lansing, and Mr. Harris, were chosen a committee to report rules for conducting the business.

Next day, the committee of regulations brought in their report, on which the following resolves were passed, viz.:—

1st. That, at the meeting of the Convention each day, the minutes of the preceding day shall in the first place be read, at which times, mistakes, if any, shall be corrected.

2d. That all motions and addresses be made to the chair, and standing.

3d. That every motion made and seconded, except motions for adjournment, shall be handed to the chair in writing, and there read before any debate or question token thereon.

4th. That, upon every question taken, the yeas and nays shall be entered, if requested by any two members.

5th. That, if two members rise to speak, and there shall be a dispute which of them rose first, it shall be determined by the president.

6th. That no interruption shall be suffered while a member is addressing the chair, but by a call to order by the president, or by a member through the president.

7th. That no member be referred to by name in any debate.

8th. That, if any member shall transgress the rules a second time, the president may refer to him by name; that the Convention may examine and censure the member’s conduct, he being allowed to extenuate or justify.

9th. That any member, making a motion, may withdraw it before the question is put thereon; after which any other member may renew the same motion, if he thinks proper.

10th. That the appointment of all committees shall be by ballot.

11th. That none be admitted within the bar, excepting the members and secretaries.

12th. That the preceding rules shall be observed when the Convention resolves itself into a committee of the whole.

The Constitution reported by the general Convention was then read, together with the resolutions and letter accompanying the same to Congress, and the resolve of Congress thereon; after which the Convention, on motion of Mr. Lansing, agreed to resolve itself, the succeeding day, into a committee of the whole.

On the 19th of June, the Convention met, pursuant to adjournment, and, the order of the day being read, resolved itself into a committee of the whole, and Mr. OUTHOUDT was called to the chair.

The Constitution being again read, the Hon. ROBERT R. LIVINGSTON rose, and addressed the chair as follows:—

Mr. Chairman, as the preamble of the plan under consideration comprises the great objects of the Union, it will be proper, at this place, to introduce such general observations as may with less propriety be noticed, when particular articles are under consideration, and which may serve, at the same time, to show the necessity of adopting some more efficacious plan of union, than that by which we are now bound. In the course of the observations I shall make with this view, many things will be urged that will be of little use to those gentlemen who have heard all that has been said, who have read all that has been written on this subject, and who have formed their judgments after mature consideration. With such, all debate is unnecessary. But I trust, sir, there are many gentlemen present, who have yet formed no decided opinion on the important question before us, and who (like myself) bring with them dispositions to examine whatever shall be offered, and not to determine till after the maturest deliberation. To such I address myself.

Ever since a pure and perfect religion has lent her mild lights to philosophy, and extended her influence over the sentiments of men, it has been a received opinion that the happiness of nations, as well as of individuals, depends on peace, and that intimate connection which mutual wants occasion. To establish this on the basis of a general union of nations, has, at various times, employed the thoughts and attention of wise and virtuous men. It is said to have been the last great plan of the illustrious Henry IV. of France, who was justly esteemed one of the wisest and best of princes. But, alas! sir, in the old world, every attempt of this nature will prove abortive. There, governments are the children of force or fraud, and carry with them strong features of their parent’s character. Disputes will not be referred to a common umpire, unless that umpire has power to enforce his decrees; and how can it be expected that princes, jealous of power, will consent to sacrifice any portion of it to the happiness of their people, who are of little account in their estimation? Differences among them, therefore, will continue to be decided by the sword, and the blood of thousands will be shed before the most trifling controversy can be determined. Even Peace can hardly be said to bestow her usual blessings on them; their mutual jealousies convert peace into an armed truce. The husband man feels the oppression of standing armies, by whom the fruits of his labor are devoured; and the flower of youth is sacrificed to the rigors of military discipline. It has pleased Heaven to afford the United States means for the attainment of this great object, which it has withheld from other nations. They speak the same language; they profess the same religion; and, what is of infinitely more importance, they acknowledge the same great principle of government—a principle, if not unknown, at least little understood in the old world— that all power is derived from the people. They consider the state and the general governments as different deposits of that power. In this view, it is of little moment to them whether that portion of it which they must, for their own happiness, lodge in their rulers, be invested in the state governments only, or shared between them and the councils of the Union. The rights they reserve are not diminished, and probably their liberty acquires an additional security from the division.

Let us not, then, sir, neglect to improve the advantages we possess; let us avail ourselves of the present moment to fix lasting peace upon the broad basis of national union; let us, while it is still in our power, lay the foundation of our own happiness, and that of our posterity. Jealousies may spring up; the seeds of them are already sown; the present moment may be the only one afforded for eradicating them.

I am too well satisfied, sir, of the virtue and patriotism of those to whom I address myself, to suppose that their determination will be influenced by any unworthy motive. But, sir, I dread the effect which a hasty or partial review may have on their minds; and, above all things, I dread lest the chimerical ideas of perfection in government, which gentlemen may have formed, should induce them to reject this, as falling short of their standard. Perfection, sir, is not the lot of humanity; and perhaps, were the gentlemen on this floor to compare their sentiments on this subject, no two of them would be found to agree. Nay, such is the weakness of our judgment, that it is more than probable that, if a perfect plan was offered to our choice, we should conceive it defective, and condemn it. The only people whose government was visibly directed by God himself, rejected his administration, and induced him, in his wrath, to give them a king. Let us be cautious, sir, lest, by our negligence or eager pursuit after chimerical perfection, we should forfeit the blessings we enjoy, and lose this precious opportunity of completing what other nations have been unable to effect.

As, on the one hand, sir, our situation admits of a union, so, on the other, our distresses point out its necessity. I will not, at this time, touch on the declining state of our commerce; nor will I remind you of our national bankruptcy, of the effect it has upon our public measures, and the private misery that it causes; nor will I wound your feelings by a recapitulation of the insults we daily receive from nations whose injuries we are compelled to repay by the advantages of our commerce. These topics have been frequently touched; they are in every man’s mind; they lie heavy at every patriot’s heart. They have induced states, the most independent in their situation, to unite in their endeavors to remove them; they operate with peculiar force on us. Permit me, however, to make some observations, drawn from our particular situation, and which will show, in the clearest light, that our existence, as a state, depends on a strong and efficient federal government.

He went into a minute consideration of the natural advantages of this state, drawn from its valuable and abundant staples; the situation of its principal seaport; the command of the commerce of New Jersey, by the rivers discharging themselves in our bay; the facility that the Sound afforded for an intercourse with the Eastern States. He observed upon the advantages resulting from the Hudson, which he described as bearing upon its bosom the wealth of the remotest part of the state. He touched upon the prospects that a lasting peace afforded of commanding the treasures of the western world, by the improvement of our internal navigation. He said, that to these natural advantages we might add many other adventitious circumstances. He observed, that a considerable proportion of our domestic debt was already in the treasury, and though we were indebted for a part of this to our citizens, yet that debt was comparatively small, and could easily be extinguished by an honest exertion on the part of the government, lie observed, that our back lands were competent to the discharge of our foreign debt, if a vigorous government should be adopted, which would enable us to avail ourselves of this resource; so that we might look forward to a day when no other taxes would be required from us than such as would be necessary to support our internal government, the amount of the impost being more than adequate to the other expenses of the Union. He feared that a prospect of these advantages had excited an improper confidence in ourselves; that it has produced an inflexibility, which had rendered us regardless of the wishes and expectations of the other states, and lessened that respect which was due, as well from nations to each other, as from individuals. We have insisted, says he, that every knee shall bow to the golden image we have set up. But let us remember that, how valuable soever the materials of which its nobler parts are composed, its feet (like those of the image in the vision) are composed of iron and clay, of materials that will not adhere together, and which the slightest shock will tumble on the earth.

He observed, that wealth excited envy, stimulated avarice, and invited invasions; that, if the Union was dissolved, we could only be protected by our domestic force. He then urged the incapacity of the state to defend itself, from the detached situation of its ports, remarking particularly upon that of Staten Island and Long Island; their vicinity to states, which, in case of a disunion, must be considered as independent, and perhaps unfriendly powers. He turned the attention of the committee to the north-east, where he showed Vermont ready to avail itself of our weakness; speaking of the people of that state, as a brave and hardy body of men, that we had neither the spirit to subdue, nor, what he more strongly recommended, the magnanimity to yield to. On the north-west, he pointed to the British posts, and hostile tribes of savages. He showed that, in case of domestic war, Hudson River, that great source of our wealth, would also be that of our weakness, by the intersection of the state, and the difficulty we should find in bringing one part to support the other.

He then ran over the alliances that would be formed in case of a disunion; pointed out the connection between the Eastern States, and urged various reasons to show that it was neither the interest nor wish of the states, one the east or west, to form a league offensive or defensive with us. Having dwelt largely on this subject, he deduced, as a consequence from it, that our wealth and our weakness equally required the support of a federal union. He observed that this could only be found in the existing Confederation, or in that under consideration; urging that, as union could only be founded on the consent of the states, it should be sought where we had reason to expect that consent; that to depart from this would be to investigate as many ideal systems as there were persons who had thought on the subject of government. He observed that, in the then state of things, it was problematical, at least, whether we would recur to the old Confederation; but, as many gentlemen thought it possible, he would proceed to investigate it. He then went through the Confederation, and showed that the powers intended to be vested in Congress were very similar to those given by the new government, to wit: to raise troops, possess a common treasure, borrow money, make treaties, appoint civil officers, &c. He observed that as, on the one hand, the want of these powers would not be objected to in the Confederation, so, on the other, the possession of them could not be urged as a fault in the new plan.

He asked whether, with these powers, it had been able to effect the purposes designed by the Union; whether it had repelled invaders, maintained domestic peace, supported our credit, or extended our commerce. He proved that not one of these objects had been effected by it. He pointed to the British possessions in the limits of this state, held in defiance of the most solemn treaties, and contempt of our government, as proof of its incompetency to defend our rights against foreign powers. How has it happened, said he, that Vermont is, at this moment, an independent state? How has it happened that new states have been rent from those on the west, that were entitled to protection? He asked if any gentlemen would assert that our national credit was fixed upon a proper basis; that our commerce, enjoyed the advantages we had a right to expect. If, then, said he, experience has shown that the existing Confederation (if I may use the term) has not answered the great ends of the Union, it must either have arisen from an insufficiency in its powers, or from some defect in the execution of them: if insufficient, more should be added; if not executed, the cause should be inquired into. He showed that, with the addition of a few powers, those it possessed were competent to the purposes of the Union; but that the defect of the system rested in the impossibility of carrying into effect the rights invested in them by the states. He then ran through every power intended to he vested in Congress, and showed that the exercise of them, by the intervention of the state governments, and subject to their pleasure or their different views of the matters recommended to them, would be attended with insuperable difficulties, inconveniences, and delays, even if they were disposed to carry them into effect; but that, if (which, experience had shown, would often be the case) they should either neglect or refuse to comply with the requisition, no means were pointed out by the Confederation to coerce them, but that it was left, as all leagues among nations, to military force. He showed, in a strong point of view, the danger of applying this; and deduced from all those observations, that the old Confederation was defective in its principle, and impeachable in its execution, as it operated upon states in their political capacity, and not upon individuals; and that it carried with it the seeds of domestic violence, and tended ultimately to its dissolution. He then appealed to our experience in the late war, to show the operation of this system, and demonstrated that it must, from its own construction, leave every state to struggle with its own difficulties, and that none would be roused to action but those that were near the seat of war. He alleged that this idea of a federal republic, on the ground of a league among independent states, had, in every instance, disappointed the expectations of its advocates. He mentioned its effects in the ancient republics, and took a view of the union of the Netherlands, and showed that, even when they were struggling for every thing that was dear to them, in the contest with Spain, they permitted the burden of the war to be borne, in a great measure, by the province of Holland; which was, at one time, compelled to attempt to force a neighboring province, by arms, to a compliance with their federal engagements. He cited the Germanic league, as a proof that no government, formed on the basis of the total independency of its parts, could produce the effects of union. He showed that, notwithstanding the power of their federal head, from his hereditary dominions, the decrees of their general diet were little regarded, and different members of the confederacy were perpetually rushing upon each other’s swords.

He then observed upon the necessity of adding to the powers of Congress, that of regulating the militia, referring to the article in the proposed plan, which he said he would not anticipate. He urged the common consent of America as a proof of the necessity of adding the power of regulating commerce to those Congress already possessed, which, he said, not only included those of forming laws, but of deciding upon those laws, and carrying them into effect; that this power could never be trusted to the individual states, whose interests might, in many instances, clash with that of the Union. From hence he inferred the necessity of a federal judiciary, to which he would have referred not only the laws for regulating commerce, but the construction of treaties and other great national objects,—showing that, without this, it would be in the power of any state to commit the honor of the Union, defeat their most beneficial treaties, and involve them in a war. He next adverted to the form of the federal government. He said that, though justified when considered as a mere diplomatic body, making engagements for its respective states, which they were to carry into effect, yet, if it was to enjoy legislative, judicial, and executive powers, an attention as well to the facility of doing business as to the principles of freedom, called for a division of those powers. After commenting on each of them, and showing the mischief that would flow from their union in one House of Representatives, and those, too, chosen only by the legislatures, and neither representing the people nor the government, (which he said consisted of legislative, executive, and judicial,) he proposed the Constitution of this state as the model for the state governments.

From these observations he deduced, first, that the powers which were, by common consent, intended to be vested in the federal head, had either been found deficient, or rendered useless by the impossibility of carrying them into execution, on the principle of a league of states totally separate and independent;—secondly, that, if the principle was changed, a change would also become necessary in the form of the government; but if we could no longer retain the old principle of the confederacy, and were compelled to change its form, we were driven to the necessity of creating a new constitution, and could find no place to rest upon in the old Confederation; that he had urged these considerations to fix gentlemen’s attention to the only true ground of inquiry; to keep them from reverting to plans which had no single feature that could now be serviceable, and to leads the way to a minute discussion of every article with candor and deliberation; and, in order that this might be the better effected, and no gentleman pledged before he had fully considered the subject, he intended, before he sat down, to move the resolution he had in his hand. He considered the question as one that not only affected the happiness, and perhaps the existence, of this state, but as one that involved the great interests of humanity. Many of us, sir, said he, are officers of government; many of us have seats in the Senate and Assembly: let us, on this solemn occasion, forget the pride of office; let us consider ourselves as simple citizens, assembled to consult on measures that are to promote the happiness of our fellow-citizens. As magistrates, we may be unwilling to sacrifice any portion of the power of the state; as citizens, we have no interest in advancing the powers of the state at the expense of the Union. We are only bound to see that so much power as we find it necessary to entrust to our rulers, be so placed as to insure our liberties, and the blessings of a well-ordered government.

He then offered a resolution, the purport of which was, “That no question, general or particular, should be put in the committee upon the proposed Constitution of government for the United States, or upon any clause or article thereof, nor upon any amendment which should be proposed thereto, until after the said Constitution and amendments should have been considered clause by clause.”

The said resolution, being taken into consideration, was agreed to by the Convention.

The committee then rose, and the Convention adjourned till next day, 10 o’clock, A. M.

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