In Convention, Richmond, Tuesday, June 24, 1788
Mr. WYTHE arose, and addressed the chairman; but he spoke so very low that his speech could not be fully comprehended. He took a cursory view of the situation of the United States previous to the late war, their resistance to the oppression of Great Britain, and the glorious conclusion and issue of that arduous conflict. To perpetuate the blessings of freedom, happiness, and independence, he demonstrated the necessity of a firm, indissoluble union of the states. He expatiated on the defects and inadequacy of the Confederation, and the consequent misfortunes suffered by the people. He pointed out the impossibility of securing liberty without society, the impracticability of acting personally, and the inevitable necessity of delegating power to agents. He then recurred to the system under consideration. He admitted its imperfection, and the propriety of some amendments. But the excellency of many parts of it could not be denied by its warmest opponents. He thought that experience was the best guide, and could alone develop its consequences. Most of the improvements that had been made in the science of government, and other sciences, were the result of experience. He referred it to the advocates for amendments, whether, if they were indulged with any alterations they pleased, there might not still be a necessity of alteration.
He then proceeded to the consideration of the question of previous or subsequent amendments. The critical situation of America, the extreme danger of dissolving the Union, rendered it necessary to adopt the latter alternative. He saw no danger from this. It appeared to him, most clearly, that any amendments which might be thought necessary would be easily obtained after ratification, in the manner proposed by the Constitution, as amendments were desired by all the states, and had already been proposed by the several states. He then proposed that the committee should ratify the Constitution, and that whatsoever amendments might be deemed necessary should be recommended to the consideration of the Congress which should first assemble under the Constitution, to be acted upon according to the mode prescribed therein.[The resolution of ratification proposed by Mr. Wythe was then read by the clerk; which see hereafter in the report of the committee to the Convention.]
Mr. HENRY, after observing that the proposal of ratification was premature, and that the importance of the subject required the most mature deliberation, proceeded thus:
The honorable member must forgive me for declaring my dissent from it; because, if I understand it rightly, it admits that the new system is defective, and most capitally; for, immediately after the proposed ratification, there comes a declaration that the paper before you is not intended to violate any of these three great rightsthe liberty of religion, liberty of the press, and the trial by jury. What is the in- when you enumerate the rights which you are to enjoy? That those not enumerated are relinquished. There are only three things to be retainedreligion, freedom of the press, and jury trial. Will not the ratification carry every thing, without excepting these three things? Will not all the world pronounce that we intended to give up all the rest? Every thing it speaks of, by way of rights, is comprised in these things. Your subsequent amendments only go to these three amendments.
I feel myself distressed, because the necessity of securing our personal rights seems not to have pervaded the minds of men; for many other valuable things are omitted:for instance, general warrants, by which an officer may search suspected places, without evidence of the commission of a fact, or seize any person without evidence of his crime, ought to be prohibited. As these are admitted, any man may be seized, any property may be taken, in the most arbitrary manner, without any evidence or reason. Every thing the most sacred may be searched and ransacked by the strong hand of power. We have infinitely more reason to dread general warrants here than they have in England, because there, if a person be confined, liberty may be quickly obtained by the writ of habeas corpus. But here a man living many hundred miles from the judges may get in prison before he can get that writ.
Another most fatal omission is with respect to standing armies. In our bill of rights of Virginia, they are said to be dangerous to liberty, and it tells you that the proper defence of a free state consists in militia; and so I might go on to ten or eleven things of immense consequence secured in your bill of rights, concerning which that proposal is silent. Is that the language of the bill of rights in England? Is it the language of the American bill of rights, that these three rights, and these only, are valuable? Is it the language of men going into a new government? Is it not necessary to speak of those things before you go into a compact? How do these three things stand? As one of the parties, we declare we do not mean to give them up. This is very dictatorialmuch more so than the conduct which proposes alterations as the condition of adoption. In a compact there are two partiesone excepting, and another proposing. As a party, we propose that we shall secure these three things; and before we have the assent of the other contracting party, we go into the compact, and leave these things at their mercy.
What will be the consequence? Suppose the other states shall call this dictatorial. They will say, Virginia has gone into the government, and carried with her certain propositions, which, she says, ought to be concurred in by the other states. They will declare that she has no right to dictate to other states the conditions on which they shall come into the Union. According to the honorable member’s proposal, the ratification will cease to be obligatory unless they accede to these amendments. We have ratified it. You have committed a violation, will they say. They have not violated it. We say, we will go out of it. You are then reduced to a sad dilemmato give up these three rights, or leave the government. This is worse than our present Confederation, to which we have hitherto adhered honestly and faithfully. We shall be told we have violated it, because we have left it for the infringement and violation of conditions which they never agreed to be a part of the ratification. The ratification will be complete. The proposal is made by the party. We, as the other, accede to it, and propose the security of these three great rights; for it is only a proposal. In order to secure them, you are left in that state of fatal hostility which I shall as much deplore as the honorable gentleman. I exhort gentlemen to think seriously before they ratify this Constitution, and persuade themselves that they will succeed in making a feeble effort to get amendments after adoption.
With respect to that part of the proposal which says that every power not granted remains with the people, it must be previous to adoption, or it will involve this country in inevitable destruction. To talk of it as a thing subsequent, not as one of your unalienable rights, is leaving it to the casual opinion of the Congress who shall take up the consideration of that matter. They will not reason with you about the effect of this Constitution. They will not take the opinion of this committee concerning its operation. They will construe it as they please. If you place it subsequently, let me ask the consequences. Among ten thousand implied powers which they may assume, they may, if we be engaged in war, liberate every one of your slaves if they please. And this must and will be done by men, a majority of whom have not a common interest with you. They will, therefore, have no feeling of your interests. It has been repeatedly said here, that the great object of a national government was national defence. That power which is said to be intended for security and safety may be rendered detestable and oppressive. If they give power to the general government to provide for the general defence, the means must be commensurate to the end. All the means in the possession of the people must be given to the government which is intrusted with the public defence. In this state there are two hundred and thirty-six thousand blacks, and there are many in several other states. But there are few or none in the Northern States; and yet, if the Northern States shall be of opinion that our slaves are numberless, they may call forth every national resource. May Congress not say, that every black man must fight? Did we not see a little of this last war? We were not so hard pushed as to make emancipation general; but acts of Assembly passed that every slave who would go to the army should be free. Another thing will contribute to bring this event about. Slavery is detested. We feel its fatal effectswe deplore it with all the pity of humanity. Let all these considerations, at some future period, press with full force on the minds of Congress. Let that urbanity, which I trust will distinguish America, and the necessity of national defence,let all these things operate on their minds; they will search that paper, and see if they have power of manu-mission. And have they not, sir? Have they not power to provide for the general defence and welfare? May they not think that these call for the abolition of slavery? May they not pronounce all slaves free, and will they not be warranted by that power? This is no ambiguous implication or logical deduction. The paper speaks to the point: they have the power in clear, unequivocal terms, and will clearly and certainly exercise it. As much as I deplore slavery, I see that prudence forbids its abolition. I deny that the general government ought to set them free, because a decided majority of the states have not the ties of sympathy and fellow-feeling for those whose interest would be affected by their emancipation. The majority of Congress is to the north, and the slaves are to the south.
In this situation, I see a great deal of the property of the people of Virginia in jeopardy, and their peace and tranquility gone. I repeat it again, that it would rejoice my very soul that every one of my fellow-beings was emancipated. As we ought with gratitude to admire that decree of Heaven which has numbered us among the free, we ought to lament and deplore the necessity of holding our fellowmen in bondage. But is it practicable, by any human means, to liberate them without producing the most dreadful and ruinous consequences? We ought to possess them in the manner we inherited them from our ancestors, as their manumission is incompatible with the felicity of our country. But we ought to soften, as much as possible, the rigor of their unhappy fate. I know that, in a variety of particular instances, the legislature, listening to complaints, have admitted their emancipation. Let me not dwell on this subject. I will only add that this, as well as every other property of the people of Virginia, is in jeopardy, and put in the hands of those who have no similarity of situation with us. This is a local matter, and I can see no propriety in subjecting it to Congress.
With respect to subsequent amendments, proposed by the worthy member, I am distressed when I hear the expression. It is a new one altogether, and such a one as stands against every idea of fortitude and manliness in the states, or any one else. Evils admitted in order to be removed subsequently, and tyranny submitted to in order to be excluded by a subsequent alteration, are things totally new to me. But I am sure the gentleman meant nothing but to amuse the committee. I know his candor. His proposal is an idea dreadful to me. I ask, does experience warrant such a thing from the beginning of the world to this day? Do you enter into a compact first, and afterwards settle the terms of the government? It is admitted by every one that this is a compact.
Although the Confederation be lost, it is a compact, constitution, or something of that nature. I confess I never heard of such an idea before. It is most abhorrent to my mind. You endanger the tranquillity of your country, you stab its repose, if you accept this government unaltered. How are you to allay animosities?for such there are, great and fatal.
He flatters me, and tells me that I could influence the people, and reconcile them to it. Sir, their sentiments are as firm and steady as they are patriotic. Were I to ask them to apostatize from their native religion, they would despise me. They are not to be shaken in their opinions with respect to the propriety of preserving their rights. You never can persuade them that it is necessary to relinquish them. Were I to attempt to persuade them to abandon their patriotic sentiments, I should look on myself as the most infamous of men.
I believe it to be a fact that the great body of yeomanry are in decided opposition to it. I may say with confidence that, for nineteen counties adjacent to each other, nine tenths of the people are conscientiously opposed to it. I may be mistaken, but I give you it as my opinion; and my opinion is founded on personal knowledge, in some measure, and other good authority. I have not hunted popularity by declaiming to injure this government. Though public fame might say so, it was not owing to me that this flame of opposition has been kindled and spread. These men never will part with their political opinions. If they should see their political happiness secured to the latest posterity, then, indeed, they may agree to it. Subsequent amendments will not do for men of this cast. Do you consult the Union in proposing them? You may amuse them as long as you please, but they will never like it. You have not solid realitythe hearts and hands of the men who are to be governed.
Have gentlemen no respect to the actual dispositions of the people in the adopting states? Look at Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. These two great states have raised as great objections to that government as we do. There was a majority of only nineteen in Massachusetts. We are told that only ten thousand were represented in Pennsylvania, although seventy thousand had a fight to be represented. Is not this a serious thing? Is it not worth while to turn your eyes, for a moment, from subsequent amendments to the situation of your country? Can you have a lasting union in these circumstances? It will be in vain to expect it. But if you agree to previous amendments, you shall have union, firm and solid.
I cannot conclude without saying that I shall have nothing to do with it, if subsequent amendments be determined upon. Oppressions will be carried on as radically by the majority when adjustments and accommodations will be held up. I say, I conceive it my duty, if this government is adopted before it is amended, to go home. I shall act as I think my duty requires. Every other gentleman will do the same. Previous amendments, in my opinion, are necessary to procure peace and tranquillity. I fear, if they be not agreed to, every movement and operation of government will cease; and how long that baneful thing, civil discord, will stay from this country, God only knows: When men are free front restraint, how long will you suspend their fury? The interval between this and bloodshed is but a moment. The licentious and wicked of the community Will seize with avidity every thing you hold. In this unhappy situation, what is to be done? It surpasses my stock of wisdom. If you will, in the language of freemen, stipulate that there are rights which no man under heaven can take from you, you shall have me going along with you; not otherwise.[Here Mr Henry informed the committee that he had a resolution prepared, to refer a declaration of rights, with certain amendments to the most exceptionable parts Of the Constitution, to the Other states in the confederacy, for their consideration, previous to its ratification, The clerk than read the resolution, the declaration of rights, and amendments, which were nearly the same as those ultimately proposed by the Convention; which see at the conclusion.]
Mr. HENRY then resumed the subject. I have thus candidly submitted to you, Mr. Chairman, and this committee, what occurred to me as proper amendments to the Constitution, and a declaration of rights containing those fundamental, unalienable privileges, which I conceive to be essential to liberty and happiness. I believe that, on a review of these amendments, it will still be found that the arm of power will be sufficiently strong for national purposes, when these restrictions shall be a part of the government. I believe no gentleman who opposes me in sentiments will be able to discover that any one feature of a strong government is altered; and at the same time your unalienable rights are secured by them. The government unaltered may be terrible to America, but can never be loved till it be amended. You find all the resources of the continent may be drawn to a point. In danger, the President may concentre to a point every effort of the continent. If the government be constructed to satisfy the people, and remove their apprehensions, the wealth and the Strength of the continent will go where public utility shall direct. This government, with these restrictions, will be a strong government, united with the privileges of the people. In my weak judgment, a government is strong when it applies to the most important end of all governmentsthe rights and privileges of the people. In the honorable member’s proposal, jury trial, the press and religion, and other essential rights, are not to be given up. Other essential rightswhat are they? The world will say that you intended to give them up. When you go into an enumeration of your rights, and stop that enumeration, the inevitable conclusion is, that what is omitted is intended to be surrendered.
Anxious as I am to be as little troublesome as possible, I cannot leave this part of the subject without adverting to one remark of the honorable gentleman. He says that, rather than bring the Union into danger, he will adopt it with its Imperfections. A great deal is said about disunion, and consequent dangers. I have no claim to a greater share of fortitude than others; but I can see no kind of danger. I form my judgment on a single fact alonethat we are at peace with all the world; nor is there any apparent cause of a rupture with any nation in the world. Is it among the American states that the cause of disunion is to be feared? Are not the states using all their efforts for the promotion of union? New England sacrifices local prejudices for the purposes of union. We hear the necessity of the union, and predilection for the union, reechoed from all parts of the continent; and all at once disunion is to follow! If gentlemen dread disunion, the very thing they advocate will inevitably produce it. A previous ratification will raise insurmountable obstacles to union. New York is an insurmountable obstacle to it, and North Carolina also. They will never accede to it, till it be amended. A great part of Virginia is opposed most decidedly to it as it stands. This very spirit, which will govern us in these three states, will find a kindred spirit in the adopting states. Give me leave to say that it is very problematical if the adopting states can stand on their own legs. I hear only on one side, but as far as my information goes, there are heartburnings and animosities among them. Will these animosities be cured by subsequent amendments?
Turn away from America, and consider European politics. The nations there which can trouble us are, France, England, and Spain. But at present we know for a certainty that those nations are engaged in very different pursuits from American conquests. We are told by our intelligent ambassador, that there is no such danger as has been apprehended. Give me leave then to say, that dangers from beyond. the Atlantic are imaginary.
From these premises, then, it may be concluded that, from the creation of the world to this time, there never was a more fair and proper opportunity than we have at this day to establish such a government as will permanently establish the most transcendent political felicity. Since the revolution, there has not been so much experience. Since then, the general interests of America have not been better understood, nor the Union more ardently loved, than at this present moment. I acknowledge the weakness of the old Confederation. Every man says that something must be done. Where is the moment more favorable than this? During the war, when ten thousand dangers surrounded us, America was magnanimous. What was the language of the little state of Maryland? “I will have time to consider. I will hold out three years. Let what may come, I will have time to reflect.” Magnanimity appeared every where. What was the upshot? America triumphed. Is there any thing to forbid us to offer these amendments to the other states? If this moment goes away unimproved, we shall never see its return.
We now act under a happy system, which says that a majority may alter the government when necessary. But by the paper proposed, a majority will forever endeavor in vain to alter it. Three fourths may. Is not this the most promising time for securing the necessary alteration? Will you go into that government, where it is a principle that a contemptible minority may prevent an alteration? What will he the language of the majority? Change the government. Nay, seven eighths of the people of America may wish the change; but the minority may come with a Roman veto, and object to the alteration. The language of a magnanimous country, and of freemen, is, Till you remove the defects, we will not accede. It would be in vain for me to show that there is no danger to prevent our obtaining those amendment, if you are not convinced already. If the other states will not agree to them, it is not an inducement to union. The language of this paper is not dictatorial, but merely a proposition for amendments. The proposition of Virginia met with a favorable reception before. We proposed that convention which met at Annapolis. It was not called dictatorial. We proposed that at Philadelphia. Was Virginia thought dictatorial? But Virginia is now to lose her preminence. Those rights of equality to which the meanest individual in the community is entitled, are to bring us down infinitely below the Delaware people. Have we not a right to say, Hear our propositions! Why, sir, your slaves have a right to make their humble requests. Those who are in the meanest occupations of human life have a right to complain. What do we require? Not preeminence, but safetythat our citizens may be able to sit down in peace and security under their own fig-trees. I am confident that sentiments like these will meet with unison in every state; for they will wish to banish discord from the American soil. I am certain that the warmest friend of the Constitution wishes to have fewer enemiesfewer of those who pester and plague him with opposition. I could not withhold from my fellow-citizens any thing so reasonable. I fear you will have no union, unless you remove the cause of opposition. Will you sit down contented with the name of union, without any solid foundation?
Mr. Henry then concluded, by expressing his hopes that his resolution would be adopted, and added, that, if the committee should disapprove of any of his amendments, others might be substituted.
Gov. RANDOLPH. Mr. Chairman: once more, sir, I address you; and perhaps it will be the last time I shall speak concerning this Constitution, unless I be urged by the observations of some gentlemen. Although this is not the first time that my mind has been brought to contemplate this awful period, yet I acknowledge it is not rendered less awful by familiarity with it. Did I persuade myself that those fair days were present which the honorable gentleman described,could I bring my mind to believe that there were peace and tranquillity in this land, and that there was no storm gathering which would burst, and that previous amendments could be retained,I would concur with the honorable gentleman; for nothing but the fear of inevitable destruction would lead me to vote for the Constitution in spite of the objections I have to it. But, sir, what have I heard to-day? I sympathized most warmly with what other gentlemen said yesterday, that, let the contest be what it may, the minority should submit to the majority. With satisfaction and joy I heard what he then saidthat he would submit, and that there should be peace if his power could procure it. What a sad reverse to-day! Are we not told, by way of counterpart to language that did him honor, that he would secede? I hope he will pardon, and correct me if I misrecite him; but if not corrected, my interpretation is, that secession by him will be the consequence of adoption without previous amendments.[Here Mr. HENRY explained himself, and denied having said any thing of secession, but that he said, he would have no hand in subsequent amendments; that he would remain and vote, and afterwards he would have no business here.]
I see, continued his excellency, that I am not mistaken in my thoughts. The honorable gentleman says, he will remain and vote on the question, but after that he has no business here, and that he will go home. I beg to make a few remarks on the subject of secession. If there be in this house members who have in contemplation to secede from the majority, let me conjure them, by all the ties of honor and duty, to consider what they are about to do. Some of them have more property than I have, and all of them are equal to me in personal rights. Such an idea of refusing to submit to the decision of the majority is destructive of every republican principle. It will kindle a civil war, and reduce every thing to anarchy and confusion. To avoid a calamity so lamentable, I would submit to it, if it contained greater evils than it does.
What are they to say to their constituents when they go home? “We come here to tell you that liberty is in danger, and, though the majority is in favor of it, you ought not to submit.” Can any man consider, without shuddering with horror, the awful consequences of such desperate conduct? I entreat men to consider and ponder what good citizenship requires of them. I conjure them to contemplate the consequences as to themselves as well as others. They themselves will be overwhelmed in the general disorder. I did not think that the proposition of the honorable gentleman near me (Mr. White) could have met with the treatment it has. The honorable gentleman says there are only three rights stipulated in it. I thought this error might have been accounted for at first; but after he read it, the continuance of the mistake has astonished me. He has wandered from the point. [Here he read Mr. Whitens proposition.] Where in this paper do you discover that the people of Virginia are tenacious of three rights only? It declares that all power comes from the people, and whatever is not granted by them, remains with them; that among other things remaining with them, are liberty of the press, right of conscience, and some other essential rights. Could you devise any express form of words, by which the rights contained in the bill of rights of Virginia could be better secured or more fully comprehended? What is the paper which he offers in the form of a bill of rights? Will that better secure our rights than a declaration like this? All rights are therein declared to be completely vested in the people, unless expressly given away. Can there be a more pointed or position reservation?
That honorable gentleman, and some others, have insisted that the abolition of slavery will result from it, and at the same time have complained that it encourages its continuation. The inconsistency proves, in some degree, the futility of their arguments. But if it be not conclusive, to satisfy the committee that there is no danger of enfranchisement taking place, I beg leave to refer them to the paper itself. I hope that there is none here who, considering the subject in the calm light of philosophy, will advance an objection dishonorable to Virginiathat, at the moment they are securing the rights of their citizens, an objection is started that there is a spark of hope that those unfortunate men now held in bondage may, by the operation of the general government be made free. But if any gentleman be terrified by this apprehension, let him read the system. I ask, and I will ask again and again, till I be answered, (not by declamation,) Where is the part that has a tendency to the abolition of slavery? Is it the clause which says that “the migration or importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit shall not be prohibited by Congress prior to the year 1808”? This is an exception from the power of regulating commerce, and the restriction is only to continue till 1808. Then Congress can, by the exercise of that power, prevent future importations; but does it affect the existing state of slavery? Were it right here to mention what passed in convention on the occasion, I might tell you that the Southern States, even South Carolina herself, conceived this property to be secure by these words. I believe, whatever we may think here, that there was not a member of the Virginia delegation who had the smallest suspicion of the abolition of slavery. Go to their meaning, Point out the clause where this formidable power of emancipation is inserted.
But another clause of the Constitution proves the absurdity of the supposition, The words of the clause are, “No person held to service or labor in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.” Every one knows that slaves are held to service and labor. And when authority is given to owners of slaves to vindicate their property, can it be supposed they can be deprived of it? If a citizen of this state, in consequence of this clause, can take his runaway slave in Maryland, can it be seriously thought that, after taking him and bringing him home, he could be made free?
I observed that the honorable gentleman’s proposition comes in a truly questionable shape, and is still more extra? ordinary and unaccountable for another considerationthat, although we went article by article through the Constitution, and although we did not expect a general review of the subject, (as a most comprehensive view had been taken of it before it was regularly debated,) yet we are carried back to the clause giving that dreadful power, for the general welfare, Pardon me, if I remind you of the true state of that business. I appeal to the candor of the honorable gentleman, and if he thinks it an improper appeal, I ask the gentlemen here, whether there be a general, indefinite power of providing for the general welfare? The power is, “to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts, and provide for the common defence and general welfare,” so that they can only raise money by these means, in order to provide for the general welfare. No man who reads it can say it is general, as the honorable gentleman represents it. You must violate every rule of construction and common sense, if you sever it from the power of raising money, and annex it to any thing else, in order to make it that formidable power which it is represented to be.
The honorable gentleman say’s there is no restraint on the power of issuing general warrants. If I be tedious in asking where is that power, you will ascribe it to him who has put me to the necessity of asking. They have no such power given them: if they have, where is it?
Again he recurs to standing armies, and asks if Congress cannot raise such. Look at the bill of rights provided by the honorable gentleman himself, and tell me if there be no great security by admitting it when necessary. It says that standing armies should be avoided in time of peace. It does not absolutely prohibit them. Is there any clause in it, or in the Confederation, which prevents Congress from raising an army? No: it is left to the discretion of Congress. It ought to be in the power of Congress to raise armies, as the existence of society might, at some future period, depend upon it. But it should be recommended to them to use the power only when necessary. I humbly conceive that you have as great security as you could desire from that clause in the Constitution which directs that money for supporting armies will be voted for every two yearsas, by this means, the representatives who will have appropriated money unnecessarily, or imprudently, to that purpose, may be removed, and a new regulation made. Review the practice of the, favorite nation of the honorable gentleman. In their bill of rights there is no prohibition of a standing army, but only that it ought not to be maintained without the consent of the legislature. Can it be done here without the consent of the democratic branch? Their consent is necessary to every bill, and money bills can originate with them only. Can an army, then, be raised or supported without their approbation?[His excellency then went over all the articles of Mr. Henry’s proposed declaration of rights, and endeavored to prove that the rights intended to be thereby secured were either provided for in the Constitution itself, or could not be infringed by the general government, as being unwarranted by any of the powers which were delegated therein; for that it was in vain to provide against the exercise of a power which did not exist.]
He then proceeded to examine the nature of some of the amendments proposed by the honorable gentleman. As to the reservation of rights not expressly given away, he repeated what he had before observed of the 2d article of the Confederation, that it was interpreted to prohibit Congress from granting passports, although such a power was necessarily incident to that of making war. Did not this, says he show the vanity of all the federal authority? Gentlemen have displayed great wisdom in the use they make of the experience of the defects in the old Confederation. When we see the defect of that article, are we to repeat it? Are those gentlemen zealous friends to the Union, who profess to be so here, and yet insist on a repetition of measures which have been found destructive to it? I believe their professions, but they must pardon me when I say their arguments are not true.[His excellency then read the 2d amendment proposed, respecting the number of representatives.]
What better security have you under these words than under the clause in the paper before you? This puts it in the power of your representatives to continue the number of it in that paper. They may always find a pretext to justify their regulations concerning it. They may continue the number at two hundred, when an augmentation would be necessary.
As to the amendment respecting direct taxation, the subject has been so fully handled, and is so extensive in its nature, that it is needless to say any thing of it.
The 4th amendment goes on the wide field of indiscriminate suspicion that every one grasps after Offices, and that Congress will create them unnecessarily. Perhaps it will exclude the most proper from offices of great importance to the community.[Here he read the 5th amendment.]I beg the honorable gentleman to tell me on what subject Congress will exercise this power improperly. If there be any treachery in their view, the words in this amendment are broad enough to allow it. It is as good a security in this Constitution, as human ingenuity can devise; for if they intend any treachery, they will not let you see it. [Here he read the 7th and 8th amendments.]I have never hesitated to acknowledge that I wished the regulation of commerce had been put in the hands of a greater body than it is in the sense of the Constitution. But I appeal to my colleagues in the federal Convention, whether this was not a sine qua non of the Union. Of all the amendments, this is the most destructive, which requires the consent of three fourths of both houses to treaties ceding or restraining territorial rights. This is priding in the Virginia sovereignty, in opposition to the majority. This suspected Congress, these corrupt sixty-five and corrupt twenty-six, are brought so low they cannot be trusted, lest they should have it in their power to lop off part of Virginiacede it, so as that it should become a colony to some foreign state. There is no power in the Constitution to cede any part of the territories of the United States. The whole number of Congress, being unanimous, have no power to suspend or cede territorial rights. But this amendment admits, in the fullest latitude, that Congress have a right to dismember the empire.
His amendment respecting the militia is unnecessary. The same powers rest in the states by the Constitution. Gentlemen were repeatedly called upon to show where the power of the states over the militia was taken away, but they could not point it out.[He read the 12th amendment.]Will this be a melioration of the Constitution? I wish to know what is meant by the words police and good government! These words may lead to complete tyranny in Congress. Perhaps some gentlemen think that these words relate to particular objects, and that they will diminish and confine their power. They are most extensive in their significations, and will stretch and dilate it, and all the imaginary horrors of the honorable gentleman will be included in this amendment. [He read the 13th amendment.]I was of this opinion myself; but I informed you before why I changed it. [He read the 14th amendment.]If I were to propose an amendment on this subject, it would be to limit the word arising. I would not discard it altogether, but define its extent. The jurisdiction of the judiciary in cases arising under the system, I should wish to be defined, so as to prevent its being extended unnecessarily: I would restrain the appellate cognizance as to fact, and prevent oppressive and vexatious appeals. [He read the 15th amendment.]The right of challenging and excepting, I hope, has clearly appeared to the committee to be a necessary appendage of the trial by jury itself. Permit me now to make a few remarks on the proposal of these amendments, previous to our ratification. The first objection arises from the paper itself. Can you conceive, or does any man believe, that there are twelve, or even nine, states in the whole Union, that would subscribe to this paper?a paper fraught with, perhaps, more defects than the Constitution itself. What are we about to do? To make this the condition of our coming into this government. I hope gentlemen will never agree to this. If we declare that these amendments, and a bill of rights containing twenty articles, must be incorporated into the Constitution before we assent to it, I ask you whether you may not bid a long farewell to the Union? It will produce that deplorable thingthe dissolution of the Unionwhich no man yet has dared openly to advocate. No, say the gentlemen, because Maryland kept off three years from the confederacy, and no injury happened. This very argument carries its own refutation with it. The war kept us together, in spite of the discordance of the states. There is no war now. All the nations of Europe have their eyes fixed on America, and some of them perhaps cast wistful looks at you. Their gold may be tried, to sow disunion among us. The same bandage which kept us before together, does not now exist. Let gentlemen seriously ponder the calamitous consequences of dissolving the Union in our present situation. I appeal to the great Searcher of hearts, on this occasion, that we behold the greatest danger that ever happened hanging over us; for previous amendments are but another name for rejection. They will throw Virginia out of the Union, and cause heartaches to many of those gentlemen who may vote for them. But let us consider things calmly. Reflect on the facility of obtaining amendments if you adopt, and weigh the danger if you do not. Recollect that many other states have adopted it, who wish for many amendments. I ask you if it be not better to adopt, and run the chance of amending it hereafter, than run the risk of endangering the Union. The Confederation is gone; it has no authority. If, in this situation, we reject the Constitution, the Union will be dissolved, the dogs of war will break loose, and anarchy and discord will complete the ruin of this country. Previous adoption will prevent these deplorable mischiefs. The union of sentiments with us in the adopting states will render subsequent amendments easy. I therefore rest my happiness with perfect confidence on this subject.
Mr. GEORGE MASON. Mr. Chairman, with respect to commerce and navigation, he has given it as his opinion that their regulation, as it now stands, was a sine qua non of the Union, and that without it the states in Convention would never concur. I differ from him. It never was, nor in my opinion ever will be, a sine qua non of the Union.
I will give you, to the best of my recollection, the history of that affair. This business was discussed at Philadelphia for four months, during which time the subject of commerce and navigation was often under consideration; and I assert that eight states out of twelve, for more than three months, voted for requiring two thirds of the members present in each house to pass commercial and navigation laws. True it is, that afterwards it was carried by a majority as it stands. If I am right, there was a great majority for requiring two thirds of the states in this business, till a compromise took place between the Northern and Southern States; the Northern States agreeing to the temporary importation of slaves, and the Southern States conceding, in return, that navigation and commercial laws should be on the footing in which they now stand. If I am mistaken, let me be put right. Those are ray reasons for saying that this was not a sine qua non of their concurrence. The Newfoundland fisheries will require that kind of security which we are now in want of. The Eastern States therefore agreed, at length, that treaties should require the consent of two thirds of the members present in the Senate.
Mr. DAWSON. Mr. Chairman, when a nation is about to make a change in its political character, it behoves it to summon the experience of ages which have passed, to collect the wisdom of the present day, to ascertain clearly those great principles of equal liberty which secure the rights, liberties, and properties, of the people. Such is the situation of the United States at the moment we are about to make such a change.
The Constitution proposed for the government of the United States has been a subject of general discussion. While many able and honorable gentlemen within these walls have, in the development of the various parts, delivered their sentiments with that freedom which will ever mark the citizens of an independent state, and with that ability which will prove to the world their eminent talents, I, sir, although urged by my feelings, have forborne to say any thing on my part, from a satisfactory impression of the inferiority of my talents, and from a wish to acquire every information which might assist my judgment in forming a decision on a question of such magnitude. But, sir, as it involves in its fate the interest of so extensive a country, every sentiment which can be offered deserves its proportion of public attention. I shall therefore avoid any apology for now rising, although uncommon propriety.might justify it, and rather trust to the candor of those who hear me. Indeed, I am induced to come forward, not from any apprehension that my opinion will have weight, but in order to discharge that duty which I owe to myself, and to those I have the honor to represent.
The defects of the articles by which we are at present confederated have been echoed and reechoed, not only from every quarter of this house, but from every part of the continent. At the framing of those articles, a common interest excited us to unite for the common good. But no sooner did this principle cease to operate, than the defects of the system were sensibly felt. Since then, the seeds of civil dissension have been gradually opening, and political confusion has pervaded the states. During the short time of my political life, having been fully impressed with the truth of these observations, when a proposition was made by Virginia to invite the sister states to a general convention, at Philadelphia, to amend these defects, I readily gave my assent; and when I considered the very respectable characters who formed that body,when I reflected that they were, most of them, those sages and patriots under whose banners, and by whose counsels, we had been rescued from impending danger, and placed among the nations of the earth,when I also turned my attention to that illustrious character, to immortalize whose memory Fame shall blow her trump to the latest ages,I say, when I weighed all these considerations, I was almost persuaded to declare in favor of the proposed plan, and to exert my slender abilities in its favor, But when I came to investigate it impartially, on the immutable principles of government, and to exercise that reason with which the God of nature hath endowed me, and which I will ever freely use, I was convinced of this important, though melancholy truth,that the greatest men may err, and that their errors are sometimes of the greatest magnitude. I was persuaded that, although the proposed plan contains many things excellent, yet, by the adoption of it as it now stands, the liberties of America in general, the property of Virginia in particular, would be endangered.
These being my sentiments,sentiments which I offer with the diffidence of a young politician, but with the firmness of a republican, which I am ready to change when I am convinced they are founded in error, but which I will support until that conviction,I should be a traitor to my country, and unworthy that freedom for which I trust I shall ever remain an advocate, were I to declare my entire approbation of the plan as it now stands, or assent to its ratification without previous amendments.
During the deliberations of this Convention, several gentlemen of eminent talents having exerted themselves to prove the necessity of the union by presenting to our view the relative situation of Virginia to the other states, the melancholy representation made to-day, and frequently before, by an honorable gentleman, (Gov. Randolph,) of our state, reduced, in his estimation, to the lowest degree of degradation, must now haunt the recollection of many gentlemen in this committee. How far he has drawn the picture to the life, or where it is too highly colored, rests with them to determine. To gentlemen, however, sir, of their abilities, the task was easy, and perhaps I may add unnecessary. It is a truth admitted on all sides, and I presume there is not a gentleman who hears me who is not a friend to a union of the thirteen states.
But, sir, an opinion has gone abroad (from whence it originated, or by whom it is supported, I will not venture to say) that the opponents to the paper on your table are enemies to the union. It may not, therefore, be improper for me to declare, that I am a warm friend to a firm, federal, energetic government; that I consider a confederation of the states, on republican principles, as a security to their mutual interests, and a disunion as injurious to the whole; but t shall lament exceedingly, when a confederation of independent states shall be converted into a consolidated government; for, when that event shall happen, I shall consider the history of American liberty as short as it has been brilliant, and we shall afford one more proof to the favorite maxim of tyrants, that “mankind cannot govern themselves.”
An honorable gentleman (Col. H. Lee) came forward some days since, with all the powers of eloquence and all the warmth of enthusiasm. Alter descanting on some military operations to the south, of which he was a spectator, and pronouncing sentence of condemnation on a Mr. Shays, to the north,as a military character he boldly throws the gauntlet, and defies the warmest friend to the opposition to come forth and say that the friends to the system on your table are not also friends to republican liberty.
Arguments, sir, in this house, should ever be addressed to the reason, and should be applied to the system itself, and not to those who either support or oppose it. I, however, dare come forth, and tell that honorable gentleman, not with the military warmth of a young soldier, but with the firmness of a republican, that, in my humble opinion, had the paper now on your table, and which is so ably supported, been presented to our view ten years ago, (when the American spirit shone forth in the meridian of glory, and rendered us the wonder of an admiring world,) it would have been considered, as containing principles incompatible with republican liberty, and therefore doomed to infamy.
Having, sir, made these loose observations, and having proved, I flatter myself, to this honorable Convention, the motives from which my opposition to the proposed system originated, I may now be permitted to turn my attention, for a very few moments, to the system itself; and to point out some of the leading parts most exceptionable, in my estimationmy original objections to which have not been removed by the debate, but rather confirmed.
If we grant to Congress the power of direct taxation, if we yield to them the sword, and if we also invest them with the judicial authority, two questions, of the utmost importance, immediately present themselves to our inquirieswhether these powers will not be oppressive in their operations, and, aided by other parts of the system, convert the thirteen confederated states into one consolidated government; and whether any country as extensive as North America, and where climates, dispositions, and interests, are so essentially different, can be governed under one consolidated plan, except by the introduction of despotic principles.
The warmest friends, sir, to the government,some of those who formed, signed, and have recommended it,some of those who have enthusiastically supported it in every quarter of this continent,have answered my first query in the affirmative: they have admitted that it possesses few federal features, and will ultimately end in a consolidated governmenta truth which, in my opinion, they would have denied in vain; for every article, every section, every clause, and almost every line, proves that it will have this tendency; and if this position has, during the course of the long and learned debates on this head, been established to the satisfaction of the Convention, I apprehend that the authority of all eminent writers on the subject, and the experience of all ages, cannot be controverted, and that it will be admitted that no government formed on the principles of freedom can pervade all North America.
This, sir, is my great objectionan objection general in its nature, because it operates on the whole system; an objection which I early formed, which I flattered myself would have been removed, but which, I am obliged to say, has been confirmed by the observations which have been made by many learned gentlemen, and which would be tedious for me now to recapitulate.
That the legislative, executive, and judicial powers should be separate and distinct, in all free governments, is a political fact so well established, that I presume I shall not be thought arrogant, when I affirm that no country ever did, or ewer can, long remain free, where they are blended. All the states have been in this sentiment when they formed their state constitutions, and therefore have guarded against the danger; and every schoolboy in politics must be convinced of the propriety of the observation; and yet, by the proposed plan, the legislative and executive powers are closely united; the Senate, who compose one part of the legislature, are also, as council to the President, the supreme head, and are concerned in passing laws which they themselves are to execute.
The wisdom, sir, of many nations has induced them to enlarge the powers of their rulers; but there are very few instances of the relinquishment of power, or the abridgment of authority, on the part of the governors. The very 1st clause of the 8th section of the 1st article, which gives to Congress the power “to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, excises,” &c., appears to me to be big with unnecessary danger, and to reduce human nature, to which I would willingly pay a compliment did not the experience of all ages rise up against me, to too great a test. The arguments, sir, which have been urged by some gentlemen, that the impost will defray all expenses, in my estimation cannot be supported; and common sense will never assent to the assertions which have been made, that the government will not be an additional expense to this country. Will not the support of an army and navywill not the establishment of a multiplicity of offices in the legislative, executive, and particularly the judiciary departments, most of which will be of a national character, and must be supported with a superior degree of dignity and creditbe prodigious additions to the national expense? And, sir, if the states are to retain even a shadow of sovereignty, the expense thence arising must also be defrayed, and will be very considerable.
I come now, sir, to speak of a clause to which our attention has been frequently called, and on which many gentlemen have already delivered their sentimentsa clause, in the estimation of some, of little consequence, and which rather serves as a pretext for scuffling for votes; but which, in my opinion, is one of the most important contained in the system, and to which there are many and weighty objections. I refer to the clause empowering the President, by and with the consent of two thirds of the senators present, to make treaties. If, sir, the dismemberment of the empire, if the privation of the most essential national rights, and the very existence of a people, depend on this clause, surely, sir, it merits the most thorough investigation; and if, on that investigation, it appears that those great rights are endangered, it highly behoves us to amend it in such a manner as will prevent the evils which may arise from it as it now stands, My objections to it do not arise from a view of the particular situation of the western part of this state, although certainly we are bound, by every principle, to attend to the interest of our fellow-citizens in that quarter; but from an apprehension that the principle pervades all America, and that, in its operation, it will be found highly injurious to the Southern States. It will, I presume, be readily admitted that the dismemberment of empire is the highest act of sovereign authority, the exercise of which can be authorized only by absolute necessity. Exclusive, then, sir, of any consideration which arises from the particular system of American politics, the guard established against the exercise of this power is by far too slender.
The President, with the concurrence of two thirds of the Senate present, may make a treaty, by which any territory may be ceded, or the navigation of any river surrendered; thereby granting to five states the exercise of a right acknowledged to be the highest act of sovereigntyto fifteen men, not the representatives of the country to be ceded, but, as has already happened, men whose interest and policy it may be to make such surrender. Admitting, for a moment, that this point is as well guarded by the proposed plan as by the old Articles of Confederation, (to which, however, common sense can never assent,) have we not already had cause to tremble, and ought we not to guard against the accomplishment of a scheme to which nothing but an inattention to the general interest of America, and a selfish regard to the interest of particular states, could have given rise? Surely, sir, we ought; and since we have already seen a diabolical attempt made to surrender the navigation of a river, the source of which is as yet unknown, and on which depends the importance of the southern part of America; since we have every reason to believe that the same principle which at first dictated this measure, still exists, and will forever operate; it is our dutya duty which we owe to ourselves, which we owe to the southern part of America, and which we owe to the natural rights of mankindto guard against it in such manner as will forever prevent its accomplishment. This, sir, is not done by the clause, nor will it rest on that sure footing which I wish, and which the importance of the subject demands, until the concurrence of three fourths of all the senators shall be requisite to ratify a treaty respecting the cession of territory, the surrender of the navigation of rivers, or the use of all the American seas.
That sacred palladium of liberty, the freedom of the press, (the influence of which is so great that it is the opinion of the ablest writers that no country can remain long in slavery where it is unrestrained,) has not been expressed; nor are the liberties of the people ascertained and protected by any declaration of rights; that inestimable privilege, (the most important which freemen can enjoy,) the trial by jury in all civil cases, has not been guarded by the system;and while they have been inattentive to these all-important considerations, they have made provision for the introduction of standing armies in time of peace. These, sir, ever have been used as the grand machines to suppress the liberties of the people, and will ever awaken the jealousy of republicans, so long as liberty is dear, and tyranny odious, to mankind.
Congress, sir, have the power to declare war, and also to raise and support armies; and if we suppose them to be a representation of the states, the nexus imperii of the British constitution is here lost. There the king has the power of declaring war, and the Parliament that of raising money to support it. Governments ought not to depend on an army for their support, but ought to be so formed as to have the confidence, respect, and affection of the citizens. Some degree of virtue, sir, must exist, or freedom cannot live. A standing army will introduce idleness and extravagance, which will be followed by their sure concomitant vices. In a country extensive like ours, the power of the sword is more sensibly felt than in a small community. The advantages, sir, of military science and discipline cannot be exerted unless a proper number of soldiers are united in one body, and actuated by one soul. The tyrant of a single town, or a small district, would soon discover that a hundred armed soldiers were a weak defence against ten thousand peasants or citizens; but ten thousand well-disciplined soldiers, will command, with despotic sway, millions of subjects, and will strike terror into the most numerous populace. It was this, sir, which enabled the pretorian bands of Rome, whose number scarcely amounted to ten thousand, after having violated the sanctity of the throne by the atrocious murder of a most excellent emperor, to dishonor the majesty of it, by proclaiming that the Roman empirethe mistress of the worldwas to be disposed of, to the highest bidder, at public auction;and to their licentious frenzy may be attributed the first cause of the decline and fall of that mighty empire. We ought, therefore, strictly to guard against the establishment of an armywhose only occupation would be idleness; whose only effort the introduction of vice and dissipation; and who would, at some future day, deprive user our liberties, as a reward for past favors, by the introduction of some military despot.
I had it in contemplation to have made some observations on the disposition of the judicial powers; but, as my knowledge in that line is confined, and as the subject has been so ably handled by other gentlemen, and the defects clearly developed, and as their arguments remain unanswered, 1 shall say nothing on that head. The want of responsibility to the people from their representatives would furnish matter of ample discussion; but I pass it over in silence, only observing that it is a grand, and indeed a daring fault, and one which sanctions with security the most tyrannic edicts of a despotic ruler. The ambiguous terms in which all rights are secured to the people, and the clear and comprehensive language used when power is granted to Congress, also afford matter for suspicions and objections; but the able manner in which my very worthy, my very eloquent, and truly patriotic friend and coadjutor, whose name shall ever be hallowed in the temple of liberty, has handled this subject, would render any observations from me tedious and unnecessary.
Permit me, then, to conclude by reminding gentlemen who appeal to history to prove the excellence of the proposed plan, that their mode of comparison is unjust. “Wealth and extent of territory,” says the great Montesquieu, “have a relation to government, and the manners and customs of the people are closely connected with it.” The same system of policy which might have been excellent in the governments of antiquity would not, probably, suit us at the present day. The question, therefore, which should be agitated, is, not whether the proposed Constitution is better or worse than those which have from time to time existed, but whether it is calculated to secure our liberties and happiness at the present stage of the world.
For my own part, after an impartial investigation of it, and after a close attention and candid consideration of the arguments, which have been used, I am impressed with an opinion that it is not. I am persuaded that, by adopting it, and then proposing amendments, that unfortunate traveller, Liberty, is more endangered than the union of the states will be by first proposing these amendments. I am so far an enthusiast, in favor of liberty, that I never will trust the sacred deposit to other hands, nor will I exchange it for any earthly consideration; and I have such a fixed aversion to the bitter cup of slavery, that, in my estimation, a draught is not sweetened, whether administered by the hand of a Turk, a Briton, or an American.
Impressed, then, sir, with these sentiments, and governed by these principles, I shall decidedly give my vote in favor of previous amendments. But, sir, should the question be decided contrary to my wishes, the first wish of my heart is, that the decision may promote the happiness and prosperity of the country so dear to us all.
Mr. GRAYSON. Mr. Chairman, gentlemen have misrepresented what I said on the subject of treaties. On this ground let us appeal to the law of nations. How does it stand? Thusthat Without the consent of the national legislature, dismemberment cannot be made. This is a subject in which Virginia is deeply interested, and ought to be well understood. It ought to be expressly provided that no dismemberment should take place without the consent of the legislature. On this occasion, I beg leave to introduce an instance mentioned on the floor of Congress. Francis, king of France, was taken by the Spaniards at the battle of Pavia. He stipulated to give up certain territories, to be liberated. Yet the stipulation was not complied with, because it was alleged that it was not made by the sovereign power. Let us apply this. Congress has a right to dismember the empire. The President may do it, and the legislature may confirm it. Let gentlemen contradict it if they can. This is one of the highest acts of sovereignty, and I think it of the utmost importance that it should be placed on a proper footing. There is an absolute necessity for the existence of the power. It may prevent the annihilation of society by procuring a peace. It must be lodged somewhere. The opposition wish it to be put in the hands of three fourths of the members of both houses of Congress. It would be then secure. It is not so now.
The dangers of disunion were painted in strong colors. How is the fact? It is thisthat, if Virginia thinks proper to insist on previous amendments, joined by New York and North Carolina, she can procure what amendments she pleases. What is the geographical position of these states? New York commands the ocean. Virginia and North Carolina join the Spanish dominions. What would be the situation, then, of the Other states? They would be topographically separated, though politically, connected with one another. There would be no communication between the centre and the component parts. While those states were thus separated, of what advantage would commercial regulations be to them? Yet will gentlemen pretend to say that we must adopt first, and then beg for amendments? I see no reason in it. We undervalue our own importance. Consider the vast consequence and importance of Virginia and North Carolina. What kind of connection would the rest of the states form? They would be carrying states, without Having any thing to carry. They could have no communication with the other Southern States. I therefore insist that, if you are not satisfied with the paper as it stands, it is as clear to me as that the sun shines, that, by joining these two states, you may command such amendments as you may think necessary for the happiness of the people.
The late Convention were not empowered totally to alter the present Confederation. The idea was to amend. If they lay before us a thing quite different, we are not bound to accept it. There is nothing dictatorial in refusing it: we wish to remove the spirit of party. In all parts of the world there is a reciprocity in contracts and compacts. If one man makes a proposition to another, is he bound to accept it?
Six or seven states have agreed to it. As it is not their interest to stand by themselves, will they not with open arms receive us? Tobacco will always make our peace with them. I hope, then, that the honorable gentleman will find, on a reconsideration, that we are not at all in that dangerous situation he represented. In my opinion, the idea of subsequent amendments is preposterous. They are words without meaning. The little states will not agree to an alteration. When they find themselves on an equal footing with the other states in the Senate, and all power vested in them,the executive mixed with the legislative,they will never assent. Why are such extensive powers given to the Senate? Because the little states gained their point. In every light I consider subsequent amendments as unwise and impolitic.
Considering the situation of the continent, this is not a time for changing our government. I do not think we stand so secure with respect to other nations as to change our government. The nations of Europe look with watchful eyes on us, and with reason; for the West India islands depend on our motions. When we have strength, importance, and union, they will have reason to tremble for their islands. Almost all the governments of the world have been formed by accident. We are now, in time of peace, without any real cause, changing our government. We ought to be cool and temperate, and not act like the people of Denmark, who gave up their liberties, in a transport of passion, to the crown. Let us therefore be cautious, and deliberate before we determine.
What is the situation of Virginia? She is rich when her resources are compared with those of others, Is it right for a rich nation to consolidate with a poor one? By no means. It was right for Scotland to unite with England, as experience has shown. Scotland only pays forty-eight thousand pounds, when England pays four shillings in the pound, which amounts to two million pounds. In all unions where a rich state is joined with a poor one, it will be found that the rich one will pay in that disproportion. A union between such nations ought never to take place, except in peculiar circumstances, and on very particular conditions, How is it with Virginia? It is politic for her to unite, but not on any terms. She will pay more than her natural proportion, and the present state of the national debt renders it an object. She will also lose her importance. She is now put in the same situation as a state forty times smaller.
Does she gain any advantage from her central situation, by acceding to that paper? Within ten miles of Alexandria the centre of the states is said to be. It has not said that the ten miles square will be there. In a monarchy, the seat of government must be where the monarch pleases. How ought it to be in a republic like ours?now in one part, and at another time in another, or where it will best suit the convenience of the people. Then I lay it down as a political right that the seat of government ought to be fixed by the Constitution, so as to suit the public convenience.
Has Virginia any gain from her riches and commerce? What does she get in return? I can see what she gives up, which is immense. The little states gain in proportion as we lose. Every disproportion is against us. If the effects of such a contrariety of interests be happy, it must be extraordinary and wonderful. From the very nature of the paper, one part, whose interest is different from the other, is to govern it. What will be our situation? The Northern States are carrying states. We are considered as productive states. They will consequently carry for us. Are manufactures favorable to us? If they reciprocate the act of Charles II., and say that no produce of America will be carried in any foreign bottom, what will be the consequence? Thisthat all the produce of the Southern States will be carried by the Northern States on their own terms, which must be very high.
Though this government has the power of taxation, and the most important subject of the legislation, there is no responsibility any where. The members of Delaware do not return to Virginia to give an account of their conduct. Yet they legislate for us. In addition to this, it will be productive of great expenses. Virginia has assumed an immense weight of private debt, and her imports and exports are taken away. Judge, then, how such an accumulation of expenses will accommodate us. I think that, were it not for one great character in America, so many men would not be for this government. We have one ray of hope. We do not fear while he lives; but we can only expect his fame to be immortal. We wish to know who, besides him, can concentrate the confidence and affections of all America.
He then concluded by expressing hopes that the proposition of his honorable friend would be acceded to.
Mr. MADISON. Mr. Chairman, nothing has excited more admiration in the world than the manner in which free governments have been established in America; for it was the first instance, from the creation of the world to the American revolution, that free inhabitants have been seen deliberating on a form of government, and selecting such of their citizens as possessed their confidence, to determine upon and give effect to it. But why has this excited so much wonder and applause? Because it is of so much magnitude, and because it is liable to be frustrated by so many accidents. If it has excited so much wonder that the United States have, in the middle of war and confusion, formed free systems of government, how much more astonishment. and admiration will be excited, should they be able, peaceably, freely, and satisfactorily, to establish one general government, when there is such a diversity of opinions and interestswhen not cemented or stimulated by any common danger! How vast must be the difficulty of concentrating, in one government, the interests, and conciliating the opinions, of so many different, heterogeneous bodies!
How have the confederacies of ancient and modern times been formed? As far as ancient history describes the former to us, they were brought about by the wisdom of some eminent sage. How was the imperfect union of the Swiss cantons formed? By danger. How was the confederacy of the United Netherlands formed? By the same. They are surrounded by dangers. By these, and one influential character, they were stimulated to unite. How was the Germanic system formed? By danger, in some degree, but principally by the overruling influence of individuals.
When we consider this government, we ought to make great allowances. We must calculate the impossibility that every state should be gratified in its wishes, and much less that every individual should receive this gratification. It has never been denied, by the friends of the paper on the table, that it has defects; but they do not think that it contains any real danger. They conceive that they will, in all probability, be removed, when experience will show it to be necessary. I beg that gentlemen, in deliberating on this subject, would consider the alternative. Either nine states shall have ratified it, or they will not. If nine states will adopt it, can it be reasonably presumed, or required, that nine states, having freely and fully considered the subject, and come to an affirmative decision, will, upon the demand of a single state, agree that they acted wrong, and could not see its defectstread back the steps which they have taken, and come forward, and reduce it to uncertainty whether a general system shall be adopted or not? Virginia has always heretofore spoken the language of respect to the other states, and she has always been attended to. Will it be that language to call on a great majority of the states to acknowledge that they have done wrong? Is it the language of confidence to say that we do not believe that amendments for the preservation of the common liberty, and general interests, of the states, will be consented to by them? This is the language neither of confidence nor respect. Virginia, when she speaks respectfully, will be as much attended to as she has hitherto been when speaking this language.
It is a most awful thing that depends on our decisionno less than whether the thirteen states shall unite freely, peaceably, and unanimously, for security of their common happiness and liberty, or whether every thing is to be put in confusion and disorder. Are we to embark in this dangerous enterprise, uniting various opinions to contrary interests, with the vain hope of coming to an amicable concurrence?
It is worthy of our consideration that those who prepared the paper on the table found difficulties not to be described in its formation: mutual deference and concession were absolutely necessary. Had they been inflexibly tenacious of their individual opinions, they would never have concurred. Under what circumstances was it formed? When no party was formed, or particular proposition made, and men’s minds were calm and dispassionate. Yet, under these circumstances, it was difficult, extremely difficult, to agree to any general system.
Suppose eight states only should ratify, and Virginia should propose certain alterations, as the previous condition of her accession. If they should be disposed to accede to her proposition, which is the most favorable conclusion, the difficulty attending it will be immense. Every state which has decided it, must take up the subject again. They must not only have the mortification of acknowledging that they had done wrong, but the difficulty of having a reconsideration of it among the people, and appointing new conventions to deliberate upon it. They must attend to all the amendments, which may be dictated by as great a diversity of political opinions as there are local attachments. When brought together in one assembly, they must go through, and accede to, every one of the amendments. The gentlemen who, within this house, have thought proper to propose previous amendments, have brought no less than forty amendments, a bill of rights which contains twenty amendments, and twenty other alterations, some of which are improper and inadmissible. Will not every state think herself equally entitled to propose as many amendments? And suppose them to be contradictory! I leave it to this Convention whether it be probable that they can agree, or agree to any thing but the plan on the table; or whether greater difficulties will not be encountered than were experienced in the progress of the formation of the Constitution.
I have said that there was a great contrariety of opinions among the gentlemen in the opposition. It has been heard in every stage of their opposition. I can see, from their amendments, that very great sacrifices have been made by some of them. Some gentlemen think that it contains too much state influence; others, that it is a complete consolidation; and a variety of other things. Some of them think that the equality in the Senate is nor a defect; others, that it is the bane of all good government. I might, if there were time, show a variety of other cases where their opinions are contradictory. If there be this contrariety of opinions in this house, what contrariety may not be expected, when we take into view thirteen conventions equally or more numerous! Besides, it is notorious, from the debates which have been published, that there is no sort of uniformity in the grounds of the opposition.
The state of New York has been adduced. Many in that state are opposed to it from local views. The two who opposed it in the general Convention from that state are in the state Convention. Every step of this system was opposed by those two gentlemen. They were unwilling to part with the old Confederation. Can it be presumed, then, sir, that gentlemen in this state, who admit the necessity of changing, should ever be able to unite in sentiments with those who are totally averse to any change?
I have revolved this question in my mind with as much serious attention, and called to my aid as much information, as I could, yet I can see no reason for the apprehensions of gentlemen; but I think that the most happy effects for this country would result from adoption, and if Virginia will agree to ratify this system, I shall look upon it as one of the most fortunate events that ever happened for human nature, t cannot, therefore, without the most excruciating apprehensions, see a possibility of losing its blessings. It gives me infinite pain to reflect that all the earliest endeavors of the warmest friends of their country to introduce a system promotive of our happiness, may be blasted by a rejection, for which I think, with my honorable friend, that previous amendments are but another name. The gentlemen in opposition seem to insist on those amendments, as if they were all necessary for the liberty and happiness of the people. Were I to hazard an opinion on the subject, I would declare it infinitely more safe, in its present form, than it would be after introducing into it that long train of alterations which they call amendments.
With respect to the proposition of the honorable gentleman to my left, (Mr. Wythe,) gentlemen apprehend that, by enumerating three rights, it implied there were no more. The observations made by a gentleman lately up, on that subject, correspond precisely with my opinion. That resolution declares that the powers granted by the proposed Constitution are the gift of the people, and may be resumed by them when perverted to their oppression, and every power not granted thereby remains with the people, and at their will. It adds, likewise, that no right, of any denomination, can be cancelled, abridged, restrained, or modified, by the general government, or any of its officers, except in those instances in which power is given by the Constitution for these purposes. There cannot be a more positive and unequivocal declaration of the principle of the adoptionthat every thing not granted is reserved. This is obviously and self-evidently the case, without the declaration. Can the general government exercise any power not delegated? If an enumeration be made of our rights, will it not be implied that every thing omitted is given to the general government? Has not the honorable gentleman himself admitted that an imperfect enumeration is dangerous? Does the Constitution say that they shall not alter the law of descents, or do those things which would subvert the whole system of the state laws? If it did, what was not excepted would be granted. Does it follow, from the omission of such restrictions that they can exercise powers not delegated? The reverse of the proposition holds. The delegation alone warrants the exercise of any power.
With respect to the amendments proposed by the honorable gentleman, it ought to be considered how far they are good. As far as they are palpably and insuperably objectionable they ought to be opposed. One amendment he proposes is, that any army which shall be necessary shall be raised by the consent of two thirds of the states. I most devoutly wish that there may never be an occasion for having a single regiment. There can be no harm in declaring that standing armies, in time of peace, are dangerous to liberty, and ought to be avoided, as far as it may be consistent with the protection of the community. But when we come to say that the national security shall depend, not on a majority of the people of America, but that it may be frustrated by less than one third of the people of America, I ask if this be a safe or proper mode. What parts of the United States are most likely to stand in need of this protection? The weak parts, which are the Southern States. Will it be safe to leave the United States at the mercy of one third of the statesa number which may comprise a very small proportion of the American people? They may all be in that part of America which is least exposed to danger. As far as a remote situation from danger would render exertions for public defence less active, so far the Southern States would be endangered.
The regulation of commerce, he further proposed, should depend on two thirds of both houses. I wish I could recollect the history of this matter; but I cannot call it to mind with sufficient exactness. But I well recollect the reasoning of some gentlemen on that subject. It was said, and I believe with truth, that every part of America does not stand in equal need of security. It was observed that the Northern States were most competent to their own safety. Was it reasonable, asked they, that they should bind themselves to the defence of the Southern States, and still be left at the mercy of the minority for commercial advantages? Should it be in the power of the minority to deprive them of this and other advantages, when they were bound to defend the whole Union, it might be a disadvantage for them to confederate.
These were his arguments. This policy of guarding against political inconveniences, by enabling a small part of the community to oppose the government, and subjecting the majority to a small minority, is fallacious. In some cases it may be good; in others it may be fatal. In all cases, it puts it in the power of the minority to decide a question which concerns the majority.
I was struck with surprise when I heard him express himself alarmed with respect to the emancipation of slaves. Let me ask, if they should even attempt it, if it will not be a usurpation of power. There is no power to warrant it, in that paper. If there be, I know it not. But why should it be done? Says the honorable gentleman, for the general welfare: it will infuse strength into our system. Can any member of this committee suppose that it will increase our strength? Can any one believe that the American councils will come into a measure which will strip them of their property, and discourage and alienate the affections off five thirteenths of the Union? Why was nothing of this sort aimed at before? I believe such an idea never entered into any American breast, nor do I believe it ever will enter into the heads of those gentlemen who substitute unsupported suspicions for reasons.
I am persuaded that the gentlemen who contend for previous amendments are not aware of the dangers which must result. Virginia, after having made opposition, will be obliged to recede from it. Might not the nine states say, with a great deal of propriety, “It is not proper, decent, or right, in you, to demand that we should reverse what we have done. Do as we have done; place confidence in us, as we have done in one another; and then we shall freely, fairly, and dispassionately consider and investigate your propositions, and endeavor to gratify your wishes. But if you do not do this, it is more reasonable that you should yield to us than we to you. You cannot exist without us; you must be a member of the Union.
The case of Maryland, instanced by the gentleman, does not hold. She would not agree to confederate, because the other states would not assent to her claims of the western lands. Was she gratified? No; she put herself like the rest. Nor has she since been gratified. The lands are in the common stock of the Union.
As far as his amendments are not objectionable, or unsafe, so far they may be subsequently recommendednot because they are necessary, but because they can produce no possible danger, and may gratify some gentlemen’s wishes. But I never can consent to his previous amendments, because they are pregnant with dreadful dangers.
Mr. HENRY. Mr. Chairman, the honorable gentleman who was up some time ago exhorts us not to fall into a repetition of the defects of the Confederation. He said we ought not to declare that each state retains every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not expressly delegated, because experience has proved the insertion of such a restriction to be destructive, and mentioned an instance to prove it. That case, Mr. Chairman, appears tome to militate against himself. Passports would not be given by Congressand why? Because there was a clause in the Confederation which denied them implied powers. And says he, Shall we repeat the error? He asked me where was the power of emancipating slaves. I say it will be implied, unless implication be prohibited. He admits that the power of granting passports will be in the new Congress without the insertion of this restriction; yet he can show me nothing like such a power granted in that Constitution. Notwithstanding he admits their right to this power by implication, he says that I am unfair and uncandid in my deduction that they can emancipate our slaves, though the word emancipation is not mentioned in it. They can exercise power by implication in one instance, as well as in another. Thus, by the gentleman’s own argument, they can exercise the power, though it be not delegated.
We were then told that the power of treaties and commerce was the sine qua non of the Union; that the little states would not confederate otherwise. There is a thing not present to human view. We have seen great concessions from the large states to the little states. But little concessions from the little states to the great states will be refused. He concedes that great concessions were made in the great Convention. Now, when we speak of rights, and not of emoluments, these little states would not have been affected. What boon did we ask? We demanded only rights which ought to be unalienable and sacred. We have nothing local to ask. We ask rights which concern the general happiness. Must not justice bring them into the concession of these? The honorable gentleman was pleased to say that the new government, in this policy, will be equal to what the present is. If so, that amendment will not injure that part.
He then mentioned the danger that would arise from foreign gold. We may be bribed by foreign powers if we ask for amendments, to secure our own happiness. Are we to be bribed to forget our own interests? I will ask, if foreign gold be likely to operate, where will it be? In the seat of government, or in those little channels in which the state authority will flow? It will be at the fountain of power, where bribery will not be detected. He speaks of war and bloodshed. Whence do this war and bloodshed come? I fear it, but not from the source he speaks of. I fear it, sir, from the operation and friends of the federal government. He speaks with contempt of this amendment. But whoever will advert to the use made repeatedly, in England, of the prerogative of the king, and the frequent attacks on the privileges of the people, notwithstanding many legislative acts to secure them, will see the necessity of excluding implications. Nations who have trusted to logical deduction have lost their liberty.
The honorable gentleman last up agrees that there are defects, and by and by, he says there is no defect. Does not this amount to a declaration that subsequent amendments are not necessary? His arguments, great as the gentleman’s abilities are, tend to prove that amendments cannot be obtained after adoption. Speaking of forty amendments, he calculated that it was something like impracticability to obtain them. I appeal, therefore, to the candor of the honorable gentleman, and this committee, whether amendments be not absolutely unattainable, if we adopt; for he has told us that, if the other states will do like this, they cannot be previously obtained. Will the gentleman bring this home to himself? This is a piece of information which I expected. The worthy member who proposed to ratify has also proposed that what amendments may be deemed necessary should be recommended to Congress, and that a committee should be appointed to consider what amendments were necessary. But what does it all come to at last? That it is a vain project, and that it is indecent and improper. I will not argue unfairly, but I will ask him if amendments are not unattainable. Will gentlemen, then, lay their hands on their hearts, and say that they can adopt it in this shape? When we demand this security of our privileges, the language of Virginia is not that of respect! Give me leave to deny. She only asks amendments previous to her adoption of the Constitution.
Was the honorable gentleman accurate, when he said that they could exist better without us than we could without them? I will make no comparison. But I will say that the states which have adopted will not make a respectable appearance without us. Would he advise them to refuse us admission when we profess ourselves friends to the Union, and only solicit them to secure our rights? We do not reject a connection with them. We only declare that we will adopt it, if they will but consent to the security of rights essential to the general happiness.
He told you to confine yourselves to amendments which were indisputably true, as applying to several parts of the system proposed. Did you hear any thing like the admission of the want of such amendments from any one else? I will not insist on any that does not stand on the broad basis of human rights. He says there are forty. I say there is but one half the number, for the bill of rights is but one amendment.
He tells you of the important blessings which he imagines will result to us and mankind in general from the adoption of this system. I see the awful immensity of the dangers with which it is pregnant. I see it. I feel it. I see beings of a higher order anxious concerning our decision. When I see beyond the horizon that bounds human eyes, and look at the final consummation of all human things, and see those intelligent beings which inhabit the ethereal mansions reviewing the political decisions and revolutions which, in the progress of time, will happen in America, and the consequent happiness or misery of mankind, I am led to believe that much of the account, on one side or the other, will depend on what we now decide. Our own happiness alone is not affected by the event. All nations are interested in the determination. We have it in our power to secure the happiness of one half of the human race. Its adoption may involve the misery of the other hemisphere.[Here a violent storm arose, which put the house in such disorder, that Mr. Henry was obliged to conclude.]
Mr. NICHOLAS proposed that the question should be put at nine o’clock next day.
He was opposed by Mr. CLAY.
Mr. RONALD also opposed the motion, and wished amendments to be prepared by a committee, before the question should be put.
Mr. NICHOLAS contended that the language of the proposed ratification would secure every thing which gentlemen desired, as it declared that all powers vested in the Constitution were derived from the people, and might be resumed by them whensoever they should be perverted to their injury and oppression; and that every power not granted thereby remained at their will. No danger whatever could arise; for, says he, these expressions will become a part of the contract. The Constitution cannot be binding on Virginia, but with these conditions. If thirteen individuals are about to make a contract, and one agrees to it, but at the same time declares that he understands its meaning, signification, and intent, to be, (what the words of the contract plainly and obviously denote,) that it is not to be construed so as to impose any supplementary condition upon him, and that he is to be exonerated from it whensoever any such imposition shall be attempted,I ask whether, in this case, these conditions, on which he has assented to it, would not be binding on the other twelve. In like manner these conditions will be binding on Congress. They can exercise no power that is not expressly granted them.
Mr. RONALD. Mr. Chairman, I came hither with a determination to give my vote so as to secure the liberty and privileges of my constituents. I thought that a great majority argued that amendments were necessary. Such is my opinion; but whether they ought to be previous or subsequent to our adoption, I leave to the wisdom of this committee to determine. I feel an earnest desire to know what amendments shall be proposed, before the question be put. One honorable gentleman has proposed several amendments. They are objected to by other gentlemen. I do not declare myself for or against those amendments; but unless I see such amendments, one way or the other, introduced, as will secure the happiness of the people, and prevent their privileges from being endangered, I must, though much against my inclination, vote against this Constitution.
Mr. MADISON conceived that what defects might be in the Constitution might be removed by the amendatory mode in itself. As to a solemn declaration of our essential rights, he thought it unnecessary and dangerousunnecessary, because it was evident that the general government had no power but what was given it, and that the delegation alone warranted the exercise of power; dangerous, because an enumeration which is not complete is not safe. Such an enumeration could not be made, within any compass of time, as would be equal to a general negation, such as his honorable friend (Mr. Wythe) had proposed. He declared that such amendments as seemed, in his judgment, to be without danger, he would readily admit, and that he would be the last to oppose any such amendment as would give satisfaction to any gentleman, unless it were dangerous.