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title:“Newspaper Report of Massachusetts Ratification Convention Debates”
date written:1788-1-17

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last updated:Jan. 22, 2013, 8:27 a.m. UTC
retrieved:Oct. 2, 2023, 1:07 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. 1224-30. Print.

Newspaper Report of Massachusetts Ratification Convention Debates (January 17, 1788)

The 4th section still under deliberation.
Hon. Mr. TURNER. Mr President, I am pleased with the ingenuity, of some gentlemen in defence of this section. I am so impressed with the love of our liberty so dearly bought, that I heartily acquiesce in compulsory laws, for the people ought to be obliged to attend to their interest. But I do not wish to give Congress a power which they can abuse; and, I wish to know whether such a power is not contained in this section? I think it is. I now proceed, sir, to the consideration of an idea, that Congress may alter the place for chusing representatives in the general Congress- they may order that it may be at the extremity of a state, and by their influence, may there prevail that persons maybe chosen, who otherwise would not; by reason that a part of the qualified voters in part of the state, would be so incommoded thereby, as to be debarred from their right as much as if they were bound at home. If so, such a circumstance would militate against the constitution, which allows every man to vote. Altering the place will put it so far in the power of Congress, as that the representatives chosen will not be the true and genuine representatives of the people, but creatures of the Congress; and so far as they are so, so far are the people deprived of their rights, and the choice will be made in an irregular and unconstitutional manner. When this alteration is made by Congress- may not suppose whose re-election will be provided for? Would it not be for those who were chosen before? The great law of self preservation will prevail. It is true, they might, one time in an hundred, provide for a friend, but most commonly for themselves. But, however honourable the convention may be who proposed this article, I think it is a genuine power for Congress to perpetuate themselves- a power that cannot be unexceptionably exercised in any case whatever:- Knowing the numerous arts, that designing men are prone to, to secure their election, and perpetuate themselves, it is my hearty wish that a rotation may be provided for.1 I respect and revere the convention who proposed this constitution. In order that the power given to Congress may be more palatable, some gentlemen are pleased to hold up the idea, that we may be blessed with sober, solid, upright men in Congress. I wish that we may be favoured with such rulers; but I fear they will not all, if most be the best moral or political characters. It gives me pain, and I believe it gives pain to others, thus to characterize the country in which I was born. I will endeavour to guard against any injurious reflections against my fellow citizens. But they must have their true characters, and if I represent them wrong, I am willing to make concessions. I think that the operation of paper money, and the practice of privateering, have produced gradual decay morals- introduced pride- ambition- envy- lust of power- produced decay of patriotism, and the love of commutative justice; and I am apprehensive these are the invariable concommitants of the luxury in which we are unblessedly involved, almost to our total destruction. In the lower ranks of people, luxury and avarice operate to the want of publick duty and the payment of debts. These demonstrate the necessity of an energetick government: As people become more luxurious, they become more incapacitated governing themselves. And are we not so? A like people, a like prince: But suppose it should so happen, that the administrators of this constitution should be preferable to the corrupt mass of the people, in point of manners, morals, and rectitude; power will give a keen edge to the principles I have mentioned. Ought we not, then, to put all checks and controuls on governours for the publick safety: therefore, instead of giving Congress powers they may not abuse; we ought to withhold our hands from granting such, as must be abused exercised. This is a general observation. But to the point: at the time of the restoration, the people of England were so vexed, harassed and worn down, by the anarchical and confused state of the nation, owing to the commonwealth not being well digested, that they took an opposite career; they run mad with loyalty, and would have given Charles any thing he could have asked- Pardon me, sir, if I say I feel the want of an energetick government, and the dangers to which this dear country is reduced, as much as any citizen of the United States; but I cannot prevail on myself to adopt a government, which wears the face of power without examining it. Relinquishing an hair's breadth in a constitution is a great deal; for by small degrees has liberty in all nations, been wrested from the hands of the people. I know great powers are necessary to be given to Congress, but I wish they may be well guarded.
Judge SUMNER, remarking on Gen. Thompson's frequent exclamation of "O! my country!" expressed from an apprehension that the Constitution would be adopted, said, that expression might be used with greater propriety, should this Convention reject it. The Hon. Gentle- man then proceeded to demonstrate the necessity of the 4th sect.- the absurdity of the supposition, that Congress would remove the places of election to remote parts of the States;- combated the idea, that Congress would, when chosen, act as bad as possible- and concluded by asking, if a war should take place, (and it was supposable) if France and Holland should send an army to collect the millions of livres they have lent us in the time of our distresses, and that army should be in possession of the seat of government of any particular State, (as was the case when Lord Cornwallis ravaged Carolina) and the state legislature could not appoint the elections, is not a power to provide for such elections necessary to be lodged in the general Congress?2
Mr. WIDGERY denied the statement of Dr. Jarvis (that every 30,000 persons can elect one representative) to be just, as the Constitution provides, that the number shall not exceed one to every 30,000- it did not follow, he thought that the 30,000 shall elect one.3 But admitting that they have a right to chuse one- we will suppose Congress should order an election to be in Boston in January, and from the s4carcity of money, &c. not a fourth part could attend- would not three quarters of the people be deprived of their right?
Rev. Mr WEST. I rise to express my astonishment at the arguments of some gentlemen against this section!- They have only started possible objections I wish the gentlemen would shew us, that what they so much deprecate is probable. Is it probable that we shall choose men to ruin us? Are we to object to all governments; and because power may be abused, shall we be reduced to anarchy and a state of nature?5
What hinders our state legislature from abusing their power? They may violate the Constitution- they may levy taxes oppressive and intolerable, to the amount of all our property. An argument which proves too much, it is said, proves nothing. Some say, Congress may remove the place of elections to the State of South-Carolina; this is inconsistent with the words of the Constitution, which says, "that the elections shall be prescribed in each State by the legislature thereof,"6 &c and that representation shall be apportioned according to numbers; it will frustrate the end of the Constitution- and is a reflection on the gentlemen who formed it: Can we, sir, suppose them so wicked, so vile, as to recommend an article so dangerous: Surely gentlemen who argue these possibilities, shew they have a very weak cause. That we may all be free from passions, prepossessions and party spirit, I sincerely hope, otherwise reason will have no effect. I hope there are none here but who are open to conviction, as it is the sured method to gain the suffrage of our consciences. The Hon. Gentleman from Scituate has told us, that the people of England, at the restoration, on account of the inconveniencies of the confused state of the Commonwealth, run mad with loyalty. If the gentleman means to apply this to us, we ought to adopt this Constitution- for if the people are running mad after an energetick government, it is best to stop now, as by his rule they may run further and get a worse one; therefore the gentleman's arguments turn right against himself. Is it possible that imperfect man can make a perfect Constitution. Is it possible that a frame of government can be devised by such weak and frail creatures, but what must savour of that weakness? Though there are some things that I do not like in this Constitution, yet I think it necessary that it should be adopted. For may we not rationally conclude, that the persons we shall chuse to administer it, will be in general good men?
Gen. THOMPSON. Mr President, I have frequently heard of the abilities and fame of the learned and reverend gentleman last speaking, and now I am witness to them: But, sir, one thing surprizes me- it is, to hear the worthy gentleman insinuate that our federal rulers will undoubtedly be good men, and that therefore, we have little to fear from their being intrusted with all power- This, sir, is quite contrary to the common language of the clergy, who are continually representing mankind as reprobate and deceitful, and that we really grow worse and worse day after day. I really believe we do, sir, and I make no doubt to prove it before I sit down, from the old testament. When I consider the man that slew the lion and the bear, and that he was a man after God's own heart; when I consider his son, blest with all wisdom- and the errors they fell into, I extremely doubt the infallibility of human nature. Sir, I suspect my own heart, and I shall suspect our rulers.
Dr. HOLTEN thought this paragraph necessary to a complete system of government. (But the Hon. gentleman spoke so low that we could not hear him distinctly throughout.)
Capt. SNOW. It has been said, Mr President, that there is too much power delegated to Congress, by the section under consideration- I doubt it; I think power the hinge on which the whole Constitution turns. Gentlemen have talked about Congress moving the place of elections from Georgia to the Mohawk river, but I never can believe it. I will venture to conjecture we shall have some honest men in our Congress.7 We read that there were two who brought a good report Caleb and Joshua- Now, if there are but two in Congress who are honest men, and Congress should attempt to do what the gentlemen say they will, (which will be high treason) they will bring a report of it- and I stand ready to leave my wife and family- sling my knapsack- travel westward- to cut their heads off. I, sir, since the war, have had commerce with six different nations of the globe, and I have enquired in what estimation America is held- and if I may believe good, honest, credible men, I find this country held in the same light by foreign nations, as a well behaved negro is, in a gentleman's family. Suppose, Mr. President, I had a chance to make a good voyage, but I tie my Captain up to such strict orders, that he can go to no other island to sell my vessel, although there is a certainty of his doing well: the consequence is, he returns, but makes a bad voyage, because he had not power enough to act his judgment: (for honest men do right:) Thus, sir, Congress cannot save us from destruction, because we tie their hands and give them no power; (I think people have lost their privileges by not improving them) and I like this power being vested in Congress as well as any paragraph in the Constitution: for as the man is accountable for his conduct, I think there is no danger. Now, Mr. President, to take all things into consideration, something more must be said, to convince me to the contrary
(Several other gentlemen went largely into the debate on the 4th section, which those in favour of it demonstrated to be necessary: first, as it may be used to correct a negligence in elections: secondly, as it will prevent the dissolution of the government by designing and refractory states: thirdly, as it will operate as a check, in favour of the people, against any designs of the federal senate, and their constituents, the state legislatures, to deprive the people of their right of election; and fourthly, as it provides a remedy for the evil, should any state, by invasion, or other cause, not have it in its power to appoint a place, where the citizens thereof may meet to chuse their federal representatives. Those against it urged, that the power is unlimitted and unnecessary.)
The committee appointed to provide a more suitable place for the Convention to sit in, reported that the meeting house in Long-Lane, in Boston, was prepared for that purpose: Whereupon, Voted, That when this Convention adjourn they will adjourn to that place.

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