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CHAPTER 12 | Document 8

Benjamin Rush, Observations on the Government of Pennsylvania

1777Selected Writings 57--64, 67--69

I shall now proceed to say a few words upon particular parts of the Constitution.

In the second section, "the supreme legislature is vested in a 'single' House of Representatives of the Freemen of the Commonwealth." By this section we find, that the supreme, absolute, and uncontrolled power of the whole State is lodged in the hands of one body of men. Had it been lodged in the hands of one man, it would have been less dangerous to the safety and liberties of the community. Absolute power should never be trusted to man. It has perverted the wisest heads, and corrupted the best hearts in the world. I should be afraid to commit my property, liberty and life to a body of angels for one whole year. The Supreme Being alone is qualified to possess supreme power over his creatures. It requires the wisdom and goodness of a Deity to control, and direct it properly.

In order to show the extreme danger of trusting all the legislative power of a State to a single representation, I shall beg leave to transcribe a few sentences from a letter, written by Mr. John Adams, to one of his friends in North Carolina, who requested him to favour him with a plan of government for that State above a twelve-month ago. This illustrious Citizen, who is second to no man in America, in an inflexible attachment to the liberties of this country, and to republican forms of government, writes as follows,

"I think a people cannot be long free, nor ever happy, whose government is in one Assembly. My reasons for this opinion are as follow,

1. "A single Assembly is liable to all the vices, follies and frailties of an individual,--subject to fits of humour,--starts of passions,1 flights of enthusiasm,--partialities of prejudice, and consequently productive of hasty results and absurd judgments. All these errors ought to be corrected, and defects supplied by some controlling power.

2. "A single Assembly is apt to be avaricious, and in time will not scruple to exempt itself from burdens, which it will lay, without compunction, upon its constituents.

3. "A single Assembly is apt to grow ambitious, and after a time will not hestitate to vote itself perpetual. This was one fault of the Long Parliament, but more remarkably of Holland, whose Assembly first voted themselves from annual to septennial, then for life, and after a course of years, that all vacancies happening by death or otherwise, should be filled by themselves, without any application to constituents at all.

4. "Because a single Assembly possessed of all the powers of government would make arbitrary laws for their own interest, and adjudge all controversies in their own favor."2

If any thing could be necessary upon this subject, after such an authority, I might here add, that Montesquieu--Harrington--Milton--Addison--Price--Bolingbroke, and others, the wisest statesmen, and the greatest friends to Liberty in the world, have left testimonies upon record of the extreme folly and danger of a people's being governed by a single legislature. I shall content myself with the following extract from the last of those authors. The sentiments correspond exactly with those of our countryman before-mentioned.

"By simple forms of government, I mean such as lodge the whole supreme power, absolutely and without control, either in a single person, or in the principal persons of the community, or in the whole body of the people. Such governments are governments of arbitrary will, and therefore of all imaginable absurdities the most absurd. They stand in direct opposition to the sole motive of submission to any government whatsoever; for if men quit the State, and renounce the rights of nature, (one of which is, to be sure, that of being governed by their own will) they do this, that they may not remain exposed to the arbitrary will of other men, the weakest to that of the strongest, the few to that of the many. Now, in submitting to any single form of government whatever, they establish what they mean to avoid, and for fear of being exposed to arbitrary will sometimes, they choose to be governed by it always. These governments do not only degenerate into tyranny; they are tyranny in their very institution; and they who submit to them, are slaves, not subjects, however the supreme power may be exercised; for tyranny and slavery do not so properly consist in the stripes that are given and received, as in the power of giving them at pleasure, and the necessity of receiving them, whenever and for whatever they are inflicted."

I might go on further and show, that all the dissentions of Athens and Rome, so dreadful in their nature, and so fatal in their consequences, originated in single Assemblies possessing all the power of those commonwealths; but this would be the business of a volume, and not of a single essay.--I shall therefore pass on, to answer the various arguments that have been used in Pennsylvania, in support of a single legislature.

1. We are told, that the perfection of every thing consists in its simplicity,--that all mixtures in government are impurities, and that a single legislature is perfect, because it is simple.--To this I answer, that we should distinguish between simplicity in principles, and simplicity in the application of principles to practice. What can be more simple than the principles of mechanics, and yet into how many thousand forms have they been tortured by the ingenuity of man. A few simple elementary bodies compose all the matter of the universe, and yet how infinitely are they combined in the various forms and substances which they assume in the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms. In like manner a few simple principles enter into the composition of all free governments. These principles are perfect security for property, liberty and life; but these principles admit of extensive combinations, when reduced to practice:--Nay more, they require them. A despotic government is the most simple government in the world, but instead of affording security to property, liberty or life, it obliges us to hold them all on the simple will of a capricious sovereign. I maintain therefore, that all governments are safe and free in proportion as they are compounded in a certain degree, and on the contrary, that all governments are dangerous and tyrannical in proportion as they approach to simplicity.

2. We are told by the friends of a single legislature, that there can be no danger of their becoming tyrannical, since they must partake of all the burdens they lay upon their constituents. Here we forget the changes that are made upon the head and heart by arbitrary power, and the cases that are recorded in history of annual Assemblies having refused to share with their constituents in the burdens which they had imposed upon them. If every elector in Pennsylvania is capable of being elected an assembly-man, then agreeably to the sixth section of the Constitution, it is possible for an Assembly to exist who do not possess a single foot of property in the State, and who can give no other evidence of a common interest in, or attachment to, the community than having paid "public taxes," which may mean poor-taxes. Should this be the case, (and there is no obstacle in the Constitution to prevent it) surely it will be in the power of such an Assembly to draw from the State the whole of its wealth in a few years, without contributing any thing further towards it than their proportion of the trifling tax necessary to support the poor.--But I shall show in another place equal dangers from another class of men, becoming a majority in the Assembly.

3. We are told of instances of the House of Lords, in England, checking the most salutary laws, after they had passed the House of Commons, as a proof of the inconvenience of a compound legislature. I believed the fact to be true, but I deny its application in the present controversy. The House of Lords, in England, possess privileges and interests, which do not belong to the House of Commons. Moreover they derive their power from the crown and not from the people. No wonder therefore they consult their own interests, in preference to those of the People. In the State of Pennsylvania we wish for a council, with no one exclusive privilege, and we disclaim every idea of their possessing the smallest degree of power, but what is derived from the annual suffrages of the people. A body thus chosen could have no object in view but the happiness of their constituents. It is remarkable in Connecticut, that the legislative council of that State has in no one instance made amendments, or put a negative upon the acts of their Assembly, in the course of above one hundred years, in which both have not appeared to the people in a few months to have been calculated to promote their liberty and happiness.

4. We are told, that the Congress is a single legislature, therefore a single legislature is to be preferred to a compound one.--The objects of legislation in the Congress relate only to peace and war, alliances, trade, the Post-Office, and the government of the army and navy. They never touch the liberty, property, nor life of the individuals of any State in their resolutions, and even in their ordinary subjects of legislation, they are liable to be checked by each of the Thirteen States.

5. We have been told, that a legislative council or governor lays the foundation for aristocratical and monarchical power in a community. However ridiculous this objection to a compound legislature may appear, I have more than once heard it mentioned by the advocates for a single Assembly. Who would believe, that the same fountain of pure water should send forth, at the same time, wholesome and deadly streams? Are not the Council and Assembly both formed alike by the annual breath of the people? But I will suppose, that a legislative Council aspired after the honors of hereditary titles and power, would they not be effectually checked by the Assembly?

I cannot help commending the zeal that appears in my countrymen against the power of a King or a House of Lords. I concur with them in all their prejudices against hereditary titles, honour and power. History is little else than a recital of the follies and vices of kings and noblemen, and it is because I dread so much from them, that I wish to exclude them for ever from Pennsylvania, for notwithstanding our government has been called a simple democracy, I maintain, that a foundation is laid in it for the most complete aristocracy that ever existed in the world.

In order to prove this assertion, I shall premise two propositions, which have never been controverted: First, where there is wealth, there will be power; and, secondly, the rich have always been an over-match for the poor in all contests for power.

These truths being admitted, I desire to know what can prevent our single representation being filled, in the course of a few years, with a majority of rich men? Say not, the people will not choose such men to represent them. The influence of wealth at elections is irresistible. It has been seen and felt in Pennsylvania, and I am obliged in justice to my subject to say, that there are poor men among us as prepared to be influenced, as the rich are prepared to influence them. The fault must be laid in both cases upon human nature. The consequence of a majority of rich men getting into the legislature is plain. Their wealth will administer fuel to the love of arbitrary power that is common to all men. The present Assembly have furnished them with precedents for breaking the Constitution. Farewell now to annual elections! Public emergencies will sanctify the most daring measures. The clamours of their constituents will be silenced with offices, bribes or punishments. An aristocracy will be established, and Pennsylvania will be inhabited like most of the countries in Europe, with only two sorts of animals, tyrants and slaves.

It has often been said, that there is but one rank of men in America, and therefore, that there should be only one representation of them in a government. I agree, that we have no artificial distinctions of men into noblemen and commoners among us, but it ought to be remarked, that superior degrees of industry and capacity, and above all, commerce, have introduced inequality of property among us, and these have introduced natural distinctions of rank in Pennsylvania, as certain and general as the artificial distinctions of men in Europe. This will ever be the case while commerce exists in this country. The men of middling property and poor men can never be safe in a mixed representation with the men of over-grown property. Their liberties can only be secured by having exact bounds prescribed to their power, in the fundamental principles of the Constitution. By a representation of the men of middling fortunes in one house, their whole strength is collected against the influence of wealth. Without such a representation, the most violent efforts of individuals to oppose it would be divided and broken, and would want that system, which alone would enable them to check that lust for dominion which is always connected with opulence. The government of Pennsylvania therefore has been called most improperly a government for poor men. It carries in every part of it a poison to their liberties. It is impossible to form a government more suited to the passions and interests of rich men.

6. But says the advocate for a single legislature, if one of the advantages of having a Legislative Council arises from the Counsellors possessing more wisdom than the Assembly, why may not the members of the Council be thrown into the Assembly, in order to instruct and enlighten them? If sound reasoning always prevailed in popular Assemblies, this objection to a Legislative Council might have some weight. The danger in this case would be, that the Counsellors would partake of the passions and prejudices of the Assembly, by taking part in their debates; or, if they did not, that they would be so inconsiderable in point of numbers, that they would be constantly out-voted by the members of the Assembly.

. . . . .

Thus have I answered all the arguments that ever I have heard offered in favour of a single legislature, and I hope, silenced all the objections that have been made to a double representation of the people. I might here appeal further to the practice of our courts of law in favour of repeated deliberations and divisions. In a free government, the most inconsiderable portion of our liberty and property cannot be taken from us, without the judgment of two or three courts; but, by the Constitution of Pennsylvania, the whole of our liberty and property, and even our lives, may be taken from us, by the hasty and passionate decision of a single Assembly.

I shall conclude my observations upon this part of the Constitution, by summing up the advantages of a compound or double legislature.

1. There is the utmost freedom in a compound legislature. The decisions of two legislative bodies cannot fail of coinciding with the wills of a great majority of the community.

2. There is safety in such a government, in as much as each body possesses a free and independent power, so that they mutually check ambition and usurpation in each other.

3. There is the greatest wisdom in such a government. Every act being obliged to undergo the revision and amendments of two bodies of men, is necessarily strained of every mixture of folly, passion, and prejudice.3

4. There is the longest duration of freedom in such a government.4

5. There is the most order in such a government. By order, I mean obedience to laws, subordination to magistrates, civility and decency of behaviour, and the contrary of every thing like mobs and factions.

6. Compound governments are most agreeable to human nature, inasmuch as they afford the greatest scope for the expansion of the powers and virtues of the mind. Wisdom, learning, experience, with the most extensive benevolence, the most unshaken firmness, and the utmost elevation of soul, are all called into exercise by the opposite and different duties of the different representations of the people.

  1. A Committee of the Convention, which formed the Constitution of Pennsylvania, published in the Pennsylvania Packet of October 15, 1776, as an apology for one of their Ordinances, that was thought to be arbitrary and unjust, that it was passed when "the minds of the Convention were agitated, and their passions inflamed."

  2. These reasons are given by our author for not lodging all power legislative, executive and judicial, in one body of men. This has been done, as will be shown hereafter in the Constitution of Pennsylvania: But, supposing it had been otherwise, our author adds, "shall the whole power of legislation rest in one Assembly? Most of the foregoing reasons (one is omitted) apply equally to prove, that the whole legislative power ought to be more complex."

  3. The Militia Law of the Delaware State received twenty-four amendments from the Council after it had had three readings in the Assembly; all of which were adopted at once by the Assembly. I grant, the wisdom of men collected in any way that can be devised, cannot make a perfect law; but I am sure a Legislative Council would not have overlooked many inaccuracies in the laws passed in the last session of the present Assembly of Pennsylvania.

  4. Sparta, which possessed a compound legislature, preserved her liberties above five hundred years. The fatal dissentions of Athens and Rome ceased as soon as their Senates, which were filled only with rich men, were checked by another Representation of the people.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 12, Document 8
The University of Chicago Press

The Selected Writings of Benjamin Rush. Edited by Dagobert D. Runes. New York: Philosophical Library, 1947.

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