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Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17

Document 6

Debate in Virginia Ratifying Convention

6, 16 June 1788Elliot 3:89, 430--36, 439--42

[6 June]

[Mr. Madison:] He [Patrick Henry] next objects to the exclusive legislation over the district where the seat of government may be fixed. Would he submit that the representatives of this state should carry on their deliberations under the control of any other member of the Union? If any state had the power of legislation over the place where Congress should fix the general government, this would impair the dignity, and hazard the safety, of Congress. If the safety of the Union were under the control of any particular state, would not foreign corruption probably prevail, in such a state, to induce it to exert its controlling influence over the members of the general government? Gentlemen cannot have forgotten the disgraceful insult which Congress received some years ago. When we also reflect that the previous cession of particular states is necessary before Congress can legislate exclusively any where, we must, instead of being alarmed at this part, heartily approve of it.

[16 June]

Mr. Grayson: . . . Adverting to the clause investing Congress with the power of exclusive legislation in a district not exceeding ten miles square, he said he had before expressed his doubts that this district would be the favorite of the generality, and that it would be possible for them to give exclusive privileges of commerce to those residing within it. He had illustrated what he said by European examples. It might be said to be impracticable to exercise this power in this manner. Among the various laws and customs which pervaded Europe, there were exclusive privileges and immunities enjoyed in many places. He thought that this ought to be guarded against; for should such exclusive privileges be granted to merchants residing within the ten miles square, it would be highly injurious to the inhabitants of other places.

Mr. George Mason thought that there were few clauses in the Constitution so dangerous as that which gave Congress exclusive power of legislation within ten miles square. Implication, he observed, was capable of any extension, and would probably be extended to augment the congressional powers. But here there was no need of implication. This clause gave them an unlimited authority, in every possible case, within that district. This ten miles square, says Mr. Mason, may set at defiance the laws of the surrounding states, and may, like the custom of the superstitious days of our ancestors, become the sanctuary of the blackest crimes. Here the federal courts are to sit. We have heard a good deal said of justice.

It has been doubted whether jury trial be secured in civil cases. But I will suppose that we shall have juries in civil cases. What sort of a jury shall we have within the ten miles square? The immediate creatures of the government. What chance will poor men get, where Congress have the power of legislating in all cases whatever, and where judges and juries may be under their influence, and bound to support their operations? Even with juries the chance of justice may here be very small, as Congress have unlimited authority, legislative, executive, and judicial. Lest this power should not be sufficient, they have it in every case. Now, sir, if an attempt should be made to establish tyranny over the people, here are ten miles square where the greatest offender may meet protection. If any of their officers, or creatures, should attempt to oppress the people, or should actually perpetrate the blackest deed, he has nothing to do but get into the ten miles square. Why was this dangerous power given? Felons may receive an asylum there and in their strongholds. Gentlemen have said that it was dangerous to argue against possible abuse, because there could be no power delegated but might be abused. It is an incontrovertible axiom, that, when the dangers that may arise from abuse are greater than the benefits that may result from the use, the power ought to be withheld. I do not conceive that this power is at all necessary, though capable of being greatly abused.

We are told by the honorable gentleman that Holland has its Hague. I confess I am at a loss to know what inference he could draw from that observation. This is the place where the deputies of the United Provinces meet to transact the public business. But I do not recollect that they have any exclusive jurisdiction whatever in that place, but are subject to the laws of the province in which the Hague is. To what purpose the gentleman mentioned that Holland has its Hague, I cannot see.

Mr. Mason then observed that he would willingly give them exclusive power, as far as respected the police and good government of the place; but he would give them no more, because he thought it unnecessary. He was very willing to give them, in this as well as in all other cases, those powers which he thought indispensably necessary.

Mr. Madison. Mr. Chairman: I did conceive, sir, that the clause under consideration was one of those parts which would speak its own praise. It is hardly necessary to say any thing concerning it. Strike it out of the system, and let me ask whether there would not be much larger scope for those dangers. I cannot comprehend that the power of legislating over a small district, which cannot exceed ten miles square, and may not be more than one mile, will involve the dangers which he apprehends. If there be any knowledge in my mind of the nature of man, I should think it would be the last thing that would enter into the mind of any man to grant exclusive advantages, in a very circumscribed district, to the prejudice of the community at large. We make suppositions, and afterwards deduce conclusions from them, as if they were established axioms. But, after all, bring home this question to ourselves. Is it probable that the members from Georgia, New Hampshire, &c., will concur to sacrifice the privileges of their friends? I believe that, whatever state may become the seat of the general government, it will become the object of the jealousy and envy of the other states. Let me remark, if not already remarked, that there must be a cession, by particular states, of the district to Congress, and that the states may settle the terms of the cession. The states may make what stipulation they please in it, and, if they apprehend any danger, they may refuse it altogether. How could the general government be guarded from the undue influence of particular states, or from insults, without such exclusive power? If it were at the pleasure of a particular state to control the session and deliberations of Congress, would they be secure from insults, or the influence of such state? If this commonwealth depended, for the freedom of deliberation, on the laws of any state where it might be necessary to sit, would it not be liable to attacks of that nature (and with more indignity) which have been already offered to Congress? With respect to the government of Holland, I believe the States General have no jurisdiction over the Hague; but I have heard that mentioned as a circumstance which gave undue influence to Holland over the rest. We must limit our apprehensions to certain degrees of probability. The evils which they urge must result from this clause are extremely improbable; nay, almost impossible.

Mr. Grayson. Mr. Chairman, one answer which has been given is, the improbability of the evil--that it will never be attempted, and that it is almost impossible. This will not satisfy us, when we consider the great attachments men have to a great and magnificent capital. It would be the interest of the citizens of that district to aggrandize themselves by every possible means in their power, to the great injury of the other states. If we travel all over the world, we shall find that people have aggrandized their own capitals. Look at Russia and Prussia. Every step has been taken to aggrandize their capitals. In what light are we to consider the ten miles square? It is not to be a fourteenth state. The inhabitants will in no respect whatever be amenable to the laws of any state. A clause in the 4th article, highly extolled for its wisdom, will be rendered nugatory by this exclusive legislation. This clause runs thus: "No person held to service or labor in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on the claim of the party to whom such labor or service may be due." Unless you consider the ten miles square as a state, persons bound to labor, who shall escape thither, will not be given up; for they are only to be delivered up after they shall have escaped into a state. As my honorable friend mentioned, felons, who shall have fled from justice to the ten miles square, cannot be apprehended. The executive of a state is to apply to that of another for the delivery of a felon. He cannot apply to the ten miles square. It was often in contemplation of Congress to have power of regulating the police of the seat of government; but they never had an idea of exclusive legislation in all cases. The power of regulating the police and good government of it will secure Congress against insults. What originated the idea of the exclusive legislation was, some insurrection in Pennsylvania, whereby Congress was insulted,--on account of which, it is supposed, they left the state.

It is answered that the consent of the state must be required, or else they cannot have such a district, or places for the erecting of forts, &c. But how much is already given them! Look at the great country to the north-west of the Ohio, extending to and commanding the lakes.

Look at the other end of the Ohio, towards South Carolina, extending to the Mississippi. See what these, in process of time, may amount to. They may grant exclusive privileges to any particular part of which they have the possession. But it may be observed that those extensive countries will be formed into independent states, and that their consent will be necessary. To this I answer, that they may still grant such privileges as, in that country, are already granted to Congress by the states. The grants of Virginia, South Carolina, and other states, will be subservient to Congress in this respect. Of course, it results from the whole, that requiring the consent of the states will be no guard against this abuse of power.

[A desultory conversation ensued.]

Mr. Nicholas insisted that as the state, within which the ten miles square might be, could prescribe the terms on which Congress should hold it, no danger could arise, as no state would consent to injure itself: there was the same security with respect to the places purchased for the erection of forts, magazines, &c.; and as to the territory of the United States, the power of Congress only extended to make needful rules and regulations concerning it, without prejudicing the claim of any particular state, the right of territory not being given up; that the grant of those lands to the United States was for the general benefit of all the states, and not to be perverted to their prejudice; that, consequently, whether that country were formed into new states or not, the danger apprehended could not take place; that the seat of government was to be still a part of the state, and, as to general regulations, was to be considered as such.

Mr. Grayson, on the other hand, contended that the ten miles square could not be viewed as a state; that the state within which it might be would have no power of legislating over it; that, consequently, persons bound to labor, and felons, might receive protection there; that exclusive emoluments might be granted to those residing within it; that the territory of the United States, being a part of no state or states, might be appropriated to what use Congress pleased, without the consent of any state or states; and that, consequently, such exclusive privileges and exemptions might be granted, and such protection afforded to fugitives, within such places, as Congress should think proper; that, after mature consideration, he could not find that the ten miles square was to be looked upon even as a part of a state, but to be totally independent of all, and subject to the exclusive legislation of Congress.

Mr. Lee strongly expatiated on the impossibility of securing any human institution from possible abuse. He thought the powers conceded in the paper on the table not so liable to be abused as the powers of the state governments. Gentlemen had suggested that the seat of government would become a sanctuary for state villains, and that, in a short time, ten miles square would subjugate a country of eight hundred miles square. This appeared to him a most improbable possibility; nay, he might call it impossibility. Were the place crowded with rogues, he asked if it would be an agreeable place of residence for the members of the general government, who were freely chosen by the people and the state governments. Would the people be so lost to honor and virtue, as to select men who would willingly associate with the most abandoned characters? He thought the honorable gentleman's objections against remote possibility of abuse went to prove that government of no sort was eligible, but that a state of nature was preferable to a state of civilization. He apprehended no danger; and thought that persons bound to labor, and felons, could not take refuge in the ten miles square, or other places exclusively governed by Congress, because it would be contrary to the Constitution, and a palpable usurpation, to protect them.

. . . . .

Mr. Henry replied that, if Congress were vested with supreme power of legislation, paramount to the constitution and laws of the states, the dangers he had described might happen; for that Congress would not be confined to the enumerated powers. This construction was warranted, in his opinion, by the addition of the word department, at the end of the clause, and that they could make any laws which they might think necessary to execute the powers of any department or officer of the government.

Mr. Pendleton. Mr. Chairman, this clause does not give Congress power to impede the operation of any part of the Constitution, or to make any regulation that may affect the interests of the citizens of the Union at large. But it gives them power over the local police of the place, so as to be secured from any interruption in their proceedings. Notwithstanding the violent attack upon it, I believe, sir, this is the fair construction of the clause. It gives them power of exclusive legislation in any case within that district. What is the meaning of this? What is it opposed to? Is it opposed to the general powers of the federal legislature, or to those of the state legislatures? I understand it as opposed to the legislative power of that state where it shall be. What, then, is the power? It is, that Congress shall exclusively legislate there, in order to preserve the police of the place and their own personal independence, that they may not be overawed or insulted, and of course to preserve them in opposition to any attempt by the state where it shall be. This is the fair construction. Can we suppose that, in order to effect these salutary ends, Congress will make it an asylum for villains and the vilest characters from all parts of the world? Will it not degrade their own dignity to make it a sanctuary for villains? I hope that no man that will ever compose that Congress will associate with the most profligate characters.

Why oppose this power? Suppose it was contrary to the sense of their constituents to grant exclusive privileges to citizens residing within that place; the effect would be directly in opposition to what he says. It could have no operation without the limits of that district. Were Congress to make a law granting them an exclusive privilege of trading to the East Indies, it could have no effect the moment it would go without that place; for their exclusive power is confined to that district. Were they to pass such a law, it would be nugatory; and every member of the community at large could trade to the East Indies as well as the citizens of that district. This exclusive power is limited to that place solely, for their own preservation, which all gentlemen allow to be necessary.

Will you pardon me when I observe that their construction of the preceding clause does not appear to me to be natural, or warranted by the words.

. . . . .

With respect to the necessity of the ten miles square being superseded by the subsequent clause, which gives them power to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof, I understand that clause as not going a single step beyond the delegated powers. What can it act upon? Some power given by this Constitution. If they should be about to pass a law in consequence of this clause, they must pursue some of the delegated powers, but can by no means depart from them, or arrogate any new powers; for the plain language of the clause is, to give them power to pass laws in order to give effect to the delegated powers.

Mr. George Mason. Mr. Chairman, gentlemen say there is no new power given by this clause. Is there any thing in this Constitution which secures to the states the powers which are said to be retained? Will powers remain to the states which are not expressly guarded and reserved? I will suppose a case. Gentlemen may call it an impossible case, and suppose that Congress will act with wisdom and integrity. Among the enumerated powers, Congress are to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, and to pay the debts, and to provide for the general welfare and common defence; and by that clause (so often called the sweeping clause) they are to make all laws necessary to execute those laws. Now, suppose oppressions should arise under this government, and any writer should dare to stand forth, and expose to the community at large the abuses of those powers; could not Congress, under the idea of providing for the general welfare, and under their own construction, say that this was destroying the general peace, encouraging sedition, and poisoning the minds of the people? And could they not, in order to provide against this, lay a dangerous restriction on the press? Might they not even bring the trial of this restriction within the ten miles square, when there is no prohibition against it? Might they not thus destroy the trial by jury? Would they not extend their implication? It appears to me that they may and will. And shall the support of our rights depend on the bounty of men whose interest it may be to oppress us? That Congress should have power to provide for the general welfare of the Union, I grant. But I wish a clause in the Constitution, with respect to all powers which are not granted, that they are retained by the states. Otherwise, the power of providing for the general welfare may be perverted to its destruction.

Many gentlemen, whom I respect, take different sides of this question. We wish this amendment to be introduced, to remove our apprehensions. There was a clause in the Confederation reserving to the states respectively every power, jurisdiction, and right, not expressly delegated to the United States. This clause has never been complained of, but approved by all. Why not, then, have a similar clause in this Constitution, in which it is the more indispensably necessary than in the Confederation, because of the great augmentation of power vested in the former? In my humble apprehension, unless there be some such clear and finite expression, this clause now under consideration will go to any thing our rulers may think proper. Unless there be some express declaration that every thing not given is retained, it will be carried to any power Congress may please.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 3, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17, Document 6
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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