The Debates in the
Federal Convention of 1787
The controversy must be endless whilst Gentlemen differ in the grounds of their
arguments; Those on one side considering the States as districts of people
composing one political Society; those on the other considering them as so many
political societies. The fact is that the States do exist as political
Societies, and a Govt. is to be formed for them in their political capacity, as
well as for the individuals composing them. Does it not seem to follow, that if
the States as such are to exist they must be armed with some power of
self-defence. This is the idea of [Col. Mason] who appears to have looked to the
bottom of this matter. Besides the Aristocratic and other interests, which ought
to have the means of defending themselves, the States have their interests as
such, and are equally entitled to likes means. On the whole he thought that as
in some respects the States are to be considered in their political capacity,
and in others as districts of individual citizens, the two ideas embraced on
different sides, instead of being opposed to each other, ought to be combined;
that in one branch the people, ought to be represented; in the
other the States.
Mr. GHORUM. The States as now
confederated have no doubt a right to refuse to be consolidated, or to be formed
into any new system. But he wished the small States which seemed most ready to
object, to consider which are to give up most, they or the larger ones. He
conceived that a rupture of the Union wd. be an event unhappy for all, but
surely the large States would be least unable to take care of themselves, and to
make connections with one another. The weak therefore were most interested in
establishing some general system for maintaining order. If among individuals,
composed partly of weak, and partly of strong, the former most need the
protection of law & Government, the case is exactly the same with weak &
powerful States. What would be the situation of Delaware (for these things he
found must be spoken out, & it might as well be done 1
first as last) what wd. be the situation of Delaware in case of a separation of
the States? Would she not lie 2 at the
mercy of Pennsylvania? would not her true interest lie in being consolidated
with her, and ought she not now to wish for such a union with Pa. under one
Govt. as will put it out of the power of Pena. to oppress her? Nothing can be
more ideal than the danger apprehended by the States, from their being formed
into one nation. Massts. was originally three colonies, viz old Massts. Plymouth
— & the province of Mayne. These apprehensions existed then. An
incorporation took place; all parties were safe & satisfied; and every
distinction is now forgotten. The case was similar with Connecticut &
Newhaven. The dread of union was reciprocal; the consequence of it equally
salutary and satisfactory. In like manner N. Jersey has been made one society
out of two parts. Should a separation of the States take place, the fate of N.
Jersey wd. be worst of all. She has no foreign commerce & can have but
little. Pa. & N. York will continue to levy taxes on her consumption. If she
consults her interest she wd. beg of all things to be annihilated. The
apprehensions of the small States ought to be appeased by another reflection.
Massts. will be divided. The province of Maine is already considered as
approaching the term of its annexation to it; and Pa. will probably not
increase, considering the present state of her population, & other events
that may happen. On the whole he considered a Union of the States as necessary
to their happiness, & a firm Genl. Govt. as necessary to their Union. He
shd. consider it as 3 his duty if his
colleagues viewed the matter in the same light he did to stay here as long as
any other State would remain with them, in order to agree on some plan that
could with propriety be recommended to the people.
Mr. ELSWORTH, did not despair. He still
trusted that some good plan of Govt. wd. be divised & adopted.
Mr. READ. He shd. have no objection to
the system if it were truly national, but it has too much of a federal mixture
in it. The little States he thought had not much to fear. He suspected that the
large States felt their want of energy, & wished for a Genl. Govt. to supply
the defect. Massts. was evidently labouring under her weakness and he believed
Delaware wd. not be in much danger if in her neighbourhood. Delaware had enjoyed
tranquility & he flattered himself wd. continue to do so. He was not however
so selfish as not to wish for a good Genl. Govt. In order to obtain one the
whole States must be incorporated. If the States remain, the representatives of
the large ones will stick together, and carry every thing before them. The
Executive also will be chosen under the influence of this partiality, and will
betray it in his administration. These jealousies are inseparable from the
scheme of leaving the States in existence. They must be done away. The ungranted
lands also which have been assumed by particular States must also 4
be given up. He repeated his approbation of the plan of Mr. Hamilton, &
wished it to be substituted in place of 5
that on the table.
Mr. MADISON agreed with Docr. Johnson,
that the mixed nature of the Govt. ought to be kept in view; but thought too
much stress was laid on the rank of the States as political societies. There was
a gradation, he observed from the smallest corporation, with the most limited
powers, to the largest empire with the most perfect sovereignty. He pointed out
the limitations on the sovereignty of the States, as now confederated their laws
in relation to the paramount law of the Confederacy were analogous to that of
bye laws to the supreme law within a State. Under the proposed Govt. the powers
of the States will be much farther reduced. According to the views of every
member, the Genl. Govt. will have powers far beyond those exercised by the
British Parliament, when the States were part of the British Empire. It will in
particular have the power, without the consent of the State Legislatures, to
levy money directly on
6 the people themselves; and therefore not
to divest such unequal portions of the people as composed the several
States, of an equal voice, would subject the system to the reproaches &
evils which have resulted from the vicious representation in G. B.
He entreated the gentlemen representing the small States to renounce a
principle wch. was confessedly unjust, which cd. never be admitted, &
7 if admitted must infuse mortality into a
Constitution which we wished to last forever. He prayed them to ponder well the
consequences of suffering the Confederacy to go to pieces. It had been sd. that
the want of energy in the large states wd. be a security to the small. It was
forgotten that this want of energy proceeded from the supposed security of the
States agst. all external danger. Let each state depend on itself for its
security, & let apprehensions arise arise of danger, from distant powers or
from neighbouring States, & the languishing condition of all the States,
large as well as small, wd. soon be transformed into vigorous & high toned
Govts. His great fear was that their Govts. wd. then have too much energy, that
8 might not only be formidable in the
large to the small States, but fatal to the internal liberty of all. The same
causes which have rendered the old world the Theatre of incessant wars, &
have banished liberty from the face of it, wd. soon produce the same effects
here. The weakness & jealousy of the small States wd. quickly introduce some
regular military force agst. sudden danger from their powerful neighbours. The
example wd. be followed by others, and wd. soon become universal. In time of
actual war, great discretionary powers are constantly given to the Executive
Magistrate. Constant apprehension of war, has the same tendency to render the
head too large for the body. A standing military force, with an overgrown
Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defence
agst. foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among
the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was
apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of
defending, have enslaved the people. It is perhaps questionable, whether the
best concerted system of absolute power in Europe cd. maintain itself, in a
situation, where no alarms of external danger cd. tame the people to the
domestic yoke. The insular situation of G. Britain was the principal cause of
her being an exception to the general fate of Europe. It has rendered less
defence necessary, and admitted a kind of defence wch. cd. not be used for the
purpose of oppression. — These consequences he conceived ought to be
apprehended whether the States should run into a total separation from each
other, or shd. enter into partial confederacies. Either event wd. be truly
deplorable; & those who might be accessary to either, could never be
forgiven by their Country, nor by themselves.
*9 Mr. HAMILTON
observed that individuals forming political Societies modify their rights
differently, with regard to suffrage. Examples of it are found in all the
States. In all of them some individuals are deprived of the right altogether,
not having the requisite qualification of property. In some of the States the
right of suffrage is allowed in some cases and refused in others. To vote for a
member in one branch, a certain quantum of property, to vote for a member in
another branch of the Legislature, a higher quantum of property is required. In
like manner States may modify their right of suffrage differently, the larger
exercising a larger, the smaller a smaller share of it. But as States are a
collection of individual men which ought we to respect most, the rights of the
people composing them, or of the artificial beings resulting from the
composition. Nothing could be more preposterous or absurd than to sacrifice the
former to the latter. It has been sd. that if the smaller States renounce their
equality, they renounce at the same time their liberty. The
truth is it is a contest for power, not for liberty. Will the men composing the
small States be less free than those composing the larger. The State of Delaware
having 40,000 souls will lose
11 power, if she has 1/10 only of
the votes allowed to Pa. having 400,000: but will the people of Del: be less
free, if each citizen has an equal vote with each citizen of Pa. He admitted
that common residence within the same State would produce a certain degree of
attachment; and that this principle might have a certain influence in
12 public affairs. He thought however
that this might by some precautions be in a great measure excluded: and that no
material inconvenience could result from it, as there could not be any ground
for combination among the States whose influence was most dreaded. The only
considerable distinction of interests, lay between the carrying &
non-carrying States, which divide 13
instead of uniting the largest States. No considerable inconvenience had been
found from the division of the State of N. York into different districts of
Some of the consequences of a dissolution of the Union, and the
establishment of partial confederacies, had been pointed out. He would add
another of a most serious nature. Alliances will immediately be formed with
different rival & hostile nations of Europes, who will foment disturbances
among ourselves, and make us parties to all their own quarrels. Foreign Nations
having American dominions 14 are &
must be jealous of us. Their representatives betray the utmost anxiety for our
fate, & for the result of this meeting, which must have an essential
influence on it. — It had been said that respectability in the eyes of
foreign Nations was not the object at which we aimed; that the proper object of
republican Government was domestic tranquility & happiness. This was an
ideal distinction. No Governmt. could give us tranquility & happiness at
home, which did not possess sufficient stability and strength to make us
respectable abroad. This was the critical moment for forming such a Government.
We should run every risk in trusting to future amendments. As yet we retain the
habits of union. We are weak & sensible of our weakness. Henceforward the
motives will become feebler, and the difficulties greater. It is a miracle that
we were 15 now here exercising our
tranquil & free deliberations on the subject. It would be madness to trust
to future miracles. A thousand causes must obstruct a reproduction of them.
Mr. PIERCE considered the equality of
votes under the Confederation as the great source of the public difficulties.
The members of Congs. were advocates for local advantages. State distinctions
must be sacrificed as far as the general good required, but without destroying
the States. Tho' from a small State he felt himself a Citizen of the U. S.
Mr. GERRY urged that we never were
independent States, were not such now, & never could be even on the
principles of the Confederation. The States & the advocates for them were
intoxicated with the idea of their sovereignty. He was a member of
Congress at the time the federal articles were formed. The injustice of allowing
each State an equal vote was long insisted on. He voted for it, but it was agst.
his Judgment, and under the pressure of public danger, and the obstinacy of the
lesser States. The present confederation he considered as dissolving. The fate
of the Union will be decided by the Convention. If they do not agree on
something, few delegates will probably be appointed to Congs. If they do Congs.
will probably be kept up till the new System should be adopted. He lamented that
instead of coming here like a band of brothers, belonging to the same family, we
seemed to have brought with us the spirit of political negociators.
Mr. L. MARTIN. remarked that the
language of the States being sovereign & independent, was once
familiar & understood; though it seemed now so strange & obscure. He
read those passages in the articles of Confederation, which describe them in
On the question as moved by Mr. Lansing. Shall the word "not" be
Massts. no. Cont. ay. N. Y. ay. N. J. ay. Pa. no. Del. ay. Md. divd. Va. no.
N. C. no. S. C. no. Geo. no. 16
On the motion to agree to the clause as reported, "that the rule of
suffrage in the 1st. branch ought not to be according to that established by the
articles of 17 Confederation.
Mass. ay. Cont. no. N. Y. no. N. J. no. Pa. ay. Del. no. Md. divd. Va. ay.
N. C. ay. S. C. ay. Geo. ay. 18
DOCr. JOHNSON &
Mr. ELSEWORTH moved to postpone the residue
of the clause, & take up — ye. 8 — Resol:
On 17 question.
Mas. no. Cont. ay. N. Y. ay. N. J. ay. Pa. ay. Del. no. Md. ay. Va. ay. N.
C. ay. S. C. ay. Geo. ay. 19
Mr. ELSEWORTH moved that the rule of
suffrage in the 2d. branch be the same with that established by the articles of
confederation." He was not sorry on the whole he said that the vote just
passed, had determined against this rule in the first branch. He hoped it would
become a ground of compromise with regard to the 2d. branch. We were partly
national; partly federal. The proportional representation in the first branch
was conformable to the national principle & would secure the large States
agst. the small. An equality of voices was conformable to the federal principle
and was necessary to secure the Small States agst. the large. He trusted that on
this middle ground a compromise would take place. He did not see that it could
on any other. And if no compromise should take place, our meeting would not only
be in vain but worse than in vain. To the Eastward he was sure Massts. was the
only State that would listen to a proposition for excluding the States as equal
political Societies, from an equal voice in both branches. The others would risk
every consequence rather than part with so dear a right. An attempt to deprive
them of it, was at once cutting the body of America in two, and as he supposed
would be the case, somewhere about this part of it. The large States he
conceived would notwithstanding the equality of votes, have an influence that
would maintain their superiority. Holland, as had been admitted [by Mr. Madison]
had, notwithstanding a like equality in the Dutch Confederacy, a prevailing
influence in the public measures. The power of self-defence was essential to the
small States. Nature had given it to the smallest insect of the creation. He
could never admit that there was no danger of combinations among the large
States. They will like individuals find out and avail themselves of the
advantage to be gained by it. It was true the danger would be greater, if they
were contiguous and had a more immediate 20
common interest. A defensive combination of the small States was rendered more
difficult by their greater number. He would mention another consideration of
great weight. The existing confederation was founded on the equality of the
States in the article of suffrage: was it meant to pay no regard to this
antecedent plighted faith. Let a strong Executive, a Judiciary & Legislative
power be created; but Let not too much be attempted; by which all may be lost.
He was not in general a half-way man, yet he preferred doing half the good we
could, rather than do nothing at all. The other half may be added, when the
necessity shall be more fully experienced.
Mr. BALDWIN could have wished that the
powers of the General Legislature had been defined, before the mode of
constituting it had been agitated. He should vote against the motion of Mr.
Elseworth, tho' he did not like the Resolution as it stood in the Report of the
Committee of the whole. He thought the second branch ought to be the
representation of property, and that in forming it therefore some reference
ought to be had to the relative wealth of their Constituents, and to the
principles on which the Senate of Massts. was constituted. He concurred with
those who thought it wd. be impossible for the Genl. Legislature to extend its
cares to the local matters of the States.
1. The word "at" is here
inserted in the transcript.
2. The word "be" is substituted
in the transcript for "lie."
3. The word "as" is omitted in
4. The word "also" is stricken
out in the transcript.
5. The word "for" is substituted
in the transcript for "in place of."
6. The word "from" is
substituted in the transcript for "on."
7. The word "which" is here
inserted in the transcript.
8. The word "these" is stricken
out in the transcript and "this" is written above it.
*9. From this date he was absent till the
_____ of _____ 10
10. The date, "13th of August,"
is supplied in the transcript.
11. The transcript does not italicize the
12. The word "on" is
substituted in the transcript for "in."
13. The word "divides" is
substituted in the transcript for "divide,".
14. The transcript uses the word "dominions"
in the singular.
15. The word "are" is
substituted in the transcript for "were."
16. In the transcript the vote reads: "Connecticut,
New York, New Jersey, Delaware, aye — 4; Massachusetts, Pennsylvania,
Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, no — 6; Maryland,
17. The word "the" is here
inserted in the transcript.
18. In the transcript the vote reads: "Massachusetts,
Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, aye — 6;
Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, no — 4; Maryland, divided."
19. In the transcript the vote reads: "Connecticut,
New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South
Carolina, Georgia, aye — 9; Massachusetts, Delaware, no — 2."
20. The word "and" is here
inserted in the transcript.