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title:“Debate in the Virginia Convention”
date written:1788-6-17

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"Debate in the Virginia Convention." The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787. Vol. 3. Ed. Max Farrand. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1911. Print.

Debate in the Virginia Convention (June 17, 1788)

June 17, 1788.
(The first clause, of the ninth section, read.)
. . . Mr. Madison — Mr. Chairman — I should conceive this clause to be impolitic, if it were one of those things which could be excluded without encountering greater evils. — The southern states would not have entered into the union of America, without the temporary permission of that trade. And if they were excluded from the union, the consequences might be dreadful to them and to us. We are not in a worse situation than before. That traffic is prohibited by our laws, and we may continue the prohibition. The union in general is not in a worse situation. Under the articles of confederation, it might be continued forever: But by this clause an end may be put to it after twenty years. There is therefore an amelioration of our circumstances. A tax may be laid in the mean time; but it is limited, otherwise congress might lay such a tax as would amount to a prohibition. From the mode of representation and taxation, congress cannot lay such a tax on slaves as will amount to manumission. Another clause secures us that property which we now possess. At present, if any slave elopes to any of those states where slaves are free, he becomes emancipated by their laws. For the laws of the states are uncharitable to one another in this respect. But in this constitution, "no person held to service, or labor, in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor; but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due." — This clause was expressly inserted to enable owners of slaves to reclaim them. This is a better security than any that now exists. No power is given to the general government to interpose with respect to the property in slaves now held by the states. The taxation of this state being equal only to its representation, such a tax cannot be laid as he supposes. They cannot prevent the importation of slaves for twenty years; but after that period they can. The gentlemen from South-Carolina and Georgia argued in this manner: — "We have now liberty to import this species of property, and much of the property now possessed, has been purchased, or otherwise acquired, in contemplation of improving it by the assistance of imported slaves. What would be the consequence of hindering us from it? The slaves of Virginia would rise in value, and we would be obliged to go to your markets." I need not expatiate on this subject. Great as the evil is, a dismemberment of the union would be worse. If those states should disunite from the other states, for not indulging them in the temporary continuance of this traffic, they might solicit and obtain aid from foreign powers. . . .
(The 2d, 3d, and 4th clauses read.)
. . . Mr. Madison replied, that even the southern states, who were most affected, were perfectly satisfied with this provision, and dreaded no danger to the property they now hold. It appeared to him, that the general government would not intermeddle with that property for twenty years, but to lay a tax on every slave imported, not exceeding ten dollars; and that after the expiration of that period they might prohibit the traffic altogether. The census in the constitution was intended to introduce equality in the burdens to be laid on the community. — No gentleman objected to laying duties, imposts, and excises, uniformly. But uniformity of taxes would be subversive of the principles of equality: For that it was not possible to select any article which would be easy for one state, but what would be heavy for another. — . . .
(The 5th and 6th clauses read.)
Mr. George Mason, apprehended the loose expression of "publication from time to time," was applicable to any time. It was equally applicable to monthly and septennial periods. It might be extended ever so much. The reasons urged in favor of this ambiguous expression, was, that there might be some matters which might require secrecy. In matters relative to military operations, and foreign negotiations, secrecy was necessary sometimes. But he did not conceive that the receipts and expenditures of the public money ought ever to be concealed. The people, he affirmed, had a right to know the expenditures of their money. But that this expression was so loose, it might be concealed forever from them, and might afford opportunities of misapplying the public money, and sheltering those who did it. He concluded it to be as exceptionable as any clause in so few words could be. . . .
Mr. Madison thought it much better than if it had mentioned any specified period. Because if the accounts of the public receipts and expenditures were to be published at short stated periods, they would not be so full and connected as would be necessary for a thorough comprehension of them, and detection of any errors. But by giving them an opportunity of publishing them from time to time, as might be found easy and convenient, they would be more full and satisfactory to the public, and would be sufficiently frequent. He thought, after all, that this provision went farther than the constitution of any state in the union, or perhaps in the world.
Mr. Mason replied, that in the confederation the public proceedings were to be published monthly, which was infinitely better than depending on men's virtue to publish them or not, as they might please. If there was no such provision in the constitution of Virginia, gentlemen ought to consider the difference between such a full representation, dispersed and mingled with every part of the community, as the state representation was, and such an inadequate representation as this was. One might be safely trusted, but not the other.
Mr. Madison replied, that the inconveniences which had been experienced from the confederation in that respect, had their weight with him in recommending this in preference to it; for that it was impossible, in such short intervals, to adjust the public accounts in any satisfactory manner. . . .
Governor Randolph. . . . The next restriction is, that no titles of nobility shall be granted by the United States. If we cast our eyes to the manner in which titles of nobility first orginated, we shall find this restriction founded on the same principles. These sprung from military and civil offices; Both are put in the hands of the united states, and therefore I presume it to be an exception to that power.
The last restriction restrains any persons in office from accepting of any present or emolument, title or office, from any foreign prince or state. It must have been observed before, that though the confederation had restricted congress from exercising any powers not given them, yet they inserted it, not from any apprehension of usurpation, but for greater security. This restriction is provided to prevent corruption. All men have a natural inherent right of receiving emoluments from any one, unless they be restrained by the regulations of the community. An accident which actually happened, operated in producing the restriction. A box was presented to our ambassador by the king of our allies.1 It was thought proper, in order to exclude corruption and foreign influence, to prohibit any one in office from receiving or holding any emoluments from foreign states. I believe, that if at that moment, when we were in harmony with the king of France, we had supposed that he was corrupting our ambassador, it might have disturbed that confidence, and diminished that mutual friendship, which contributed to carry us through the war. . . .
(The first clause, of the tenth section, read.)
. . . Mr. Madison . . . The first clause of the sixth article, provides, that "All debts contracted, and engagements entered into before the adoption of this constitution, shall be as valid against the U. States under this constitution, as under the confederation." He affirmed that it was meant there should be no change with respect to claims by this political alteration; and that the public would stand, with respect to their creditors, as before. He thought that the validity of claims ought not to diminish by the adoption of the constitution. But however, it could not increase the demands on the public.
. . . Governor Randolph. — Mr. Chairman — This clause in spite of the invective of the gentleman, is a great favourite of mine; . . . He says, this clause will be injurious, and that no scale can be made, because there is a prohibition on congress of passing ex post facto laws. . . . Ex post facto laws, if taken technically, relate solely to criminal cases; and my honorable colleague tells you that it was so interpreted in convention. What greater security can we have against arbitrary proceedings in criminal jurisprudence than this? In addition to the interpretation of the convention, let me shew him still greater authority. The same clause provides, that no bill of attainder shall be passed. It shews that the attention of the convention was drawn to criminal matters alone. . . .
Governor Randolph could not coincide with the construction put by the honorable gentleman on ex post facto laws. The technical meaning which confined such laws solely to criminal cases, was followed in the interpretation of treaties between nations, and was concurred in by all civilians. The prohibition of bills of attainder, he thought a sufficient proof, that ex post facto laws related to criminal cases only, and that such was the idea of the convention.
(The next clause read.)
. . . Mr. Madison. — Mr. Chairman — Let us take a view of the relative situation of the states. Some states export the produce of other states. Virginia exports the produce of North-Carolina; Pennsylvania those of Jersey and Delaware; and Rhode-Island those of Connecticut and Massachusetts. The exporting states wished to retain the power of laying duties on exports, to enable them to pay the expences incurred. The states whose produce is exported by other states, were extremely jealous, lest a contribution should be raised of them by the exporting states, by laying heavy duties on their commodities. If this clause be fully considered, it will be found to be more consistent with justice and equity than any other practicable mode: For if the states had the exclusive imposition of duties on exports, they might raise a heavy contribution of the other states, for their own exclusive emoluments. The honorable member who spoke in defence of the clause, has fairly represented it. As to the reimbursement of the loss that may be sustained by individuals, a tax may be laid on tobacco when brought to the warehouses, for that purpose. The sum arising therefrom may be appropriated to it consistently with the clause. For it only says, that "the nett produce of all duties and imposts, laid by any state on imports or exports, shall be for the use of the treasury of the United States," which necessarily implies that all contingent charges shall have been previously paid.
(The 1st section, of the 2d article, read.)
. . . Governor Randolph. . . . I will acknowledge that at one stage of this business, I had embraced the idea of the honorable gentleman, that the re-eligibility of the president was improper. But I will acknowledge, that on a further consideration of the subject, and attention to the lights which were thrown upon it by others, I altered my opinion of the limitation of his eligibility. When we consider the advantages arising to us from it, we cannot object to it. That which has produced my opinion against the limitation of his eligibility, is this — that it renders him more independent in his place, and more solicitous of promoting the interest of his constituents. For, unless you put it in his power to be re-elected, instead of being attentive to their interests, he will lean to the augmentation of his private emoluments.
[Footnotes as included or written by Farrand]
  • 1 "Dr. Franklin is the person alluded to by Randolph. In the winter of 1856, in Philadelphia, under the roof of a venerable granddaughter of Dr. Franklin, I saw the beautiful portrait of Louis XVI, snuff-box size, presented by that king to the doctor. As the portrait is exactly such as is contained in the snuff-boxes presented by Crowned heads, one of which I have seen, it is probable this portrait of Louis was originally attached to the box in question, which has in the lapse of years been lost or given away by Dr. Franklin." H. B. Grigsby, History of the Virginia Federal Convention of 1788 (Virginia Historical Society Collections, vols. 9-10), p. 264.
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