Article 2, Section 2, Clauses 2 and 3

Document 6

Debate in South Carolina House of Representatives

16--17 Jan. 1788Elliot 4:267--68, 269--70, 271, 277--81

[16 Jan.]

Hon. John Rutledge (one of the delegates of the Federal Convention) thought the gentleman mistaken both as to law and fact; for every treaty was law paramount, and must operate. [Read part of the 9th article of Confederation.] In England, treaties are not necessarily ratified, as was proved when the British Parliament took up the last treaty of peace. A vote of disapprobation dispossessed Lord Shelburne, the minister, of his place; the Commons only addressed the king for having concluded a peace; yet this treaty is binding in our courts and in England. In that country, American citizens can recover debts due to them under the treaty; and in this, but for the treaty, what violences would have taken place! What security had violent tories, stealers of horses, and a number of lawless men, but a law that we passed for recognizing the treaty? There might have been some offenders punished; but if they had obtained a writ of habeas corpus, no doubt they would have been relieved. There was an obvious difference between treaties of peace and those of commerce, because commercial treaties frequently clashed with the laws upon that subject; so that it was necessary to be ratified in Parliament. As a proof that our present Articles of Confederation were paramount, it was there expressed that France should enjoy certain privileges. Now, supposing any law had passed taking those privileges away, would not the treaty be a sufficient bar to any local or municipal laws? What sort of power is that which leaves individuals in full power to reject or approve? Suppose a treaty was unexpectedly concluded between two nations at war; could individual subjects ravage and plunder under letters of marque and reprisal? Certainly not. The treaty concluded, even secretly, would be a sufficient bar to the establishment. Pray, what solid reasons could be urged to support gentlemen's fears that our new governors would wish to promote measures injurious to their native land? Was it not more reasonable that, if every state in the Union had a negative voice, a single state might be tampered with, and defeat every good intention? Adverting to the objection relative to the instalment law being done away, he asked, supposing a person gave security conformable to that law, whether, judging from precedent, the judges would permit any further proceedings contrary to it. He scouted the idea that only ten members would ever be left to manage the business of the Senate; yet, even if so, our delegates might be part of that ten, and consequently our interest secured.

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Mr. Pringle: . . . All the gentleman's objections may be comprised in the following compass: By the article, the President, with ten senators, if only ten attend, may make treaties to bind all the states--that the treaties have the force of, and indeed are paramount to, the laws of the land--therefore, the President and Senate have a legislative power; and then he gives scope to a great deal of declamation on the vast danger of their having such legislative power, and particularly that they might have a treaty which might thus repeal the instalment law. This is a greater power, he says, than the king of France has; the king of Great Britain has his ratified by Parliament--the treaties of the French king must be registered. But he conceived the gentleman was mistaken as to those treaties made by these monarchs. The king of France registers his edicts on some occasions, to facilitate the execution, but not his treaties. The king of Great Britain's treaties are discussed by Parliament, not for ratification, but to discover whether the ministers deserve censure or approbation. The making of treaties is justly a part of their prerogative: it properly belongs to the executive part of government, because they must be conducted with despatch and secrecy not to be expected in larger assemblies. No such dangers as the gentleman apprehends can ensue from vesting it with the President and Senate. Although the treaties they make may have the force of laws when made, they have not, therefore, legislative power. It would be dangerous, indeed, to trust them with the power of making laws to affect the rights of individuals; for this might tend to the oppression of individuals, who could not obtain redress. All the evils would, in that case, flow from blending the legislative, executive, and judicial powers. This would violate the soundest principles of policy and government. It is not with regard to the power of making treaties as of legislation in general. The treaties will affect all the individuals equally of all the states. If the President and Senate make such as violate the fundamental laws, and subvert the Constitution, or tend to the destruction of the happiness and liberty of the states, the evils, equally oppressing all, will be removed as soon as felt, as those who are oppressed have the power and means of redress. Such treaties, not being made with good faith, and on the broad basis of reciprocal interest and convenience, but by treachery and a betraying of trust, and by exceeding the powers with which the makers were intrusted, ought to be annulled. No nations would keep treaties thus made. Indeed, it is too much the practice for them to make mutual interest and convenience the rule of observation, or period of duration. As for the danger of repealing the instalment law, the gentleman has forgot that one article ordains that there shall be no retrospective law. The President and Senate will, therefore, hardly ever make a treaty that would be of this kind. After other arguments to obviate the objections of the honorable gentleman, Mr. Speaker concluded with saying, that it was not necessary for him to urge what further occurred to him, as he saw several of the honorable members of the Convention preparing, whose duty it more particularly was, and who were more able to confute the honorable gentleman in opposition.

Dr. David Ramsay asked if the gentleman meant us ever to have any treaties at all. If not superior to local laws, who will trust them? Would not the question naturally be, "Did you mean, when you made treaties, to fulfil them?" Establish once such a doctrine, and where will you find ambassadors? If gentlemen had been in the situation of receiving similar information with himself, they would have heard letters read from our ambassadors abroad, in which loud complaints were made that America had become faithless and dishonest. Was it not full time that such conduct as this should be amended?

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Hon. Rawlins Lowndes desired gentlemen to consider that his antagonists were mostly gentlemen of the law, who were capable of giving ingenious explanations to such points as they wished to have adopted. He explained his opinion relative to treaties to be, that no treaty concluded contrary to the express laws of the land could be valid. The king of England, when he concluded one, did not think himself warranted to go further than to promise that he would endeavor to induce his Parliament to sanction it. The security of a republic is jealousy; for its ruin may be expected from unsuspecting security. Let us not, therefore, receive this proffered system with implicit confidence, as carrying with it the stamp of superior perfection; rather let us compare what we already possess with what we are offered for it. We are now under the government of a most excellent constitution, one that had stood the test of time, and carried us through difficulties generally supposed to be insurmountable; one that had raised us high in the eyes of all nations, and given to us the enviable blessings of liberty and independence; a constitution sent like a blessing from Heaven; yet we are impatient to change it for another, that vested power in a few men to pull down that fabric, which we had raised at the expense of our blood. Charters ought to be considered as sacred things. In England, an attempt was made to alter the charter of the East India Company; but they invoked heaven and earth in their cause; moved lords, nay, even the king, in their behalf, and thus averted the ruin with which they were threatened.

[17 Jan.]

Gen. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney observed, that the honorable gentleman (Mr. Lowndes) who opposed the new Constitution had asserted that treaties made under the old Confederation were not deemed paramount to the laws of the land, and that treaties made by the king of Great Britain required the ratification of Parliament to render them valid. The honorable gentleman is surely mistaken in his assertion. His honorable friend (Chancellor Rutledge) had clearly shown that, by the 6th, 9th, and 13th Articles of the old Confederation, Congress have a power to make treaties, and each state is pledged to observe them; and it appears, from the debates of the English Parliament, that the House of Commons did not ratify, but actually censure, the peace made by the king of Great Britain with America; yet the very members who censured it acknowledged it was binding on the nation. [Here the general read extracts from the parliamentary debates of the 17th and 21st of February, 1784.] Indeed, the doctrine that the king of Great Britain may make a treaty with a foreign state, which shall irrevocably bind his subjects, is asserted by the best writers on the laws and constitution of England--particularly by Judge Blackstone, who, in the first book of his Commentaries, (ch. 7, p. 257,) declares "that it is the king's prerogative to make treaties, leagues, and alliances, with foreign states and princes, and that no other power in the kingdom can legally delay, resist, or annul them." If treaties entered into by Congress are not to be held in the same sacred light in America, what foreign nation will have any confidence in us? Shall we not be stigmatized as a faithless, unworthy people, if each member of the Union may, with impunity, violate the engagements entered into by the federal government? Who will confide in us? Who will treat with us if our practice should be conformable to this doctrine? Have we not been deceiving all nations, by holding forth to the world, in the 9th Article of the old Confederation, that Congress may make treaties, if we, at the same time, entertain this improper tenet, that each state may violate them? I contend that the article in the new Constitution, which says that treaties shall be paramount to the laws of the land, is only declaratory of what treaties were, in fact, under the old compact. They were as much the law of the land under that Confederation, as they are under this Constitution; and we shall be unworthy to be ranked among civilized nations if we do not consider treaties in this view. Vattel, one of the best writers on the law of nations, says, "There would be no more security, no longer any commerce between mankind, did they not believe themselves obliged to preserve their faith, and to keep their word. Nations, and their conductors, ought, then, to keep their promises and their treaties inviolable. This great truth is acknowledged by all nations. Nothing adds so great a glory to a prince and the nation he governs, as the reputation of an inviolable fidelity to his engagements. By this, and their bravery, the Swiss have rendered themselves respectable throughout Europe. This national greatness of soul is the source of immortal glory; upon it is founded the confidence of nations, and it thus becomes a certain instrument of power and splendor." Surely this doctrine is right; it speaks to the heart, it impresses itself on the feelings of mankind, and convinces us that the tranquillity, happiness, and prosperity, of the human race, depend on inviolably preserving the faith of treaties.

Burlamaqui, another writer of great reputation on political law, says "that treaties are obligatory on the subjects of the powers who enter into treaties; they are obligatory as conventions between the contracting powers; but they have the force of law with respect to their subjects." These are his very words: "Ils ont force de loi a l'égard des sujets, considérés comme tels; and it is very manifest," continues he, "that two sovereigns, who enter into a treaty, impose, by such treaty, an obligation on their subjects to conform to it, and in no manner to contravene it." It is remarkable that the words made use of by Burlamaqui establish the doctrine, recognized by the Constitution, that treaties shall be considered as the law of the land; and happy will it be for America if they shall be always so considered: we shall then avoid the disputes, the tumults, the frequent wars, we must inevitably be engaged in, if we violate treaties. By our treaty with France, we declare she shall have all the privileges, in matters of commerce, with the most favored nation. Suppose a particular state should think proper to grant a particular privilege to Holland, which she refuses to France; would not this be a violation of the treaty with France? It certainly would; and we in this state would be answerable for the consequences attending such violation by another state; for we do not enter into treaties as separate states, but as united states; and all the members of the Union are answerable for the breach of a treaty by any one of them. South Carolina, therefore, considering its situation, and the valuable produce it has to export, is particularly interested in maintaining the sacredness of treaties, and the good faith with which they should be observed by every member of the Union. But the honorable gentleman complains that the power of making treaties is vested in the President and Senate, and thinks it is not placed so safely with them as with the Congress under the old Confederation. Let us examine this objection. By the old Confederation, each state had an equal vote in Congress, and no treaty could be made without the assent of the delegates from nine states. By the present Constitution, each state sends two members to the Senate, who vote per capita; and the President has power, with advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senate present concur. This inconvenience attended the old method: it was frequently difficult to obtain a representation from nine states; and if only nine states were present, they must all concur in making a treaty. A single member would frequently prevent the business from being concluded; and if he absented himself, Congress had no power to compel his attendance. This actually happened when a treaty of importance was about to be concluded with the Indians; and several states, being satisfied, at particular junctures, that the nine states present would not concur in sentiments on the subject of a treaty, were indifferent whether their members attended or not. But now that the senators vote individually, and not by states, each state will be anxious to keep a full representation in the Senate; and the Senate has now power to compel the attendance of its own members. We shall thus have no delay, and business will be conducted in a fuller representation of the states than it hitherto has been. All the members of the Convention, who had served in Congress, were so sensible of the advantage attending this mode of voting, that the measure was adopted unanimously. For my own part, I think it infinitely preferable to the old method. So much for the manner of voting.

Now let us consider whether the power of making treaties is not as securely placed as it was before. It was formerly vested in Congress, who were a body constituted by the legislatures of the different states in equal proportions. At present, it is vested in a President, who is chosen by the people of America, and in a Senate, whose members are chosen by the state legislatures, each legislature choosing two members. Surely there is greater security in vesting this power as the present Constitution has vested it, than in any other body. Would the gentleman vest it in the President alone? If he would, his assertion that the power we have granted was as dangerous as the power vested by Parliament in the proclamations of Henry VIII., might have been, perhaps, warranted. Would he vest it in the House of Representatives? Can secrecy be expected in sixty-five members? The idea is absurd. Besides, their sessions will probably last only two or three months in the year; therefore, on that account, they would be a very unfit body for negotiation whereas the Senate, from the smallness of its numbers, from the equality of power which each state has in it, from the length of time for which its members are elected, from the long sessions they may have without any great inconveniency to themselves or constituents, joined with the president, who is the federal head of the United States, form together a body in whom can be best and most safely vested the diplomatic power of the Union.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 4, Article 2, Section 2, Clauses 2 and 3, 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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