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title:“James Madison in the House of Representatives”
authors:James Madison
date written:1796-4-6

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

James Madison in the House of Representatives (April 6, 1796)

April 6, 1796.
He proceeded to review the several topics on which the Message relied. First. The intention of the body which framed the Constitution. . . .
1. When the members on the floor, who were members of the General Convention, particularly a member from Georgia and himself, were called on in a former debate for the sense of that body on the Constitutional question, it was a matter of some surprise, which was much increased by the peculiar stress laid on the information expected. He acknowledged his surprise, also, at seeing the Message of the Executive appealing to the same proceedings in the General Convention, as a clue to the meaning of the Constitution.
It had been his purpose, during the late debate, to make some observations on what had fallen from the gentlemen from Connecticut and Maryland, if the sudden termination of the debate had not cut him off from the opportunity. He should have reminded them that this was the ninth year since the Convention executed their trust, and that he had not a single note in this place to assist his memory. He should have remarked, that neither himself nor the other members who had belonged to the Federal Convention, could be under any particular obligation to rise in answer to a few gentlemen, with information, not merely of their own ideas of that period, but of the intention of the whole body; many members of which, too, had probably never entered into the discussions of the subject. He might have further remarked, that there would not be much delicacy in the undertaking, as it appeared that a sense had been put on the Constitution by some who were members of the Convention, different from that which must have been entertained by others, who had concurred in ratifying the Treaty. . . .
It would have been proper for him, also, to have recollected what had, on a former occasion, happened to himself during a debate in the House of Representatives. When the bill for establishing a National Bank was under Consideration, he had opposed it, as not warranted by the Constitution, and incidentally remarked, that his impression might be stronger, as he remembered that, in the Convention, a motion was made and negatived, for giving Congress a power to grant charters of incorporation. This slight reference to the Convention, he said, was animadverted on by several, in the course of the debate, and particularly by a gentleman from Massachusetts, who had himself been a member of the Convention, and whose remarks were not unworthy the attention of the Committee. Here Mr. M. read a paragraph from Mr. Gerry's speech, from the Gazette of the United States, page 814, protesting, in strong terms, against arguments drawn from that source.1
Mr. M. said, he did not believe a single instance could be cited in which the sense of the Convention had been required or admitted as material in any Constitutional question. In the case of the Bank, the Committee had seen how a glance at that authority had been treated in this House. When the question on the suability of the States was depending in the Supreme Court, he asked, whether it had ever been understood that the members of the Bench, who had been members of the Convention, were called on for the meaning of the Convention on that very important point, although no Constitutional question would be presumed more susceptible of elucidation from that source?
He then adverted to that part of the Message which contained an extract from the Journal of the Convention, showing that a proposition 'that no Treaty should be binding on the United States, which was not ratified by law,' was explicitly rejected. He allowed this to be much more precise than any evidence drawn from the debates in the Convention, or resting on the memory of individuals. But admitting the case to be as stated, of which he had no doubt, although he had no recollection of it, and admitting the record of the Convention to be the oracle that ought to decide the true meaning of the Constitution, what did this abstract vote amount to? Did it condemn the doctrine of the majority? So far from it, that, as he understood their doctrine, they must have voted as the Convention did; for they do not contend that no Treaty shall be operative without a law to sanction it; on the contrary, they admit that some Treaties will operate without this sanction; and that it is no further applicable in any case than where Legislative objects are embraced by Treaties. The term 'ratify' also deserved some attention; for, although of loose signification in general, it had a technical meaning different from the agency claimed by the House on the subject of Treaties.2
But, after all, whatever veneration might be entertained for the body of men who formed our Constitution, the sense of that body could never be regarded as the oracular guide in expounding the Constitution. As the instrument came from them it was nothing more than the draft of a plan, nothing but a dead letter, until life and validity were breathed into it by the voice of the people, speaking through the several State Conventions. If we were to look, therefore, for the meaning of the instrument beyond the face of the instrument, we must look for it, not in the General Convention, which proposed, but in the State Conventions, which accepted and ratified the Constitution.
. . . He should limit himself, therefore, to two observations. The first was, that if the spirit of amity and mutual concession from which the Constitution resulted was to be consulted on expounding it, that construction ought to be favored which would preserve the mutual control between the Senate and House of Representatives, rather than that which gave powers to the Senate not controllable by, and paramount over those of the House of Representatives, whilst the House of Representatives could in no instance exercise their powers without the participation and control of the Senate. The second observation was, that, whatever jealousy might unhappily have prevailed between the smaller and larger States, as they had most weight in one or the other branch of Government, it was a fact, for which he appealed to the Journals of the old Congress, from its birth to its dissolution, and to those of the Congress under the present Government, that in no instance would it appear, from the yeas and nays, that a question had been decided by a division of the votes according to the size of the States. He considered this truth as affording the most pleasing and consoling reflection, and as one that ought to have the most conciliating and happy influence on the temper of all the States.1
[Footnotes as included or written by Farrand]
  • 1 See CCLVII—CCLVIII above.
  • 2 See CCLXXIV above.
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