MA Convention, 19 Jan. 1788, Powers of the Senate discussed

The Debates In The Several State Conventions On The Adoption Of The Federal Constitution, by Jonathan Elliot

In Convention at Boston, Massachusetts, Jan. 19, 1788

The fate of the proposed constitution was decided in the state ratifying conventions (nine states had to ratify for the Constitution to take effect), but it was the subject of intense debates everywhere-in homes, taverns, coffeehouses, and newspapers.
Courtesy of The Granger Collection, New York, New York

SATURDAY, January 19, 1788, A. M. — The Hon. Mr. SINGLETARY thought we were giving up all our privileges, as there was no provision that men in power should have any religion; and though he hoped to see Christians, yet, by the Constitution, a Papist, or an Infidel, was as eligible as they. It had been said that men had not degenerated; he did not think men were better now than when men after God’s own heart did wickedly. He thought, in this instance, we were giving great power to we know not whom.

Gen. BROOKS, (of Medford.) — If good men are appointed, government will be administered well. But what will prevent bad men from mischief, is the question. If there should be such in the Senate, we ought to be cautious of giving power; but when that power is given, with proper checks, the danger is at an end. When men are answerable, and within the reach of responsibility, they cannot forget that their political existence depends upon their good behavior. The Senate can frame no law but by consent of the Representatives, and is answerable to that house for its conduct. If that conduct excites suspicion, they are to be impeached, punished, (or prevented from holding any office, which is great punishment.) If these checks are not sufficient, it is impossible to devise such as will be so.

[Mr. Gerry’s answer to Mr. Fuller’s question was read. The purport is, that Georgia had increased in its numbers by emigration; and if it had not then, would soon be entitled to the proportion assigned her.]

Hon. Mr. KING. It so happened that I was both of the Convention and Congress at the same time; and if I recollect right, the answer of Mr. G. does not materially vary. In 1778, Congress required the states to make a return of the houses and lands surveyed; but one state only complied therewith — New Hampshire. Massachusetts did not. Congress consulted no rule: it was resolved that the several states should be taxed according to their ability, and if it appeared any state had paid more than her just quota, it should be passed to the credit of that state, with lawful interest.

Mr. DALTON said we had obtained a great deal by the new Constitution. By the Confederation each state had an equal vote. Georgia is now content with three eighths of the voice of Massachusetts.

Col. JONES, (of Bristol,) objected to the length of time. If men continue in office four or six years, they would forget their dependence on the people, and be loath to leave their places. Men elevated so high in power, they would fall heavy when they came down.

Mr. AMES observed, that an objection was made against the Constitution, because the senators are to be chosen for six years. It has been said, that they will be removed too far from the control of the people, and that, to keep them in proper dependence, they should be chosen annually. It is necessary to premise, that no argument against the new plan has made a deeper impression than this, that it will produce a consolidation of the states. This is an effect which all good men will deprecate. For it is obvious, that, if the state powers are to be destroyed, the representation is too small. The trust, in that case, would be too great to be confided to so few persons. The objects of legislation would be so multiplied and complicated, that the government would be unwieldy and impracticable. The state governments are essential parts of the system, and the defence of this article is drawn from its tendency to their preservation. The senators represent the sovereignty of the states; in the other house, individuals are represented. The Senate may not originate bills. It need not be said that they are principally to direct the affairs of wars and treaties. They are in the quality of ambassadors of the states, and it will not be denied that some permanency in their office is necessary to a discharge of their duty. Now, if they were chosen yearly, how could they perform their trust? If they would be brought by that means more immediately under the influence of the people, then they will represent the state legislatures less, and become the representatives of individuals. This belongs to the other house. The absurdity of this, and its repugnancy to the federal principles of the Constitution, will appear more fully, by supposing that they are to be chosen by the people at large. If there is any force in the objection to this article, this would be proper. But whom, in that case, would they represent? — Not the legislatures of the states, but the people. This would totally obliterate the federal features of the Constitution. What would become of the state governments, and on whom would devolve the duty of defending them against the encroachments of the federal government? A consolidation of the states would ensue, which, it is conceded, would subvert the new Constitution, and against which this very article, so much condemned, is our best security. Too much provision cannot be made against a consolidation. The state governments represent the wishes, and feelings, and local interests, of the people. They are the safeguard and ornament of the Constitution; they will protract the period of our liberties; they will afford a shelter against the abuse of power, and will be the natural avengers of our violated rights.

A very effectual check upon the power of the Senate is provided. A third part is to retire from office every two years. By this means, while the senators are seated for six years, they are admonished of their responsibility to the state legislatures. If one third new members are introduced, who feel the sentiments of their states, they will awe that third whose term will be near expiring. This article seems to be an excellence of the Constitution, and affords just ground to believe that it will be, in practice as in theory, a federal republic.

Afternoon. — The third section respecting the construction of the Senate under debate, —

Col. JONES said his objections still remained — that senators chosen for so long a time will forget their duty to their constituents. We cannot, said he, recall them. The choice of representatives was too long; the Senate was much worse; it is, said he, a bad precedent, and is unconstitutional.

Mr. KING said, as the Senate preserved the equality of the states, their appointment is equal. To the objection to this branch, that it is chosen for too long a period, he observed, if the principle of classing them is considered, although it appears long, it will not be found so long as it appears. One class is to serve two years, another four years, and another six years; the average, therefore, is four years. The senators, said Mr. K., will have a powerful check in those men who wish for their seats, who will watch their whole conduct in the general government, and will give the alarm in case of misbehavior. And the state legislatures, if they find their delegates erring, can and will instruct them. Will not this be a check? When they hear the voice of the people solemnly dictating to them their duty, they will be bold men indeed to act contrary to it. These will not be instructions sent them in a private letter, which can be put in their pockets; they will be public instructions, which all the country will see, and they will be hardy men indeed to violate them. The honorable gentleman said, the powers to control the Senate are as great as ever was enjoyed in any government; and that the members, therefore, will be found not to be chosen for too long a time. They are, says he, to assist the executive in the designation and appointment of officers; and they ought to have time to mature their judgments. If for a shorter period, how can they be acquainted with the rights and interests of nations, so as to form advantageous treaties? To understand these rights is the business of education. Their business being naturally different, and more extensive, than the other branch, they ought to have different qualifications; and their duration is not too long for a right discharge of their duty.

Dr. TAYLOR said, he hoped the honorable gentleman did not mean to deceive us, by saying, that the Senate are not to be chosen for six years; for they really are to be chosen for six years; and as to the idea of classing, he did not know who, when chosen for that time, would go out at a shorter. He remarked on Mr. King’s idea of checks, and observed, that such indeed were the Articles of Confederation, which provide for delegates being chosen annually; for rotation, and the right of recalling. But in this, they are to be chosen for six years; but a shadow of rotation provided for, and no power to recall; and concluded by saying, that if they are once chosen, they are chosen forever.

Mr. STRONG mentioned the difficulty which attended the construction of the Senate in the Convention; and that a committee, consisting of one delegate from each state, was chosen to consider the subject, who reported as it now stands; and that Mr. Gerry was on the committee from Massachusetts.

Mr. GERRY rose, and informed the president that he was then preparing a letter on the subject in debate; and would set the matter in its true light; and which he wished to communicate. This occasioned considerable conversation, which lasted until the Convention adjourned.

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Editor’s Note: Elliot’s original text on The Debates in Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution lumped each state convention into one huge document and online editors have followed suit. For your convenience, The Moral Liberal has separated daily entries (with a few exceptions) into separate posts. As edited, and otherwise uniquely formatted, Copyright @ 2012 – 2015 The Moral Liberal.