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

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last updated:Jan. 22, 2013, 8:21 a.m. UTC
retrieved:March 1, 2024, 11:43 a.m. UTC

"Newspaper Report of 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. 1200-06. Print.
Massachusetts Archives

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

Convention Debates, 15 January, P. M.
Dr. TAYLOR, opened the conversation of the afternoon, by calling upon Gen. Thompson to proceed.
Gen. THOMPSON, accordingly said, that however just, however good, and however upright the administration may be, there was still a great necessity for annual elections.
He thought a change of elections was for the best, even if the administration pleased the people.—Do the members of Congress, says he, displease us, we call them home, and they obey, now where is the difference of their having been elected for one or two years?— It is said that the members cannot learn sufficiently in that time—Sir, I hope we shall never send men who are not learned.—Let these members know their dependence upon the people, and I say it will be a check on them, even if they were not good men: here the General broke out in the following pathetick apostrophe: "O! my country, never give up your annual elections, young men never give up your jewel!" He apologized for his zeal. He then drew a comparison between the judges, &c. of this country before the revolution, who were dependent on Great-Britain for their salaries, and those representatives dependent on the continent; he concluded by hoping that these representatives would be annually elected, and thereby feel a greater dependence on the people.1
Mr. GORE. It has been observed, that in considering this great and momentous question, we ought to consult the sentiments of wise men, who have written on the subject of government, and thereby regulate our decision on this business, A passage is adduced from Montesquieu, stating, That where the people delegate great power, it ought to be compensated for by the shortness of the duration. Thought strictly agreeing with the author, I do not see that it applies to the subject under consideration. This might be perfectly applicable to the ancient governments, where they had no idea of representation, or different checks in the legislature or administration of government; but in the proposed Constitution, the powers of the whole government are limited to certain national objects, and are accurately defined; the House of Representatives is but one branch of the system, and can do nothing of itself;2 Montesquieu, in the sentiment alluded to, must have had in his mind the Epistates of Athens, or the Dictators of Rome, but certainly observations drawn from such sources can have no weight in considering things so essentially different: again, sir, gentlemen have said, that annual elections were necessary to the preservation of liberty, and that in proportion as the people of different nations have lengthened, beyond the term of a year the duration of their representatives, they have lost their liberties, and that all writers have agreed in this. I may mistake, but I know no such thing as a representation of the people in any of the ancient republicks; in England, from whence we receive many of our ideas on this subject, King John covenanted with his people to summons certain classes of men to Parliament- by the Constitution of that country, the King alone can convoke, and he alone, previous to the revolution, could dissolve the Parliament- but in the reign of William III. the patriots obtained an act limitting the duration of Parliaments to three years- soon after, a Parliament then sitting and near expiring, a rebellion broke out, and the tories and Jacobites were gaining strength to support the pretender's claim to the crown:-Had they dissolved themselves, and a new Parliament been convoked, probably many of the very opponents to the government might havebeen elected. In that case they might have effected by law, what they, in vain, attempted by arms.
The Parliament, therefore, extended their duration from triennial to septennial; this was acquiesced in by the people, and the next Parliament sanctified the act; no evil, but great good, has been supposed to follow from their duration being thus extended; and if Montesquieu, and Doctor Adams think the British Constitution so perfect, how much greater must be our security, when we reflect that our representation is equal; that the powers of the government are so limited, and the checks so nicely appointed. If there be a representation of the people in any other countries, and annual elections therein have been considered as the basis of their freedom, I pray gentlemen to mention the instances; I confess I know none.3 People adopt a position which is certainly true, viz. that elections ought to be frequent; but then, as we have been in the custom of chusing our representatives annually, we have determined annually to be frequent, and that biennially, or any longer term than annual, is not frequent:- But if gentlemen will only consider the objects over which this government is to have rule and authority- and the immense and wide extended tracts of country over which the representatives are to pass before they reach the seat of government, I think they will be convinced that two years is a short time for the representatives to hold their office; further, sir, we must consider this subject with respect to the general structure of the Constitution. The Senate represents the sovereignty the States- the House of Representatives, the people of the United States: The former have a longer term in their office, it is then necessary that that body which represents the people should have a permanence in their office, to resist any operations of the Senate which might be injurious to the people, if they were annual I submit it to the good sense of this house whether they would be able to preserve that weight in the system, which the Constitution intended they should have, and which is absolutely necessary for the security of the rights of the people.
The Hon. Mr KING said, he would not detain the Convention by any exordium, for the purpose of obtaining their attention. He declared, however, that he thought the subject might be freed from certain prejudices connected with its examination, and that thereby the question might receive a fairer decision- this should be the object of his address. The Hon. Gentleman observed, that the Convention would do well to lay aside the terms annual or biennial, and consider the subject as it could be supported by principles- Much had been said of the instruction to be derived from history on this point; he said, he presumed to doubt whether this was the case.- From the continent of Europe he believed, that we could receive no instruction; their Parliaments after the overthrow of the Roman empire, were not constructed upon the principle of a representation of the people. The conqueror of a given district of country was, by the feudal system, the prince or king of the people within his conquered territories; when he wished the advice of any persons, he summoned usually a number of his principal officers, or the barons of his kingdom, to give him their council; but the people, or as they were degradingly called, the vassals, were never consulted- this certainly cannot be considered as a representation of the people:4 This mode of assembling Parliament probably obtained in the early stages of the English history; but those who have written on this subject agree that their information is very imperfect relative to the origin of English Parliaments; they are not certain, who composed the Parliament, how long they held their office, or concerning what points they were consulted.
Nothing clear on this subject appears before the 12th century. Magna Charta is the foundation of the imperfect representation of England; improvements have since been made in favour of the more equal and certain representation of the people; but it is still extremely imperfect and insecure. Perhaps the people of America are the first, who by the social compact, ever obtained a right to a full and fair representation, in making the laws of their country.
If then, continued Mr. K. history can afford little or no instruction on this subject, the Convention must determine the question upon its own principles- It seems proper, that the representatives should be in office time enough to acquire that information which is necessary to form a right judgement; but that the time should not be so long as to remove from his mind the powerful check upon his conduct, that arises from the frequency of elections, whereby the people are enabled to remove an unfaithful representative, or to continue a faithful one. If the question is examined by this standard, perhaps it will appear, that an election for two years is short enough for a representative in Congress; if one year is necessary for a representative to be useful in the State legislature, where the objects of his deliberations are local, and within his constant observation; two years does not appear too long, where the objects of deliberation are not confined to one state, but extend to thirteen States- where the complicated interests of united America, are mingled with those of foreign nations, and where the great duties of national sovereignty will require his constant attention.
When the representatives of the colony of Massachusetts were first chosen, the country was not settled more than fifteen or twenty miles from Boston, they then held their offices of one year The emigran6ts from Massachusetts, who settled on Connecticut River, appointed the representatives to meet in the General Court of that colony, for only six months- Massachusetts, although her settlements have extended over almost her whole territory, have continued to depute representatives for only one year, and Connecticut for only six months; but as in each of these colonies, when under the British government, the duties of the representatives were merely local, the great duties of sovereignty being vested in their king, so since the revolution their duties have continued local, and many of the authorities of sovereignty being vested in Congress. It is now proposed to increase the powers of Congress- this will increase the duties of the representatives, and they must have a reasonable time to obtain the information necessary to a right discharge of their office.
It has been said, that our ancestors never relinquished the idea of annual elections- This is an errour- In 1643, the colonies of Plymouth, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New-Haven, united in a confederacy which continued about 40 years: Each colony sent two commissioners as their representatives, and by the articles they were to be annually elected: About the year 1650, the General Court of Massachusetts instructed their commissioners to propose that the elections, instead of being annual, should be only once in three years. The alteration did not take place, but the anecdote proves, that our ancestors have not had an uniform predilection for annual elections.
Mr. K. concluded by observing, that on a candid examination of this question, he presumed, that the Constitution would not be objected to on account of the biennial election of the house representatives7
Judge DANA. Mr President- The feeble state of my health will not permit me to enter so largely into the deb8ates of this house, as I should otherwise be inclined to do. The intention of my rising, at present, is to express my perfect acquiescence in the sentiments advanced by the hon. gentleman from Newbury-port, in favour of the expediency of biennial elections of our federal representatives. From my own experience, I think them preferable to annual elections. I have, sir, seen gentlemen in Congress, and delegates from this state too, sitting in that hon. body without a voice- without power to open their mouths, or lift up their hands, when matters of the highest importance to their State have been under consideration. I have seen members in Congress, for the space of three months, without power, sir, waiting for evidence of their re-election. Besides, sir, that the more frequent elections are, the oftener States will be exposed to be deprived of their voice and influence in the National Councils, I think annual elections are too short for so extensive an empire. They keep the members always travelling about; and I am of opinion, that elections for two years are in no way subversive of the liberties of the people. I, sir, am one of the people, thank God! and am happy in having an opportunity expressing my personal satisfaction of such elections. For these, and a variety of other reasons, Mr. D. suggested that he thought this State ought to be the first to adopt this method of election.
The Hon. Mr WHITE still thought, that Congress might perpetuate themselves, and so reign emperours over us.9
Hon. Mr. GORHAM observed (in continuation of Mr Dana's observation) that there was not now a Congress, although the time of their meeting had considerably elapsed. Rhode-Island, Connecticut, and several other States, had not gone on; that there was now only five States in Congress, when there ought to have been thirteen two months ago.
Mr. CARNES rose to confirm it, and accordingly read part of a letter from the Hon. Mr. OTIS, the purport of which was, that there was much business to do- that only five States were represented, and that the probability of an Indian war, &c. evinced the great necessity of theestablishment of an efficient federal government, which will be the result of the adoption of the proposed Constitution.
Dr. TAYLOR rose to answer two objections which had been made against annual elections: The distance of place was not so great but the delegates might reach Philadelphia in a fortnight; and as they were answerable to the people for their conduct, he thought it would prevent a vacancy; and concluded by saying he did not conceive the arguments in favour of biennial elections well founded.
A letter from the Hon. Elbridge Gerry Esq. informing that he would attend the Convention, agreeably to their vote of yesterday, was received and read.
On motion of Mr Nason, ordered, That a committee be appointed to provide a more convenient place for the Convention to sit in.