Independence Hall Home Search Contents Indexes Help


Document 11

Charles Pinckney, South Carolina House of Representatives

16 Jan. 1788Elliot 4:253--63

Hon. Charles Pinckney (one of the delegates of the Federal Convention) rose in his place, and said that, although the principles and expediency of the measures proposed by the late Convention will come more properly into discussion before another body, yet, as their appointment originated with them, and the legislatures must be the instrument of submitting the plan to the opinion of the people, it became a duty in their delegates to state with conciseness the motives which induced it.

It must be recollected that, upon the conclusion of the definitive treaty, great inconveniences were experienced, as resulting from the inefficacy of the Confederation. The one first and most sensibly felt was the destruction of our commerce, occasioned by the restrictions of other nations, whose policy it was not in the power of the general government to counteract. The loss of credit, the inability in our citizens to pay taxes, and languor of government, were, as they ever must be, the certain consequences of the decay of commerce. Frequent and unsuccessful attempts were made by Congress to obtain the necessary powers. The states, too, individually attempted, by navigation acts and other commercial provisions, to remedy the evil. These, instead of correcting, served but to increase it; their regulations interfered not only with each other, but, in almost every instance, with treaties existing under the authority of the Union. Hence arose the necessity of some general and permanent system, which should at once embrace all interests, and, by placing the states upon firm and united ground, enable them effectually to assert their commercial rights. Sensible that nothing but a concert of measures could effect this, Virginia proposed a meeting of commissioners at Annapolis, from the legislature of each state, who should be empowered to take into consideration the commerce of the Union; to consider how far a uniform system in their commercial regulations might be necessary to their common interest; and to report to the states such an act as, when unanimously ratified by them, would enable Congress effectually to provide for the same. In consequence of this, ten states appointed delegates. By accident, or otherwise, they did not attend, only five states being represented. The gentlemen present, not being a majority of the Union, did not conceive it advisable to proceed; but in an address to their constituents, which was also transmitted to the other legislatures, acquainted them with the circumstances of their meeting; that there appeared to them to be other and more material defects in the federal system than merely those of commercial powers. That these, upon examination, might be found greater than even the acts of their appointments implied, was at least so far probable, from the embarrassments which mark the present state of national affairs, foreign and domestic, as to merit, in their opinions, a deliberate and candid discussion in some mode which would unite the sentiments and councils of all the states. They therefore suggested the appointment of another convention, under more extensive powers, for the purpose of devising such further provisions as should appear to them necessary to render the federal government adequate to the exigencies of the Union.

Under this recommendation the late Convention assembled; for most of the appointments had been made before the recommendation of Congress was formed or known. He thought proper concisely to mention the manner of the Convention's assembling, merely to obviate an objection which all the opposers of the federal system had used, viz., that, at the time the Convention met, no opinion was entertained of their departing from the Confederation--that merely the grant of commercial powers, and the establishment of a federal revenue, were in agitation; whereas nothing can be more true, than that its promoters had for their object a firm national government. Those who had seriously contemplated the subject were fully convinced that a total change of system was necessary--that, however the repair of the Confederation might for a time avert the inconveniences of a dissolution, it was impossible a government of that sort could long unite this growing and extensive country. They also thought that the public mind was fully prepared for the change, and that no time could be more proper for introducing it than the present--that the total want of government, the destruction of commerce, of public credit, private confidence, and national character, were surely sufficiently alarming to awaken their constituents to a true sense of their situation.

Under these momentous impressions the Convention met, when the first question that naturally presented itself to the view of almost every member, although it was never formally brought forward, was the formation of a new, or the amendment of the existing system. Whatever might have been the opinions of a few speculative men, who either did, or pretended to, confide more in the virtue of the people than prudence warranted, Mr. Pinckney said he would venture to assert that the states were unanimous in preferring a change. They wisely considered that, though the Confederation might possess the great outlines of a general government, yet that it was, in fact, nothing more than a federal union; or, strictly speaking, a league founded in paternal and persuasive principles, with nothing permanent and coercive in its construction, where the members might, or might not, comply with their federal engagements, as they thought proper--that no power existed of raising supplies but by the requisitions or quotas on the states--that this defect had been almost fatally evinced by the experience of the states for the last six or eight years, in which not one of them had completely complied; but a few had even paid up their specie proportions; others very partially; and some, he had every reason to believe, had not to this day contributed a shilling to the common treasury since the Union was formed. He should not go into a detail of the conduct of the states, or the unfortunate and embarrassing situation to which their inattention has reduced the Union; these have been so often and so strongly represented by Congress, that he was sure there could not be a member on the floor unacquainted with them. It was sufficient to remark that the Convention saw and felt the necessity of establishing a government upon different principles, which, instead of requiring the intervention of thirteen different legislatures between the demand and the compliance, should operate upon the people in the first instance.

He repeated, that the necessity of having a government which should at once operate upon the people, and not upon the states, was conceived to be indispensable by every delegation present; that, however they may have differed with respect to the quantum of power, no objection was made to the system itself. They considered it, however, highly necessary that, in the establishment of a constitution possessing extensive national authorities, a proper distribution of its powers should be attended to. Sensible of the danger of a single body, and that to such a council the states ought not to intrust important rights, they considered it their duty to divide the legislature into two branches, and, by a limited revisionary power, to mingle, in some degree, the executive in their proceedings--a provision that he was pleased to find meets with universal approbation. The degree of weight which each state was to have in the federal council became a question of much agitation. The larger states contended that no government could long exist whose principles were founded in injustice; that one of the most serious and unanswerable objections to the present system was the injustice of its tendency in allowing each state an equal vote, notwithstanding their striking disparity. The small ones replied, and perhaps with reason, that, as the states were the pillars upon which the general government must ever rest, their state governments must remain; that, however they may vary in point of territory or population, as political associations they were equal; that upon these terms they formally confederated, and that no inducement whatsoever should tempt them to unite upon others; that, if they did, it would amount to nothing less than throwing the whole government of the Union into the hands of three or four of the largest states.

After much anxious discussion,--for, had the Convention separated without determining upon a plan, it would have been on this point,--a compromise was effected, by which it was determined that the first branch be so chosen as to represent in due proportion to the people of the Union; that the Senate should be the representatives of the states, where each should have an equal weight. Though he was at first opposed to this compromise, yet he was far from thinking it an injudicious one. The different branches of the legislature being intended as checks upon each other, it appeared to him they would more effectually restrain their mutual intemperances under this mode of representation than they would have done if both houses had been so formed upon proportionable principles; for, let us theorize as much as we will, it will be impossible so far to divest the majority of the federal representatives of their state views and policy, as to induce them always to act upon truly national principles. Men do not easily wean themselves of those preferences and attachments which country and connections invariably create; and it must frequently have happened, had the larger states acquired that decided majority which a proportionable representation would have given them in both houses, that state views and policy would have influenced their deliberations. The ease with which they would, upon all occasions, have secured a majority in the legislature, might, in times less virtuous than the present, have operated as temptations to designing and ambitious men to sacrifice the public good to private views. This cannot be the case at present; the different mode of representation for the Senate will, as has already been observed, most effectually prevent it. The purpose of establishing different houses of legislation was to introduce the influence of different interests and principles; and he thought that we should derive, from this mode of separating the legislature into two branches, those benefits which a proper complication of principles is capable of producing, and which must, in his judgment, be greater than any evils that may arise from their temporary dissensions.

The judicial he conceived to be at once the most important and intricate part of the system. That a supreme federal jurisdiction was indispensable, cannot be denied. It is equally true that, in order to insure the administration of justice, it was necessary to give it all the powers, original as well as appellate, the Constitution has enumerated; without it we could not expect a due observance of treaties--that the state judiciary would confine themselves within their proper sphere, or that general sense of justice pervade the Union which this part of the Constitution is intended to introduce and protect--that much, however, would depend upon the wisdom of the legislatures who are to organize it--that, from the extensiveness of its powers, it may be easily seen that, under a wise management, this department might be made the keystone of the arch, the means of connecting and binding the whole together, of preserving uniformity in all the judicial proceedings of the Union--that, in republics, much more (in time of peace) would always depend upon the energy and integrity of the judicial than on any other part of the government--that, to insure these, extensive authorities were necessary; particularly so were they in a tribunal constituted as this is, whose duty it would be not only to decide all national questions which should arise within the Union, but to control and keep the state judicials within their proper limits whenever they shall attempt to interfere with its power.

And the executive, he said, though not constructed upon those firm and permanent principles which he confessed would have been pleasing to him, is still as much so as the present temper and genius of the people will admit. Though many objections had been made to this part of the system, he was always at a loss to account for them. That there can be nothing dangerous in its powers, even if he was disposed to take undue advantages, must be easily discerned from reviewing them. He is commander-in-chief of the land and naval forces of the Union, but he can neither raise nor support forces by his own authority. He has a revisionary power in the making of laws; but if two thirds of both houses afterwards agree notwithstanding his negative, the law passes. He cannot appoint to an office without the Senate concurs; nor can he enter into treaties, or, in short, take a single step in his government, without their advice. He is, also, to remain in office but four years. He might ask, then, From whence are the dangers of the executive to proceed? It may be said, From a combination of the executive and the Senate, they might form a baneful aristocracy.

He had been opposed to connecting the executive and the Senate in the discharge of those duties, because their union, in his opinion, destroyed that responsibility which the Constitution should, in this respect, have been careful to establish; but he had no apprehensions of an aristocracy. For his part, he confessed that he ever treated all fears of aristocracies or despotisms, in the federal head, as the most childish chimeras that could be conceived. In a Union extensive as this is, composed of so many state governments, and inhabited by a people characterized, as our citizens are, by an impatience under any act which even looks like an infringement of their rights, an invasion of them by the federal head appeared to him the most remote of all our public dangers. So far from supposing a change of this sort at all probable, he confessed his apprehensions were of a different kind: he rather feared that it was impossible, while the state systems continue--and continue they must--to construct any government upon republican principles sufficiently energetic to extend its influence through all its parts. Near the federal seat, its influence may have complete effect; but he much doubted its efficacy in the more remote districts. The state governments will too naturally slide into an opposition against the general one, and be easily induced to consider themselves as rivals. They will, after a time, resist the collection of a revenue; and if the general government is obliged to concede, in the smallest degree, on this point, they will of course neglect their duties, and despise its authority: a great degree of weight and energy is necessary to enforce it; nor is any thing to be apprehended from them. All power being immediately derived from the people, and the state governments being the basis of the general one, it will easily be in their power to interfere, and to prevent its injuring or invading their rights. Though at first he considered some declaration on the subject of trial by jury in civil causes, and the freedom of the press, necessary, and still thinks it would have been as well to have had it inserted, yet he fully acquiesced in the reasoning which was used to show that the insertion of them was not essential. The distinction which has been taken between the nature of a federal and state government appeared to be conclusive--that in the former, no powers could be executed, or assumed, but such as were expressly delegated; that in the latter, the indefinite power was given to the government, except on points that were by express compact reserved to the people.

On the subject of juries, in civil cases, the Convention were anxious to make some declaration; but when they reflected that all courts of admiralty and appeals, being governed in their propriety by the civil law and the laws of nations, never had, or ought to have, juries, they found it impossible to make any precise declaration upon the subject; they therefore left it as it was, trusting that the good sense of their constituents would never induce them to suppose that it could be the interest or intention of the general government to abuse one of the most invaluable privileges a free country can boast; in the loss of which, themselves, their fortunes and connections, must be so materially involved, and to the deprivation of which, except in the cases alluded to, the people of this country would never submit. When we reflect that the exigencies of the government require that a general government upon other principles than the present should be established,--when we contemplate the difference between a federal union and a government operating upon the people, and not upon the states,--we must at once see the necessity of giving to it the power of direct taxation. Without this, it must be impossible for them to raise such supplies as are necessary to discharge the debts, or support the expenses, of the Union--to provide against the common dangers, or afford that protection to its members which they have a right to expect from the federal head. But here he begged leave to observe that, so far from apprehending danger from the exercise of this power, few or no inconveniences are to be expected. He had not a doubt that, except in time of war, or pressing necessity, a sufficient sum would always be raised, by impost, to defray the general expenses. As to the power of raising troops, it was unnecessary to remark upon it further than merely to say, that this is a power the government at present possesses and exercises; a power so essential, that he should very much doubt the good sense or information of the man that should conceive it improper. It is guarded by a declaration that no grants for this purpose shall be longer than two years at a time. For his own part, notwithstanding all that had been said upon this popular topic, he could not conceive that either the dignity of a government could be maintained, its safety insured, or its laws administered, without a body of regular forces to aid the magistrate in the execution of his duty. All government is a kind of restraint. We may be told, a free government imposes no restraint upon the private wills of individuals which does not conduce in a greater degree to the public happiness; but all government is restraint, and founded in force. We are the first nation who have ever held a contrary opinion, or even attempted to maintain one without it. The experiment has been made, and he trusted there would hereafter be few men weak enough to suppose that some regular force ought not to be kept up, or that the militia ever can be depended upon as the support or protection of the Union.

Upon the whole, he could not but join those in opinion who have asserted that this is the best government that has ever yet been offered to the world, and that, instead of being alarmed at its consequences, we should be astonishingly pleased that one so perfect could have been formed from such discordant and unpromising materials. In a system founded upon republican principles, where the powers of government are properly distributed, and each confined to a separate body of magistracy, a greater degree of force and energy will always be found necessary than even in a monarchy. This arises from the national spirit of union being stronger in monarchies than in republics: it is said to be naturally strong in monarchies, because, in the absence both of manners and principles, the compelling power of the sovereign collects and draws every thing to a point; and thereby, in all common situations, effectually supplies their place. But in free countries it is naturally weak, unless supported by public spirit; for as, in most cases, a full spirit of national union will require that the separate and partial views of private interest be on every occasion sacrificed to the general welfare, so, when this principle prevails not, (and it will only prevail in moments of enthusiasm,) the national union must ever be destroyed by selfish views and private interest. He said that, with respect to the Union, this can only be remedied by a strong government, which, while it collects its powers to a point, will prevent that spirit of disunion from which the most serious consequences are to be apprehended. He begged leave, for a moment, to examine what effect this spirit of disunion must have upon us, as we may be affected by a foreign enemy. It weakens the consistency of all public measures, so that no extensive scheme of thought can be carried into action, if its accomplishment demand any long continuance of time. It weakens not only the consistency, but the vigor and expedition, of all public measures; so that, while a divided people are contending about the means of security or defence, a united enemy may surprise and invade them. These are the apparent consequences of disunion. Mr. Pinckney confessed, however, that, after all that had been said upon the subject, our Constitution was in some measure but an experiment; nor was it possible yet to form a just conclusion as to its practicability.

It had been an opinion long established, that a republican form of government suited only the affairs of a small state; which opinion is founded in the consideration, that unless the people in every district of the empire be admitted to a share in the national representation, the government is not to them as a republic; that in a democratic constitution, the mechanism is too complicated, the motions too slow, for the operations of a great empire, whose defence and government require execution and despatch in proportion to the magnitude, extent, and variety of its concerns. There was, no doubt, weight in these reasons; but much of the objection, he thought, would be done away by the continuance of a federal republic, which, distributing the country into districts, or states, of a commodious extent, and leaving to each state its internal legislation, reserves unto a superintending government the adjustment of their general claims, the complete direction of the common force and treasure of the empire. To what limits such a republic might extend, or how far it is capable of uniting the liberty of a small commonwealth with the safety of a peaceful empire; or whether, among coördinate powers, dissensions and jealousies would not arise, which, for want of a common superior, might proceed to fatal extremities,--are questions upon which he did not recollect the example of any nation to authorize us to decide, because the experiment has never been yet fairly made. We are now about to make it upon an extensive scale, and under circumstances so promising, that he considered it the fairest experiment that had been ever made in favor of human nature. He concluded with expressing a thorough conviction that the firm establishment of the present system is better calculated to answer the great ends of public happiness than any that has yet been devised.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 2, Preamble, Document 11
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.

Easy to print version.

Home | Search | Contents | Indexes | Help

© 1987 by The University of Chicago
All rights reserved. Published 2000