Log In Register

Source & Citation Info

title:“Newspaper Report of the Massachusetts Ratification Convention,”
date written:1788-2-1

permanent link
to this version:
last updated:Jan. 22, 2013, 8:17 a.m. UTC
retrieved:Sept. 30, 2023, 2:45 a.m. UTC

"Newspaper Report of the Massachusetts Ratification Convention,." 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. 1390-1402. Print.

Newspaper Report of the Massachusetts Ratification Convention, (February 1, 1788)

Mr BOWDOIN, (of Dorchester) observed, that he could not but express his hearty approbation of the propositions made by his Excellency as they would have a tendency to relieve The fears, and quiet the apprehensions of some very respectable, and worthy gentlemen, who had expressed their doubts, whether some explanation of certain clauses in the Constitution, and some additional restrictions upon Congress, similar to those proposed by his Excellency were not necessary But, he said, as the propositions were incorporated with the great, and important question-Whether this Convention will adopt, and ratify the Constitution; he conceived himself in order and would, with the permission of the Convention, make a few general observations upon the subject; which were as follow:
It was an answer of Solon's, when he was asked what kind of a Constitution he had constructed for the Athenians; that he had prepared as good a Constitution of government as the people would bear: Clearly intimating that a Constitution of government, should be relative to the habits, manners, and genius of the people, intended to be governed by it. As the particular State governments, are relative to the manners, and genius of the inhabitants of each State; so ought the general government, to be an assemblage of the principles of all the governments-for without this assemblage of the principles, the general government will not sufficiently apply to the genius of the people confederated; and therefore by its meeting, in its operation, with a continual opposition, through this circumstance it must necessarily fail in its execution: Because agreeably to the idea of Solon, the people would not bear it.
It may not, therefore, be improper to examine whether The federal Constitution proposed, has a likeness to the different State Constitutions, and such alone, as to give the spirit, and features of the particular governments. For Baron Montesquieu observes, That all governments ought to be relative to their particular principles and that "a confederate government ought to be composed of States of the same nature, especially of the republican kind;" and instances, that as "the spirit of monarchy is war and enlargement of dominion; Peace, and moderation, the spirit of a republick; these two kinds of governments, cannot naturally subsist in a confederate republick."
From hence it follows, that all the governments] of the States in the union, ought to be of the same nature, of the republican kind, and "that the general government ought to be an assemblage of the spirit, and principles of them all. A short comparison, pointing out the likeness of the general, to the particular Constitutions, may sufficiently elucidate the subject.
All the Constitutions of the States, consist of three branches, except as to the legislative powers, which are chiefly vested in two; the powers of government, are separated in all, and mutually check each other. These are laid down, as fundamental principles, in The federal Constitution. All power is derived either mediately or immediately from the people in all the Constitutions; this is the case with The federal Constitution. The electors of representatives to the State governments, are electors of representatives to The federal government:1 The representatives are chosen for two years, so are the representatives to the assemblies of some of the States2 The equality of representation is determined in nearly all the States, by numbers, so it is in The federal Constitution3
The second branch of legislature, in some of the States, is similar to The federal senate, having not only legislative, but executive powers: Being a legislating, and at the same time, an advising body to the executive. Such are the assistants of Rhode-Island, and Connecticut, and the councils of New Jersey and Georgia. The senators of Virginia and New-York, are chosen for four years, and so elected, that a continual rotation is established, by which one quarter of their respective senates, is annually elected; and by which, (as one of the Constitutions observes) there are more men trained to publick business, and there will always be found a number of persons, acquainted with the proceedings of The foregoing years, and thereby the publick business be more consistently conducted.
The federal senators are to be chosen for six years, and there is a rotation so established, for the reasons above mentioned, that one third of the senate is to be chosen every two years.
The President, and Vice President, answer to offices of the same name in some of the States; and to the office of Governour and Lieutenant Governour in most of the States. As this office is of the utmost importance, the manner of choosing, for the better security of the interests of the union, is to be by delegates, to be expressly chosen for the purpose, in such manner as the different legislatures may direct: This method of chusing, was probably taken from the manner of choosing senators, under the Constitution of Maryland.
The legislative powers of the President, are precisely those of the Governours of this State and of New-York; rather negative, than positive powers; given with a view to secure the independence of the executive, and to preserve a uniformity in the laws, which are committed to them, to execute.
The executive powers of the President, are very similar to those of the several States, except in those points, which relate more particularly to the union; and respect ambassadours, publick ministers, and consuls.
If the genius of the people of the States, as expressed by their different Constitutions of government-if the similarity of each, and the general spirit of all the governments, concur to point out the policy of a confederate government; by comparing The federal Constitution with those of the several States, can we expect one more applicable to the people, to the different States, and to the purposes of the union, than the one proposed? Unless it should be contended that a union was unnecessary
"If a republick is small,["] says Baron Montesquieu, ["]it is destroyed by a foreign force-if it is large, it is ruined by an internal imperfection "Fato Potentice sua vi nix&." and if mankind had not contrived confederate republick, says the same author "a Constitution, that has all the internal advantages of a republican, and the external force of a monarchical government," they would probably have always lived under the tyranny of a single person. Admitting this principle of Baron Montesquieu's, the several States are either too small to be defended against a foreign enemy or too large, for republican constitutions of government. If we apply The first position to the different States, which reason, and the experience of the late war point out to be true, a confederate government is necessary. But if we admit the latter position, then the several governments, being in their own nature imperfect, will be necessarily destroyed, from their being too extensive for republican governments.
From whence it follows, if The foregoing principles are true, that we ought to adopt a confederation, presuming the different States well calculated for republican governments: For if they are not, their corruption will work their destruction separately and if they are destined for destruction, from their natural imperfection, it will certainly be more advantageous to have them destroyed collectively than separately as in that case, we should fall under one, great, national government.
But if the advantages of a confederacy admitting the principles of it to be good, are duly considered:-That it will give security and permanency to the several States, not only against foreign invasion, but against internal disputes wars with one anotheri6f the wars in Europe, arising from jarring, and opposing interests, are a publick calamity-If it is for the benefit of ourselves, and future generations, to prevent its horrid devastations on this continent; To secure the States against such calamities, it will be necessary to establish general government, to adjust the disputes, and to settle the differences between: State and State-For without a confederacy the several States, being distinct sovereignties, would be in a state of nature, with respect to each[ other; and the law of nature, which is the right of the strongest, would determine the disputes that might arise. To prevent the operation of so unjust a title; to afford protection to the weakest State, against the strongest, to secure the rights of all, against the encroachments of any of the States; to balance the powers of all the States, by each giving up a portion of its sovereignty and thereby better to secure the remainder of it, are amongst the main objects of a confederacy.
But the advantages of a union of the States, are not confined to mere safety from within, or from without.
They extend not only to the welfare of each State, but even to the interest of each individual of the States. The manner in which the States have suffered for the want of a general regulation of trade, is so notorious, that little need be said upon the subject, to prove that the continent has been exhausted of its wealth, for the want of it; and if the evil from the not regulating it, is not speedily remedied, by placing the necessary powers in the hands of Congress, the liberties of the people, or the independence of the States, will be irretrievably lost. The people feeling the inconvenience of systems of government, that instead of relieving, increase their perplexities, instead of regulating trade upon proper principles, instead of improving the natural advantages of our own country and opening new sources of wealth, our lands have sunk in their value, our trade has languished, our credit has been daily reducing, and our resources are almost annihilated-Can we expect, in such a State, that the people, will long continue their allegiance to systems of government, whether arising from the weakness of their administration, or the insufficiency of their principles, which entail on them so many calamities? I presume not.-The well being of trade depends on a proper regulation of it; on the success of trade, depends wealth; on wealth, the value of lands; the strength, the welfare and happiness of a country upon the numbers, the ease and independence of its yeomanry For the want of this have our taxes most oppressively fallen upon the most useful of all our citizens, our husbandmen; while trade for the want of its being confined to proper objects, has served rather to ruin, than to enrich those that have carried it on.8
Shall we then let causeless jealousies arise, and distract our Councils shall we let partial views and local prejudices, influence our decisions or shall we with a becoming wisdom, determine to adopt The federal Constitution proposed, and thereby confirm the liberty the safety and the welfare of our country I might go on, sir and point out The fatal consequences of rejecting the Constitution, but as I have already intruded too much upon the time and patience of the Convention, I shall for the present, forbear any further observations, requesting the candour of the Convention, for those I have already made.
Hon. Mr ADAMS. As your Excellency was pleased yesterday to offer for the consideration of this Convention, certain propositions intended to accompany the ratification of the Constitution before us, I did myself the honour to bring them forward by a regular motion, not only from the respect due to your Excellency but from a clear conviction in my own mind that they would tend to effect the salutary and important purposes which you had in view "the removing The fears and quieting the apprehensions of many of the good people of this commonwealth, and the more effectually guarding against an undue administration of The federal government. I beg leave, sir more particularly to consider those propositions, and in a very few words to express my own opinion that they must have a strong tendency to ease the minds of gentlemen who wish for the immediate operation of some essential parts of the proposed Constitution, as well as the most speedy and effectual means of obtaining alterations in some other parts of it, which they are solicitous should be made. I will not repeat the reasons I offered when the motion was made, which convinced me that the measure now under consideration will have a more speedy as well as a more certain influence in effecting the purpose last mentioned, than the measure proposed in the Constitution before us.
Your Excellency's first proposition is, "that it be explicitly declared that all powers not expressly delegated to Congress, are reserved to the several States to be by them exercised." This appears to my mind to be a summary of a bill of rights, which, gentlemen are anxious to obtain; it removes a doubt which many have entertained respecting this matter and gives assurance that if any law made by The federal government shall be extended beyond the power granted by the proposed Constitution, and inconsistent with the Constitution of this State, it will be an errour and adjudged by the courts of law to be void. It is consonant with the second article in the present Confederation, that each State retains its sovereignty freedom and independence, and every power jurisdiction and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States in Congress assembled. I have long considered the watchfulness of the people over the conduct of their rulers, the strongest guard against the encroachments of power: and I hope the people of this country will always be thus watchful. Another of your Excellency's propositions is calculated to quiet the apprehensions of gentlemen, lest Congress should exercise an unreasonable controul over the State legislatives, with regard to the times, places and manner of holding elections, which by the 4th sect. of the 1st art. are to be prescribed in each State by the legislature thereof subject to the controul of Congress. I have had my fears lest this controul should infringe The freedom of elections, which ought ever to be held sacred.
Gentlemen, who have objected to this controuling power in Congress, have expressed their wishes that it had been restricted to such States as may neglect or refuse that power vested in them, and to be exercised by them if they please. Your Excellency proposes in substance the same restriction which, I should think, cannot but meet with their full approbation.
The power to be given to Congress, to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, has alarmed the minds of some gentlemen. They tell you, Sir that the exercise of the power of laying and collecting direct taxes might greatly distress the several States, and render them incapable of raising monies for the payment of their respective State debts, or for any purpose. They say the impost and excise may be made adequate to the publick emergencies in the time of peace, and ask why the laying direct taxes may not be confined to a time of war. You are pleased to propose to us, that it be a recommendation that "Congress do not lay direct taxes but when the monies arising from the impost and excise shall be insufficient for the publick exigencies."-The prospect of approaching war might necessarily create an expence beyond the productions of impost and excise. How then would the government have the necessary means of providing for the publick defence? Must they not have recourse to other resources besides impost and excise? The people while they watch for their own safety must and will have a just confidence in a legislature of their own election. The approach of war is seldom, if ever without observation: It is generally observed by the people at large, and I believe no legislative of a free country would venture a measure which should directly touch the purses of the people, under a mere pretence, or unless they could show to the people's satisfaction, that there had in fact been a real publick exigency to justify it.
Your Excellency's next proposition is to introduce the indictment of the productions of impost and excise. How then would the government have the necessary means of providing for the publick defence? Must they not have recourse to other resources besides impost and excise? The people while they watch for their own safety must and will have a just confidence in a legislature of their own election. The approach of war is seldom, if ever without observation: It is generally observed by the people at large, and I believe no legislative of a free country would venture a measure which should directly touch the purses of the people, under a mere pretence, or unless they could show to the people's satisfaction, that there had in fact been a real publick exigency to justify it.
Your Excellency's next proposition is to introduce the indictment of a grand jury before any person shall be tried for any crime, by which he may incur infamous punishment, or loss of life it is followed by another which recommends a trial by jury in civil actions between citizens of different States, if either of the parties shall request it. These and several others, which I have not mentioned are so evidently beneficial, as to need no comment of mine. and they are all, in every particular of so general a nature, and so equally interesting to every State, that I cannot but persuade myself to think, they would all readily join with us in the measure, proposed by your Excellency if we should now adopt it.10 Gentlemen may make additional propositions, if they think fit; it is presumed that we shall exercise candour towards each other; and that whilst on the one hand, gentlemen will cheerfully agree to any proposition intended to promote a general union, which may not be inconsistent with their own mature judgment; others will avoid the making such as may be needless, or tend to embarrass the minds of the people of this Commonwealth and our sister States, and thereby not only frustrate your Excellency's wise intention, but endanger the loss of that degree of reputation, which, I flatter myself this common- wealth has justly sustained.
Mr NASSON. Mr President-I feel myself happy that your Excellency has been placed by The free suffrages of your fellow-citizens, at the head of this government: I also feel myself happy that your Excellency has been placed in the chair of this Hon. Convention: and I feel a confidence, that the proposition submitted to our consideration yesterday by your Excellency has for its object the good of your country: But, sir as I have not had an opportunity leisurely to consider it, I shall pass it over and take a short view of the Constitution at large, which is under consideration, though my abilities, sir will not permit me to do justice to my feelings-or to my constituents. Great-Britain, sir first attempted to enslave us, by declaring her laws supreme, and that she had a right to bind us in all cases whatever. What, sir roused the Americans to shake off the yoke preparing for them-It was this measure, the power to do which we are now about giving to Congress- and here, sir I beg the indulgence of this hon. body to permit me to make a short apostrophe to Liberty-Oh! Liberty-thou greatest good-thou fairest property! with thee I wish to live-with thee I wish to die! Pardon me if I drop a tear on the peril to which she is exposed: I cannot, sir see this brightest of jewels tarnished! a jewel worth ten thousand worlds! and shall we part with it so soon-Oh, No. Gentlemen ask, can it be supposed, that a Constitution so pregnant with danger could come from the hands of those who framed it? Indeed, sir I am suspicious of my own judgment, when I contemplate this idea when I see the list of illustrious names annexed to it-But, sir my duty to my constituents, obliges me to oppose the measure they recommend, as obnoxious to their liberty and safety.
When, sir we dissolved the political bands which connected us with Great-Britain, we were in a state of nature we then formed and adopted the Confederation, which must be considered as a sacred instrument this confederated under one head, as sovereign and independent States. Now sir if we give Congress power to dissolve that Confederation, to what can we trust? If a nation consent thus to treat their most solemn compacts, who will ever trust them? Let us, sir begin with this Constitution, and see what it is-and first, "We the People of the United States, do," &c. If this, sir does not go to an annihilation of the state governments, and to a perfect consolidation of the whole union, I do not know what does.11 What! shall we consent to this? Can 10, 20, or 100 persons in this State, who have taken the oath of allegiance to it, dispense with this oath. Gentlemen may talk as they please of dispensing in certain cases with oaths; but, sir with me they are sacred things: We are under oath; we have sworn that Massachusetts is a sovereign and independent State18-How then, can we vote for this Constitution, that destroys that sovereignty?
The Hon. Col. VARNUM begged leave to set the worthy gentleman right-The very oath, he said, which the gentleman has mentioned, provides an exception for the power to be granted to Congress.
Well, continued Mr NASSON, to go on-Mr President-Let us consider the Constitution without a Bill of Rights. When I give up any of my natural rights, it is for the security of the rest: But here is not one right secured, although many are neglected.
With respect to biennial elections, the paragraph is rather loosely expressed; I am a little in favour of our ancient custom. Gentlemen say they are convinced that the alteration is necessary: It may be so: When I see better I will join with them. To go on. Representation and taxation to be apportioned according to numbers. This, sir I am opposed to; it is unequal. I will shew an instance in point-We know for certainty that in the town of Brooklyn, persons are better able to pay their taxes, than in the parts I represent: Suppose the tax is laid on polls: Why the people of The former place will pay their tax ten times as easy as the latter-thus helping that part of the community which stands in the least need of help: On this footing the poor pay as much as the rich: and in this a way is laid, that five slaves shall be rated no more than three children. Let gentlemen consider this-a farmer takes three small orphans, on charity to bring up they are bound to him-when they arrive at 21 years of age, he gives each of them a couple suits of clothes, a cow and two or three young cattle we are rated as much for these, as a farmer in Virginia is for five slaves, whom he holds for life they and their posterity the male and the she ones too.12
The senate, Mr President, are to be chosen two from each State. This, sir puts the smaller States on The footing with the larger-when the States have to pay according to their numbers-New-Hampshire does not pay a fourth part as much as Massachusetts. We must, therefore, to support the dignity of the union, pay four times as much as New-Hampshire, and almost fourteen times as much as Georgia-who, we see, are equally represented with us.
The term, sir for which the senate is chosen, is a grievance-it is too long to trust any body of men with power: It is impossible but that such men will be tenacious of their places; they are to be raised to a lofty eminence, and they will be loath to come down; and in the course of six years, may by management, have it in their power to create officers, and obtain influence enough, to get in again, and so for life.- When we felt the hand of British oppression upon us, we were so jealous of rulers, as to declare them elegible but for three yea14rs in six. In this Constitution we forget this principle. I, sir think that rulers ought at short periods, to return to private life, that they may know how to feel for and regard their fellow creatures. In six years, sir and at a great distance, they will quite forget them, "For time and absence cure the purest love" We are apt to forget our friends, except when we are conversing with them.15 We now come, sir to the 4th section. Let us see-the times, places and manners of holding elections, shall be prescribed in each State by the legislature thereof. No objections to this: but, sir after The flash of lightening comes the peal of thunder "but Congress may at any time, alter them, &c."
Here it is, Mr President: this is the article which is to make Congress omnipotent. Gentlemen say this is the greatest beauty of the Constitution-this is the great security for the people-this is the all in all. Such language have I heard in this house: but, sir I say by this power Congress may if they please, order the election of federal representatives for Massachusetts, to be at Great-Barrington, or Machias: and at such a time too, as shall put it in the power of a few artful, and designing men, to get themselves elected at their pleasure.16
The 8th sect. Mr President, provides that Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, excises, &c. We may sir be poor; we may not be able to pay these taxes, &c-we must have a little meal, and a little meat, whereon to live; and save a little for a rainy day: But what follows? Let us see. To raise and support armies. Here, sir comes the key to unlock this cabinet: Here is the mean by which you will be made to pay your taxes? But will ye, my countrymen, submit to this. Suffer me, sir to say a few words on The fatal effects, of standing armies, that bane of republican governments! A standing army! Was it not with this that Caesar passed the Rubicon, and laid prostrate the liberties of his country? By this has seven eighths of the once free nations of the globe, been brought into bondage! Time would fail me, were I to attempt to recapitulate the havock made in the world, by standing armies. Britain attempted to inforce her arbitrary measures, by a standing army.17 But, sir we had patriots then who alarmed us of our danger-who shewed us the serpent, and bid us beware of it. Shall I name them? I fear I shall offend your Excellency? But I cannot avoid it? I must.
Wehadan HANCOCK, an ADAMS, and a WARREN-our sister States too, produced RANDOLPH, a WASHINGTON, a GREENE, and a MONTGOMERY, who lead us in our way-Some of these have given up their lives in defence of the liberties of their country; and my prayer to God is, that when this race of illustrious patriots, shall have bid adieu to the world; that from their dust, as from the sacred ashes of the Phoenix, another race may arise, who shall take our posterity by the hand, and lead them to trample on the necks of those who shall dare to infringe on their liberties-Sir had I a voice like Jove, I would proclaim it throughout the world-and had I an arm like Jove, I would hurl from the globe those villains that would dare attempt to establish in our country a standing army.
I wish, sir that the gentlemen of Boston, would bring to their minds The fatal evening of the 5th of March 1770-when by standing troops they lost five of their fellow towns-men-I will ask them what price can atone for their lives? What money can make satisfaction for the loss? The same causes produce the same effects. An army may be raised on pretence of helping a friend, or many pretences might be used; that night, sir ought to be a sufficient warning against standing armies, except in cases of great emergency-they are too frequently used for no other purpose than dragooning the people into slavery but I beseech you, my countrymen, for the sake of your posterity to act like those worthy men, who have stood forth in defence of the rights of mankind; and shew to the world, that you will not submit to tyranny. What occasion have we for standing armies? We fear no foe-If one should come upon us, we have a militia, which is our bulwark.18 Let Lexington witness that we have the means of defence among ourselves. If during the last winter there was not much alacrity shewn by the militia, in turning out, we must consider that they were going to fight their countrymen. Do you, sir suppose, that had a British army invaded us at that time, that such supineness would have been discovered.
No, sir to our enemies dismay and discomfort, they would have felt the contrary: But against deluded, infatuated men they did not wish to exert their valour or their strength. Therefore, sir I am utterly opposed to a standing army in time of peace. The paragraph that gives Congress power to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, claims a little attention-This is a great bulwark-a great privilege indeed-we ought not, therefore, to give it up, on any slight pretence. Let us see-how long it is to be suspended? As long as rebellion or invasion shall continue. This is exceeding loose. Why is not the time limitted, as in our Constitution But, sir its design would then be defeated-It was the intent, and by it we shall give up one of our greatest privileges.19
Mr. N. concluded by saying, he had much more to say but as the House were impatient, he should sit down for the present, to give other gentlemen an opportunity to speak.
Judge SUMNER, adverting to the pathetick apostrophe of the gentleman last speaking, said, he could with as much sincerity apostrophize- Oh! Government! thou greatest good! thou best of blessings-with thee I wish to live with thee I wish to die.-Thou art as necessary to the support of the political body as meat and bread are to the natural body. The learned Judge then turned his attention to the proposition submitted by the President, and said, he sincerely hoped, that it would meet the approbation of the Convention, as appeared to him a remedy for all the difficulties, which gentlemen in the course of the debates had mentioned. He particularized the objections that had been started; and shewed that their removal was provided for in the proposition: and concluded by observing, that the probability was very great, that if the amendments proposed were recommended by this Convention, that they would, on the meeting of The first Congress, be adopted by the general government.
Mr. WIDGERY said, he did not see the probability that these amendments would be made, if we had authority to propose them: He considered, he said, that the Convention did not meet for the purpose of recommending amendments, but to adopt or reject the Constitution. He concluded by asking, whether it was probable, that those States who had already adopted the Constitution would be likely to submit to amendments?