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Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17

Document 8

Debate in North Carolina Ratifying Convention

30 July 1788Elliot 4:209, 219--20

Mr. Spaight: He objects to giving the government exclusive legislation in a district not exceeding ten miles square, although the previous consent and cession of the state within which it may be, is required. Is it to be supposed that the representatives of the people will make regulations therein dangerous to liberty? Is there the least color or pretext for saying that the militia will be carried and kept there for life? Where is there any power to do this? The power of calling forth the militia is given for the common defence; and can we suppose that our own representatives, chosen for so short a period, will dare to pervert a power, given for the general protection, to an absolute oppression? But the gentleman has gone farther, and says, that any man who will complain of their oppressions, or write against their usurpation, may be deemed a traitor, and tried as such in the ten miles square, without a jury. What an astonishing misrepresentation! Why did not the gentleman look at the Constitution, and see their powers? Treason is there defined. It says, expressly, that treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. Complaining, therefore, or writing, cannot be treason. [Here Mr. Lenoir rose, and said he meant misprision of treason.] The same reasons hold against that too. The liberty of the press being secured, creates an additional security. Persons accused cannot be tried without a jury; for the same article provides that "the trial of all crimes shall be by jury." They cannot be carried to the ten miles square; for the same clause adds, "and such trial shall be held in the state where the said crimes shall have been committed."

. . . . .

[Mr. Iredell:] A gentleman who spoke some time ago (Mr. Lenoir) observed, that the government might make it treason to write against the most arbitrary proceedings. He corrected himself afterwards, by saying he meant misprision of treason. But in the correction he committed as great a mistake as he did at first. Where is the power given to them to do this? They have power to define and punish piracies and felonies committed on the high seas, and offences against the law of nations. They have no power to define any other crime whatever. This will show how apt gentlemen are to commit mistakes. I am convinced, on the part of the worthy member, it was not designed, but arose merely from inattention.

Mr. Lenoir arose, and declared, that he meant that those punishments might be inflicted by them within the ten miles square, where they would have exclusive powers of legislation.

Mr. Iredell continued: They are to have exclusive power of legislation,--but how? Wherever they may have this district, they must possess it from the authority of the state within which it lies; and that state may stipulate the conditions of the cession. Will not such state take care of the liberties of its own people? What would be the consequence if the seat of the government of the United States, with all the archives of America, was in the power of any one particular state? Would not this be most unsafe and humiliating? Do we not all remember that, in the year 1783, a band of soldiers went and insulted Congress? The sovereignty of the United States was treated with indignity. They applied for protection to the state they resided in, but could obtain none. It is to be hoped such a disgraceful scene will never happen again; but that, for the future, the national government will be able to protect itself.

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