The Moral Liberal, Classics Library
Alexander Hamilton: The Works of Alexander Hamilton, Volume 1, 1774
Convention of New York 1788: Speech on the Senate of the United States
June 24, 1788.—I am persuaded that I, in my turn, shall be indulged in addressing the committee. We all, with equal sincerity, profess to be anxious for the establishment of a republican government, on a safe and solid basis. It is the object of the wishes of every honest man in the United States; and I presume I shall not be disbelieved when I declare, that it is an object, of all others, the nearest and most dear to my own heart. The means of accomplishing this great purpose become the most important study which can interest mankind. It is our duty to examine all those means with peculiar attention, and to choose the best and most effectual. It is our duty to draw from nature, from reason, from examples, the justest principles of policy, and to pursue and apply them in the formation of our government. We should contemplate and compare the systems which, in the examination, come under our view; distinguish with a careful eye the defects and excellencies of each, and discarding the former, incorporate the latter, as far as circumstances will admit, into our Constitution. If we pursue a different course, and neglect this duty, we shall probably disappoint the expectations of our country and of the world.
In the commencement of a revolution, which received its birth from the usurpations of tyranny, nothing was more natural than that the public mind should be influenced by an extreme spirit of jealousy. To resist these encroachments, and to nourish this spirit, was the great object of all our public and private institutions. The zeal for liberty became predominant and excessive. In forming our Confederation, this passion alone seemed to actuate us, and we appear to have had no other view than to secure ourselves from despotism. The object certainly was a valuable one, and deserved our utmost attention. But there is another object, equally important, and which our enthusiasm rendered us little capable of regarding. I mean a principle of strength and stability in the organization of our government, and of vigor in its operations. This purpose could never be accomplished but by the establishment of some select body, formed peculiarly on this principle. There are few positions more demonstrable than that there should be in every republic some permanent body, to correct the prejudices, check the intemperate passions, and regulate the fluctuations of a popular assembly. It is evident that a body instituted for these purposes must be so formed as to exclude as much as possible from its own character those infirmities and that mutability which it is designed to remedy. It is, therefore, necessary that it should be small, that it should hold its authority during a considerable period, and that it should have such an independence in the exercise of its powers, as will divest it, as much as possible, of local prejudices. It should be so formed as to be the centre of political knowledge; to pursue always a steady line of conduct, and to reduce every irregular propensity to system. Without this establishment we may make experiments without end, but shall never have an efficient government.
It is an unquestionable truth, that the body of the people in every country desire sincerely its prosperity. But it is equally unquestionable that they do not possess the discernment and stability necessary for systematic government. To deny that they are frequently led into the grossest errors, by misinformation and passion, would be a flattery which their own good sense must despise. That branch of administration, especially, which involves our political relation with foreign states, a community will ever be incompetent to. These truths are not often held up in public assemblies; but they cannot be unknown to any who hear me. From these principles, it follows that there ought to be two distinct bodies in our government: one which shall be immediately constituted by and peculiarly represent the people, and possess all the popular features; another formed upon the principles and for the purposes before explained. Such considerations as these induced the convention who formed your State constitution to institute a Senate upon the present plan. The history of ancient and modern republics had taught them that many of the evils which those republics suffered arose from the want of a certain balance, and that mutual control indispensable to a wise administration. They were convinced that popular assemblies are frequently misguided by ignorance, by sudden impulses, and the intrigues of ambitious men; and that some firm barrier against these operations was necessary. They, therefore, instituted your Senate; and the benefits we have experienced have fully justified their conceptions.
What is the tendency of the proposed amendment? To take away the stability of government, by depriving the Senate of its permanency. To make this body subject to the same weakness and prejudices which are incident to popular assemblies, and which it was instituted to correct; to destroy the balance between them. The amendment will render the Senator a slave to all the capricious humors among the people. It will probably be here suggested that the Legislatures, not the people, are to have the power of recall. Without attempting to prove that the Legislatures must be, in a great degree, the image of the multitude in respect to federal affairs, and that the same prejudices and factions will prevail, I insist that, in whatever body the power of recall is vested, the senator will perpetually feel himself in such a state of vassalage and dependence that he never can possess that firmness which is necessary to the discharge of his great duty to the Union.
Gentlemen in their reasoning have placed the interests of the several States and those of the United States in contrast. This is not a fair view of the subject. They must necessarily be involved in each other. What we apprehend is, that some sinister prejudice, or some prevailing passion, may assume the form of a genuine interest. The influence of these is as powerful as the most permanent conviction of the public good, and against this influence we ought to provide. The local interest of a State ought in every case to give way to the interests of the Union. For when a sacrifice of one or the other is necessary, the former becomes only an apparent, partial interest, and should yield, on the principle that the smaller good ought never to oppose the greater one. When you assemble from your several counties in the Legislature, were every member to be guided only by the apparent interest of his county, government would be impracticable. There must be a perpetual accommodation and sacrifice of local advantage to general expediency. But the spirit of a more popular assembly would rarely be actuated by this important principle. It is, therefore, absolutely necessary that the Senate should be so formed as to be unbiassed by false conceptions of the real interests, or undue attachment to the apparent good of their several States.
Gentlemen indulge too many unreasonable apprehensions of danger to the State governments. They seem to suppose that the moment you put men into the national council, they become corrupt and tyrannical, and lose all their affection for their fellow-citizens. But can we imagine that the Senators will ever be so insensible of their own advantage as to sacrifice the genuine interest of their constituents? The State governments are essentially necessary to the form and spirit of the general system. As long, therefore, as Congress have a full conviction of this necessity, they must, even upon principles purely national, have as firm an attachment to the one as to the other. This conviction can never leave them unless they become madmen. While the Constitution continues to be read, and its principles known, the States must, by every rational man, be considered as essential component parts of the Union; and therefore the idea of sacrificing the former to the latter is totally inadmissible.
The objectors do not revert to the natural strength and resources of the State governments, which will ever give them an important superiority over the General Government. If we compare the nature of their different powers, or the means of popular influence which each possesses, we shall find the advantage entirely on the side of the States. This consideration, important as it is, seems to have been little attended to. The aggregate number of representatives throughout the States may be two thousand. Their personal influence will therefore be proportionably more extensive than that of one or two hundred men in Congress. The State establishments of civil and military officers of every description, infinitely surpassing in number any corresponding establishments in the General Government, will create such an extent and complication of attachments as will ever secure the predilection and support of the people. Whenever, therefore, Congress shall meditate any infringement of the State Constitutions, the great body of the people will naturally take part with their domestic representatives. Can the General Government withstand such a united opposition? Will the people suffer themselves to be stripped of their privileges? Will they suffer their Legislatures to be reduced to a shadow and a name? The idea is shocking to common-sense.
From the circumstances already explained, and many others which might be mentioned, results a complicated, irresistible check, which must ever support the existence and importance of the State governments. The danger, if any exists, flows from an opposite source. The probable evil is that the General Government will be too dependent on the State Legislatures, too much governed by their prejudices, and too obsequious to their humors; that the States, with every power in their hands, will make encroachments on the national authority till the Union is weakened and dissolved.
Every member must have been struck with an observation of a gentleman from Albany. Do what you will, he says, local prejudices and opinions will go into the government. What! shall we then form a Constitution to cherish and strengthen these prejudices? Shall we confirm the distemper instead of remedying it? It is undeniable that there must be a control somewhere. Either the general interest is to control the particular interests, or the contrary. If the former, then certainly the government ought to be so framed as to render the power of control efficient to all intents and purposes; if the latter, a striking absurdity follows. The controlling powers must be as numerous as the varying interests, and the operations of government must therefore cease. For the moment you accommodate these differing interests, which is the only way to set the government in motion, you establish a general controlling power. Thus, whatever constitutional provisions are made to the contrary, every government will be at last driven to the necessity of subjecting the partial to the universal interest. The gentlemen ought always, in their reasoning, to distinguish between the real, genuine good of a State, and the opinions and prejudices which may prevail respecting it. The latter may be opposed to the general good, and consequently ought to be sacrificed; the former is so involved in it that it never can be sacrificed. Sir, the main design of the convention, in forming the Senate, was to prevent fluctuations and cabals. With this view they made that body small, and to exist for a considerable period. Have they carried this design too far? The Senators are to serve six years. This is only two years longer than the Senators of this State hold their places. One third of the members are to go out every two years; and in six the whole body may be changed. Prior to the Revolution, the representatives in the several colonies were elected for different periods; for three years, for seven years, etc. Were those bodies ever considered as incapable of representing the people, or as too independent of them? There is one circumstance which will have a tendency to increase the dependence of the Senators on the States, in proportion to the duration of their appointments. As the State Legislatures are in continual fluctuation, the Senator will have more attachments to form, and consequently a greater difficulty of maintaining his place, than one of shorter duration. He will therefore be more cautious and industrious to suit his conduct to the wishes of his constituents.
When you take a view of all the circumstances which have been recited, you will certainly see that the Senators will constantly look up to the State governments with an eye of dependence and affection. If they are ambitious to continue in office, they will make every prudent arrangement for this purpose, and whatever may be their private sentiments of politics, they will be convinced that the surest means of obtaining a reëlection will be a uniform attachment to the interests of their several States.
In support of this amendment it has been observed that the power of recall, under the old government, has never been exercised. There is no reasoning from this. The experience of a few years, under peculiar circumstances, can afford no probable security that it never will be carried into execution with unhappy effects. A seat in Congress has been less an object of ambition; and the arts of intrigue, consequently, have been less practised. Indeed, it has been difficult to find men who were willing to suffer the mortifications to which so feeble a government and so dependent a station exposed them.
Sir, if you consider but a moment the purposes for which the Senate was instituted, and the nature of the business which they are to transact, you will see the necessity of giving them duration. They, together with the President, are to manage all our concerns with foreign nations. They must understand all their interests and their political systems. This knowledge is not soon acquired,—but a very small part is gained in the closet. Is it desirable that new and unqualified members should be continually thrown into that body? When public bodies are engaged in the exercise of general powers, you cannot judge of the propriety of their conduct, but from the result of their systems. They may be forming plans which require time and diligence to bring to maturity. It is necessary, therefore, that they should have a considerable and fixed duration, that they may make their calculations accordingly. If they are to be perpetually fluctuating, they can never have that responsibility which is so important in republican governments. In bodies subject to frequent changes great political plans must be conducted by members in succession; a single Assembly can have but a partial agency in them, and consequently cannot be answerable for the final event. Considering the Senate, therefore, with a view to responsibility, duration is a very interesting and essential quality. There is another view in which duration in the Senate appears necessary; a government changeable in its policy must soon lose its sense of national character and forfeit the respect of foreigners. Senators will not be solicitous for the reputation of public measures in which they have had but a temporary concern, and will feel lightly the burthen of public disapprobation in proportion to the number of those who partake of the censure. Our political rivals will ever consider our most able counsels as evidence of deficient wisdom, and will be little apprehensive of our arriving at any exalted station in the scale of power. Such are the internal and external disadvantages which would result from the principle contended for. Were it admitted, I am firmly persuaded, sir, that prejudices would govern the public deliberations, and passions rage in the counsels of the Union. If it were necessary, I could illustrate my subject by historical facts. I could travel through an extensive field of detail, and demonstrate that wherever the fatal principle of the head suffering the control of the members has operated, it has proved a fruitful source of commotions and disorder.
This is the first fair opportunity that has been offered of deliberately correcting the errors in government. Instability has been a prominent and very defective feature in most republican systems. It is the first to be seen and the last to be lamented by a philosophical inquirer. It has operated most banefully in our infant republics. It is necessary that we apply an immediate remedy, and eradicate the poisonous principle from our government. If this be not done, we shall feel, and posterity will be convulsed by, a painful malady.
June 25th.—Mr. Hamilton: Mr. Chairman, in debates of this kind, it is extremely easy, on either side, to say a great number of plausible things. It is to be acknowledged that there is even a certain degree of truth in the reasonings on both sides. In this situation, it is the province of judgment and good sense to determine their force and application, and how far the arguments advanced on one side are balanced by those on the other. The ingenious dress in which both appear renders it a difficult task to make this decision, and the mind is frequently unable to come to a safe and solid conclusion. On the present question, some of the principles on each side are admitted, and the conclusions from them denied, while other principles, with their inferences, are rejected altogether. It is the business of the committee to seek the truth in this labyrinth of argument. There are two objects in forming systems of government—safety for the people, and energy in the administration. When these objects are united, the certain tendency of the system will be to the public welfare. If the latter object be neglected, the people’s security will be as certainly sacrificed as by disregarding the former. Good constitutions are formed upon a comparison of the
liberty of the individual with the strength of government. If the tone of either be too high, the other will be weakened too much. It is the happiest possible mode of conciliating these objects, to institute one branch peculiarly endowed with sensibility, another with knowledge and firmness. Through the opposition and mutual control of these bodies, the government will reach, in its operations, the perfect balance between liberty and power. The arguments of the gentlemen chiefly apply to the former branch of the House of Representatives. If they will calmly consider the different nature of the two branches, they will see that the reasoning which justly applies to the representative House will go to destroy the essential qualities of the Senate. If the former is calculated perfectly upon the principles of caution, why should you impose the same principles upon the latter, which is designed for a different operation? Gentlemen, while they discover a laudable anxiety for the safety of the people, do not attend to the important distinction I have drawn. We have it constantly held up to us, that, as it is our chief duty to guard against tyranny, it is our policy to form all branches of government for this purpose.
Sir, it is a truth sufficiently illustrated by experience, that when the people act by their representatives they are commonly irresistible. The gentleman admits the position, that stability is essential to the government, and yet enforces principles which, if true, ought to banish stability from the system. The gentleman observes, that there is a fallacy in my reasoning, and informs us that the Legislatures of the States, not the people, are to appoint the Senators. Does he reflect that they are the immediate agents of the people, that they are so constituted as to feel all their prejudices and passions, and to be governed, in a great degree, by their misapprehensions? Experience must have taught him the truth of this. Look through their history: what factions have arisen from the most trifling causes! What intrigues have been practised for the most illiberal purposes! Is not the State of Rhode Island, at this moment, struggling under difficulties and distresses, for having been led blindly by the spirit of the multitude? What is her Legislature but the picture of a mob? In this State, we have a Senate, possessed of the proper qualities of a permanent body. Virginia, Maryland, and a few other States are in the same situation. The rest are either governed by a single democratic Assembly, or have a Senate constituted entirely upon democratic principles. These have been more or less embroiled in factions, and have generally been the image and echo of the multitude. It is difficult to reason on this point, without touching on certain delicate chords. I could refer you to periods and conjunctures when the people have been governed by improper passions, and led by factious and designing men. I could show that the same passions have infected their representatives. Let us beware that we do not make the State Legislatures a vehicle in which the evil humors may be conveyed into the national system. To prevent this, it is necessary that the Senate should be so formed, as in some measure to check the State governments, and preclude the communication of the false impressions which they receive from the people. It has been often repeated, that the Legislatures of the States can have only a partial and confined view of national affairs; that they can form no proper estimate of great objects which are not in the sphere of their interests. The observation of the gentleman, therefore, cannot take off the force of the argument.
Sir, the Senators will constantly be attended with a reflection that their future existence is absolutely in the power of the States. Will not this form a powerful check? It is a reflection which applies closely to their feelings and interests; and no candid man who thinks deliberately will deny that it would be alone a sufficient check. The Legislatures are to provide the mode of electing the President, and must have a great influence over the electors. Indeed, they convey their influence through a thousand channels into the General Government. Gentlemen have endeavored to show that there will be no clashing of local and general interests; they do not seem to have considered the subject. We have, in this State, a duty of sixpence per pound on salt, and it operates lightly and with advantage; but such a duty would be very burdensome to some of the States. If Congress should, at any time, find it convenient to impose a salt tax, would it not be opposed by the Eastern States? Being themselves incapable of feeling the necessity of the measure, they could only feel its apparent injustice. Would it be wise to give the New England States a power to defeat this measure, by recalling their Senators who may be engaged for it? I beg the gentleman once more to attend to the distinction between the real and apparent interests of the States. I admit that the aggregate of individuals constitute the government; yet every State is not the government. Sir, in our State Legislatures, a compromise is frequently necessary between the interests of counties; the same must happen in the General Government, between States. In this, the few must yield to the many; or in other words, the particular must be sacrificed to the general interest. If the members of Congress are too dependent on the State Legislatures, they will be eternally forming secret combinations from local views. This is reasoning from the plainest principles. Their interest is interwoven with their dependence, and they will necessarily yield to the impression of their situation. Those who have been in Congress have seen these operations. The first question has been, how will such a measure affect my constituents, and, consequently, how will the part I take affect my reelection? This consideration may in some degree be proper; but to be dependent from day to day, and to have the idea perpetually present, would be the source of numerous evils. Six years, sir, is a period short enough for a proper degree of dependence.
Let us consider the peculiar state of this body, and see under what impressions they will act. One third of them are to go out at the end of two years, two thirds at four years, and the whole at six years. When one year is elapsed, there are a number who are to hold their places for one year, others for three, and others for five years. Thus there will not only be a constant and frequent change of members, but there will be some whose office is near the point of expiration, and who, from this circumstance, will have a lively sense of their dependence. The biennial change of members is an excellent invention for increasing the difficulty of combination. Any scheme of usurpation will lose, every two years, a number of its oldest advocates, and their places will be supplied by an equal number of new, unaccommodating, and virtuous men. When two principles are equally important, we ought, if possible, to reconcile them, and sacrifice neither. We think that safety and permanency in this government are completely reconcilable. The State governments will have, from the causes I have described, a sufficient influence over the Senate, without the check for which the gentlemen contend. It has been remarked that there is an inconsistency in our admitting that the equal vote in the Senate was given to secure the rights of the States, and at the same time holding up the idea that their interests should be sacrificed to those of the Union. But the committee certainly perceive the distinction between the rights of a State and its interests. The rights of a State are defined by the Constitution, and cannot be invaded without a violation of it; but the interests of a State have no connection with the Constitution, and may be, in a thousand instances, constitutionally sacrificed. A uniform tax is perfectly constitutional; and yet it may operate oppressively upon certain members of the Union. The gentlemen are afraid that the State governments will be abolished. But, sir, their existence does not depend upon the laws of the United States. Congress can no more abolish the State governments than they can dissolve the Union. The whole Constitution is repugnant to it, and yet the gentlemen would introduce an additional useless provision against it. It is proper that the influence of the States should prevail to a certain extent. But shall the individual States be the judges how far? Shall an unlimited power be left to determine in their favor? The gentlemen go into the extreme; instead of a wise government, they would form a fantastical Utopia. But, sir, while they give it a plausible, popular shape, they would render it impracticable.
Much has been said about factions. As far as my observation has extended, factions in Congress have arisen from attachment to State prejudices. We are attempting by this Constitution to abolish factions and to unite all parties for the general welfare. That a man should have the power, in private life, of recalling his agent, is proper; because, in the business in which he is engaged, he has no other object but to gain the approbation of his principal. Is this the case with the Senator? Is he simply the agent of the State? No. He is an agent for the Union, and he is bound to perform services necessary to the good of the whole, though his State should condemn them. Sir, in contending for a rotation, the gentlemen carry their zeal beyond all reasonable bounds. I am convinced that no government, founded on this feeble principle, can operate well; I believe, also, that we shall be singular in this proposal. We have not felt the embarrassments resulting from rotation that other States have; and we hardly know the strength of their objection to it. There is no probability that we shall ever persuade a majority of the States to agree to this amendment. The gentlemen deceive themselves; the amendment would defeat their own design. When a man knows he must quit his station, let his merit be what it may, he will turn his attention chiefly to his own emolument; nay, he will feel temptations, which few other situations furnish, to perpetuate his power by unconstitutional usurpations. Men will pursue their interests. It is as easy to change human nature as to oppose the strong current of selfish passions. A wise legislator will gently divert the channel, and direct it, if possible, to the public good. It has been observed, that it is not possible there should be in a State only two men qualified for Senators. But, sir, the question is not, whether there may be no more than two men; but whether, in certain emergencies, you could find two equal to those whom the amendment would discard. Important negotiations, or other business to which they shall be most competent, may employ them at the moment of their removal. These things often happen. The difficulty of obtaining men capable of conducting the affairs of a nation in dangerous times, is much more serious than the gentlemen imagine. As to corruption, sir, admitting, in the President, a disposition to corrupt, what are the instruments of bribery? It is said he will have in his disposal a great number of offices. But how many offices are there, for which a man would relinquish senatorial dignity? There may be some in the judicial, and some in other principal departments. But there are few whose respectability can, in any measure, balance that of the office of Senator. Men who have been in the Senate once, and who have a reasonable hope of a reëlection, will not be easily bought by offices. This reasoning shows that a rotation would be productive of many disadvantages; under particular circumstances, it might be extremely inconvenient, if not fatal to the prosperity of our country.—Elliot’s Debates, vol. ii.
June 27, 1788.—Mr. Hamilton: This is one of those subjects on which objections very naturally arise, and assume the most plausible shape. Its address is to the passions, and its first impressions create a prejudice before cool examination has an opportunity for exertion. It is more easy for the human mind to calculate the evils than the advantages of a measure; and vastly more natural to apprehend the danger than to see the necessity of giving powers to our rulers. Hence, I may justly expect that those who hear me will place less confidence in those arguments which oppose, than in those which favor, their prepossessions.
After all our doubts, our suspicions, and speculations on the subject of government, we must return at last to the important truth, that when we have formed a Constitution upon free principles, when we have given a proper balance to the different branches of administration, and fixed representation upon pure and equal principles, we may with safety furnish it with all the powers necessary to answer in the most ample manner the purposes of government. The great desiderata are a free representation and mutual checks. When these are obtained, all our apprehensions of the extent of powers are unjust and imaginary. What is the structure of this Constitution? One branch of the Legislature is to be elected by the people—by the same people who chose your State representatives. Its members are to hold their office two years, and then return to their constituents. Here the people govern. Here they act by their immediate representatives. You have also a Senate, constituted by your State Legislatures, by men in whom you place the highest confidence, and forming another representative branch. Then, again, you have an Executive Magistrate, created by a form of election which meets universal admiration. In the form of this government, and in the mode of legislation, you find all the checks which the greatest politicians and the best writers have ever conceived. What more can reasonable men desire? Is there any one branch in which the whole legislative and executive powers are lodged? No. The legislative authority is lodged in three distinct branches, properly balanced. The executive authority is divided between two branches, and the judicial is still reserved for an independent body, who hold their office during good behavior. This organization is so complex, so skilfully contrived, that it is next to impossible that an impolitic or wicked measure should pass the great scrutiny with success. Now, what do gentlemen mean by coming forward and declaiming against this government? Why do they say we ought to limit its powers, to disable it, and to destroy its capacity of blessing the people? Has philosophy suggested—has experience taught—that such a government ought not to be trusted with everything necessary for the good of society? When you have divided and nicely balanced the departments of government, when you have strongly connected the virtue of your rulers with their interest, when, in short, you have rendered your system as perfect as human forms can be, you must place confidence, you must give power.
We have heard a great deal of the sword and the purse. It is said our liberties are in danger if both are possessed by Congress. Let us see what is the true meaning of this maxim, which has been so much used and so little understood. It is, that you shall not place these powers in either the Legislative or Executive, singly; neither one nor the other shall have both; because this would destroy that division of powers on which political liberty is founded, and would furnish one body with all the means of tyranny. But when the purse is lodged in one branch, and the sword in another, there can be no danger. All governments have possessed these powers. They would be monsters without them, and incapable of exertion. What is your State government? Does not your Legislature command what money it pleases? Does not your Executive execute the laws without restraint? These distinctions between the purse and the sword have no application to the system, but only to its separate branches. When we reason about the great interests of a great people, it is high time that we dismiss our prejudices and banish declamation.
In order to induce us to consider the powers given by this Constitution as dangerous, in order to render plausible an attempt to take away the life and spirit of the most important power in government, the gentleman complains that we shall not have a true and safe representation. I have asked him what a safe representation is, and he has given no satisfactory answer. The Assembly of New York has been mentioned as a proper standard. But if we apply this standard to the General Government, our Congress will become a mere mob, exposed to every irregular impulse, and subject to every breeze of faction. Can such a system afford security? Can you have confidence in such a body? The idea of taking the ratio of representation in a small society for the ratio of a great one, is a fallacy which ought to be exposed. It is impossible to ascertain to what point our representation will increase. It may vary from one to two, three, or four hundred. It depends upon the progress of population. Suppose it to rest at two hundred; is not this number sufficient to secure it against corruption? Human nature must be a much more weak and despicable thing than I apprehend it to be, if two hundred of our fellow-citizens can be corrupted in two years. But suppose they are corrupted; can they, in two years, accomplish their designs? Can they form a combination, and even lay a foundation for a system of tyranny, in so short a period? It is far from my intention to wound the feelings of any gentleman; but I must, in this most interesting discussion, speak of things as they are, and hold up opinions in the light in which they ought to appear; and I maintain that all that has been said of corruption, of the purse and the sword, and of the danger of giving powers, is not supported by principle or fact; that it is mere verbiage and idle declamation. The true principle of government is this—make the system complete in its structure; give a perfect proportion and balance to its parts, and the powers you give it will never affect your security. The question, then, of the division of powers between the General and State governments, is a question of convenience. It becomes a prudential inquiry, what powers are proper to be reserved to the latter, and this immediately involves another inquiry into the proper objects of the two governments. This is the criterion by which we shall determine the just distribution of powers.
The great leading objects of the Federal Government, in which revenue is concerned, are to maintain domestic peace, and provide for the common defence. In these are comprehended the regulation of commerce—that is, the whole system of foreign intercourse, the support of armies and navies, and of the civil administration. It is useless to go into detail. Every one knows that the objects of the General Government are numerous, extensive, and important. Every one must acknowledge the necessity of giving powers, in all respects, and in every degree, equal to these objects. This principle assented to, let us inquire what are the objects of the State governments. Have they to provide against foreign invasion? Have they to maintain fleets and armies? Have they any concern in the regulation of commerce, the procuring alliances, or forming treaties of peace? No. Their objects are merely civil and domestic, to support the legislative establishment, and to provide for the administration of the laws. Let any one compare the expense of supporting the civil list in a State, with the expense of providing for the defence of the Union. The difference is almost beyond calculation. The experience of Great Britain will throw some light on this subject. In that kingdom, the ordinary expenses of peace to those of war are as one to fourteen. But there they have a monarch, with his splendid court, and an enormous civil establishment, with which we have nothing in this country to compare. If, in Great Britain, the expenses of war and peace are so disproportioned, how wide will be their disparity in the United States! How infinitely wider between the General Government and that of each individual State! Where ought the great resources to be lodged? Every rational man will give an immediate answer. To what extent shall these resources be possessed? Reason says, As far as possible exigencies can require; that is, without limitation. A constitution cannot set bounds to a nation’s wants; it ought not therefore to set bounds to its resources. Unexpected visitations, long and ruinous wars, may demand all the possible abilities of the country. Shall not our government have power to call these abilities into action? The contingencies of society are not reducible to calculations; they cannot be fixed or bounded, even in imagination. Will you limit the means of your defence when you cannot ascertain the force or extent of the invasion? Even in ordinary wars, a government is frequently obliged to call for supplies, to the temporary oppression of the people.
If we adopt the idea of exclusive revenues, we shall be obliged to fix some distinguishing line which neither government shall overpass. The inconveniences of this measure must appear evident on the slightest examination. The resources appropriated to one may diminish or fail, while those of the other may increase beyond the wants of government. One may be destitute of revenues, while the other shall possess an unnecessary abundance; and the Constitution will be an eternal barrier to a mutual intercourse and relief. In this case will the individual States stand on so good a ground as if the objects of taxation were left free and open to the embrace of both the governments? Possibly, in the advancement of commerce, the imposts may increase to such a degree as to render direct taxation unnecessary; these resources, then, as the Constitution stands, may be occasionally relinquished to the States. But on the gentleman’s idea of prescribing exclusive limits, and precluding all reciprocal communication, this would be entirely improper. The laws of the States must not touch the appropriated resources of the United States whatever may be their wants. Would it not be of more advantage to the States to have a concurrent jurisdiction extending to all the sources of revenue, than to be confined to such a small resource as, on calculation of the objects of the two governments, should appear to be their due proportion? Certainly, you cannot hesitate on this question. The gentleman’s plan would also have a further ill effect; it would tend to dissolve the connection and correspondence of the two governments, to estrange them from each other, and to destroy that mutual dependence which forms the essence of union.
A number of arguments have been advanced by an honorable member from New York, which, to every unclouded mind, must carry conviction. He has stated that in sudden emergencies it may be necessary to borrow; and that it is impossible to borrow unless you have funds to pledge for the payment of your debts. Limiting the powers of government to certain resources, is rendering the funds precarious; and obliging the government to ask, instead of empowering it to command, is to destroy all confidence and credit. If the power of taxing is restricted, the consequence is, that on the breaking out of a war you must divert the funds appropriated to the payment of debts, to answer immediate exigencies. Thus, you violate your engagements at the very time you increase the burthen of them. Besides, sound policy condemns the practice of accumulating debts. A government, to act with energy, should have the possession of all its revenues to answer present purposes. The principle for which I contend is recognized in all its extent by our old Constitution. Congress is authorized to raise troops, to call for supplies without limitation, and to borrow money to any amount. It is true, they must use the form of recommendations and requisitions; but the States are bound, by the solemn ties of honor, of justice, of religion, to comply without reserve.
Mr. Chairman: It has been advanced as a principle, that no government but a despotism can exist in a very extensive country. This is a melancholy consideration indeed. If it were founded on truth, we ought to dismiss the idea of a republican government, even for the State of New York. This idea has been taken from a celebrated writer, who, by being misunderstood, has been the occasion of frequent fallacies in our reasoning on political subjects. But the position has been misapprehended; and its application is entirely false and unwarrantable. It relates only to democracies, where the whole body of the people meet to transact business, and where representation is unknown. Such were a number of ancient and some modern independent cities. Men who read without attention have taken these maxims respecting the extent of country, and, contrary to their proper meaning, have applied them to republics in general. This application is wrong in respect to all representative governments, but especially in relation to a Confederacy of States, in which the supreme Legislature has only general powers and the civil and domestic concerns of the people are regulated by the laws of the several States. This distinction being kept in view, all the difficulty will vanish, and we may easily conceive that the people of a large country may be represented as truly as those of a small one. An assembly constituted for general purposes may be fully competent to every federal regulation, without being too numerous for deliberate conduct. If the State governments were to be abolished, the question would wear a different face; but this idea is inadmissible. They are absolutely necessary to the system. Their existence must form a leading principle in the most perfect Constitution we could form. I insist that it never can be the interest or desire of the National Legislature to destroy the State governments. It can derive no advantage from such an event; but, on the contrary, would lose an indispensable support, a necessary aid in executing the laws and conveying the influence of government to the doors of the people. The Union is dependent on the will of the State governments for its Chief Magistrate, and for its Senate. The blow aimed at the members must give a fatal wound to the head, and the destruction of the States must be at once a political suicide. Can the National Government be guilty of this madness? What inducements, what temptations, can they have? Will they attach new honors to their station; will they increase the national strength; will they multiply the national resources; will they make themselves more respectable, in the view of foreign nations, or of their fellow-citizens, by robbing the States of their constitutional privileges? But imagine for a moment, that a political frenzy should seize the government. Suppose they should make the attempt. Certainly it would be for ever impracticable. This has been sufficiently demonstrated by reason and experience. It has been proved, that the members of republics have been, and ever will be, stronger than the head. Let us attend to one general historical example. In the ancient feudal governments of Europe there was in the first place a monarch; subordinate to him a body of nobles; and subject to these, the vassals or the whole body of the people. The authority of the kings was limited, and that of the barons considerably independent. A great part of the early wars in Europe were contests between the king and his nobility. In these contests, the latter possessed many advantages, derived from their influence, and the immediate command they had over the people, and they generally prevailed. The history of the feudal wars exhibits little more than a series of successful encroachments on the prerogatives of monarchy. Here is one great proof of the superiority which the members in limited governments possess over their head. As long as the barons enjoyed the confidence and attachment of the people, they had the strength of the country on their side, and were irresistible. I may be told that in some instances the barons were overcome. But how did this happen? They took advantage of the depression of the royal authority and the establishment of their own power, to oppress and tyrannize over their vassals. As commerce enlarged, and as wealth and civilization increased, the people began to feel their own weight and consequence; they grew tired of their oppressions; united their strength with that of the prince; and threw off the yoke of aristocracy. These very instances prove what I contend for. They prove that in whatever direction the popular weight leans, the current of power will flow. Wherever the popular attachments be, there will rest the political superiority. Sir, can it be supposed that the State governments will become the oppressors of the people? Will they forget their affections? Will they combine to destroy the liberties and happiness of their fellow-citizens, for the sole purpose of involving themselves in ruin? God forbid! The idea is shocking! It outrages every feeling of humanity, and every dictate of common-sense!
There are certain social principles in human nature, from which we may draw the most solid conclusions with respect to the conduct of individuals and of communities. We love our families more than our neighbors; we love our neighbors more than our countrymen in general. The human affections, like the solar heat, lose their intensity as they depart from the centre; and become languid in proportion to the expansion of the circle on which they act. On these principles, the attachment of the individual will be first and for ever secured by the State governments. They will be a mutual protection and support. Another source of influence which has already been pointed out, is the various official connections in the States. Gentlemen endeavor to evade the force of this, by saying that these offices will be insignificant. This is by no means true. The State officers will ever be important, because they are necessary and useful. Their powers are such as are extremely interesting to the people, such as affect their property, their liberty, and life. What is more important than the administration of justice, and the execution of the civil and criminal laws? Can the State governments become insignificant, while they have the power of raising money independently and without control? If they are really useful,—if they are calculated to promote the essential interests of the people, they must have their confidence and support. The States can never lose their powers till the whole people of America are robbed of their liberties. These must go together; they must support each other, or meet one common fate. On the gentleman’s principles we may safely trust the State governments, though we have no means of resisting them, but we cannot confide in the National Government, though we have an effectual constitutional guard against every encroachment. This is the essence of their argument, and it is false and fallacious beyond conception.
With regard to the jurisdiction of the two governments, I shall certainly admit that the Constitution ought not to be so formed as to prevent the States providing for their own existence; and I maintain that it is so formed that their power of providing for themselves is sufficiently established. This is conceded by one gentleman, and in the next breath the concession is retracted. He says Congress have but one exclusive right in taxation, that of duties on imports. Certainly, then, their other powers are only concurrent. But, to take off the force of this obvious conclusion, he immediately says that if the laws of the United States are supreme, those of the States must be subordinate, because there cannot be two supremes. This is curious sophistry. That two supreme powers cannot act together is false. They are inconsistent only when they are aimed at each other, or at one indivisible object. The laws of the United States are supreme as to all their proper constitutional objects. The laws of the States are supreme in the same way. These supreme laws may act on different objects without clashing, or they may operate on different parts of the same common object with perfect harmony. Suppose both governments should lay a tax of a penny on a certain article. Has not each an independent and uncontrollable power to collect its own tax? The meaning of the axiom, that there cannot be two supremes, is simply this: two powers cannot be supreme over each other. This meaning is entirely perverted by the gentlemen. But, it is said, disputes between collectors are to be referred to the federal courts. This is again wandering in the field of conjecture. But suppose the fact certain. Is it not to be presumed that they will express the true meaning of the Constitution and the laws? Will they not be bound to consider the concurrent jurisdiction; to declare that both the taxes shall have equal operation; that both the powers, in that respect, are sovereign and coextensive? If they transgress their duty we are to hope that they will be punished. Sir, we cannot reason from probabilities alone. When we leave common-sense, and give ourselves up to conjecture, there can be no certainty, no security in our reasonings.
I imagine I have stated to the committee abundant reasons to prove the entire safety of the State governments and of the people. I would go into a more minute consideration of the nature of the concurrent jurisdiction, and of the operation of the laws in relation to revenue; but at present I feel too much indisposed to proceed. I shall, with the leave of the committee, improve another opportunity of expressing to them more fully my ideas on this point. I wish the committee to remember, that the Constitution under examination is framed upon truly republican principles, and that, as it is expressly designed to provide for the common protection and the general welfare of the United States, it must be utterly repugnant to this Constitution to subvert the State governments or oppress the people.
June 28, 1788.—Mr. Hamilton: Mr. Chairman, in the course of these debates it has been suggested that the State of New York has sustained peculiar misfortune from the mode of raising revenue by requisitions. I believe we shall now be able to prove that this State, in the course of the late Revolution, suffered the extremes of distress on account of this delusive system. To establish these facts, I shall beg leave to introduce a series of official papers and resolutions of this State as evidence of the sentiments of the people during the most melancholy periods of war. I shall request the secretary to read these papers, in the order in which I point them out.—Elliot’s Debates, ii.
June 28, 1788.—Mr. Hamilton [In reply to Mr. Smith, who had claimed the right to explain the papers produced, which involved Clinton in certain inconsistencies]: We shall make the same reservation. By the indisputable construction of these resolutions, we shall prove that this State was once on the verge of destruction, for want of an energetic government. To this point we shall confine ourselves.—Elliot’s Debates, ii.
June 28, 1788.—Mr. Hamilton: The honorable gentleman from Ulster1 has given a turn to the introduction of those papers which was never in our contemplation. He seems to insinuate that they were brought forward with a view of showing an inconsistency in the conduct of some gentlemen; perhaps of himself. Sir, the exhibition of them had a very different object. It was to prove that this State once experienced hardships and distresses to an astonishing degree for want of the assistance of the other States. It was to show the evils we suffered since, as well as before, the establishment of the Confederation, from being compelled to support the burthen of the war; that requisitions have been unable to call forth the resources of the country; that requisitions have been the cause of a principal part of our calamities; that the system is defective and rotten, and ought for ever to be banished from our government. It was necessary—with deference to the honorable gentleman—to bring forward these important proofs of our argument without consulting the feelings of any man. That the human passions should flow from one extreme to another, I allow, is natural. Hence the mad project of creating a dictator. But it is equally true that this project was never ripened into a deliberate and extensive design. When I heard of it, it met my instant disapprobation. The honorable gentleman’s opposition, too, is known and applauded. But why bring these things into remembrance? Why affect to compare this temporary effusion with the serious sentiments our fellow-citizens entertained of the national weakness? The gentleman has made a declaration of his wishes for a strong Federal Government. I hope this is the wish of all. But why has he not given us his ideas of the nature of this government, which is the object of his wishes? Why does he not describe it? We have proposed a system which we supposed would answer the purposes of strength and safety. The gentleman objects to it without pointing out the grounds on which his objections are founded, or showing us a better form. These general surmises never lead to the discovery of the truth. It is to be desired that the gentleman would explain particularly the errors in this system, and furnish us with their proper remedies. The committee remember that a grant of an impost to the United States for twenty-five years was requested by Congress. Though it was a very small addition of power to the Federal Government, it was opposed in this State without any reasons being offered. The dissent of New York and Rhode Island frustrated a most important measure. The gentleman says he was for granting the impost; yet he acknowledges he could not agree to the mode recommended. But it is well known that Congress had declared that they could not receive the accession of the States upon any other plan than that proposed. In such cases, propositions for altering the plan amounted to a positive rejection. At this time, sir, we were told it was dangerous to grant powers to Congress; did this general argument indicate a disposition to grant the impost in any shape? I should myself have been averse to the granting of very extensive powers; but the impost was justly considered as the only means of supporting the Union. We did not then contemplate a fundamental change in government. From my sense of the gentlemen’s integrity, I am bound to believe they are attached to a strong, united government; and yet I find it difficult to draw this conclusion from their conduct or their reasonings.
Sir, with respect to the subject of revenue, which was debated yesterday, it was asserted that, in all matters of taxation, except in the article of imposts, the united and individual States had a concurrent jurisdiction; that the State governments had an independent authority to draw revenues from every source but one. The truth of these positions will appear on a slight investigation. I maintain that the word supreme imports no more than this—that the Constitution and laws made in pursuance thereof cannot be controlled or defeated by any other law. The acts of the United States, therefore, will be absolutely obligatory as to all the proper objects and powers of the General Government. The States, as well as individuals, are bound by these laws; but the laws of Congress are restricted to a certain sphere, and when they depart from this sphere, they are no longer supreme or binding. In the same manner the States have certain independent powers, in which their laws are supreme; for example, in making and executing laws concerning the punishment of certain crimes, such as murder, theft, etc., the States cannot be controlled. With respect to certain other objects, the powers of the two governments are concurrent yet supreme. I instanced yesterday a tax on a specific article. Both might lay the tax; both might collect it without clashing or interference. If the individual should be unable to pay both, the first seizer would hold the property. Here the laws are not in the way of each other; they are independent and supreme. The case is like that of two creditors: each has a distinct demand; the debtor is held equally for the payment of both. Their suits are independent; and if the debtor cannot pay both, he who takes the first step secures the debt. The individual is precisely in the same situation, whether he pays such a sum to one, or to two. No more will be required of him to supply the public wants than he has ability to afford. That the States have an undoubted right to lay taxes in all cases in which they are not prohibited, is a position founded on the obvious and important principle in confederated governments, that whatever is not expressly given to the federal head is reserved to the members. The truth of this principle must strike every intelligent mind. In the first formation of government, by the association of individuals, every power of the community is delegated, because the government is to extend to every possible object; nothing is reserved but the inalienable rights of mankind: but when a number of these societies unite for certain purposes, the rule is different, and from the plainest reason they have already delegated their sovereignty and their powers to their several governments; and these cannot be recalled and given to another without an express act. I submit to the committee whether this reasoning is not conclusive. Unless, therefore, we find that the powers of taxation are exclusively granted, we must conclude that there remains a concurrent authority. Let us, then, inquire if the Constitution gives such exclusive powers to the General Government. Sir, there is not a syllable in it that favors this idea; not a word importing an exclusive grant, except in the article of imposts. I am supported in my general position by this very exception. If the States are prohibited from laying duties on imports, the implication is clear. Now, what proportion will the duties on imports bear to the other ordinary resources of the country? We may now say one third; but this will not be the case long. As our manufactures increase, foreign importations must lessen. Here are two thirds, at least, of the resources of our country open to the State governments. Can it be imagined, then, that the States will lose their existence or importance for want of revenues? The propriety of Congress possessing an exclusive power over the impost appears from the necessity of their having a considerable portion of our resources to pledge as a fund for the reduction of the debts of the United States. When you have given a power of taxation to the General Government, none of the States individually will be holden for the discharge of the Federal obligations; the burden will be on the Union.
The gentleman says that the operation of the taxes will exclude the States on this ground—that the demands of the community are always equal to its resources; that Congress will find a use for all the money the people can pay. This observation, if designed as a general rule, is in every view unjust. Does he suppose the General Government will want all the money the people can furnish, and also that the State governments will want all the money the people can furnish? What contradiction is this! But if the maxim be true, how does the wealth of the country ever increase? How are the people enabled to accumulate fortunes? Do the burdens regularly augment as its inhabitants grow prosperous and happy? But if, indeed, all the resources are required for the protection of the people, it follows that the protecting power should have access to them. The only difficulty lies in the want of resources. If they are adequate, the operation will be easy; if they are not, taxation must be restrained. Will this be the fate of the State taxes alone? Certainly not. The people will say, No. What will be the conduct of the national rulers? The consideration will not be, that our imposing the tax will destroy the States, for this cannot be effected; but that it will distress the people whom we represent, and whose protectors we are. It is unjust to suppose they will be altogether destitute of virtue and prudence; it is unfair to presume that the representatives of the people will be disposed to tyrannize in one government more than in another. If we are convinced that the National Legislature will pursue a system of measures unfavorable to the interests of the people, we ought to have no general government at all. But if we unite, it will be for the accomplishment of great purposes; these demand great resources and great powers. There are certain extensive and uniform objects of revenue which the United States will improve, and to which if possible they will confine themselves. Those objects which are more limited, and in respect to which the circumstances of the State differ, will be reserved for their use; a great variety of articles will be in this last class of objects, to which only the State laws will properly apply. To ascertain this division of objects is the proper business of legislation; it would be absurd to fix it in the Constitution, both because it would be too extensive and intricate, and because alteration of circumstances must render a change of the division indispensable.
Constitutions should consist only of general provisions; the reason is that they must necessarily be permanent, and that they cannot calculate for the possible change of things. I know that the States must have their resources; but I contend that it would be improper to point them out, particularly in the Constitution. Sir, it has been said that a poll tax is a tyrannical tax; but the Legislature of this State can lay it whenever they please. Does, then, our Constitution authorize tyranny? I am as much opposed to capitation as any man. Yet who can deny that there may exist certain circumstances which will render this tax necessary? In the course of a war it may be necessary to lay hold of every resource; and for a certain period the people may submit to it. But on removal of the danger, or return of peace, the general sense of the community would abolish it. The United Netherlands were obliged, on an emergency, to give up one twentieth of their property to the government. It has been said that it will be impossible to exercise this power of taxation. If it cannot be exercised why be alarmed? But the gentlemen say that the difficulty of executing it with moderation will necessarily drive the government into despotic measures. Here, again, they are in the old track of jealousy and conjecture. Whenever the people feel the hand of despotism, they will not regard forms and parchments. But the gentlemen’s premises are as false as their conclusion. No one reason can be offered why the exercise of the power should be impracticable. No one difficulty can be pointed out which will not apply to our State governments. Congress will have every means of knowledge that any Legislature can have. From general observations, and from the revenue systems of the several States, they will derive information as to the most eligible modes of taxation. If a land tax is the object, cannot Congress procure as perfect a valuation as any other assembly? Can they not have all the necessary officers for assessment and collections? Where is the difficulty? Where is the evil? They never can oppress a particular State by an unequal imposition, because the Constitution has provided a fixed ratio, a uniform rule, by which this must be regulated. The system will be founded upon the most easy and equal principles—to draw as much as possible from direct taxation, to lay the principal burdens on the wealthy, etc. Even ambitious and unscrupulous men will form their system so as to draw forth the resources of the country in the most favorable and gentle methods, because such will ever be the most productive. They never can hope for success by adopting those arbitrary modes which have been used in some of the States. A gentleman yesterday passed many encomiums on the character and operations of the State governments. The question has not been, whether their laws have produced happy or unhappy effects. The character of our Confederation is the subject of our controversy. But the gentleman concludes too hastily. In many of the States, government has not had a salutary operation. Not only Rhode Island, but several others, have been guilty of indiscretions and misconduct—of acts which have produced misfortunes and dishonor. I grant that the government of New York has operated well, and I ascribe it to the influence of those excellent principles in which the proposed Constitution and our own are so congenial.
We are sensible that private credit is much lower in some States than it is in ours. What is the cause of this? Why is it, at the present period, so low, even in this State? Why is the value of our land depreciated? It is said that there is a scarcity of money in the community. I do not believe this scarcity to be so great as represented. It may not appear; it may be retained by its holders; but nothing more than stability and confidence in the government is requisite to draw it into circulation. It is acknowledged that the General Government has not answered its purposes. Why? We attribute it to the defects of the revenue system. But the gentlemen say, the requisitions have not been obeyed, because the States were impoverished. This is a kind of reasoning that astonishes me. The records of this State—the records of Congress—prove that, during the war, New York had the best reason to complain of non-compliance of the other States. I appeal to the gentleman. Have the States who have suffered least contributed most? No, sir; the fact is directly the reverse. This consideration is sufficient entirely to refute the gentleman’s reasoning. Requisitions will ever be attended with the same effects. This depends on principles of human nature that are as infallible as any mathematical calculations. States will contribute, or not, according to their circumstances or interests. They will all be inclined to throw off their burdens of government upon their neighbors. These positions have been so fully illustrated and proved in former stages of this debate, that nothing need be added. Unanswerable experience—stubborn facts—have supported and fixed them. Sir, to what situation is our Congress now reduced? It is notorious that with the most difficulty they maintain their ordinary officers, and support the mere form of a Federal government. How do we stand with respect to foreign nations? It is a fact that should strike us with shame, that we are obliged to borrow money in order to pay the interest of our debts. It is a fact that these debts are every day accumulating by compound interest. This, sir, will one day endanger the peace of our country, and expose us to vicissitudes the most alarming. Such is the character of requisitions—such the melancholy, dangerous, condition to which they have reduced us. Now, sir, after this full and fair experiment, with what countenance do gentlemen come forward to recommend the ruinous principle, and make it the basis of a new government? Why do they affect to cherish this political demon, and present it once more to our embraces? The gentleman observed, that we cannot, even in a single State, collect the whole of a tax; some counties will necessarily be deficient. In the same manner, says he, some States will be delinquent. If this reasoning were just, I should expect to see the States pay, like the counties, in proportion to their ability, which is not the fact. I shall proceed now more particularly to the proposition before the committee. This clearly admits that the unlimited power of taxation, which I have been contending for, is proper. It declares that, after the States have refused to comply with the requisitions, the General Government may enforce its demands. While the gentleman’s proposition and principle admit this in its fullest latitude, the whole course of the States is against it. The mode they point out would involve many inconveniences against which they would wish to guard. Suppose the gentleman’s scheme should be adopted; would not all the resources of the country be equally in the power of Congress? The States can have but one opportunity of refusal. After having passed through the empty ceremony of a requisition, the General Government can enforce all its demands without limitation or resistance. The States will either comply or they will not. If they comply, they are bound to collect the whole of the tax from the citizens. The people must pay it. What, then, will be the disadvantage of its being levied and collected by Congress, in the first instance? It has been proved, as far as probabilities can go, that the Federal Government will, in general, take the laws of the several States as its rule, and pursue those measures to which the people are most accustomed. But if the States do not comply, what is the consequence? If the power of a compulsion be a misfortune to the State, they must now suffer it without opposition or complaint. I shall show, too, that they must feel it in an aggravated degree. It may frequently happen that, though the States formally comply with the requisitions, the avails will not be fully realized by Congress; the States may be dilatory in the collection and payment, and may form excuses for not paying the whole. There may also be partial compliances, which will subject the Union to inconveniences. Congress, therefore, in laying the tax, will calculate for these losses and inconveniences. They will make allowances for the delays and delinquencies of the States, and apportion their burdens accordingly. They will be induced to demand more than their actual wants. In these circumstances the requisitions will be made upon calculations in some measure arbitrary. Upon the constitutional plan the only inquiry will be: How much is actually wanted? and how much can the object bear, or the people pay? On the gentleman’s scheme it will be: What will be the probable deficiencies of the States? for we must increase our demands in proportion, whatever the public wants may be, or whatever may be the abilities of the people. Now, suppose the requisition is totally rejected; it must be levied upon the citizens without reserve. This will be like inflicting a penalty upon the States. It will place them in the light of criminals. Will they suffer this? Will Congress presume so far? If the States solemnly declare they will not comply, does not this imply a determination not to permit the exercise of the coercive power? The gentlemen cannot escape the dilemma into which their own reasoning leads them. If the States comply, the people must be taxed; if they do not comply, the people must equally be taxed. The burden in either case will be the same—the difficulty of collecting the same. Sir, if these operations are merely harmless and indifferent, why play the ridiculous farce? If they are inconvenient, why subject us to their evils? It is infinitely more eligible to lay a tax originally, which will have uniform effects throughout the Union, which will operate equally and silently. The United States will then be able to ascertain their resources, and to act with vigor and decision. All hostility between the governments will be prevented. The people will contribute regularly and gradually for the support of the government, and all odious, retrospective inquiries will be precluded. But the ill effects of the gentleman’s plan do not terminate here. Our own State will suffer peculiar disadvantages from the measure. One provision in the amendment is, that no direct taxes shall be laid till after the impost and excise shall be found insufficient for public exigencies; and that no excise shall be laid on articles of the growth or manufacture of the United States. Sir, the favorable maritime situation of this State, and our large and valuable tracts of unsettled land, will ever lead us to commerce and agriculture as our proper objects. Unconfined, and tempted by the prospect of easy subsistence and independence, our citizens, as the country populates, will retreat back, and cultivate the western parts of our State. Our population, though extensive, will never be crowded; and consequently we shall remain an importing and agricultural State. Now, what will be the operation of the proposed plan? The General Government, restrained by the Constitution from a free application to other resources, will push imposts to an extreme. Will excessive impositions on our commerce be favorable to the policy of this State? Will they not directly oppose our interests? Similar will be the operation of the other clause of the amendment, relative to excise. Our neighbors, not possessed of our advantages for commerce and agriculture, will become manufacturers; their property will, in a great measure, be vested in the commodities of their own productions, but a small proportion will be in trade or in lands. Thus, on the gentleman’s scheme, they will be almost free from burthens, while we shall be loaded with them. Does not the partiality of this strike every one? Can gentlemen who are laboring for the interest of their State, seriously bring forward such propositions? It is the interest of New York that those articles should be taxed, in the production of which the other States exceed us. If we are not a manufacturing people, excises on manufactures will ever be for our advantage. This position is indisputable. Sir, I agree that it is not good policy to lay excises to any considerable amount, while our manufactures are in their infancy; but are they always to be so? In some of the States they already begin to make considerable progress. In Connecticut, such encouragement is given as will soon distinguish that State. Even at the present period, there is one article from which a revenue may very properly be drawn: I speak of ardent spirits. New England manufactures more than a hundred gallons to our one; consequently, an excise on spirits at the still-head would make those States contribute in a vastly greater proportion than ourselves. In every view, excises on domestic manufacture would benefit New York. But the gentleman would defeat the advantages of our situation, by drawing upon us all the burdens of government. The nature of our Union requires that we should give up our State impost. The amendment would forfeit every other advantage. This part of the Constitution should not be touched. The excises were designed as a recompense to the importing States for relinquishing their imposts. Why, then, should we reject the benefits conferred upon us? Why should we run blindly against our own interest?
Sir, I shall no further enlarge on this argument; my exertions have already exhausted me. I have persevered from an anxious desire to give the committee the most complete conception of this subject. I fear, however, that I have not been so successful as to bestow upon it that full and clear light of which it is susceptible. I shall conclude with a few remarks by way of an apology. I am apprehensive, sir, that, in the warmth of my feelings, I may have uttered expressions which were too vehement. If such has been my language it was from the habit of using strong phrases to express my ideas; and, above all, from the interesting nature of the subject. I have ever condemned those cold, unfeeling hearts, which no object can animate. I condemn those indifferent mortals, who either never form opinions, or never make them known. I confess, sir, that on no subject has my breast been filled with stronger emotions or more anxious concern. If any thing has escaped me, which may be construed into a personal reflection, I beg the gentlemen, once for all, to be assured that I have no design to wound the feelings of any one who is opposed to me. While I am making these observations, I cannot but take notice of some expressions which have fallen in the course of the debate. It has been said that ingenious men may say ingenious things, and that those who are interested in raising the few upon the ruins of the many, may give to every cause an appearance of justice. I know not whether these insinuations allude to the characters of any who are present, or to any of the reasonings of the House. I presume that the gentlemen would not ungenerously impute such motives to those who differ from themselves. I declare I know not any set of men who are to derive peculiar advantages from this Constitution. Were any permanent honors or emoluments to be secured to the families of those who have been active in this cause, there might be some grounds for suspicion. But what reasonable man, for the precarious enjoyment of rank and power, would establish a system which would reduce his nearest friends and his posterity to slavery and ruin? If the gentlemen reckon me amongst the obnoxious few, if they imagine that I contemplate with ambitious eye the immediate honors of the government, yet let them consider that I have my friends, my family, my children, to whom ties of nature and of habit have attached me. If, to-day, I am among the favored few, my children, to-morrow, may be among the oppressed; these dear pledges of my patriotism may, at a future day, be suffering the severe distresses to which my ambition has reduced them. The changes in the human condition are uncertain and frequent; many, on whom fortune has bestowed her favors, may trace their family to a more unprosperous station; and many, who are now in obscurity, may look back upon the affluence and exalted rank of their ancestors. But I will no longer trespass on your indulgence. I have troubled the committee with these observations, to show that it cannot be the wish of any reasonable man to establish a government unfriendly to the liberties of the people. Gentlemen ought not, then, to presume that the advocates of this Constitution are influenced by ambitious views. The suspicion, sir, is unjust; the charge is uncharitable.2 —Elliot’s Debates, ii.
1 Gov. Clinton.
2 In the edition of 1851, portions only are given of Hamilton’s speeches in the New York Convention. The gaps have been filled here from Elliot’s Debates, and the complete series is given in exact accordance with the official report.
The Works of Alexander Hamilton, ed. Henry Cabot Lodge (Federal Edition) (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904). In 12 vols. The copyright for the original of this document is held in the Public Domain. Font, formatting, spelling modernizations, typo/transcription corrections, and explanatory footnotes for this version of ”The Works of Alexander Hamilton” Copyright © 2011 Steve Farrell and The Moral Liberal.