Article 1, Section 6, Clause 2

Document 5

Debate in Virginia Ratifying Convention

14 June 1788Elliot 3:368--75

Mr. Henry. Mr. Chairman, our burden should, if possible, be rendered more light. I was in hopes some other gentleman would have objected to this part. The pay of the members is, by the Constitution, to be fixed by themselves, without limitation or restraint. They may therefore indulge themselves in the fullest extent. They may make their compensation as high as they please. I suppose, if they be good men, their own delicacy will lead them to be satisfied with moderate salaries. But there is no security for this, should they be otherwise inclined. I really believe that, if the state legislatures were to fix their pay, no inconvenience would result from it, and the public mind would be better satisfied. But in the same section there is a defect of a much greater consequence. There is no restraint on corruption. They may be appointed to offices without any material restriction, and the principal source of corruption in representatives is the hope or expectation of offices and emoluments. After the first organization of offices, and the government is put in motion, they may be appointed to any existing offices which become vacant, and they may create a multiplicity of offices, in order thereafter to be appointed to them. What says the clause? "No senator or representative shall, during the time for which he was elected, be appointed to any civil office, under the authority of the United States, which shall have been created, or the emoluments whereof shall have been increased, during such time." This is an idea strangely expressed.

He shall not accept of any office created during the time he is elected for, or of any office whereof the emoluments have been increased in that time. Does not this plainly say that, if an office be not created during the time for which he is elected, or if its emoluments be not increased during such time, he may accept of it? I can see it in no other light. If we wish to preclude the enticement to getting offices, there is a clear way of expressing it. If it be better that Congress should go out of their representative offices by accepting other offices, then it ought to be so. If not, we require an amendment in the clause, that it shall not be so. I may be wrong. Perhaps the honorable member may be able to give a satisfactory answer on this subject.

Mr. Madison. Mr. Chairman, I most sincerely wish to give a proper explanation on this subject, in such a manner as may be to the satisfaction of every one. I shall suggest such considerations as led the Convention to approve of this clause. With respect to the right of ascertaining their own pay, I will acknowledge that their compensations, if practicable, should be fixed in the Constitution itself, so as not to be dependent on Congress itself, or on the state legislatures. The various vicissitudes, or rather the gradual diminution, of the value of all coins and circulating medium, is one reason against ascertaining them immutably; as what may be now an adequate compensation, might, by the progressive reduction of the value of our circulating medium, be extremely inadequate at a period not far distant.

It was thought improper to leave it to the state legislatures, because it is improper that one government should be dependent on another; and the great inconveniences experienced under the old Confederation show the states would be operated upon by local considerations, as contradistinguished from general and national interests. Experience shows us that they have been governed by such heretofore, and reason instructs us that they would be influenced by them again. This theoretic inconvenience of leaving to Congress the fixing their compensations is more than counterbalanced by this in the Confederation--that the state legislatures had a right to determine the pay of the members of Congress, which enabled the states to destroy the general government. There is no instance where this power has been abused. In America, legislative bodies have reduced their own wages lower, rather than augmented them. This is a power which cannot be abused without rousing universal attention and indignation. What would be the consequence of the Virginian legislature raising their pay to four or five pounds each per day? The universal indignation of the people. Should the general Congress annex wages disproportionate to their service, or repugnant to the sense of the community, they would be universally execrated. The certainty of incurring the general detestation of the people will prevent abuse.

It was conceived that the great danger was in creating new offices, which would increase the burdens of the people; and not in a uniform admission of all meritorious characters to serve their country in the old offices. There is no instance of any state constitution which goes as far as this. It was thought to be a mean between two extremes. It guards against abuse by taking away the inducement to create new offices, or increase the emolument of old offices; and it gives them an opportunity of enjoying, in common with other citizens, any of the existing offices which they may be capable of executing. To have precluded them from this, would have been to exclude them from a common privilege to which every citizen is entitled, and to prevent those who had served their country with the greatest fidelity and ability from being on a par with their fellow-citizens. I think it as well guarded as reason requires; more so than the constitution of any other nation.

Mr. Nicholas thought it sufficiently guarded, as it prevented the members of the general government from holding offices which they created themselves, or of which they increased the emoluments; and as they could not enjoy any office during their continuance in Congress, to admit them to old offices when they left Congress, was giving them no exclusive privilege, but such as every citizen had an equal right to.

Mr. Tyler was afraid that, as their compensations were not fixed in the Constitution, Congress might fix them so low, that none but rich men could go; by which the government might terminate in an aristocracy. The states might choose men noted for their wealth and influence, and state influence would govern the Senate. This, though not the most capital objection, he thought was considerable, when joined to others of greater magnitude. He thought the gentleman's account of it was by no means satisfactory. A parallel had been drawn between this power in Congress of fixing their compensations, and that of our Assembly fixing the quantum of their salaries. He was of opinion the comparison did not apply, as there was less responsibility in the former than in the latter case. He dreaded that great corruption would take place, and wished to have it amended so as to prevent it.

Mr. Grayson. Mr. Chairman, it strikes me that they may fix their wages very low. From what has happened in Great Britain, I am warranted to draw this conclusion. I think every member of the House of Commons formerly had a right to receive twenty shillings, or a guinea, a day. But I believe that this salary is taken away since the days of corruption. The members of the House of Commons, if I recollect rightly, get nothing for their services as such. But there are some noble emoluments to be derived from the minister, and some other advantages to be obtained. Those who go to Parliament form an idea of emoluments. They expect something besides wages. They go in with the wishes and expectations of getting offices. This, sir, may be the case in this government. My fears are increased from the inconveniences experienced under the Confederation.

Most of the great officers have been taken out of Congress, such as ambassadors to foreign courts, &c. A number of offices have been unnecessarily created, and ambassadors have been unnecessarily sent to foreign countries--to countries with which we have nothing to do. If the present Congress exceeded the limits of propriety, though extremely limited with respect to power in the creation of offices, what may not the future Congress do, when they have, by this system, a full scope of creating what offices and annexing what salaries they please? There are but few members in the Senate and lower house. They may all get offices at different times, as they are not excluded from being appointed to existing offices for the time for which they shall have been elected. Considering the corruption of human nature, and the general tendency of mankind to promote their own interest, I think there is great danger. I am confirmed in my opinion from what I have seen already in Congress, and among other nations. I wish this part, therefore, to be amended, by prohibiting any senator or representative from being appointed to any office during the time for which he was elected, and by fixing their emoluments; though I would not object to the Constitution on this account solely, were there no other defect.

Mr. Madison. Mr. Chairman, let me ask those who oppose this part of the system, whether any alteration would not make it equally, or more liable to objections. Would it be better to fix their compensations. Would not this produce inconveniences? What authorizes us to conclude that the value of coins will continue always the same? Would it be prudent to make them dependent on the state governments for their salaries--on those who watch them with jealous eyes, and who consider them as encroaching, not on the people, but on themselves? But the worthy member supposes that Congress will fix their wages so low, that only the rich can fill the offices of senators and representatives. Who are to appoint them? The rich? No, sir; the people are to choose them. If the members of the general government were to reduce their compensations to a trifle, before the evil suggested could happen, the people could elect other members in their stead, who would alter that regulation. The people do not choose them for their wealth. If the state legislatures choose such men as senators, it does not influence the people at large in their election of representatives. They can choose those who have the most merit and least wealth. If Congress reduce their wages to a trifle, what shall prevent the states from giving a man of merit so much as will be an adequate compensation? I think the evil very remote; and if it were now to happen, the remedy is in our own hands, and may by ourselves be applied.

Another gentleman seems to apprehend infinite mischief from a possibility that any member of Congress may be appointed to an office, although he ceases to be a member the moment he accepts it. What will be the consequence of precluding them from being so appointed? If you have in your country one man whom you could, in time of danger, trust, above all others, with an office of high importance, he cannot undertake it till two years expire if he be a representative, or till six years elapse if a senator. Suppose America was engaged in war, and the man of the greatest military talents and approved fidelity was a member of either house; would it be right that this man, who could lead us to conquer, and who could save his country from destruction, could not be made general till the term of his election expired? Before that time we might be conquered by our enemies. This will apply to civil as well as military officers. It is impolitic to exclude from the service of his country, in any office, the man who may be most capable of discharging its duties, when they are most wanting.

The honorable gentleman said, that those who go to Congress will look forward to offices, as a compensation for their services, rather than salaries. Does he recollect that they shall not fill offices created by themselves? When they go to Congress, the old offices will be filled. They cannot make any probable calculation that the men in office will die, or forfeit their offices. As they cannot get any new offices, one of these contingencies must happen before they can get any office at all. The chance of getting an office is, therefore, so remote, and so very distant, that it cannot be considered as a sufficient reason to operate on their minds to deviate from their duty.

Let any man calculate in his own mind the improbability of a member of the general government getting into an office, when he cannot fill any office newly created, and when he finds all the old offices filled at the time he enters into Congress. Let him view the danger and impolicy of precluding a member of Congress from holding existing offices, and the danger of making one government dependent on another, and he will find that both clauses deserve applause.

The observations made by several honorable members illustrate my opinion, that it is impossible to devise any system agreeable to all. When objections so contradictory are brought against it, how shall we decide? Some gentlemen object to it because they may make their wages too high; others object to it because they may make them too low. If it is to be perpetually attacked by principles so repugnant, we may cease to discuss. For what is the object of our discussion? Truth, sir. To draw a true and just conclusion. Can this be done without rational premises and syllogistic reasoning?

As to the British Parliament, it is nearly as he says. But how does it apply to this case? Suppose their compensations had been appointed by the state governments, or fixed in the Constitution; would it be a safe government for the Union, if its members depended on receiving their salaries from other political bodies at a distance, and fully competent to withhold them? Its existence would, at best, be but precarious. If they were fixed in the Constitution, they might become extremely inadequate, and produce the very evil which gentlemen seem to fear; for then a man of the highest merit could not act unless he were wealthy. This is the most delicate part in the organization of a republican government. It is the most difficult to establish on unexceptionable grounds. It appears to me most eligible as it is. The Constitution has taken a medium between the two extremes, and perhaps with more wisdom than either the British or the state governments, with respect to their eligibility to office. They can fill no new offices created by themselves, nor old ones of which they increased the salaries. If they were excluded altogether, it is possible that other disadvantages might accrue from it, besides the impolicy and injustice of depriving them of a common privilege. They will not relinquish their legislative, in order to accept other offices. They will more probably confer them on their friends and connections. If this be an inconvenience, it is incident to all governments. After having heard a variety of principles developed, I thought that on which it is established the least exceptionable, and it appears to me sufficiently well guarded.

Mr. Grayson. Mr. Chairman, I acknowledge that the honorable gentleman has represented the clause rightly as to their exclusion from new offices; but is there any clause to hinder them from giving offices to uncles, nephews, brothers, and other relations and friends? I imagine most of the offices will be created the first year, and then gentlemen will be tempted to carry on this accommodation.

A worthy member has said--what had been often said before--that, suppose a war took place, and the most experienced and able man was unfortunately in either house, he could not be made general, if the proposed amendment was adopted. Had he read the clause, he would have discovered that it did not extend to military offices, and that the restriction extends to civil offices only. No case can exist, with respect to civil offices, that would occasion a loss to the public, if the members of both houses were precluded from holding any office during the time for which they were elected. The old Confederation is so defective in point of power, that no danger can result from creating offices under it; because those who hold them cannot be paid. The power of making paper money will not be exercised. This country is so thoroughly sensible of the impropriety of it, that no attempt will be made to make any more. So that no danger can arise, as they have not power to pay, if they appoint, officers. Why not make this system as secure as that, in this respect? A great number of offices will be created, to satisfy the wants of those who shall be elected. The worthy member says, the electors can alter them. But have the people the power of making honest men be elected? If he be an honest man, and his wages so low that he could not pay for his expenses, he could not serve them if elected. But there are many thirsting after offices more than public good. Political adventurers go up to Congress solely to advance their own particular emoluments. It is so in the British House of Commons. There are two sets always in that house--one, the landed interest, the most patriotic and respectable; the other, a set of dependants and fortune-hunters, who are elected for their own particular interest, and are willing to sell the interest of their constituents to the crown. The same division may happen among our representatives. This clause might as well not be guarded at all, as in this flimsy manner. They cannot be elected to offices for the terms for which they were elected, and continue to be members of Congress. But as they can create as many offices as they please for the particular accommodation of their friends, it might as well not be guarded at all. Upon the whole, I consider it entirely imperfect.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 2, Article 1, Section 6, Clause 2, Document 5
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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