Article 1, Section 4, Clause 1

Document 17

Debate in New York Ratifying Convention

25--26 June 1788Elliot 2:325--29

[25 June]

Mr. Jones rose, and observed, that it was a fact universally known, that the present Confederation had not proved adequate to the purposes of good government. Whether this arose from the want of powers in the federal head, or from other causes, he would not pretend to determine. Some parts of the proposed plan appeared to him imperfect, or at least not satisfactory. He did not think it right that Congress should have the power of prescribing or altering the time, place, and manner of holding elections. He apprehended that the clause might be so construed as to deprive the states of an essential right, which, in the true design of the Constitution, was to be reserved to them. He therefore wished the clause might be explained, and proposed, for the purpose, the following amendment:--

"Resolved, as the opinion of this committee, that nothing in the Constitution, now under consideration, shall be construed to authorize the Congress to make or alter any regulations, in any state, respecting the times, places, or manner of holding elections for senators or representatives, unless the legislature of such state shall neglect or refuse to make laws or regulations for the purpose, or, from any circumstance, be incapable of making the same, and then only until the legislature of such state shall make provision in the premises."

The Hon. Mr. Jay said that, as far as he understood the ideas of the gentleman, he seemed to have doubts with respect to this paragraph, and feared it might be misconstrued and abused. He said that every government was imperfect, unless it had a power of preserving itself. Suppose that, by design or accident, the states should neglect to appoint representatives; certainly there should be some constitutional remedy for this evil. The obvious meaning of the paragraph was, that, if this neglect should take place, Congress should have power, by law, to support the government, and prevent the dissolution of the Union. He believed this was the design of the federal Convention.

The Hon. R. Morris suggested, that, so far as the people, distinct from their legislatures, were concerned in the operation of the Constitution, it was absolutely necessary that the existence of the general government should not depend, for a moment, on the will of the state legislatures. The power of perpetuating the government ought to belong to their federal representatives; otherwise, the right of the people would be essentially abridged.

His excellency, Governor Clinton, rose, just to notice the attempt that had been made to influence the committee by fear, and to introduce gloomy reflections upon the situation of the state. This had been done in heightened colors, and, he thought, in an indelicate manner. He said, he had observed also, in the course of the debates, that a distinction had been kept up between the state legislatures and the representatives of the people, and also between the legislatures and the senators. He did not think these distinctions warrantable. They were distinctions which would never appear in operation, while the government was well administered. It was true, he said, the representatives of the people, and the senators, might deviate from their duty, and express a will distinct from that of the people, or that of the legislatures; but any body might see that this must arise from corruption. Congress, in all its branches, was to speak the will of the people, and that will was law, and must be uniform. The distinction, therefore, of the honorable gentleman could have no proper weight in the discussion of this question.

Mr. Jay did not think the gentleman had taken up the matter right. The will of the people certainly ought to be the law, but the only question was, How was this will to be expressed:--whether the will of the people, with respect to the time, place, and manner of holding elections, ought to be expressed by the general government, or by the state legislatures.

Mr. M. Smith proposed the following addition to Mr. Jones's motion:--

"And that each state shall be divided into as many districts as the representatives it is entitled to, and that each representative shall be chosen by a majority of votes."

But on suggestion that this motion was ill timed, it was withdrawn for the present.

[26 June]

Mr. Smith again moved the additional amendment proposed the preceding day; when the Hon. Mr. Duane called on him to explain the motives which induced his proposal.

Mr. Smith expressed his surprise that the gentleman should want such an explanation. He conceived that the amendment was founded on the fundamental principles of representative government. As the Constitution stood, the whole state might be a single district for election. This would be improper. The state should be divided into as many districts as it sends representatives. The whole number of representatives might otherwise be taken from a small part of the state, and the bulk of the people, therefore, might not be fully represented. He would say no more at present on the propriety of the amendment. The principle appeared to him so evident, that he hardly knew how to reason upon it, until he heard the arguments of the gentlemen in opposition.

Mr. Duane. I will not examine the merits of the measure the gentleman recommends. If the proposed mode of election be the best, the legislature of this state will undoubtedly adopt it. But I wish the gentleman to prove that his plan will be practicable, and will succeed. By the Constitution of this state, the representatives are apportioned among the counties, and it is wisely left to the people to choose whom they will, in their several counties, without any further division into districts. Sir, how do we know the proposal will be agreeable to the other states? Is every state to be compelled to adopt our ideas on all subjects? If the gentleman will reflect, I believe he will be doubtful of the propriety of these things. Will it not seem extraordinary that any one state should presume to dictate to the Union? As the Constitution stands, it will be in the power of each state to regulate this important point. While the legislatures do their duty, the exercise of their discretion is sufficiently secured. Sir, this measure would carry with it a presumption which I should be sorry to see in the acts of this state. It is laying down, as a principle, that whatever may suit our interest or fancy should be imposed upon our sister states. This does not seem to correspond with that moderation which I hope to see in all the proceedings of this Convention.

Mr. Smith. The gentleman misunderstands me. I did not mean the amendment to operate on the other states: they may use their discretion. The amendment is in the negative. The very design of it is to enable the states to act their discretion, without the control of Congress. So the gentleman's reasoning is directly against himself.

If the argument had any force, it would go against proposing any amendment at all; because, says the gentleman, it would be dictating to the Union. What is the object of our consultations? For my part, I do not know, unless we are to express our sentiments of the Constitution before we adopt it. It is only exercising the privilege of freemen; and shall we be debarred from this? It is said, it is left to the discretion of the states. If this were true, it would be all we contend for. But, sir, Congress can alter as they please any mode adopted by the states. What discretion is there here? The gentleman instances the Constitution of New York, as opposed to my argument. I believe that there are now gentlemen in this house, who were members of the Convention of this state, and who were inclined for an amendment like this. It is to be regretted that it was not adopted. The fact is, as your Constitution stands, a man may have a seat in your legislature, who is not elected by a majority of his constituents. For my part, I know of no principle that ought to be more fully established than the right of election by a majority.

Mr. Duane. I neglected to make one observation which I think weighty. The mode of election recommended by the gentleman must be attended with great embarrassments. His idea is, that a majority of all the votes should be necessary to return a member.

I will suppose a state divided into districts. How seldom will it happen that a majority of a district will unite their votes in favor of one man! In a neighboring state, where they have this mode of election, I have been told that it rarely happens that more than one half unite in a choice. The consequence is, they are obliged to make provision, by a previous election, for nomination, and another election for appointment; thus suffering the inconvenience of a double election. If the proposition was adopted, I believe we should be seldom represented--the election must be lost. The gentleman will, therefore, I presume, either abandon his project, or propose some remedy for the evil I have described.

Mr. Smith. I think the example the gentleman adduces is in my favor. The states of Massachusetts and Connecticut have regulated elections in the mode I propose; but it has never been considered inconvenient, nor have the people ever been unrepresented. I mention this to show that the thing has not proved impracticable in those states. If not, why should it in New York?

After some further conversation, Mr. Lansing proposed the following modification of Mr. Smith's motion--

"And that nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to prevent the legislature of any state to pass laws, from time to time, to divide such state into any convenient districts as the state shall be entitled to elect representatives for Congress, nor to prevent such legislature from making provision, that the electors in each district shall choose a citizen of the United States, who shall have been an inhabitant of the district, for the term of one year immediately preceding the time of his election, for one of the representatives of such state."

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 2, Article 1, Section 4, Clause 1, Document 17
The University of Chicago Press

Elliot, Jonathan, ed. The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution as Recommended by the General Convention at Philadelphia in 1787. . . . 5 vols. 2d ed. 1888. Reprint. New York: Burt Franklin, n.d.

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