The Debates in the
Federal Convention of 1787
MAY 31 1
William Pierce from Georgia took his seat.
In Committee of the whole on Mr. Randolph's propositions.
The 3d. Resolution "that the national Legislature ought to consist of
two branches" was agreed to without debate or dissent, except that of
Pennsylvania, given probably from complaisance to Docr. Franklin who was
understood to be partial to a single House of Legislation.
Resol: 4. 2 first clause "that
the members of the first branch of the National Legislature ought to be elected
by the people of the several States" being taken up,
Mr. SHERMAN opposed the election by the
people, insisting that it ought to be by the State Legislatures. The people he
said, immediately should have as little to do as may be about the Government.
They want information and are constantly liable to be misled.
Mr. GERRY. The evils we experience flow
from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue, but are the dupes
of pretended patriots. In Massts. it had been fully confirmed by experience that
they are daily misled into the most baneful measures and opinions by the false
reports circulated by designing men, and which no one on the spot can refute.
One principal evil arises from the want of due provision for those employed in
the administration of Governmt. It would seem to be a maxim of democracy to
starve the public servants. He mentioned the popular clamour in Massts. for the
reduction of salaries and the attack made on that of the Govr. though secured by
the spirit of the Constitution itself. He had he said been too republican
heretofore: he was still however republican, but had been taught by experience
the danger of the levilling spirit.
Mr. MASON, argued strongly for an
election of the larger branch by the people. It was to be the grand depository
of the democratic principle of the Govtt. It was, so to speak, to be our House
of Commons — It ought to know & sympathise with every part of the
community; and ought therefore to be taken not only from different parts of the
whole republic, but also from different districts of the larger members of it,
which had in several instances particularly in Virga., different interests and
views arising from difference of produce, of habits &c &c. He admitted
that we had been too democratic but was afraid we sd. incautiously run into the
opposite extreme. We ought to attend to the rights of every class of the people.
He had often wondered at the indifference of the superior classes of society to
this dictate of humanity & policy; considering that however affluent their
circumstances, or elevated their situations, might be, the course of a few
years, not only might but certainly would, distribute their posterity throughout
the lowest classes of Society. Every selfish motive therefore, every family
attachment, ought to recommend such a system of policy as would provide no less
carefully for the rights and happiness of the lowest than of the highest orders
Mr. WILSON contended strenuously for
drawing the most numerous branch of the Legislature immediately from the people.
He was for raising the federal pyramid to a considerable altitude, and for that
reason wished to give it as broad a basis as possible. No government could long
subsist without the confidence of the people. In a republican Government this
confidence was peculiarly essential. He also thought it wrong to increase the
weight of the State Legislatures by making them the electors of the national
Legislature. All interference between the general and local Governmts. should be
obviated as much as possible. On examination it would be found that the
opposition of States to federal measures had proceded much more from the
officers of the States, than from the people at large.
Mr. MADISON considered the popular
election of one branch of the National Legislature as essential to every plan of
free Government. He observed that in some of the States one branch of the
Legislature was composed of men already removed from the people by an
intervening body of electors. That if the first branch of the general
legislature should be elected by the State Legislatures, the second branch
elected by the first — the Executive by the second together with the first;
and other appointments again made for subordinate purposes by the Executive, the
people would be lost sight of altogether; and the necessary sympathy between
them and their rulers and officers, too little felt. He was an advocate for the
policy of refining the popular appointments by successive filtrations, but
though it might be pushed too far. He wished the expedient to be resorted to
only in the appointment of the second branch of the Legislature, and in the
Executive & judiciary branches of the Government. He thought too that the
great fabric to be raised would be more stable and durable, if it should rest on
the solid foundation of the people themselves, than if it should stand merely on
the pillars of the Legislatures.
Mr. GERRY did not like the election by
the people. The maxims taken from the British constitution were often fallacious
when applied to our situation which was extremely different. Experience he said
had shewn that the State legislatures drawn immediately from the people did not
always possess their confidence. He had no objection however to an election by
the people if it were so qualified that men of honor & character might not
be unwilling to be joined in the appointments. He seemed to think the people
might nominate a certain number out of which the State legislatures should be
bound to choose.
Mr. BUTLER thought an election by the
people an impracticable mode.
On the question for an election of the first branch of the national
Legislature by the people.
Massts. ay. Connect. divd. N. York ay. N. Jersey no. Pena. ay. Delawe. divd.
Va. ay. N. C. ay. S. C. no. Georga. ay.
The remaining Clauses of Resolution 4th. 3
relating to the qualifications of members of the National Legislature,
3 being pospd. nem. con., as entering too
much into detail for general propositions:
The Committee proceeded to Resolution 5. 4
"that the second, [or senatorial] branch of the National Legislature ought
to be chosen by the first branch out of persons nominated by the State
Mr. SPAIGHT contended that the 2d.
branch ought to be chosen by the State Legislatures and moved an amendment to
that effect. Mr. BUTLER apprehended that the
taking so many powers out of the hands of the States as was proposed, tended to
destroy all that balance and security of interests among the States which it was
necessary to preserve; and called on Mr. Randolph the mover of the propositions,
to explain the extent of his ideas, and particularly the number of members he
meant to assign to this second branch.
Mr. RAND observed that he had at the
time of offering his propositions stated his ideas as far as the nature of
general propositions required; that details made no part of the plan, and could
not perhaps with propriety have been introduced. If he was to give an opinion as
to the number of the second branch, he should say that it ought to be much
smaller than that of the first; so small as to be exempt from the passionate
proceedings to which numberous assemblies are liable. He observed that the
general object was to provide a cure for the evils under which the U. S.
laboured; that in tracing these evils to their origin every man had found it in
the turbulence and follies of democracy: that some check therefore was to be
sought for agst. this tendency of our Governments: and that a good Senate seemed
most likely to answer the purpose.
Mr. KING reminded the Committee that the
choice of the second branch as proposed (by Mr. Spaight) viz. by the State
Legislatures would be impracticable, unless it was to be very numerous, or the
idea of proportion among the States was to be disregarded. According to this
idea, there must be 80 or 100 members to entitle Delaware to the choice
of one of them. — Mr. SPAIGHT withdrew
Mr. WILSON opposed both a nomination by
the State Legislatures, and an election by the first branch of the national
Legislature, because the second branch of the latter, ought to be independent of
both. He thought both branches of the National Legislature ought to be chosen by
the people, but was not prepared with a specific proposition. He suggested the
mode of chusing the Senate of N. York to wit of uniting several election
districts, for one branch, in chusing members for the other branch, as a good
Mr. MADISON observed that such a mode
would destroy the influence of the smaller States associated with larger ones in
the same district; as the latter would chuse from within themselves, altho'
better men might be found in the former. The election of Senators in Virga.
where large & small counties were often formed into one district for the
purpose, had illustrated this consequence Local partiality, would often prefer a
resident within the County or State, to a candidate of superior merit residing
out of it. Less merit also in a resident would be more known throughout his own
Mr. SHERMAN favored an election of one
member by each of the State Legislatures.
Mr. PINKNEY moved to strike out the "nomination
by the State Legislatures." On this question.
*5 Massts. no. Cont. no. N. Y. no. N.
J. no. Pena. no. Del divd. Va. no. N. C. no. S. C. no. Georg no. 6
On the whole question for electing by the first branch out of nominations by
the State Legislatures, Mass. ay. Cont. no. N. Y. no. N. Jersey. no. Pena. no.
Del. no. Virga. ay. N. C. no. S. C. ay. Ga. no. 7
So the clause was disagreed to & a chasm left in this part of the plan.
8 The sixth Resolution stating the
cases in which the national Legislature ought to legislate was next taken into
discussion: On the question whether each branch shd. originate laws, there was
an unanimous affirmative without debate. On the question for transferring all
the Legislative powers of the existing Congs. to this Assembly, there was also a
silent affirmative nem. con.
On the proposition for giving "Legislative power in all cases to which
the State Legislatures were individually incompetent."
Mr. PINKNEY & Mr. RUTLEDGE objected to the vagueness of the term incompetent,
and said they could not well decide how to vote until they should see an exact
enumeration of the powers comprehended by this definition.
Mr. BUTLER repeated his fears that we
were running into an extreme in taking away the powers of the States, and called
on Mr. Randolp for the extent of his meaning.
Mr. RANDOLPH disclaimed any intention to
give indefinite powers to the national Legislature, declaring that he was
entirely opposed to such an inroad on the State jurisdictions, and that he did
not think any considerations whatever could ever change his determination. His
opinion was fixed on this point.
Mr. MADISON said that he had brought
with him into the Convention a strong bias in favor of an enumeration and
definition of the powers necessary to be exercised by the national Legislature;
but had also brought doubts concerning its practicability. His wishes remained
un ltered; but his doubts had become stronger. What his opinion might ultimately
be he could not yet tell. But he should shrink from nothing which should be
found essential to such a form of Govt. as would provide for the safety, liberty
and happiness of the community. This being the end of all our deliberations, all
the necessary means for attaining it must, however reluctantly, be submitted to.
On the question for giving powers, in cases to which the States are not
competent, Massts. ay. Cont. divd. [Sharman no Elseworth ay] N. Y. ay. N. J. ay.
Pa. ay. Del. ay. Va. ay. N. C. ay. S. Carolina ay. Georga. ay. 9
The other clauses 10 giving powers
necessary to preserve harmony among the States to negative all State laws
contravening in the opinion of the Nat. Leg. the articles of union, down to the
last clause, (the words "or any treaties subsisting under the authority of
the Union," being added after the words "contravening &c. the
articles of the Union," on motion of Dr. FRANKLIN)
were agreed to witht. debate or dissent. The last clause of Resolution 6.
11 authorizing an exertion of the force
of the whole agst. a delinquent State came next into consideration.
Mr. MADISON, observed that the more he
reflected on the use of force, the more he doubted the practicability, the
justice and the efficacy of it when applied to people collectively and not
individually. — A union of the States containing such an ingredient seemed
to provide for its own destruction. The use of force agst. a State, would look
more like a declaration of war, than an infliction of punishment, and would
probably be considered by the party attacked as a dissolution of all previous
compacts by which it might be bound. He hoped that such a system would be framed
as might render this recourse
12 unnecessary, and moved that the clause
be postponed. This motion was agreed to nem. con.
The Committee then rose & the House
1. The year "1787" is here
inserted in the transcript.
2. The transcript changes "Resol: 4."
to "The fourth Resolution."
3. In the transcript the words "Resolution
4th" are changed to "the fourth Resolution" and the phrase "the
qualifications of members of the National Legislature" is italicized."
4. In the transcript the words "Resolution
5," are changed to "the fifth Resolution" and the words of the
resolution are italicized.
*5. This question 6
omitted in the printed Journal, & the votes applied to the succeeding one,
instead of the votes as here stated [this note to be in the bottom margin].
6. In the transcript the vote reads: "*Massachusetts,
Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, South
Carolina, Georgia, no — 9; Delaware divided"; and Madison's direction
concerning the footnote is omitted. The word "is" is inserted after
the word "question."
7. In the transcript the vote reads: "Massachusetts,
Virginia, South Carolina, aye — 3; Connecticut, New York, New Jersey,
Pennsylvania, Delaware, North Carolina, Georgia, no — 7."
8. In this paragraph the transcript
italicizes the following phrases: "the cases in which the national
Legislature ought to legislate," "whether each branch shd. originate
laws," "for transferring all the Legislative powers of the existing
Cong. to this Assembly"; and the phrase "a silent affirmative nem.
con." is changed to "an unanimous affirmative, without debate."
9. In the transcript the vote reads: "Massachusetts,
New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, South
Carolina, Georgia, aye — 9; Connecticut divided (Sherman, no. Ellsworth,
10. The phrase, "giving powers
necessary to preserve harmony among the States to negative all State laws
contravening in the opinion of the Nat. Leg. the articles of union" is
italicized in the transcript.
11. The words "the sixth Resolution"
are substituted in the transcript for "resolution 6" and the phrase "authorizing
and exertion of the force of the whole agst. a delinquent State" is
12. The word "resource" is
substituted in the transcript for "recourse."