|Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention
By James Madison
June 16, 1787
Saturday June 16, 1787
IN COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE ON RESOLUTIONS PROPOSD. BY MR. Patterson and MR. Randolph.
Mr. LANSING called for the reading of the 1st resolution of each plan, which he considered as involving principles directly in
contrast. That of Mr. Patterson says he sustains the sovereignty of the respective States, that of Mr. Randolph destroys it; the
latter requires a negative on all the laws of the particular States; the former, only certain general powers for the general good.
The plan of Mr. Randolph in short absorbs all power except what may be exercised in the little local matters of the States
which are not objects worthy of the supreme cognizance.
He grounded his preference of Mr. Patterson's plan, chiefly on two objections against that of Mr. Randolph. 1. Want of power
in the Convention to discuss and propose it. 2. The improbability of its being adopted.
1. He was decidedly of opinion that the power of the Convention was restrained to amendments of a federal nature, and
having for their basis the Confederacy in being. The Act of Congress, the tenor of the Acts of the States, the Commissions
produced by the several deputations all proved this. And this limitation of the power to an amendment of the Confederacy,
marked the opinion of the States, that it was unnecessary and improper to go farther. He was sure that this was the case with
his State. New York would never have concurred in sending deputies to the convention, if she had supposed the deliberations
were to turn on a consolidation of the States, and a National Government.
2. Was it probable that the States would adopt and ratify a scheme, which they had never authorized us to propose? and
which so far exceeded what they regarded as sufficient? We see by their several Acts particularly in relation to the plan of
revenue proposed by Congress in 1783, not authorized by the Articles of Confederation, what were the ideas they then
entertained. Can so great a change be supposed to have already taken place. To rely on any change which is hereafter to take
place in the sentiments of the people would be trusting to too great an uncertainty. We know only what their present
sentiments are. And it is in vain to propose what will not accord with these. The States will never feel a sufficient confidence
in a general Government to give it a negative on their laws. The Scheme is itself totally novel. There is no parallel to it to be
found. The authority of Congress is familiar to the people, and an augmentation of the powers of Congress will be readily
approved by them.
Mr. PATTERSON said as he had on a former occasion given his sentiments on the plan proposed by Mr. Randolph he would
now avoiding repetition as much as possible give his reasons in favor of that proposed by himself. He preferred it because it
accorded, 1. With the powers of the Convention, 2. With the sentiments of the people. If the confederacy was radically
wrong, let us return to our States, and obtain larger powers, not assume them of ourselves. I came here not to speak my own
sentiments, but the sentiments of those who sent me. Our object is not such a Government as may be best in itself, but such a
one as our Constituents have authorized us to prepare, and as they will approve. If we argue the matter on the supposition that
no Confederacy at present exists, it can not be denied that all the States stand on the footing of equal sovereignty. All therefore
must concur before any can be bound. If a proportional representation be right, why do we not vote so here? If we argue on
the fact that a federal compact actually exists, and consult the articles of it we still find an equal Sovereignty to be the basis of
He read the 5th. Article of Confederation giving each State a vote, and the 13th, declaring that no alteration shall be made
without unanimous consent. This is the nature of all treaties. What is unanimously done, must be unanimously undone. It was
observed [by Mr. Wilson] that the larger States gave up the point, not because it was right, but because the circumstances of
the moment urged the concession. Be it so. Are they for that reason at liberty to take it back? Can the donor resume his gift
without the consent of the recipient. This doctrine may be convenient, but it is a doctrine that will sacrifice the lesser States.
The large States acceded readily to the confederacy. It was the small ones that came in reluctantly and slowly. New Jersey
and Maryland were the two last, the former objecting to the want of power in Congress over trade; both of them to the want
of power to appropriate the vacant territory to the benefit of the whole. -If the sovereignty of the States is to be maintained,
the Representatives must be drawn immediately from the States, not from the people; and we have no power to vary the idea
of equal sovereignty. The only expedient that will cure the difficulty, is that of throwing the States into Hotchpotch. To say
that this is impracticable, will not make it so. Let it be tried, and we shall see whether the Citizens of Massachusetts
Pennsylvania and Virginia accede to it. It will be objected that Coercion will be impracticable. But will it be more so in one plan
than the other?
Its efficacy will depend on the quantum of power collected, not on its being drawn from the States, or from the individuals;
and according to his plan it may be exerted on individuals as well as according that of Mr. Randolph. A distinct executive and
Judiciary also were equally provided by his plan. It is urged that two branches in the Legislature are necessary. Why? For the
purpose of a check. But the reason of the precaution is not applicable to this case. Within a particular State, where party heats
prevail, such a check may be necessary. In such a body as Congress it is less necessary, and besides, the delegations of the
different States are checks on each other. Do the people at large complain of Congress? No, what they wish is that Congress
may have more power. If the power now proposed be not enough, the people hereafter will make additions to it. With proper
powers Congress will act with more energy and wisdom than the proposed National Legislature; being fewer in number, and
more secreted and refined by the mode of election. The plan of Mr. Randolph will also be enormously expensive. Allowing
Georgia and Delaware two representatives each in the popular branch the aggregate number of that branch will be 180. Add to
it half as many for the other branch and you have 270 members coming once at least a year from the most distant as well as
the most central parts of the republic. In the present deranged state of our finances can so expensive a system be seriously
though of? By enlarging the powers of Congress the greatest part of this expense will be saved, and all purposes will be
answered. At least a trial ought to be made.
Mr. WILSON entered into a contrast of the principal points of the two plans so far he said as there had been time to examine
the one last proposed. These points were
1. In the Virginia plan there are two and in some degree, three branches in the Legislature; in the plan from New Jersey there
is to be a single legislature only.
2. Representation of the people at large is the basis of the one; the State Legislatures the pillars of the other.
3. Proportional representation prevails in one; equality of suffrage in the other.
4. A single Executive Magistrate is at the head of the one; a plurality is held out in the other.
5. In the one the majority of the people of the United States must prevail; In the other a minority may prevail.
6. The National Legislature is to make laws in all cases to which the separate States are incompetent and; in place of this
Congress are to have additional power in a few cases only.
7. A negative on the laws of the States; in place of this coercion to be substituted.
8. The Executive to be removable on impeachment and conviction in one plan; in the other to be removable at the instance of
majority of the Executives of the States.
9. Revision of the laws provided for in one; no such check in the other.
10. Inferior national tribunals in one; none such in the other.
11. In the one jurisdiction of National tribunals to extend, etc.; an appellate jurisdiction only allowed in the other.
12. Here the jurisdiction is to extend to all cases affecting the National peace and harmony; there, a few cases only are marked
13. Finally, the ratification is in this to be by the people themselves; in that by the legislative authorities according to the 13th
article of Confederation.
With regard to the power of the Convention, he conceived himself authorized to conclude nothing, but to be at liberty to
propose any thing. In this particular he felt himself perfectly indifferent to the two plans.
With regard to the sentiments of the people, he conceived it difficult to know precisely what they are. Those of the particular
circle in which one moved, were commonly mistaken for the general voice. He could not persuade himself that the State
Governments and Sovereignties were so much the idols of the people, nor a National Government so obnoxious to them, as
some supposed. Why should a National Government be unpopular? Has it less dignity? Will each Citizen enjoy under it less
liberty or protection? Will a Citizen of Delaware be degraded by becoming a Citizen of the United States? Where do the people
look at present for relief from the evils of which they complain? Is it from an internal reform of their Governments? No, Sir.
It is from the National Councils that relief is expected. For these reasons he did not fear, that the people would not follow us
into a national Government and it will be a further recommendation of Mr.Randolph's plan that it is to be submitted to them,
and not to the Legislatures, for ratification.
Proceeding now to the 1st point on which he had contrasted the two plans, he observed that anxious as he was for some
augmentation of the federal powers, it would be with extreme reluctance indeed that he could ever consent to give powers to
Congress. He had two reasons either of which was sufficient. 1.Congress as a Legislative body does not stand on the people.
2; It is a single body. He would not repeat the remarks he had formerly made on the principles of Representation, he would
only say that an inequality in it, has ever been a poison contaminating every branch of Govt. In Great Britain where this poison
has had a full operation, the security of private rights is owing entirely to the purity of Her tribunals of Justice, the Judges of
which are neither appointed nor paid, by a venal Parliament.
The political liberty of that Nation, owing to the inequality of representation is at the mercy of its rulers. He means not to
insinuate that there is any parallel between the situation of that Country and ours at present. But it is a lesson we ought not to
disregard, that the smallest bodies in Great Britain are notoriously the most corrupt. Every other source of influence must also
be stronger in small than large bodies of men. When Lord Chesterfield had told us that one of the Dutch provinces had been
seduced into the views of France, he need not have added, that it was not Holland, but one of the smallest of them.
There are facts among ourselves which are known to all. Passing over others, he will only remark that the Impost, so
anxiously wished for by the public was defeated not by any of the larger States in the Union. Congress is a single Legislature.
Despotism comes on Mankind in different Shapes, sometimes in an Executive, sometimes in a Military one. Is there no danger
of a Legislative despotism? Theory and practice both proclaim it. If the Legislative authority be not restrained, there can be
neither liberty nor stability; and it can only be restrained by dividing it within itself, into distinct and independent branches. In a
single House there is no check, but the inadequate one, of the virtue and good sense of those who compose it.
On another great point, the contrast was equally favorable to the plan reported by the Committee of the whole. It vested the
Executive powers in a single Magistrate. The plan of New Jersey, vested them in a plurality. In order to control the Legislative
authority, you must divide it. In order to control the Executive you must unite it. One man will be more responsible than three.
Three will contend among themselves till one becomes the master of his colleagues. In the triumvirates of Rome first Caesar,
then Augustus, are witnesses of this truth. The Kings of Sparta, and the Consuls of Rome prove also the factious
consequences of dividing the Executive Magistracy. Having already taken up so much time he would not he said, proceed to
any of the other points. Those on which he had dwelt, are sufficient of themselves, and on a decision of them, the fate of the
others will depend.
Mr. PINKNEY, the whole comes to this, as he conceived. Give New Jersey an equal vote, and she will dismiss her scruples,
and concur in the National system. He thought the Convention authorized to go any length in recommending, which they
found necessary to remedy the evils which produced this Convention.
Mr. ELSEWORTH proposed as a more distinctive form of collecting the mind of the Committee on the subject, "that the
Legislative power of the United States should remain in Congress." This was not seconded though it seemed better calculated
for the purpose than the 1st proposition of Mr. Patterson in place of which Mr. Elseworth wished to substitute it.
Mr. RANDOLPH, was not scrupulous on the point of power. When the salvation of the Republic was at stake, it would be
treason to our trust, not to propose what we found necessary. He painted in strong colors, the imbecility of the existing
Confederacy, and the danger of delaying a substantial reform. In answer to the objection drawn from the sense of our
Constituents as denoted by their acts relating to the Convention and the objects of their deliberation, he observed that as each
State acted separately in the case, it would have been indecent for it to have charged the existing Constitution with all the vices
which it might have perceived in it.
The first State that set on foot this experiment would not have been justified in going so far, ignorant as it was of the opinion
of others, and sensible as it must have been of the uncertainty of a successful issue to the experiment. There are certainly
seasons of a peculiar nature where the ordinary cautions must be dispensed with, and this is certainly one of them. He would
not as far as depended on him leave any thing that seemed necessary, undone. The present moment is favorable, and is
probably the last that will offer. The true question is whether we shall adhere to the federal plan, or introduce the national plan.
The insufficiency of the former has been fully displayed by the trial already made.
There are but two modes, by which the end of a General Government can be attained: the first is by coercion as proposed by
Mr. Patterson’s plan, second, by real legislation as proposed by the other plan. Coercion he pronounced to be impracticable,
expensive, and cruel to individuals. It tended also to habituate the instruments of it to shed the blood and riot in the spoils of
their fellow Citizens, and consequently trained them up for the service of ambition. We must resort therefore to a National
Legislation over individuals, for which Congress are unfit.
To vest such power in them, would be blending the Legislative with the Executive, contrary to the received maxim on this
subject. If the Union of these powers heretofore in Congress has been safe, it has been owing to the general impotency of that
body. Congress are moreover not elected by the people, but by the Legislatures who retain even a power of recall. They have
therefore no will of their own, they are a mere diplomatic body, and are always obsequious to the views of the States, who
are always encroaching on the authority of the United States. A provision for harmony among the States, as in trade,
naturalization, etc., for crushing rebellion whenever it may rear its crest; and for certain, other general benefits must be made.
The powers for these purposes, can never be given to a body, inadequate as Congress are in point of representation, elected in
the mode in which they are, and possessing no more confidence than they do, for notwithstanding what has been said to the
contrary, his own experience satisfied him that a rooted distrust of Congress pretty generally prevailed. A National
Government alone, properly constituted, will answer the purpose, and he begged it to be considered that the present is the last
moment for establishing one. After this select experiment, the people will yield to despair.
The Committee rose and the House adjourned.
|The Illinois Conservative