Build your own document collection

Elliot’s Debates: Volume 3

Add to Favorites

In Convention, Richmond, Wednesday, June 4, 1788

Mr. HARRISON reported, from the committee of privileges and elections, that the committee had, according to order, examined the returns for electing delegates to serve in this Convention, and had come to a resolution thereupon, which he read in his place, and afterwards delivered in at the clerk’s table, where the same was again twice read, and agreed to by the house, as followeth:—

Resolved, That it is the opinion of this committee, That the returns for electing delegates to serve in this Convention for the counties of Albemarle, Amelia, Amherst, Bedford, Botetourt, Burnswick, Buckingham, Caroline, Charlotte, Charles City, Chesterfield, Culpepper, Cumberland, Dinwiddie, Elizabeth City, Fauquier, Fairfax, Fayette, Fluvanna, Frederick, Gloucester, Goochland, Greenbrier, Greenesville, Halifax, Hampshire, Hardy, Harrison, Hanover, Henrico, Henry, James City, Jefferson, Isle of Wight, King George, King and Queen, King William, Lancaster, Lincoln, Loudon, Louisa, Lunenberg, Madison, Mecklenburgh, Mercer, Middlesex, Monongalia, Montgomery, Nansemond, New Kent, Nelson, Norfolk, Northampton, Northumberland, Ohio, Orange, Pittsylvania, Princess Anne, Prince George, Prince William, Prince Edward, Powhatan, Randolph, Richmond, Rockbridge, Rockingham, Russell, Shenandoah, Southampton, Spottsylvania, Stafford, Surry, Sussex, Warwick, Washington, York, and of a delegate for the borough of Norfolk and city of Williamsburg, are satisfactory.

Mr. HARRISON reported, from the committee of privileges and elections,—

That the committee had inquired into the elections of delegates for the counties of Accomack and Franklin, and had agreed to a report, and come to several resolutions thereupon, which he read in his place, and afterwards delivered in at the clerk’s table, where the same were again twice read, and agreed to by the house, as followeth:—

It appears to your committee, that no returns have been made of the election of delegates to serve in this Convention for counties of Accomack and Franklin; that, as to the election of delegates for the said county of Accomack, it appears from the information of Nathaniel Darby and Littleton Eyre, Esquires, that they were at the election of delegates for the said county of Accomack, in March last, and that George Parker and Edmund Custis, Esquires, (the sitting members,) were proclaimed by the sheriff, at the close of the poll, as duly elected delegates to represent the said county in this Convention.

That, as to the election of delegates for the said county of Franklin, it appears to your committee, from the information of Robert Williams, Esquire, that he was at the election of delegates for the said county of Franklin, in March last, and that John Early and Thomas Arthurs, Esquires, (the sitting members,) were proclaimed by the sheriff, at the close of the poll, as duly elected delegates to represent the said county of Accomack in this Convention.

Resolved, That it is the opinion of this committee, that John Early and Thomas Arthurs, Esquires, were elected delegates to represent the said county of Franklin in this Convention.

Resolved, That it is the opinion of this committee, that Edmund Custis and George Parker, Esquires, were elected delegates to represent the said county of Accomack in this Convention.

Ordered, That Mr. Madison and Mr. Lawson be added to the committee of privileges and elections.

Mr. ARCHIBALD STUART presented a petition of Samuel Anderson, of the county of Cumberland, setting forth,—

That Thomas H. Drew, Esquire, one of the delegates returned for the said county to serve in this Convention, was not, at the time of his election, a freeholder in this commonwealth; and praying that the election of the said Thomas H. Drew may be set aside, and another election directed to supply his place; which was read, and ordered to be referred to the committee of privileges and elections.

The Convention, according to the order of the day, resolved itself into a committee of the whole Convention, to take into consideration the proposed plan of government, Mr. Wythe in the chair.

Mr. HENRY moved,—

That the act of Assembly appointing deputies to meet at Annapolis to consult with those from some other states, on the situation of the commerce of the United States—the act of Assembly appointing deputies to meet at Philadelphia, to revise the Articles of Confederation—and other public papers relative thereto—should be read.

Mr. PENDLETON then spoke to the following effect: Mr. Chairman, we are not to consider whether the federal Convention exceeded their powers. It strikes my mind that this ought not to influence our deliberations. This Constitution was transmitted to Congress by that the Convention; by the Congress transmitted to our legislature; by them recommended to the people; the people have sent us hither to determine whether this government be a proper one or not. I did not expect these papers would have been brought forth. Although those gentlemen were only directed to consider the defects of the old system, and not devise a new one, if they found it so thoroughly defective as not to admit a revising, and submitted a new system to our consideration, which the people have deputed us to investigate, I cannot find any degree of propriety in reading those papers.

Mr. HENRY then withdrew his motion.

The clerk proceeded to read the preamble, and the two first sections of the first article.


We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States.

House of Representatives.

Art. 1. Sect. 1.—All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.

Sect. 2.—The House of Representatives shall be composed of members chosen every second year by the people of the several states, and the electors in each state shall have the qualifications for electors of the most numerous branch of the state legislature.

No person shall be a representative who shall not have attained to the age of twenty-five years, and been seven years a citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an inhabitant of that state in which he shall be chosen.

Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states which may be included within this Union, according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed three fifths of all other persons. The actual enumeration shall be made within three years after the first meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent term of ten years, in such manner as they shall by law direct. The number of representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty thousand, but each state shall have at least one representative; and until such enumeration shall be made, the state of New Hampshire shall be entitled to choose three, Massachusetts eight, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations one, Connecticut five, New York six, New Jersey four, Pennsylvania eight, Delaware one, Maryland six, Virginia ten, North Carolina five, South Carolina five, and Georgia three. When vacancies happen in the representation from any state, the executive authority thereof shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies.

The House of Representatives shall choose their speaker and other officers, and shall have the sole power of impeachment.

Mr. NICHOLAS. Mr. Chairman, the time being now come when this state is to decide on this important question, of rejecting or receiving this plan of government, it gave me great pleasure, yesterday, when the Convention determined to proceed with the fullest deliberation on the subject; as every gentleman will, in the course of the discussion, have an opportunity to urge every objection that may arise in his mind against this system. I beg gentlemen to offer all their objections here, and that none may be insisted on elsewhere; and I hope nothing urged without these walls will influence the mind of any one. If this part of the plan now under consideration be materially defective, I will readily agree it ought to be wholly rejected, because representation is the corner-stone on which the whole depends; but if, on investigation, it should be found to be otherwise, the highest gratitude should be shown to those gentlemen who framed it: although some small defects may appear in it, yet its merits, I hope, will amply cover those defects.

I shall take it into consideration, 1st, as it affects the qualifications of the electors; 2dly, as it affects the qualifications of the elected; 3dly, as to their number; 4thly, the time of their continuance in office; 5thly, their powers; and 6thly, whether this power be sufficient to enable them to discharge their duty without diminishing the security of the people—or, in other words, their responsibility.

I will consider it first, then, as to the qualifications of the electors. The best writers on government agree that, in a republic, those laws which fix the right of suffrage are fundamental. If, therefore, by the proposed plan, it is left uncertain in whom the right of suffrage is to rest, or if it has placed that right in improper hands, I shall admit that it is a radical defect; but in this plan there is a fixed rule for determining the qualifications of electors, and that rule the most judicious that could possibly have been devised, because it refers to a criterion which cannot be changed. A qualification that gives a right to elect representatives for the state legislatures, gives also, by this Constitution, a right to choose representatives for the general government. As the qualifications of electors are different in the different states, no particular qualifications, uniform through the states, would have been politic, as it would have caused a great inequality in the electors, resulting from the situation and circumstances of the respective states. Uniformity of qualifications would greatly affect the yeomanry in the states, as it would either exclude from this inherent right some who are entitled to it by the laws of some states at present, or be extended so universally as to defeat the admirable end of the institution of representation.

Secondly, as it respects the qualifications of the elected. It has ever been considered a great security to liberty, that very few should be excluded from the right of being chosen to the legislature. This Constitution has amply attended to this idea. We find no qualifications required except those of age and residence, which create a certainty of their judgment being matured, and of being attached to their state. It has been objected, that they ought to be possessed of landed estates; but, sir, when we reflect that most of the electors are landed men, we must suppose they will fix on those who are in a similar situation with themselves. We find there is a decided majority attached to the landed interest; consequently, the landed interest must prevail in the choice. Should the state be divided into districts, in no one can the mercantile interest by any means have an equal weight in the elections; therefore, the former will be more fully represented in the Congress; and men of eminent abilities are not excluded for the want of landed property. There is another objection which has been echoed from one end of the continent to the other—that Congress may alter the time, place, and manner of holding elections; that they may direct the place of elections to be where it will be impossible for those who have a right to vote, to attend; for instance, that they may order the freeholders of Albemarle to vote in the county of Princess Anne, or vice versa; or regulate elections, otherwise, in such a manner as totally to defeat their purpose, and lay them entirely under the influence of Congress. I flatter myself, that, from an attentive consideration of this power, it will clearly appear that it was essentially necessary to give it to Congress, as, without it, there could have been no security for the general government against the state legislatures. What, Mr. Chairman, is the danger apprehended in this case? If I understand it right, it must be, that Congress might cause the elections to be held in the most inconvenient places, and at so inconvenient a time, and in such a manner, as to give them the most undue influence over the choice, nay, even to prevent the elections from being held at all,—in order to perpetuate themselves. But what would be the consequence of this measure? It would be this, sir,—that Congress would cease to exist; it would destroy the Congress itself; it would absolutely be an act of suicide; and therefore it can never be expected. This alteration, so much apprehended, must be made by law; that is, with the concurrence of both branches of the legislature. Will the House of Representatives, the members of which are chosen only for two years, and who depend on the people for their re-election, agree to such an alteration? It is unreasonable to suppose it.

But let us admit, for a moment, that they will: what would be the consequence of passing such a law? It would be, sir, that, after the expiration of the two years, at the next election they would either choose such men as would alter the law, or they would resist the government. An enlightened people will never suffer what was established for their security to be perverted to an act of tyranny. It may be said, perhaps, that resistance would then become vain; Congress are vested with the power of raising an army; to which I say, that if ever Congress shall have an army sufficient for their purpose, and disposed to execute their unlawful commands, before they would act under this disguise, they would pull off the mask, and declare themselves absolute. I ask, Mr. Chairman, is it a novelty in our government? Has not our state legislature the power of fixing the time, places, and manner of holding elections? The possible abuse here complained of never can happen as long as the people of the United States are virtuous. As long as they continue to have sentiments of freedom and independence, should the Congress be wicked enough to harbor so absurd an idea as this objection supposes, the people will defeat their attempt by choosing other representatives, who will alter the law. If the state legislature, by accident, design, or any other cause, would not appoint a place for holding elections, then there might be no election till the time was past for which they were to have been chosen; and as this would eventually put an end to the Union, it ought to be guarded against; and it could only be guarded against by giving this discretionary power, to the Congress, of altering the time, place, and manner of holding the elections. It is absurd to think that Congress will exert this power, or change the time, place, and manner established by the states, if the states will regulate them properly, or so as not to defeat the purposes of the Union. It is urged that the state legislature ought to be fully and exclusively possessed of this power. Were this the case, it might certainly defeat the government. As the powers vested by this plan in Congress are taken from the state legislatures, they would be prompted to throw every obstacle in the way of the general government. It was then necessary that Congress should have this power.

Another strong argument for the necessity of this power is, that, if it was left solely to the states, there might have been as many times of choosing as there are states. States having solely the power of altering or establishing the time of election, it might happen that there should be no Congress. Not only by omitting to fix a time, but also by the elections in the states being at thirteen different times, such intervals might elapse between the first and last election, as to prevent there being a sufficient number to form a house; and this might happen at a time when the most urgent business rendered their session necessary; and by this power, this great part of the representation will be always kept full, which will be a security for a due attention to the interest of the community; and also the power of Congress to make the times of elections uniform in all the states, will destroy the continuance of any cabal, as the whole body of representatives will go out of office at once.

I come now, sir, to consider that part of the Constitution which fixes the number of representatives. It is first necessary for us to establish what the number of representatives is to be. At present it only consists of sixty-five; but let us consider that it is only to continue at that number till the actual enumeration shall be made, which is to be within three years after the first meeting of Congress; and that the number of representatives will be ascertained, and the proportion of taxes fixed, within every subsequent term of ten years. Till this enumeration be made, Congress will have no power to lay direct taxes: as there is no provision for this purpose, Congress cannot impose it; as direct taxation and representation are to be regulated by the enumeration there directed, therefore they have no power of laying direct taxes till the enumeration be actually made. I conceive no apportionment can be made before this enumeration, there being no certain data to go on. When the enumeration shall be made, what will be the consequence? I conceive there will be always one for every thirty thousand. Many reasons concur to lead me to this conclusion. By the Constitution, the allotment now made will only continue till the enumeration be made; and as a new enumeration will take place every ten years, I take it for granted that the number of representatives will be increased, according to the progressive increase of population, at every respective enumeration; and one for every thirty thousand will amount to one hundred representatives, if we compute the number of inhabitants to be only three millions in the United States, which is a very moderate calculation. The first intention was only to have one for every forty thousand, which was afterwards estimated to be too few, and, according to this proportion, the present temporary number is fixed; but as it now stands, we readily see that the proportion of representatives is sufficiently numerous to answer every purpose of federal legislation, and even soon to gratify those who wish for the greatest number. I take it that the number of representatives will be proportioned to the highest number we are entitled to; and that it never will be less than one for every thirty thousand. I formed this conclusion from the situation of those who will be our representatives. They are all chosen for two years; at the and end of which term they are to depend on the people for their re-election. This dependence will lead them to a due and faithful discharge of their duty to their constituents: the augmentation of their number will conciliate the affections of the people at large; for the more the representatives increase in number, the greater the influence of the people in the government, and the greater the chance of re-election to the representatives.

But it has been said, that the Senate will not agree to any augmentation of the number of representatives. The Constitution will entitle the House of Representatives to demand it. Would the Senate venture to stand out against them? I think they would not, sir. Were they ready to recede from the evident sense of the Constitution, and grasp at power not thereby given them, they would be compelled to desist. But, that I may not be charged with urging suppositions, let us see what ground this stands upon, and whether there be any real danger to be apprehended. The first objection that I shall consider is, that, by paucity of numbers, they will be more liable to depart from their duty, and more subject to influence. I apprehend that the fewer the number of representatives, the freer the choice, and the greater the number of electors, the less liable to the unworthy acts of the candidates will they be; and thus their suffrage, being free, will probably fall on men of the most merit. The practice of that country, which is situated more like America than any other country in the world, will justify this supposition. The British House of Commons consists, I believe, of five hundred and fifty-eight members; yet the greater number of these are supposed to be under the undue influence of the crown. A single fact from the British history illustrates these observations,—viz., that there is scarcely an instance, for a century past, of the crown’s exercising its undoubted prerogative of rejecting a bill sent up to it by the two houses of Parliament: it is no answer to say, that the king’s influence is sufficient to prevent any obnoxious bills passing the two houses; there are many instances, in that period, not only of bills passing the two houses, but even receiving the royal assent, contrary to the private wish and inclination of the prince.

It is objected, however, as a defect in the Constitution, that it does not prohibit the House of Representatives from giving their powers, particularly that respecting the support &c., of armies, out of their hands for a longer term than two years. Here, I think, the enemies to the plan reason unfairly; they first suppose that Congress, from a love of power natural to all, will, in general, abuse that with which they are invested; and then they would make us apprehend that the House of Representatives, notwithstanding their love of power, (and it must be supposed as great in a branch of Congress as in the whole,) will give out of their hands the only check which can insure to them the continuance of the participation of the powers lodged in Congress in general. In England, there is no restraint of this kind on the Parliament; and yet there is no instance of a money bill being passed for a longer term than one year; the proposed plan, therefore, when it declares that no appropriation for the support of an army shall be made for a longer term than two years, introduces a check unknown to the English constitution, and one which will be found very powerful when we reflect that, if the House of Representatives could be prevailed on to make an appropriation for an army for two years, at the end of that time there will be a new choice of representatives. Thus I insist that security does not depend on the number of representatives: the experience of that country also shows that many of their counties and cities contain a greater number of souls than will be entitled to a representation in America; and yet the representatives chosen in those places have been the most strenuous advocates of liberty, and have exerted themselves in the defence of it, even in opposition to those chosen by much smaller numbers. Many of the senatorial districts in Virginia also contain a greater number of souls; and yet I suppose no gentleman within these walls will pay the senators chosen by them so poor a compliment as to attribute less wisdom and virtue to them than to the delegates chosen from single counties; and as there is greater probability that the electors in a large district will be more independent, so I think the representatives chosen in such districts will be more so too; for those who have sold themselves to their representatives will have no right to complain, if they, in their turn, barter away their rights and liberties; but those who have not themselves been bought, will never consent to be sold. Another objection made to the small number of representatives, is, that, admitting they were sufficient to secure their integrity, yet they cannot be acquainted with the local situation and circumstances of their constituents. When we attend to the object of their jurisdiction, we find this objection insupportable. Congress will superintend the great national interests of the Union. Local concerns are left to the state legislatures. When the members compare and communicate to one another their knowledge of their respective districts and states, their collective intelligence will sufficiently enable them to perform the objects of their cognizance. They cannot extend their influence or agency to any objects but those of a general nature; the representatives will, therefore, be sufficiently acquainted with the interests of their states, although chosen by large districts. As long as the people remain virtuous and uncorrupted, so long, we may fairly conclude, will their representatives, even at their present number, guard their interests, and discharge their duty with fidelity and zeal: when they become otherwise, no government can possibly secure their freedom.

I now consider the time of their continuance in office. A short continuance in office, and a return of the officers to the mass of the people, there to depend solely on their former good conduct for their re-election, is of the highest security to public liberty. Let the power of the persons elected be what it may, they are only the trustees, and not the masters, of the people; yet the time ought not to be so short that they could not discharge their duty with ability. Considering this, a term of two years is short enough in this case. Many will have a considerable distance to travel from the places of their abode to the seat of the general government. They must take time to consider the situation of the Union, make themselves acquainted with the circumstances of our finances, and the relative situation of, and our connections with, foreign nations, and a variety of other objects of importance.

Would it not be the height of impolicy that they should go out of their office just as they began to know something of the nature of their duty? Were this the case, the interest of their constituents could never be sufficiently attended to. Our representatives for the state legislature are chosen for one year, and it has never been thought too long a term. If one year be not too long to elect a state representative, give me leave to say, that two years ought not to be considered as too long for the election of the members of the general legislature. The objects of the former are narrow, and limited to state and local affairs; the objects of the latter are co

Back to Table of Contents