Article 6, Clause 2

Document 19

Debate in North Carolina Ratifying Convention

29--30 July 1788Elliot 4:178--91, 215

Mr. Iredell. This clause is supposed to give too much power, when, in fact, it only provides for the execution of those powers which are already given in the foregoing articles. What does it say? That "this Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof, and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, any thing in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding." What is the meaning of this, but that, as we have given power, we will support the execution of it? We should act like children, to give power and deny the legality of executing it. It is saying no more than that, when we adopt the government, we will maintain and obey it; in the same manner as if the Constitution of this state had said that, when a law is passed in conformity to it, we must obey that law. Would this be objected to? Then, when the Congress passes a law consistent with the Constitution, it is to be binding on the people. If Congress, under pretence of executing one power, should, in fact, usurp another, they will violate the Constitution. I presume, therefore, that this explanation, which appears to me the plainest in the world, will be entirely satisfactory to the committee.

Mr. Bloodworth. Mr. Chairman, I confess his explanation is not satisfactory to me. I wish the gentleman had gone farther. I readily agree that it is giving them no more power than to execute their laws. But how far does this go? It appears to me to sweep off all the constitutions of the states. It is a total repeal of every act and constitution of the states. The judges are sworn to uphold it. It will produce an abolition of the state governments. Its sovereignty absolutely annihilates them.

Mr. Iredell. Mr. Chairman, every power delegated to Congress is to be executed by laws made for that purpose. It is necessary to particularize the powers intended to be given, in the Constitution, as having no existence before; but, after having enumerated what we give up, it follows, of course, that whatever is done, by virtue of that authority, is legal without any new authority or power. The question, then, under this clause, will always be, whether Congress has exceeded its authority. If it has not exceeded it, we must obey, otherwise not. This Constitution, when adopted, will become a part of our state Constitution; and the latter must yield to the former only in those cases where power is given by it. It is not to yield to it in any other case whatever. For instance, there is nothing in the Constitution of this state establishing the authority of a federal court. Yet the federal court, when established, will be as constitutional as the superior court is now under our Constitution. It appears to me merely a general clause, the amount of which is that, when they pass an act, if it be in the execution of a power given by the Constitution, it shall be binding on the people, otherwise not. As to the sufficiency or extent of the power, that is another consideration, and has been discussed before.

Mr. Bloodworth. This clause will be the destruction of every law which will come in competition with the laws of the United States. Those laws and regulations which have been, or shall be, made in this state, must be destroyed by it, if they come in competition with the powers of Congress. Is it not necessary to define the extent of its operation? Is not the force of our tender-laws destroyed by it? The worthy gentleman from Wilmington has endeavored to obviate the objection as to the Constitution's destroying the credit of our paper money, and paying debts in coin, but unsatisfactorily to me. A man assigns, by legal action, a bond to a man in another state; could that bond be paid by money? I know it is very easy to be wrong. I am conscious of being frequently so. I endeavor to be open to conviction. This clause seems to me too general, and I think its extent ought to be limited and defined. I should suppose every reasonable man would think some amendments to it were necessary.

Mr. Maclaine. Mr. Chairman, that it will destroy the state sovereignty is a very popular argument. I beg leave to have the attention of the committee. Government is formed for the happiness and prosperity of the people at large. The powers given it are for their own good. We have found, by several years' experience, that government, taken by itself nominally, without adequate power, is not sufficient to promote their prosperity. Sufficient powers must be given to it. The powers to be given the general government are proposed to be withdrawn from the authority of the state governments, in order to protect and secure the Union at large. This proposal is made to the people. No man will deny their authority to delegate powers and recall them, in all free countries. But, says the gentleman last up, the construction of the Constitution is in the power of Congress, and it will destroy the sovereignty of the state governments. It may be justly said that it diminishes the power of the state legislatures, and the diminution is necessary to the safety and prosperity of the people; but it may be fairly said that the members of the general government,--the President, senators, and representatives,--whom we send thither, by our free suffrages, to consult our common interest, will not wish to destroy the state governments, because the existence of the general government will depend on that of the state governments.

But what is the sovereignty, and who is Congress? One branch, the people at large; and the other branch, the states by their representatives. Do people fear the delegation of power to themselves--to their own representatives? But he objects that the laws of the Union are to be the supreme laws of the land. Is it not proper that their laws should be the laws of the land, and paramount to those of any particular state?--or is it proper that the laws of any particular state should control the laws of the United States? Shall a part control the whole? To permit the local laws of any state to control the laws of the Union, would be to give the general government no powers at all. If the judges are not to be bound by it, the powers of Congress will be nugatory. This is self-evident and plain. Bring it home to every understanding; it is so clear it will force itself upon it. The worthy gentleman says, in contradiction to what I have observed, that the clause which restrains the states from emitting paper money, &c., will operate upon the present circulating paper money, and that gold and silver must pay paper contracts. The clause cannot possibly have a retrospective view. It cannot affect the existing currency in any manner, except to enhance its value by the prohibition of future emissions. It is contrary to the universal principles of jurisprudence, that a law or constitution should have a retrospective operation, unless it be expressly provided that it shall. Does he deny the power of the legislature to fix a scale of depreciation as a criterion to regulate contracts made for depreciated money? As to the question he has put, of an assigned bond, I answer that it can be paid with paper money. For this reason, the assignee can be in no better situation than the assignor. If it be regularly transferred, it will appear what person had the bond originally, and the present possessor can recover nothing but what the original holder of it could. Another reason which may be urged is, that the federal courts could have no cognizance of such a suit. Those courts have no jurisdiction in cases of debt between the citizens of the same state. The assignor being a citizen of the same state with the debtor, and assigning it to a citizen of another state, to avoid the intent of the Constitution, the assignee can derive no advantage from the assignment, except what the assignor had a right to; and consequently the gentleman's objection falls to the ground.

Every gentleman must see the necessity for the laws of the Union to be paramount to those of the separate states, and that the powers given by this Constitution must be executed. What, shall we ratify a government and then say it shall not operate? This would be the same as not to ratify. As to the amendments, the best characters in the country, and those whom I most highly esteem, wish for amendments. Some parts of it are not organized to my wish. But I apprehend no danger from the structure of the government. One gentleman (Mr. Bass) said he thought it neither necessary nor proper. For my part, I think it essential to our very existence as a nation, and our happiness and prosperity as a free people. The men who composed it were men of great abilities and various minds. They carried their knowledge with them. It is the result, not only of great wisdom and mutual reflection, but of "mutual deference and concession." It has trifling faults, but they are not dangerous. Yet at the same time I declare that, if gentlemen propose amendments, if they be not such as would destroy the government entirely, there is not a single member here more willing to agree to them than myself.

Mr. Davie. Mr. Chairman: permit me, sir, to make a few observations on the operation of the clause so often mentioned. This Constitution, as to the powers therein granted, is constantly to be the supreme law of the land. Every power ceded by it must be executed, without being counteracted by the laws or constitutions of the individual states. Gentlemen should distinguish that it is not the supreme law in the exercise of a power not granted. It can be supreme only in cases consistent with the powers specially granted, and not in usurpations. If you grant any power to the federal government, the laws made in pursuance of that power must be supreme, and uncontrolled in their operation. This consequence is involved in the very nature and necessity of the thing. The only rational inquiry is, whether those powers are necessary, and whether they are properly granted. To say that you have vested the federal government with power to legislate for the Union, and then deny the supremacy of the laws, is a solecism in terms. With respect to its operation on our own paper money, I believe that a little consideration will satisfy every man that it cannot have the effect asserted by the gentleman from New Hanover. The Federal Convention knew that several states had large sums of paper money in circulation, and that it was an interesting property, and they were sensible that those states would never consent to its immediate destruction, or ratify any system that would have that operation. The mischief already done could not be repaired: all that could be done was, to form some limitation to this great political evil. As the paper money had become private property, and the object of numberless contracts, it could not be destroyed or intermeddled with in that situation, although its baneful tendency was obvious and undeniable. It was, however, effecting an important object to put bounds to this growing mischief. If the states had been compelled to sink the paper money instantly, the remedy might be worse than the disease. As we could not put an immediate end to it, we were content with prohibiting its future increase, looking forward to its entire extinguishment when the states that had an emission circulating should be able to call it in by a gradual redemption.

In Pennsylvania, their paper money was not a tender in discharge of private contracts. In South Carolina, their bills became eventually a tender; and in Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, and North Carolina, the paper money was made a legal tender in all cases whatsoever. The other states were sensible that the destruction of the circulating paper would be a violation of the rights of private property, and that such a measure would render the accession of those states to the system absolutely impracticable. The injustice and pernicious tendency of this disgraceful policy were viewed with great indignation by the states which adhered to the principles of justice. In Rhode Island, the paper money had depreciated to eight for one, and a hundred per cent. with us. The people of Massachusetts and Connecticut had been great sufferers by the dishonesty of Rhode Island, and similar complaints existed against this state. This clause became in some measure a preliminary with the gentlemen who represented the other states. "You have," said they, "by your iniquitous laws and paper emissions shamefully defrauded our citizens. The Confederation prevented our compelling you to do them justice; but before we confederate with you again, you must not only agree to be honest, but put it out of your power to be otherwise." Sir, a member from Rhode Island itself could not have set his face against such language. The clause was, I believe, unanimously assented to: it has only a future aspect, and can by no means have a retrospective operation; and I trust the principles upon which the Convention proceeded will meet the approbation of every honest man.

Mr. Cabarrus. Mr. Chairman, I contend that the clause which prohibits the states from emitting bills of credit will not affect our present paper money. The clause has no retrospective view. This Constitution declares, in the most positive terms, that no ex post facto law shall be passed by the general government. Were this clause to operate retrospectively, it would clearly be ex post facto, and repugnant to the express provision of the Constitution. How, then, in the name of God, can the Constitution take our paper money away? If we have contracted for a sum of money, we ought to pay according to the nature of our contract. Every honest man will pay in specie who engaged to pay it. But if we have contracted for a sum of paper money, it must be clear to every man in this committee, that we shall pay in paper money. This is a Constitution for the future government of the United States. It does not look back. Every gentleman must be satisfied, on the least reflection, that our paper money will not be destroyed. To say that it will be destroyed, is a popular argument, but not founded in fact, in my opinion. I had my doubts, but on consideration, I am satisfied.

Mr. Bloodworth. Mr. Chairman, I beg leave to ask if the payment of sums now due be ex post facto. Will it be an ex post facto law to compel the payment of money now due in silver coin? If suit be brought in the federal court against one of our citizens, for a sum of money, will paper money be received to satisfy the judgment? I inquire for information; my mind is not yet satisfied. It has been said that we are to send our own gentlemen to represent us, and that there is not the least doubt they will put that construction on it which will be most agreeable to the people they represent. But it behoves us to consider whether they can do so if they would, when they mix with the body of Congress. The Northern States are much more populous than the Southern ones. To the north of the Susquehannah there are thirty-six representatives, and to the south of it only twenty-nine. They will always outvote us. Sir, we ought to be particular in adopting a Constitution which may destroy our currency, when it is to be the supreme law of the land, and prohibits the emission of paper money. I am not, for my own part, for giving an indefinite power. Gentlemen of the best abilities differ in the construction of the Constitution. The members of Congress will differ too. Human nature is fallible. I am not for throwing ourselves out of the Union; but we ought to be cautious by proposing amendments. The majority in several great adopting states was very trifling. Several of them have proposed amendments, but not in the mode most satisfactory to my mind. I hope this Convention never will adopt it till the amendments are actually obtained.

Mr. Iredell. Mr. Chairman, with respect to this clause, it cannot have the operation contended for. There is nothing in the Constitution which affects our present paper money. It prohibits, for the future, the emitting of any, but it does not interfere with the paper money now actually in circulation in several states. There is an express clause which protects it. It provides that there shall be no ex post facto law. This would be ex post facto, if the construction contended for were right, as has been observed by another gentleman. If a suit were brought against a man in the federal court, and execution should go against his property, I apprehend he would, under this Constitution, have a right to pay our paper money, there being nothing in the Constitution taking away the validity of it. Every individual in the United States will keep his eye watchfully over those who administer the general government, and no usurpation of power will be acquiesced in. The possibility of usurping powers ought not to be objected against it. Abuse may happen in any government. The only resource against usurpation is the inherent right of the people to prevent its exercise. This is the case in all free governments in the world. The people will resist if the government usurp powers not delegated to it. We must run the risk of abuse. We must take care to give no more power than is necessary; but, having given that, we must submit to the possible dangers arising from it.

With respect to the great weight of the Northern States, it will not, on a candid examination, appear so great as the gentleman supposes. At present, the regulation of our representation is merely temporary. Whether greater or less, it will hereafter depend on actual population. The extent of this state is very great, almost equal to that of any state in the Union; and our population will probably be in proportion. To the north of Pennsylvania, there are twenty-seven votes. To the south of Pennsylvania, there are thirty votes, leaving Pennsylvania out. Pennsylvania has eight votes. In the division of what is called the northern and southern interests, Pennsylvania does not appear to be decidedly in either scale. Though there may be a combination of the Northern States, it is not certain that the interests of Pennsylvania will coincide with theirs. If, at any time, she join us, we shall have thirty-eight against twenty-seven. Should she be against us, they will have only thirty-five to thirty. There are two states to the northward, who have, in some respect, a similarity of interests with ourselves. What is the situation of New Jersey? It is, in one respect, similar to ours. Most of the goods they use come through New York, and they pay for the benefit of New York, as we pay for that of Virginia. It is so with Connecticut; so that, in every question between importing and non-importing states, we may expect that two of the Northern States would probably join with North Carolina. It is impossible to destroy altogether this idea of separate interests. But the difference between the states does not appear to me so great as the gentleman imagines; and I beg leave to say, that, in proportion to the increase of population, the Southern States will have greater weight than the Northern, as they have such large quantities of land still uncultivated, which is not so much the case to the north. If we should suffer a small temporary inconvenience, we shall be compensated for it by having the weight of population in our favor in future.

Mr. Bloodworth. Mr. Chairman, when I was in Congress, the southern and northern interests divided at Susquehannah. I believe it is so now. The advantage to be gained by future population is no argument at all. Do we gain any thing when the other states have an equality of members in the Senate, notwithstanding the increase of members in the House of Representatives? This is no consequence at all. I am sorry to mention it, but I can produce an instance which will prove the facility of misconstruction. [Here Mr. Bloodworth cited an instance which took place in Congress with respect to the Indian trade, which, not having been distinctly heard, is omitted.]

They may trample on the rights of the people of North Carolina if there be not sufficient guards and checks. I only mentioned this to show that there may be misconstructions, and that, in so important a case as a constitution, every thing ought to be clear and intelligible, and no ground left for disputes.

Mr. Caldwell. Mr. Chairman, it is very evident that there is a great necessity for perspicuity. In the sweeping clause, there are words which are not plain and evident. It says that "this Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof, &c., shall be the supreme law of the land." The word pursuance is equivocal and ambiguous; a plainer word would be better. They may pursue bad as well as good measures, and therefore the word is improper; it authorizes bad measures. Another thing is remarkable,--that gentlemen, as an answer to every improper part of it, tell us that every thing is to be done by our own representatives, who are to be good men. There is no security that they will be so, or continue to be so. Should they be virtuous when elected, the laws of Congress will be unalterable. These laws must be annihilated by the same body which made them. It appears to me that the laws which they make cannot be altered without calling a convention. [Mr. Caldwell added some reasons for this opinion, but spoke too low to be heard.]

Gov. Johnston. Mr. Chairman, I knew that many gentlemen in this Convention were not perfectly satisfied with every article of this Constitution; but I did not expect that so many would object to this clause. The Constitution must be the supreme law of the land; otherwise, it would be in the power of any one state to counteract the other states, and withdraw itself from the Union. The laws made in pursuance thereof by Congress ought to be the supreme law of the land; otherwise, any one state might repeal the laws of the Union at large. Without this clause, the whole Constitution would be a piece of blank paper. Every treaty should be the supreme law of the land; without this, any one state might involve the whole Union in war. The worthy member who was last up has started an objection which I cannot answer. I do not know a word in the English language so good as the word pursuance, to express the idea meant and intended by the Constitution. Can any one understand the sentence any other way than this? When Congress makes a law in virtue of their constitutional authority, it will be an actual law. I do not know a more expressive or a better way of representing the idea by words. Every law consistent with the Constitution will have been made in pursuance of the powers granted by it. Every usurpation or law repugnant to it cannot have been made in pursuance of its powers. The latter will be nugatory and void. I am at a loss to know what he means by saying the laws of the Union will be unalterable. Are laws as immutable as constitutions? Can any thing be more absurd than assimilating the one to the other? The idea is not warranted by the Constitution, nor consistent with reason.

Mr. J. M'Dowall wished to know how the taxes are to be paid which Congress were to lay in this state. He asked if paper money would discharge them. He calculated that the taxes would be higher, and did not know how they could be discharged; for, says he, every man is to pay so much more, and the poor man has not the money locked up in his chest. He was of opinion that our laws could be repealed entirely by those of Congress.

Mr. Maclaine. Mr. Chairman, taxes must be paid in gold or silver coin, and not in imaginary money. As to the subject of taxation, it has been the opinion of many intelligent men that there will be no taxes laid immediately, or, if any, that they will be very inconsiderable. There will be no occasion for it, as proper regulations will raise very large sums of money. We know that Congress will have sufficient power to make such regulations. The moment that the Constitution is established, Congress will have credit with foreign nations. Our situation being known, they can borrow any sum. It will be better for them to raise any money they want at present by borrowing than by taxation. It is well known that in this country gold and silver vanish when paper money is made. When we adopt, if ever, gold and silver will again appear in circulation. People will not let their hard money go, because they know that paper money cannot repay it. After the war, we had more money in gold and silver, in circulation, than we have nominal money now. Suppose Congress wished to raise a million of money more than the imposts. Suppose they borrow it. They can easily borrow it in Europe at four per cent. The interest of that sum will be but £40,000. So that the people, instead of having the whole £1,000,000 to pay, will have but £40,000 to pay, which will hardly be felt. The proportion of £40,000 for this state would be a trifle. In seven years' time, the people would be able, by only being obliged to pay the interest annually, to save money, and pay the whole principal, perhaps, afterwards, without much difficulty. Congress will not lay a single tax when it is not to the advantage of the people at large. The western lands will also be a considerable fund. The sale of them will aid the revenue greatly, and we have reason to believe the impost will be productive.

Mr. J. M'Dowall. Mr. Chairman, instead of reasons and authorities to convince me, assertions are made. Many respectable gentlemen are satisfied that the taxes will be higher. By what authority does the gentleman say that the impost will be productive, when our trade is come to nothing? Sir, borrowing money is detrimental and ruinous to nations. The interest is lost money. We have been obliged to borrow money to pay interest! We have no way of paying additional and extraordinary sums. The people cannot stand them. I should be extremely sorry to live under a government which the people could not understand, and which it would require the greatest abilities to understand. It ought to be plain and easy to the meanest capacity. What would be the consequence of ambiguity? It may raise animosity and revolutions, and involve us in bloodshed. It becomes us to be extremely cautious.

Mr. Maclaine. Mr. Chairman, I would ask the gentleman what is the state of our trade. I do not pretend to a very great knowledge in trade, but I know something of it. If our trade be in a low situation, it must be the effect of our present weak government. I really believe that Congress will be able to raise almost what sums they please by the impost. I know it will, though the gentleman may call it assertion. I am not unacquainted with the territory or resources of this country. The resources, under proper regulations, are very great. In the course of a few years, we can raise money without borrowing a single shilling. It is not disgraceful to borrow money. The richest nations have recurred to loans on some emergencies. I believe, as much as I do in my existence, that Congress will have it in their power to borrow money if our government be such as people can depend upon. They have been able to borrow now under the present feeble system. If so, can there be any doubt of their being able to do it under a respectable government?

Mr. M'Dowall replied, that our trade was on a contemptible footing; that it was come almost to nothing, and lower in North Carolina than any where; that therefore little could be expected from the impost.

Mr. J. Galloway. Mr. Chairman, I should make no objection to this clause were the powers granted by the Constitution sufficiently defined; for I am clearly of opinion that it is absolutely necessary for every government, and especially for a general government, that its laws should be the supreme law of the land. But I hope the gentlemen of the committee will advert to the 10th section of the 1st article. This is a negative which the Constitution of our own state does not impose upon us. I wish the committee to attend to that part of it which provides that no state shall pass any law which will impair the obligation of contracts. Our public securities are at a low ebb, and have been so for many years. We well know that this country has taken those securities as specie. This hangs over our heads as a contract. There is a million and a half in circulation at least. That clause of the Constitution may compel us to make good the nominal value of these securities. I trust this country never will leave it to the hands of the general government to redeem the securities which they have already given. Should this be the case, the consequence will be, that they will be purchased by speculators, when the citizens will part with them, perhaps for a very trifling consideration. Those speculators will look at the Constitution, and see that they will be paid in gold and silver. They will buy them at a half-crown in the pound, and get the full nominal value for them in gold and silver. I therefore wish the committee to consider whether North Carolina can redeem those securities in the manner most agreeable to her citizens, and justifiable to the world, if this Constitution be adopted.

Mr. Davie. Mr. Chairman, I believe neither the 10th section, cited by the gentleman, nor any other part of the Constitution, has vested the general government with power to interfere with the public securities of any state. I will venture to say that the last thing which the general government will attempt to do will be this. They have nothing to do with it. The clause refers merely to contracts between individuals. That section is the best in the Constitution. It is founded on the strongest principles of justice. It is a section, in short, which I thought would have endeared the Constitution to this country. When the worthy gentleman comes to consider, he will find that the general government cannot possibly interfere with such securities. How can it? It has no negative clause to that effect. Where is there a negative clause, operating negatively on the states themselves? It cannot operate retrospectively, for this would be repugnant to its own express provisions. It will be left to ourselves to redeem them as we please. We wished we could put it on the shoulders of Congress, but could not. Securities may be higher, but never less. I conceive, sir, that this is a very plain case, and that it must appear perfectly clear to the committee that the gentleman's alarms are groundless.

. . . . .

Mr. Lancaster: . . . Treaties are to be the supreme law of the land. This has been sufficiently discussed: it must be amended some way or other. If the Constitution be adopted, it ought to be the supreme law of the land, and a perpetual rule for the governors and governed. But if treaties are to be the supreme law of the land, it may repeal the laws of different states, and render nugatory our bill of rights.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 4, Article 6, Clause 2, Document 19
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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