Convention Debates, 19 June 1788
On the 19th of June the Convention met pursuant to adjournment, and the order of the day being read, resolved itself into a committee of the whole, and Mr. Oothoudt was called to the chair.
The Constitution being again read, the honorable Robert R. Livingston rose and addressed the chair as follows. — ROBERT R. LIVINGSTON. Mr. CHAIRMAN, As the preamble to the plan under consideration comprizes the great objects of the Union, it will be proper at this place to introduce such general observations as may with less propriety be noticed when particular articles are under consideration, and which may serve at the same time to shew the necessity of adopting some more efficacious plan of Union, than that by which we are now bound.—In the course of the observations I shall make with this view, many things will be urged that will be of little use to those gentlemen who have heard all that has been said, who have read all that has been written on this subject, and who have formed their judgments after mature consideration; with such all debate is unnecessary:—but I trust, Sir, there are many gentlemen present, who have yet formed no decided opinion on the important question before us, and who (like myself) bring with them dispositions to examine whatever shall be offered, and not to determine till after the maturest deliberation: To such I address myself.
Ever since a pure and perfect religion has lent her mild lights to philosophy, and extended her influence over the sentiments of men, it has been a received opinion, that the happiness of nations, as well as of individuals, depends on peace, and that intimate connection which mutual wants occasion.
To establish this on the basis of a general union of nations, has, at various times, employed the thoughts and attention of wise and virtuous men: It is said to have been the last great plan of the illustrious Henry
the IVth of France, who was justly esteemed one of the wisest and best of Princes. But, alas, Sir, in the old world, every attempt of this nature will prove abortive.1
There, governments are the children of force or fraud, and carry with them strong features of their parent's character. Disputes will not be referred to a common umpire, unless that umpire has power to enforce his decrees; and how can it be expected that Princes, jealous of power, will consent to sacrifice any portion of it to the happiness of their people, who are of little account in their estimation. Differences among them, therefore, will continue to be decided by the sword, and the blood of thousands will be shed, before the most trifling controversy can be determined. Even peace can hardly be said to bestow her usual blessings on them; their mutual jealousies convert peace into an armed truce; the husbandman feels the oppression of standing armies, by whom the fruits of his labour are devoured; and the flower of youth is sacrificed to the rigors of military discipline. It has pleased Heaven to afford the United States means for the attainment of this great object, which it has with-held from other nations. They speak the same language,
they profess the same religion;2
and, what is of infinitely more importance, they acknowledge the same great principle of government—a principle, if not unknown, at least little understood in the old world—that all power is derived from the people
. They consider this State, and their general governments, as different deposits of that power. In this view, it is of little moment to them whether that portion of it, which they must for their own happiness lodge in their rulers, be invested in the State Government only
, or shared between them and the council of the Union. The rights they reserve are not diminished, and probably their liberty acquires and additional security from the division.
Let us not then, Sir, neglect to improve the advantages we possess; let us avail ourselves of the present moment, to fix lasting peace upon the broad basis of national union; let us, while it is still in our power, lay the foundation of our own happiness and that of our posterity. Jealousies may spring up; the seeds of them are already sown; the present moment may be the only one afforded for eradicating them.
I am too well satisfied, Sir, of the virtue and patriotism of those to whom I address myself, to suppose that their determination will be influenced by any unworthy motive:—But, Sir, I dread the effect which a hasty or partial view of the subject may have on their minds; and, above all things, I dread lest the chimerical ideas of perfection in government, which gentlemen may have formed, should induce them to reject this, as falling short of their standard. Perfection, Sir, is not the lot of humanity; and perhaps, were the gentlemen on this floor to compare their sentiments on this subject, no two of them would be found to agree: Nay, such is the weakness of our judgment, that it is more than probable that if a perfect plan was offered to our choice, we should conceive it defective and condemn it. The only people whose government was visibly directed by God himself, rejected his administration, and induced him in his wrath to give them a King. Let us be cautious, Sir, lest by our negligence or eager pursuit after chimerical perfection, we should forfeit the blessings we enjoy, and lose this precious opportunity of completing what other nations have been unable to effect.
As on the one hand, Sir, our situation admits of an Union, so on the other our distresses point out its necessity. I will not at this time touch on the declining state of our commerce; nor will I remind you of our national bankruptcy, of the effect it has upon our public measures, and the private misery that it causes; nor will I wound your feelings by a recapitulation of the insults we daily receive from nations, whose injuries we are compelled to repay by the advantages of our commerce. These topics have been frequently touched; they are in every man's mind; they lie heavy at every patriot heart; they have induced states the most independent in their situation to unite in their endeavors to remove them; they operate with peculiar force on us. Permit me, however, to make some observations, drawn from our particular situation, and which will shew in the clearest light, that our existence as a state depends on a strong and efficient Federal Government.
He then went into a minute consideration of the natural advantages of this State drawn from its valuable and abundant staples; the situation of its principal sea-port; the command of the commerce of New-Jersey, by the rivers discharging themselves in our bay;— the facility that the [Long Island] Sound afforded for an intercourse with the Eastern States. He observed upon the advantages resulting from the Hudson, which he described as bearing upon its bosom the wealth of the remotest part of the State. He touched upon the prospects that a lasting peace afforded of commanding the treasures of the Western World by the improvement of our internal navigation. He said that to these natural advantages, we might add many other adventitious circumstances. He observed that a considerable proportion of our domestic debt was already in the Treasury, and that tho' we were indebted for a part of this to our citizens, yet that that debt was comparatively small and could easily be extinguished by an honest exertion on the part of the government. He observed, that our back lands were competent to the discharge of our foreign debt if a vigorous government should be adopted, which would enable us to avail ourselves of this resource; so that we might look forward to a day when no other taxes would be required from us, than such as would be necessary to support our internal government; the amount of the impost being more than adequate to the other expences of the Union. He feared that a prospect of these advantages had excited an improper confidence in ourselves; that it has produced an inflexibility which had rendered us regardless of the wishes and expectations of the other States, and lessened that respect which was due as well from nations to each other, as from individuals. We have insisted, says he, that every knee shall bow to the golden image we have set up. But let us remember that how valuable soever the materials of which its nobler parts are composed, its feet (like those of the image in the vision) are composed of iron and clay, of materials that will not adhere together, and which the slightest shock will tumble to the earth.
He observed, that wealth excited envy, stimulated avarice, and invited invasions; —
that if the Union was dissolved, we could only be protected by our domestic force. He then urged the incapacity of the State to defend itself, from the detached situations of its ports, remarking particularly upon that of Staten-Island and Long-Island, their vicinity to States which in case of a disunion, must be considered as independent, and perhaps unfriendly powers.3
He turned the attention of the committee to the North-East, where he shewed Vermont ready to avail itself of our weakness; speaking of the people of that State, as a brave and hardy body of men, that we had neither the spirit to subdue, or what he more strongly recommended, the magnanimity to yield to. On the North-West he pointed to the British posts and hostile tribes of savages. He shewed that in case of domestic war, Hudson River, that great source of our wealth, would also be that of our weakness, by the intersection of the State, and the difficulty we should find in bringing one part to support the other.
He then ran over the alliances that would be formed in case of a disunion; pointed out the connection between the Eastern States, and urged various reasons to shew that it was neither the interest nor wish of the States on the East or West to form a league offensive and defensive with us. Having dwelt largely on this subject, he deduced as a consequence from it, that our wealth and our weakness equally required the support of a Federal Union. He observed that this could only be found in the existing confederation or in that under consideration; urging that as union could only be founded on the consent of the States, it should be sought where we had reason to expect that consent; that to depart from this would be to investigate as many ideal systems as there were persons who had thought on the subject of government. He observed that in the then state of things, it was problematical at least, whether we could recur to the old confederation, but as many gentlemen thought it possible he would proceed to investigate it. He then went through the confederation and shewed, that the powers intended to be vested in Congress, were very similar to those given by the new government, to wit—to raise troops—possess a common treasure—borrow money—make treaties— appoint civil officers, &c. He observed that as on the one hand the want of these powers would not be objected to in the confederation; so on the other, the possession of them could not be urged as a fault in the new plan.
He asked whether with these powers, it had been able to effect the purposes designed by the Union—whether it had repelled invaders— maintained domestic peace—supported our credit, or extended our commerce: He proved that not one of these objects had been effected by it. He pointed to the British possessions in the limits of this State, held in defiance of the most solemn treaties, and contempt of our government, as proof of its incompetency to defend our rights against foreign powers. How has it happened, said he, that Vermont is at this moment an independent State? How has it happened that new States have been rent from those on the west, that were entitled to the protection of the Union? He asked if any gentlemen would assert, that our national credit was fixed upon a proper basis that our commerce enjoyed the advantages we had a right to expect? If then, said he, experience has shewn that the existing confederation (if I may use the term) has not answered the great ends of the Union, it must either have arisen, from an insufficiency in its powers, or from some defect in the execution of them: If insufficient, more should be added; if not executed, the cause should be enquired into. He shewed that with the addition of a few powers, those it possessed were competent to the purposes of the Union. But that the defect of the system rested in the impossibility of carrying into effect the rights invested in them by the States. He then run through every power intended to be vested in Congress, and shewed that the exercise of them, by the intervention of the State governments, and subject to their pleasure or their different views of the matters recommended to them, would be attended with insuperable difficulties, inconveniencies, and delays, even if they were disposed to carry them into effect. But that, if (which experience had shewn, would often be the case) they should either neglect or refuse to comply with the requisition, no means were pointed out by the confederation to coerce them, but that it was left, as all leagues among nations, to military force. He shewed in a strong point of view, the danger of applying this; and deduced from all those observations that the old confederation was defective in its principle, and impeachable in its execution, as it operated upon States in their political capacity, and not upon individuals; and that it carried with it the seeds of domestic violence, and tended ultimately to its own dissolution. He then appealed to our experience in the late war, to shew the operation of this system, and demonstrated that it must from its construction leave every State to struggle with its own difficulties, and that none would be roused to action but those that were near the seat of war. He alledged that this idea of a Federal Republic, on the ground of a league among independent States, had, in every instance, disappointed the expectations of its advocates. He mentioned its effects in the antient Republics, and took a view of the Union of the Netherlands, and shewed that even when they were struggling for every thing that was dear to them in the contest with Spain, they permitted the burden of the war to be borne in a great measure by the province of Holland, which was at one time compelled to attempt to force a neighbouring province by arms to a compliance with their Federal engagements. He cited the Germanic league, as a proof, that no government formed on the basis of the total independency of its parts, could produce the effects of union. He shewed that notwithstanding the power of their Federal head from his hereditary dominions, the decrees of their general diet were little regarded, and different members of the confederacy were perpetually rushing upon each others swords.
He then observed upon the necessity of adding to the powers of Congress, that of regulating the militia—referring to the article in the proposed plan, which he said he would not anticipate.
He urged the common consent of America as a proof of the necessity of adding the power of regulating commerce to those Congress already possessed, which he said not only included those of forming laws, but of deciding upon those laws and carrying them into effect: That this power could never be trusted to the individual States, whose interest might in many instances clash with that of the Union.4
From hence he inferred the necessity of a federal judiciary, to which he would have referred not only the laws for regulating commerce, but the construction of treaties and other great national objects, shewing that without this, it would be in the power of any State to commit the honor of the Union, defeat their most beneficial treaties, and involve them in a war.5
He next adverted to the form of the Federal government—He said that though justified when considered as a mere diplomatic body, making engagements for its respective States which they were to carry into effect, yet if it was to enjoy legislative, judicial, and executive powers, an attention as well to the facility of doing business as to the principles of freedom, called for a division of those powers.—After commenting on each of them, and shewing the mischief that would flow from their union in one house of representatives, and those too chosen only by the legislature, and neither representing the people
or the government
, which he said consisted of legislative, executive, and judicial, he proposed the constitution of this State as the model for the state [i.e., general] government.
From these observations he deduced, first, that the powers which were, by common consent, intended to be vested in the federal head, had either been found deficient, or rendered useless by the impossibility of carrying them into execution, on the principle of a league of States totally separate and independent. Secondly, that if the principle
was changed, a change would also become necessary in the form of the government: But if we could no longer retain the old principle of the confederacy, and were compelled to change its form, we were driven to the necessity of creating a new constitution, and could find no place to rest upon in the old confederation—That he had urged these considerations to fix gentlemen's attention to the only true ground of enquiry; to keep them from reverting to plans which had no single feature that could now be serviceable, and to lead the way to a minute discussion of every article, with candor and deliberation; and in order that this might be the better effected, and no gentleman pledged before he had fully considered the subject, he intended before he sat down, to move the resolution he had in his hand: He considered the question as one that not only effected the happiness and perhaps the existence of this State, but as one that involved the great interests of humanity—
Many of us, Sir, said he, are officers of government, many of us have seats in the Senate and Assembly—let us on this solemn occasion forget the pride of office— let us consider ourselves as simple citizens assembled to consult on measures that are to promote the happiness of our fellow citizens. As magistrates we may be unwilling to sacrifice any portion of the power of the State—as citizens, we have no interest in advancing the powers of the State at the expence of the Union: We are only bound to see that so much power as we find it necessary to entrust to our rulers, be so placed as to ensure our liberties and the blessings of a well ordered government.6
He then offered a resolution, the purport of which was, "That no question, general or particular, should be put in the committee upon the proposed Constitution of Government for the United States, or upon any clause or article thereof, (nor upon any amendment which should be proposed thereto,) until after the said Constitution and amendments should have been considered clause by clause(, through all its parts; and that any amendments which may be proposed shall be submitted to the consideration of the Committee without a question being taken thereon)."
The said resolution being taken into consideration, was agreed to by the Convention.
The Committee then rose, and the Convention adjourned till next day, 10 o'clock A. M.