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title:“Newspaper Report of the Massachusetts Ratification Convention Debates”
date written:1788-1-15

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"Newspaper Report of the Massachusetts Ratification Convention Debates." The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution. Vol. 6. Ed. Gaspare J. Saladino and John P. Kaminski. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2000. 1188-98. Print.
Massachusetts Archives

Newspaper Report of the Massachusetts Ratification Convention Debates (January 15, 1788)

A motion was made by Mr Dana, that the vote of yesterday, prescribing the manner of proceeding in the consideration of the Constitution, should be reconsidered, for the purpose of making the following addition thereto, viz.
"It is nevertheless, the opinion of this Convention, that if any member conceives any other clause or paragraph of the Constitution to be connected with the one immediately under consideration, that he have full liberty to take up such other clause or paragraph for that purpose." And the question of reconsideration being put, passed in the affirmative. On the question whether the addition should be made, it was determined in the affirmative.
The Hon. Mr. STRONG rose to reply to the inquiry of the Hon. Mr. Adams, why the alteration of elections from annual to biennial, was made, and to correct an inaccuracy of the Hon. Mr. Gorham, who, the day before, had said that that alteration was made to gratify South Carolina.- He said he should then have arisen to put his worthy colleague right- but his memory was not sufficiently retentive to enable him immediately to collect every circumstance- He had since recurred to the original plan. When the subject was at first discussed in Convention some gentlemen were for having the term extended to a considerable length of time- others were opposed to it, as it was contrary to the ideas and customs of the Eastern States- but a majority were in favour of three years, and it was, he said, urged by the Southern States, which are not so populous as the Eastern, that the expense of more frequent elections, would be great and concluded by saying that a general concession produced the term as it stood in the sectional - although it was agreeable to the practice of South Carolina.
Mr AMES. I do not regret, Mr. President, that we are not unanimous upon this question. I do not consider the diversity of sentiment which prevails, as an impediment in our way to the discovery of truth. In order that we may think alike upon this subject at last, we shall be compelled to discuss it, by ascending to the principles upon which the doctrine of representation is grounded.
Without premeditation, in a situation so novel, and awed by the respect which I feel for this venerable assembly I distrust extremely my own feelings, as well as my competency to prosecute this inquiry. With the hope of an indulgent hearing, I will attempt to proceed. I am sensible, sir, that the doctrine of frequent elections, has been sanctified by antiquity; and is still more endeared to us by our recent experience, and uniform habits of thinking. Gentlemen have expressed their zealous partiality for it. They consider this as a leading question in the debate, and that the merits of many other parts of the constitution are involved in the decision. I confess, sir and I declare that my zeal for frequent elections, is not inferior to their own. I consider it as one of the first securities for popular liberty, in which its very essence may be supposed to reside. But how shall we make the best use of this pledge and instrument of our safety? A right principle, carried to an extreme, becomes useless. It is apparent that a delegation for a very short term, as for a single day, would defeat the design representation. The election in that case would not seem to the people to be of any importance, and the person elected would think as lightly of his appointment. The other extreme is equally to be avoided. An election for a very long term of years, or for life, would remove the member too far from the controul of the people, would be dangerous to liberty, and in fact repugnant to the purposes of the delegation. The truth as usual, is placed somewhere between the extremes, and I believe is included in this proposition: The term of election must be so long, that the representative may understand the interests of the people, and yet so limited, that his fidelity may be secured by a dependence upon their approbation.2
Before I proceed to the application of this rule, I cannot forbear to premise some remarks upon two opinions, which have been suggested. Much has been said about the people divesting themselves of power, when they delegate it to representatives; and that representation is to their disadvantage, because it is but an image, a copy, fainter and more imperfect than the original, the people, in whom the light of power is primary and unborrowed, which is only reflected by their delegates.- I cannot agree to either of these opinions.- The representation of the people is something more than the people. I know, sir, but one purpose which the people can effect without delegation, and that is, to destroy a government. That they cannot erect a government is evinced by our being thus assembled, on their behalf. The people must govern by a majority, with whom all power resides. But how is thesense of this majority to be obtained? It has been said that a pure democracy is the best government for a small people who may assemble in person. It is of small consequence to discuss it, as it would be inapplicable to the great country we inhabit. It may be of some use in this argument, however, to consider that it would be very burdensome, subject to faction and violence, decisions would often be made by surprise, in the precipitancy of passion, by men who either understand nothing, or care nothing about the subject; or by interested men, or those who vote for their own indemnity It would be a government not by laws, but by men. Such were the paltry democracies of Greece and Asia Minor, so much extolled, and so often proposed as a model for our imitation. I desire to be thankful, that our people are not under any temptation, to adopt the advice. I think it will not be denied, that the people are gainers by the election of representatives. They may destroy, but they cannot exercise the powers of government, in person; but by their servants, they govern- they do not renounce their power- they do not sacrifice their rights- they become the true sovereigns of the country when they delegate that power, which they cannot use themselves, to their trustees.
I know sir that the people talk about the liberty of nature, and assert that we divest ourselves of a portion of it, when we enter into society. This is declamation against matter of fact. We cannot live without society; and as to liberty, how can I be said to enjoy that which another may take from me, when he pleases. The liberty of one depends not so much on the removal of all restraint, from him, as on the due restraint upon the liberty of others. Without such restraint, there can be no liberty- liberty is so far from being endangered or destroyed by this, that it is extended and secured. For I said, that we do not enjoy that, which another may take from us. But civil liberty cannot be taken from us, when any one may please to invade it: For we have the strength of the society on our side.'
I hope, sir, that these reflections, will have some tendency to remove the ill impressions which are made by proposing to divest the people of their power.
That they may never be divested of it, I repeat that I am in favour of frequent elections. They who commend annual elections, are desired to consider, that the question is, whether biennial elections are a defect " in the constitution: For it does not follow because annual elections are safe, that biennial are dangerous: For both may be good. Nor is there any foundation for the fears of those, who say that if we who have been accustomed to chuse for one year only, now extend it to two, the next stride will be to five, or seven years, and the next for term of life:3 For this article, with all its supposed defects, is in favour of liberty. Being inserted in the constitution, it is not subject to be repealed by law. We are sure that it is the worst of the case.
It is a fence against ambitious encroachments, too high and too strong to be passed: In this respect, we have greatly the advantage of the people of England and of all the world. The law which limits their parliaments, is liable to be repealed.
I will not defend this article, by saying that it was a matter of compromise in the federal Convention: It has my entire approbation as it stands. I think that we ought to prefer, in this article, biennial elections to annual, and my reasons for this opinion, are drawn from these sources.4
From the extent of the country to be governed.
The objects of their legislation.
And the more perfect security of our liberty.
It seems obvious, that men who are to collect in Congress from this great territory, perhaps from the bay of Fundy, or from the banks of the Ohio, and the shore of Lake Superiour, ought to have a longer term in office, than the delegates of a single state, in their own legislature. It is not by riding post to and from Congress, that a man can acquire a just knowledge of the true interests of the union. This term of election, is inapplicable to the state of a country as large as Germany or as the Roman empire in the zenith of its power.
If we consider the objects of their delegation, little doubt will remain. It is admitted that annual elections may be highly fit for the state legislature. Every citizen grows up with a knowledge of the local circumstances of the state. But the business of the federal government will be very different. The objects of their power are few and national. At least two years in office will be necessary to enable a man to judge of the trade and interests of states which he never saw. The time I hope, will come, when this excellent country will furnish food, and freedom, (which is better than food, which is the food of the soul) for fifty millions of happy people. Will any man say that the national business can be understood in one year?
Biennial elections appear to me, sir, an essential security to liberty.
These are my reasons. Faction and enthusiasm are the instruments by which popular governments are destroyed. We need not talk of the power of an aristocracy. The people when they lose their liberties are cheated out of them. They nourish factions in their bosoms, which will subsist so long as abusing their honest credulity shall be the means of acquiring power. A democracy is a volcano, which conceals the fiery materials of its own destruction. These will produce an eruption, and carry desolation in their way The people always mean right, and if time is allowed for reflection and information, they will do right. I would not have the first wish, the momentary impulse of the publick mind, become law. For it is not always the sense of the people, with whom, I admit, that all power resides. On great questions, we first hear the loud clamours of passion, artifice and faction. I consider biennial elections as a security that the sober, second thought of the people shall be law. There is a calm review of publick transactions, which is made by the citizens who have families and children, the pledges of their fidelity. To provide for popular liberty, we must take care that measures shall not be adopted without due deliberation. The member chosen for two years will feel some independence in his seat. The factions of the day will expire before the end of his term.
The people will be proportionally attentive to the merits of a candidate. Two years will afford opportunity to the member to deserve well of them, and they will require evidence that he has done it.
But, sir, the representatives are the grand inquisition of the union. They are by impeachment to bring great offenders to justice. One year will not suffice to detect guilt, and to pursue it to conviction: therefore they will escape, and the balance of the two branches will be destroyed, and the people oppressed with impunity. The senators will represent the sovereignty of the states. The representatives are to represent the people. The offices ought to bear some proportion in point of importance. This will be impossible if they are chosen for one year only.
Will the people then blind the eyes of their own watchmen? Will they bind the hands which are to hold the sword for their defence? Will they impair their own power by an unreasonable jealousy of themselves?
For these reasons I am clearly of opinion, that the article is entitled to our approbation as it stands: and as it has been demanded, why annual elections were not preferred to biennial, permit me to retort the question, and to inquire in my turn, what reason can be given why, if annual elections are good, biennial elections are not better?5
The enquiry in the latter part of Mr Ames's speech, being directed to the Hon. Mr. ADAMS- that gentleman said, he only made the inquiry for information, and that he had heard sufficient to satisfy himself of its propriety
Mr. DENCH said his objections to biennial elections were removed. But he wished to recur to the 4th section and to inquire, whether that election was secured, as by this section, Congress has power to regulate the time, place, and manner of holding it.
(A question now arose whether the consideration of the 4th section, was in order, and much debate was had thereon- but the propriety, as expressed by a worthy member, of "elucidating scripture by scripture" being generally admitted, the motion made by the Hon. Mr. Dana, passed, which put an end to the conversation.)
The Hon. Mr. BOWDOIN remarked on the idea suggested by the Hon. Gentleman from Scituate who had said that nature pointed out the propriety of annual elections, by its annual renewal, and observed, that if the revolution of the heavenly bodies is to be the principle to regulate elections, it was not fixed to any period; as in some of the systems it would be very short; and in the last discovered planet it would be 80 of our years. Gentlemen, he said, who had gone before him in the debate, had clearly pointed out the alteration of the election of our federal representatives, from annual to biennial to be justifiable. Annual elections may be necessary in this State; but in the choice representatives for the continent, it ought to be longer; nor did he see any danger in its being so. Who, he asked, are the men to be elected? Are they not to be from among us? If they were to be a distinct body then the doctrine of precaution which gentlemen use would be necessary: But, Sir, they can make no laws, nor levy anytaxes, but those to which they themselves must be subservient- they themselves must bear a part; therefore, our security is guaranteed, by their being thus subject to the laws, if by nothing else.
Gen. HEATH. Mr President, I consider myself not as an inhabitant of Massachusetts, but as a citizen of the United States- my ideas and views are commensurate with the continent- they extend in length from the St. Croix, to the St. Maria, and in breadth from the Atlantic to the Lake of the Woods; for over all this extensive territory is the federal Government to be extended.
I should not have risen on this paragraph, had it not been for some arguments which gentlemen have advanced, respecting elections, and which I think tend to make dangerous impressions on the minds of the rising generation. It has been the general opinion that the liberties of the people are principally secured by the frequency of elections, and power returning again into their own hands. The first Parliament ever called in Europe, was called by CONSTANTINE the third- and to continue for one year. The worthy gentleman from Boston, has mentioned a writer as a good authority, and who, he says, was twenty years compiling his works; I will produce one observation from this celebrated writer, Baron Montesquieu, it is as follows, "The greatness of power, must be compensated by the brevity of the duration; most legislators have fixed it to a year, a longer space would be dangerous." Here, sir we have not only the opinion of this celebrated writer, but he has also mentioned that most legislators were of the like opinion; but I shall come to our own country, where we shall find in what respect annual elections have always been held, this was the wisdom of our ancestors, it has been confirmed by time, therefore, sir, before we change it, we should carefully examine, whether it be for the better, local circumstances may render it expedient, but we should take care not to hold up to the rising generation that it is a matter of indifference, whether elections be annual or not; and this is what induced me to rise.8
It is a novel idea, that representatives should be chosen for a considerable time, in order that they may learn their duty; the representative is one who appears in behalf of, and acts for others, he ought therefore to be fully acquainted with the feelings, circumstances and interests of the persons whom he represents, and this is learnt among them, not at a distant Court; how frequently, on momentary occasions, do the members of the British Parliament wish to go home and consult their constituents, before they come to a decision. This shows from what quarter they wish to obtain information- with respect to the obtaining a knowledge of the circumstances, and abilities of the other States, in order to an equal taxation, this must be acquired from the returns, of the number of inhabitants, &c. which are to be found on the files of Congress, for I know not how length of time could furnish other information, unless the members should go from State to State, in order to find out the circumstances of the different States. I think representatives ought always to have a general knowledge of the interests of their constituents, as this alone can enable them properly to represent them.
But, sir if there be charms in the paragraph now under consideration, they are these, Congress at present are continually sitting, but under the new Constitution it is intended, that Congress shall sit but once annually for such time as may be necessary, and then adjourn; in this view, every gentleman acquainted with the business of legislation, knows that there is much business in every session, which is taken up and partly considered, but not finished; an adjournment keeps all this business alive, and at the next session it is taken up and completed, to the benefit of the people, in a great saving of expense, which would otherwise be lost; for a new legislature would not see through the eyes of those who went before them, consequently business partly finished would be time lost, to the injury of the publick. Therefore as it seems to be intended, that Congress shall have but two sessions in the two years, for which the representatives are to be chosen, this consideration has reconciled me to the paragraph, and I am in favour of Biennial Elections.
The Hon. Mr. TURNER, in reply to the Hon. Mr. BOWDOIN, said, he thought it an important consideration whether the elections were to be for one year or for two years; he was, he said, greatly in favour of annual elections, and he thought, in the present instance, it would be establishing dangerous precedent to adopt a change: for, says he, the principle may so operate, as in time, our elections will be as seldom as the revolution of the star the Hon. Gentleman talks of.
Mr DAWES, in answer to Gen. HEATH, said, that the passage quoted" from Montesquieu, applied to single governments and not to confederate ones.
Gen. BROOKS (of Medford) in reply to Gen. Heath, said, he recollected the passage of Montesquieu- but he also recollected that that writer had spoken highly of the British government. He then adverted to the objection to this section, of Gen. Thompson, and others, that biennial elections were a novelty and said we were not to consider whether a measure was new, but whether it was proper. Gentlemen had said that it had been the established custom of this country to elect annually: But he asked, have we not gone from a colonial to an independent situation? We were then Provinces, we are now an Independent Empire; our measures, therefore, says he, must change with our situation. Under our old government, the objects of legislation were few and divided -under our present, they are many and must be united- and it appears necessary that according to the magnitude and multiplicity of the business, the duration should be extended- he did not, he said, undertake to say how far.10 He then went into a view of the history of Parliaments, the modern northern nations, he said, had parliaments, but they were called by their kings- and the time, business, &c. of them, depend wholly on their wills- We can, therefore, says he, establish nothing from these: One general remark, was, that in the reigns of weak princes, the power and importance of Parliaments increased- in the reigns of strong and arbitrary kings, they always declined: and, says he, they have been triennial, and they have been septennial. The General combated the idea, that the liberties of the people depended on the duration of Parliament, with much ability. Do we hear, asked he, that the people of England are deprived of their liberties- or that they are not as free now as when they had short Parliaments? On the contrary, do not writers agree, that life, liberty and property, are no where better secured than in Great-Britain- and that this security arises from their Parliaments being chosen for seven years. As such is the situation of the people of England, and as no instance can be given wherein biennial elections have been destructive to the liberties of the people, he concluded by asking, whether so much danger is to be apprehended from such elections as gentlemen imagined? Gen. THOMPSON. Sir, Gentlemen have said a great deal about the history of old times- I confess, I am not acquainted with such history-but I am, sir, acquainted with the history of my own country. I had the honour to be in the general court last year, and am in it this year I think, sir, that had the last administration continued one year longer, our liberties would have been lost, and the country involved in blood. Not so much, sir, from their bad conduct, but from the suspicions of the people of them. But, sir, a change took place, from this change pardons have been granted to the people, and peace is restored. This, sir, I say, is in favour of frequent elections.