[Volume 4, Page 663]
Debate in Virginia Ratifying Convention12, 24--25 June 1788Elliot 3:303--5, 314--18, 616--22, 629--31, 637--40
[Mr. Pendleton:] Permit me to deliver a few sentiments on the great and important subject of previous and subsequent amendments. When I sat down to read that paper, I did not read it with an expectation that it was perfect, and that no man would object to it. I had learned, sir, that an expectation of such perfection in any institute devised by man, was as vain as the search for the philosopher's stone. I discovered objections--I thought I saw there some sown seeds of disunion--not in the immediate operation of the government, but which might happen in some future time. I wish amendments to remove these. But these remote possible errors may be eradicated by the amendatory clause in the Constitution. I see no danger in making the experiment, since the system itself points out an easy mode of removing any errors which shall have been experienced. In this view, then, I think we may safely trust in the government. With respect to the eight states who have already acceded to it, do gentlemen believe that, should we propose amendments as the sine qua non of our adoption, they would listen to our proposals? I conceive, sir, that they would not retract. They would tell us--No, gentlemen, we cannot accept of your conditions. You put yourselves upon the ground of opposition. Your amendments are dictated by local considerations. We, in our adoption, have been influenced by considerations of general utility to the Union. We cannot abandon principles, like these, to gratify you. Thus, sir, by previous amendments, we present a hostile countenance. If, on the contrary, we imitate the conduct of those states, our language will be conciliatory and friendly. Gentlemen, we put ourselves on the same ground that you are on. We are not actuated by local considerations, but by such as affect the people of America in general. This conduct will give our amendments full weight.
I was surprised when I heard introduced the opinion of a gentleman (Mr. Jefferson) whom I highly respect. I know the great abilities of that gentleman. Providence has, for the good of mankind, accompanied those extensive abilities with a disposition to make use of them for the good of his fellow-beings; and I wish, with all my heart, that he was here to assist us on this interesting occasion. As to his letter, impressed as I am with the force of his authority, I think it was improper to introduce it on this occasion. The opinion of a private individual, however enlightened, ought not to influence our decision. But, admitting that this opinion ought to be conclusive with us, it strikes me in a different manner from the honorable gentleman. I have seen the letter in which this gentleman has written his opinion upon this subject. It appears that he is possessed of that Constitution, and has in his mind the [Volume 4, Page 664] idea of amending it--he has in his mind the very question, of subsequent or previous amendments, which is now under consideration. His sentiments on this subject are as follows: "I wish, with all my soul, that the nine first conventions may accept the new Constitution, because it will secure to us the good it contains, which I think great and important. I wish the four latest, whichever they be, may refuse to accede to it till amendments are secured." He then enumerates the amendments which he wishes to be secured, and adds, "We must take care, however, that neither this nor any other objection to the form, produce a schism in our Union. That would be an incurable evil; because friends falling out never cordially reunite." Are these sentiments in favor of those who wish to prevent its adoption by previous amendments? He wishes the first nine states to adopt it. What are his reasons? Because he thinks it will secure to us the good it contains, which he thinks great and important; and he wishes the other four may refuse it, because he thinks it may tend to obtain necessary amendments. But he would not wish that a schism should take place in the Union on any consideration. If, then, we are to be influenced by his opinion at all, we shall ratify it, and secure thereby the good it contains. The Constitution points out a plain and ordinary method of reform, without any disturbance or convulsions whatever. I therefore think that we ought to ratify it, in order to secure the Union, and trust to this method for removing those inconveniences which experience shall point out.
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[Mr. Henry] The honorable gentleman has endeavored to explain the opinion of Mr. Jefferson, our common friend, into an advice to adopt this new government. What are his sentiments? He wishes nine states to adopt, and that four states may be found somewhere to reject it. Now, sir, I say, if we pursue his advice, what are we to do? To prefer form to substance? For, give me leave to ask, what is the substantial part of his counsel? It is, sir, that four states should reject. They tell us that, from the most authentic accounts, New Hampshire will adopt it. When I denied this, gentlemen said they were absolutely certain of it. Where, then, will four states be found to reject, if we adopt it? If we do, the counsel of this enlightened and worthy countryman of ours will be thrown away; and for what? He wishes to secure amendments and a bill of rights, if I am not mistaken. I speak from the best information, and if wrong, I beg to be put right. His amendments go to that despised thing, called a bill of rights, and all the rights which are dear to human nature--trial by jury, the liberty of religion and the press, &c. Do not gentlemen see that, if we adopt, under the idea of following Mr. Jefferson's opinion, we amuse ourselves with the shadow, while the substance is given away? If Virginia be for adoption, what states will be left, of sufficient respectability and importance to secure amendments by their rejection? As to North Carolina, it is a poor, despised place. Its dissent will not have influence to introduce any amendments. Where is the American spirit of liberty? Where will you find attachment to the rights of mankind, when Massachusetts, the great northern state, Pennsylvania, the great middle state, and Virginia, the great southern state, shall have adopted this government? Where will you find magnanimity enough to reject it? Should the remaining states have this magnanimity, they will not have sufficient weight to have the government altered. This state has weight and importance. Her example will have powerful influence--her rejection will procure amendments. Shall we, by our adoption, hazard the loss of amendments? Shall we forsake that importance and respectability which our station in America commands, in hopes that relief will come from an obscure part of the Union? I hope my countrymen will spurn at the idea.
The necessity of amendments is universally admitted. It is a word which is reëchoed from every part of the continent. A majority of those who hear me think amendments are necessary. Policy tells us they are necessary. Reason, self-preservation, and every idea of propriety, powerfully urge us to secure the dearest rights of human nature. Shall we, in direct violation of these principles, rest this security upon the uncertainty of its being obtained by a few states, more weak and less respectable than ourselves, and whose virtue and magnanimity may be overborne by the example of so many adopting states? Poor Rhode Island, and North Carolina, and even New York, surrounded with federal walls on every side, may not be magnanimous enough to reject; and if they do reject it, they will have but little influence to obtain amendments. I ask, if amendments be necessary, from whence can they be so properly proposed as from this state? The example of Virginia is a powerful thing, particularly with respect to North Carolina, whose supplies must come through Virginia. Every possible opportunity of procuring amendments is gone, our power and political salvation are gone, if we ratify unconditionally. The important right of making treaties is upon the most dangerous foundation. The President, and a few senators, possess it in the most unlimited manner, without any real responsibility, if, from sinister views, they should think proper to abuse it; for they may keep all their measures in the most profound secrecy, as long as they please. Were we not told that war was the case wherein secrecy was the most necessary? But, by the paper on your table, their secrecy is not limited to this case only. It is as unlimited and unbounded as their powers. Under the abominable veil of political secrecy and contrivance, your most valuable rights may be sacrificed by a most corrupt faction, without having the satisfaction of knowing who injured you. They are bound by honor and conscience to act with integrity, but they are under no constitutional restraint. The navigation of the Mississippi, which is of so much importance to the happiness of the people of this country, may be lost by the operation of that paper. There are seven states now decidedly opposed to this navigation. If it be of the highest consequence to know who they are who shall have voted its relinquishment, the federal veil of secrecy will prevent that discovery. We may labor under the magnitude of our miseries without knowing or being able to punish those who produced them. I did not wish that transactions relative to treaties should, when unfinished, be exposed; but it should be known, after they were concluded, [Volume 4, Page 665] who had advised them to be made, in order to secure some degree of certainty that the public interest shall be consulted in their formation.
We are told that all powers not given are reserved. I am sorry to bring forth hackneyed observations. But, sir, important truths lose nothing of their validity or weight, by frequency of repetition. The English history is frequently recurred to by gentlemen. Let us advert to the conduct of the people of that country. The people of England lived without a declaration of rights till the war in the time of Charles I. That king made usurpations upon the rights of the people. Those rights were, in a great measure, before that time undefined. Power and privilege then depended on implication and logical discussion. Though the declaration of rights was obtained from that king, his usurpations cost him his life. The limits between the liberty of the people, and the prerogative of the king, were still not clearly defined.
The rights of the people continued to be violated till the Stuart family was banished, in the year 1688. The people of England magnanimously defended their rights, banished the tyrant, and prescribed to William, Prince of Orange, by the bill of rights, on what terms he should reign; and this bill of rights put an end to all construction and implication. Before this, sir, the situation of the public liberty of England was dreadful. For upwards of a century, the nation was involved in every kind of calamity, till the bill of rights put an end to all, by defining the rights of the people, and limiting the king's prerogative. Give me leave to add (if I can add any thing to so splendid an example) the conduct of the American people. They, sir, thought a bill of rights necessary. It is alleged that several states, in the formation of their government, omitted a bill of rights. To this I answer, that they had the substance of a bill of rights contained in their constitutions, which is the same thing. I believe that Connecticut has preserved it, by her Constitution, her royal charter, which clearly defines and secures the great rights of mankind--secures to us the great, important rights of humanity; and I care not in what form it is done.
Of what advantage is it to the American Congress to take away this great and general security? I ask, Of what advantage is it to the public, or to Congress, to drag an unhappy debtor, not for the sake of justice, but to gratify the malice of the plaintiff, with his witnesses, to the federal court, from a great distance? What was the principle that actuated the Convention in proposing to put such dangerous powers in the hands of any one? Why is the trial by jury taken away? All the learned arguments that have been used on this occasion do not prove that it is secured. Even the advocates for the plan do not all concur in the certainty of its security. Wherefore is religious liberty not secured? One honorable gentleman, who favors adoption, said that he had had his fears on the subject. If I can well recollect, he informed us that he was perfectly satisfied, by the powers of reasoning, (with which he is so happily endowed,) that those fears were not well grounded. There is many a religious man who knows nothing of argumentative reasoning; there are many of our most worthy citizens who cannot go through all the labyrinths of syllogistic, argumentative deductions, when they think that the rights of conscience are invaded. This sacred right ought not to depend on constructive, logical reasoning.
When we see men of such talents and learning compelled to use their utmost abilities to convince themselves that there is no danger, is it not sufficient to make us tremble? Is it not sufficient to fill the minds of the ignorant part of men with fear? If gentlemen believe that the apprehensions of men will be quieted, they are mistaken, since our best-informed men are in doubt with respect to the security of our rights. Those who are not so well informed will spurn at the government. When our common citizens, who are not possessed with such extensive knowledge and abilities, are called upon to change their bill of rights (which, in plain, unequivocal terms, secures their most valuable rights and privileges) for construction and implication, will they implicitly acquiesce? Our declaration of rights tells us that "all men are by nature free and independent," &c. [Here Mr. Henry read the declaration of rights.] Will they exchange these rights for logical reasons? If you had a thousand acres of land dependent on this, would you be satisfied with logical construction? Would you depend upon a title of so disputable a nature? The present opinions of individuals will be buried in entire oblivion when those rights will be thought of. That sacred and lovely thing, religion, ought not to rest on the ingenuity of logical deduction. Holy religion, sir, will be prostituted to the lowest purposes of human policy. What has been more productive of mischief among mankind than religious disputes? Then here, sir, is a foundation for such disputes, when it requires learning and logical deduction to perceive that religious liberty is secure.
Mr. Madison. Mr. Chairman, nothing has excited more admiration in the world than the manner in which free governments have been established in America; for it was the first instance, from the creation of the world to the American revolution, that free inhabitants have been seen deliberating on a form of government, and selecting such of their citizens as possessed their confidence, to determine upon and give effect to it. But why has this excited so much wonder and applause? Because it is of so much magnitude, and because it is liable to be frustrated by so many accidents. If it has excited so much wonder that the United States have, in the middle of war and confusion, formed free systems of government, how much more astonishment and admiration will be excited, should they be able, peaceably, freely, and satisfactorily, to establish one general government, when there is such a diversity of opinions and interests--when not cemented or stimulated by any common danger! How vast must be the difficulty of concentrating, in one government, the interests, and conciliating the opinions, of so many different, heterogeneous bodies!
How have the confederacies of ancient and modern times been formed? As far as ancient history describes the former to us, they were brought about by the wisdom of [Volume 4, Page 666] some eminent sage. How was the imperfect union of the Swiss cantons formed? By danger. How was the confederacy of the United Netherlands formed? By the same. They are surrounded by dangers. By these, and one influential character, they were stimulated to unite. How was the Germanic system formed? By danger, in some degree, but principally by the overruling influence of individuals.
When we consider this government, we ought to make great allowances. We must calculate the impossibility that every state should be gratified in its wishes, and much less that every individual should receive this gratification. It has never been denied, by the friends of the paper on the table, that it has defects; but they do not think that it contains any real danger. They conceive that they will, in all probability, be removed, when experience will show it to be necessary. I beg that gentlemen, in deliberating on this subject, would consider the alternative. Either nine states shall have ratified it, or they will not. If nine states will adopt it, can it be reasonably presumed, or required, that nine states, having freely and fully considered the subject, and come to an affirmative decision, will, upon the demand of a single state, agree that they acted wrong, and could not see its defects--tread back the steps which they have taken, and come forward, and reduce it to uncertainty whether a general system shall be adopted or not? Virginia has always heretofore spoken the language of respect to the other states, and she has always been attended to. Will it be that language to call on a great majority of the states to acknowledge that they have done wrong? Is it the language of confidence to say that we do not believe that amendments for the preservation of the common liberty, and general interests, of the states, will be consented to by them? This is the language neither of confidence nor respect. Virginia, when she speaks respectfully, will be as much attended to as she has hitherto been when speaking this language.
It is a most awful thing that depends on our decision--no less than whether the thirteen states shall unite freely, peaceably, and unanimously, for security of their common happiness and liberty, or whether every thing is to be put in confusion and disorder. Are we to embark in this dangerous enterprise, uniting various opinions to contrary interests, with the vain hope of coming to an amicable concurrence?
It is worthy of our consideration that those who prepared the paper on the table found difficulties not to be described in its formation: mutual deference and concession were absolutely necessary. Had they been inflexibly tenacious of their individual opinions, they would never have concurred. Under what circumstances was it formed? When no party was formed, or particular proposition made, and men's minds were calm and dispassionate. Yet, under these circumstances, it was difficult, extremely difficult, to agree to any general system.
Suppose eight states only should ratify, and Virginia should propose certain alterations, as the previous condition of her accession. If they should be disposed to accede to her proposition, which is the most favorable conclusion, the difficulty attending it will be immense. Every state which has decided it, must take up the subject again. They must not only have the mortification of acknowledging that they had done wrong, but the difficulty of having a reconsideration of it among the people, and appointing new conventions to deliberate upon it. They must attend to all the amendments, which may be dictated by as great a diversity of political opinions as there are local attachments. When brought together in one assembly, they must go through, and accede to, every one of the amendments. The gentlemen who, within this house, have thought proper to propose previous amendments, have brought no less than forty amendments, a bill of rights which contains twenty amendments, and twenty other alterations, some of which are improper and inadmissible. Will not every state think herself equally entitled to propose as many amendments? And suppose them to be contradictory! I leave it to this Convention whether it be probable that they can agree, or agree to any thing but the plan on the table; or whether greater difficulties will not be encountered than were experienced in the progress of the formation of the Constitution.
I have said that there was a great contrariety of opinions among the gentlemen in the opposition. It has been heard in every stage of their opposition. I can see, from their amendments, that very great sacrifices have been made by some of them. Some gentlemen think that it contains too much state influence; others, that it is a complete consolidation; and a variety of other things. Some of them think that the equality in the Senate is not a defect; others, that it is the bane of all good government. I might, if there were time, show a variety of other cases where their opinions are contradictory. If there be this contrariety of opinions in this house, what contrariety may not be expected, when we take into view thirteen conventions equally or more numerous! Besides, it is notorious, from the debates which have been published, that there is no sort of uniformity in the grounds of the opposition.
The state of New York has been adduced. Many in that state are opposed to it from local views. The two who opposed it in the general Convention from that state are in the state Convention. Every step of this system was opposed by those two gentlemen. They were unwilling to part with the old Confederation. Can it be presumed, then, sir, that gentlemen in this state, who admit the necessity of changing, should ever be able to unite in sentiments with those who are totally averse to any change?
I have revolved this question in my mind with as much serious attention, and called to my aid as much information, as I could, yet I can see no reason for the apprehensions of gentlemen; but I think that the most happy effects for this country would result from adoption, and if Virginia will agree to ratify this system, I shall look upon it as one of the most fortunate events that ever happened for human nature. I cannot, therefore, without the most excruciating apprehensions, see a possibility of losing its blessings. It gives me infinite pain to reflect that all the earnest endeavors of the warmest friends of their country to introduce a system promotive of our happiness, may be blasted by a rejection, for which I think, with my honorable friend, that previous amendments are but another name. The gentlemen in opposition seem to insist on those [Volume 4, Page 667] amendments, as if they were all necessary for the liberty and happiness of the people. Were I to hazard an opinion on the subject, I would declare it infinitely more safe, in its present form, than it would be after introducing into it that long train of alterations which they call amendments.
With respect to the proposition of the honorable gentleman to my left, (Mr. Wythe,) gentlemen apprehend that, by enumerating three rights, it implied there were no more. The observations made by a gentleman lately up, on that subject, correspond precisely with my opinion. That resolution declares that the powers granted by the proposed Constitution are the gift of the people, and may be resumed by them when perverted to their oppression, and every power not granted thereby remains with the people, and at their will. It adds, likewise, that no right, of any denomination, can be cancelled, abridged, restrained, or modified, by the general government, or any of its officers, except in those instances in which power is given by the Constitution for these purposes. There cannot be a more positive and unequivocal declaration of the principle of the adoption--that every thing not granted is reserved. This is obviously and self-evidently the case, without the declaration. Can the general government exercise any power not delegated? If an enumeration be made of our rights, will it not be implied that every thing omitted is given to the general government? Has not the honorable gentleman himself admitted that an imperfect enumeration is dangerous? Does the Constitution say that they shall not alter the law of descents, or do those things which would subvert the whole system of the state laws? If it did, what was not excepted would be granted. Does it follow, from the omission of such restrictions, that they can exercise powers not delegated? The reverse of the proposition holds. The delegation alone warrants the exercise of any power.
With respect to the amendments proposed by the honorable gentleman, it ought to be considered how far they are good. As far as they are palpably and insuperably objectionable, they ought to be opposed. One amendment he proposes is, that any army which shall be necessary shall be raised by the consent of two thirds of the states. I most devoutly wish that there may never be an occasion for having a single regiment. There can be no harm in declaring that standing armies, in time of peace, are dangerous to liberty, and ought to be avoided, as far as it may be consistent with the protection of the community. But when we come to say that the national security shall depend, not on a majority of the people of America, but that it may be frustrated by less than one third of the people of America, I ask if this be a safe or proper mode. What parts of the United States are most likely to stand in need of this protection? The weak parts, which are the Southern States. Will it be safe to leave the United States at the mercy of one third of the states--a number which may comprise a very small proportion of the American people? They may all be in that part of America which is least exposed to danger. As far as a remote situation from danger would render exertions for public defence less active, so far the Southern States would be endangered.
The regulation of commerce, he further proposed, should depend on two thirds of both houses. I wish I could recollect the history of this matter; but I cannot call it to mind with sufficient exactness. But I well recollect the reasoning of some gentlemen on that subject. It was said, and I believe with truth, that every part of America does not stand in equal need of security. It was observed that the Northern States were most competent to their own safety. Was it reasonable, asked they, that they should bind themselves to the defence of the Southern States, and still be left at the mercy of the minority for commercial advantages? Should it be in the power of the minority to deprive them of this and other advantages, when they were bound to defend the whole Union, it might be a disadvantage for them to confederate.
These were his arguments. This policy of guarding against political inconveniences, by enabling a small part of the community to oppose the government, and subjecting the majority to a small minority, is fallacious. In some cases it may be good; in others it may be fatal. In all cases, it puts it in the power of the minority to decide a question which concerns the majority.
I was struck with surprise when I heard him express himself alarmed with respect to the emancipation of slaves. Let me ask, if they should even attempt it, if it will not be a usurpation of power. There is no power to warrant it, in that paper. If there be, I know it not. But why should it be done? Says the honorable gentleman, for the general welfare: it will infuse strength into our system. Can any member of this committee suppose that it will increase our strength? Can any one believe that the American councils will come into a measure which will strip them of their property, and discourage and alienate the affections of five thirteenths of the Union? Why was nothing of this sort aimed at before? I believe such an idea never entered into any American breast, nor do I believe it ever will enter into the heads of those gentlemen who substitute unsupported suspicions for reasons.
I am persuaded that the gentlemen who contend for previous amendments are not aware of the dangers which must result. Virginia, after having made opposition, will be obliged to recede from it. Might not the nine states say, with a great deal of propriety, "It is not proper, decent, or right, in you, to demand that we should reverse what we have done. Do as we have done; place confidence in us, as we have done in one another; and then we shall freely, fairly, and dispassionately consider and investigate your propositions, and endeavor to gratify your wishes. But if you do not do this, it is more reasonable that you should yield to us than we to you. You cannot exist without us; you must be a member of the Union."
The case of Maryland, instanced by the gentleman, does not hold. She would not agree to confederate, because the other states would not assent to her claims of the western lands. Was she gratified? No; she put herself like the rest. Nor has she since been gratified. The lands are in the common stock of the Union.
As far as his amendments are not objectionable, or unsafe, so far they may be subsequently recommended--not because they are necessary, but because they can produce no possible danger, and may gratify some gentlemen's [Volume 4, Page 668] wishes. But I never can consent to his previous amendments, because they are pregnant with dreadful dangers.
Mr. Madison. Mr. Chairman, I should not have risen at all, were it not for what the honorable gentleman said. If there be any suspicions that, if the ratification be made, the friends of the system will withdraw their concurrence, and much more, their persons, it shall never be with my approbation. Permit me to remark that, if he has given us a true state of the disposition of the several members of the Union, there is no doubt they will agree to the same amendments after adoption. If we propose the conditional amendments, I entreat gentlemen to consider the distance to which they throw the ultimate settlement, and the extreme risk of perpetual disunion. They cannot but see how easy it will be to obtain subsequent amendments. They can be proposed when the legislatures of two thirds of the states shall make application for that purpose; and the legislatures of three fourths of the states, or conventions in the same, can fix the amendments so proposed. If there be an equal zeal in every state, can there be a doubt that they will concur in reasonable amendments? If, on the other hand, we call on the states to rescind what they have done, and confess that they have done wrong, and to consider the subject again, it will produce such unnecessary delays, and is pregnant with such infinite dangers, that I cannot contemplate it without horror. There are uncertainty and confusion on the one hand, and order, tranquillity, and certainty, on the other. Let us not hesitate to elect the latter alternative. Let us join with cordiality in those alterations we think proper. There is no friend to the Constitution but who will concur in that mode.
Mr. Monroe, after an exordium which could not be heard, remarking that the question now before the committee was, whether previous or subsequent amendments were the most prudent, strongly supported the former. He could not conceive that a conditional ratification would, in the most remote degree, endanger the Union; for that it was as clearly the interest of the adopting states to be united with Virginia, as it could be her interest to be in union with them. He demanded if they would arm the states against one another, and make themselves enemies of those who were respectable and powerful from their situation and numbers. He had no doubt that they would, in preference to such a desperate and violent measure, come forward and make a proposition to the other states, so far as it would be consistent with the general interest. Adopt it now, unconditionally, says he, and it will never be amended, not even when experience shall have proved its defects. An alteration will be a diminution of their power, and there will be great exertions made to prevent it. I have no dread that they will immediately infringe the dearest rights of the people, but that the operation of the government will be oppressive in process of time. Shall we not pursue the dictates of common sense, and the example of all free and wise nations, and insist on amendments with manly fortitude?
It is urged that there is an impossibility of getting previous amendments, and that a variety of circumstances concur to render it impracticable. This argument appears to me fallacious, and as a specious evasion. The same cause which has hitherto produced a spirit of unanimity, and a predilection for the Union, will hereafter produce the same effects.
How did the federal Convention meet? From the beginning of time, in any age or country, did ever men meet under so loose, uncurbed a commission? There was nothing to restrain them but their characters and reputation. They could not organize a system without defects. This cannot, then, be perfect. Is it not presumable that by subsequent attempts we shall make it more complete and perfect?
What are the great objections now made? Are they local? What are the amendments brought forth by my friends? Do they not contemplate the great interests of the people, and of the Union at large? I am satisfied, from what we have seen of the disposition of the other states, that, instead of disunion and national confusion, there will be harmony and perfect concord. Disunion is more to be apprehended from the adoption of a system reprobated by some, and allowed by all to be defective. The arguments of gentlemen have no weight on my mind. It is unnecessary to enter into the refutation of them. My honorable friends have done it highly to my satisfaction. Permit me only to observe, with respect to those amendments, that they are harmless. Do they change a feature of the Constitution? They secure our rights without altering a single feature. I trust, therefore, that gentlemen will concur with them.
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Mr. Tyler. Mr. Chairman, I should have been satisfied with giving my vote on the question to-day; but, as I wish to hand down to posterity my opposition to this system, I conceive it to be my duty to declare the principles on which I disapprove it, and the cause of my opposition. I have seriously considered the subject in my mind, and when I consider the effects which may happen to this country from its adoption, I tremble at it. My opposition to it arose first from general principles, independent of any local consideration. But when I find that the Constitution is expressed in indefinite terms, in terms which the gentlemen who composed it do not all concur in the meaning of,--I say that, when it is thus liable to objections and different constructions, I find no rest in my mind. Those clauses which answer different constructions will be used to serve particular purposes. If the able members who composed it cannot agree on the construction of it, shall I be thought rash or wrong to pass censure on its ambiguity?
The worthy member last up has brought us to a degrading situation--that we have no right to propose amendments. I should have expected such language had we already adopted a Constitution which will preclude us from this advantage. If we propose to them to reconsider what they have done, and not rescind it, will it be dictating to them? I do not undertake to say that our amendments will bind other states: I hope no gentleman will be so weak as to say so. But no gentleman on the other side will deny our right of proposing amendments. Wherefore is it called [Volume 4, Page 669] dictatorial? It is not my wish that they should rescind but so much as will secure our peace and liberty. We wish to propose such amendments to the sister states as will reconcile all the states. Will gentlemen think this will dissolve the Union?
Among all the chimeras adduced on this occasion, we are intimidated with the fear of being attacked by the petty princes of Europe. The little predatory nations of Europe are to cross the Atlantic and fall upon us; and to avoid this, we must adopt this government, with all its defects. Are we to be frightened into its adoption?
The gentleman has objected to previous amendments, because the people did not know them. Have they seen their subsequent amendments?
Mr. Tyler then proceeded: I have seen their subsequent amendments, and, although they hold out something like the thing we wish, yet they have not entered pointedly and substantially into it. What have they said about direct taxation? They have said nothing on this subject. Is there any limitation of, or restriction on, the federal judicial power? I think not. So that gentlemen hold out the idea of amendments which will not alter one dangerous part of it. It contains many dangerous articles. No gentleman here can give such a construction of it as will give general satisfaction. Shall we be told that we shall be attacked by the Algerines, and that disunion will take place, unless we adopt it? Such language as this I did not expect here. Little did I think that matters would come to this, when we separated from the mother country. There, sir, every man is amenable to punishment. There is far less responsibility in this government. British tyranny would have been more tolerable. By our present government, every man is secure in his person, and the enjoyment of his property. There is no man who is not liable to be punished for misdeeds. I ask, What is it that disturbs men whose liberty is in the highest zenith? Human nature will always be the same. Men never were, nor ever will, be satisfied with their happiness.
They tell you that one letter's alteration will destroy it. I say that it is very far from being perfect. I ask, if it were put in immediate operation, whether the people could bear it--whether two bodies can tax the same species of property. The idea of two omnipotent powers is inconsistent. The natural tendency must be, either a revolt, or the destruction of the state governments, and a consolidation of them all into one general system. If we are to be consolidated, let it be on better grounds. So long as climate will have effect on men, so long will the different climates of the United States render us different. Therefore a consolidation is contrary to our nature, and can only be supported by an arbitrary government.
Previous and subsequent amendments are now the only dispute; and when gentlemen say that there is a greater probability of obtaining the one than the other, they accompany their assertions with no kind of argument. What is the reason that amendments cannot be got after ratification? Because we have granted power. Because the amendments you propose will diminish their power, and undo some clauses in that paper. This argument proves to me that they cannot be serious. It has been plainly proved to you that it is impracticable. Local advantages are given up, as well as the regulation of trade. When it is the case, will the little states agree to an alteration? When gentlemen insist on this, without producing any argument, they will find no credulity in me. Another convention ought to be had, whether the amendments be previous or subsequent. They say another convention is dangerous. How is this proved? It is only their assertion. Gentlemen tell us we shall be ruined without adoption. Is this reasonable? It does not appear so to me.
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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