Constitutional Convention. Remarks on the
Term of Office for Members of the Second Branch
of the Legislature1
[Philadelphia, June 26, 1787]
Mr. Hamilton. He did not mean to enter particularly into the subject.2 He concurred with Mr. Madison3 in thinking we were now to decide for ever the fate of Republican Government; and that if we did not give to that form due stability and wisdom, it would be disgraced & lost among ourselves, disgraced & lost to mankind for ever. He acknowledged himself not to think favorably of Republican Government; but addressed his remarks to those who did think favorably of it, in order to prevail on them to tone their Government as high as possible. He professed himself to be as zealous an advocate for liberty as any man whatever, and trusted he should be as willing a martyr to it though he differed as to the form in which it was most eligible. He concurred also in the general observations of (Mr. Madison) on the subject, which might be supported by others if it were necessary. It was certainly true: that nothing like an equality of property existed: that an inequality would exist as long as liberty existed, and that it would unavoidably result from that very liberty itself. This inequality of property constituted the great & fundamental distinction in Society. When the Tribunitial power had levelled the boundary between the patricians & plebians, what followed? The distinction between rich & poor was substituted. He meant not however to enlarge on the subject. He rose principally to remark that (Mr. Sherman) seemed not to recollect that one branch of the proposed Govt. was so formed, as to render it particularly the guardians of the poorer orders of Citizens;4 nor to have adverted to the true causes of the stability which had been exemplified in Cont.5 Under the British system as well as the federal, many of the great powers appertaining to Govt. particularly all those relating to foreign Nations were not in the hands of the Govt. there. Their internal affairs also were extremely simple, owing to sundry causes many of which were peculiar to that Country. Of late the Governt. had entirely given way to the people, and had in fact suspended many of its ordinary functions in order to prevent those turbulent scenes which had appeared elsewhere. He asks Mr. S. whether the State at this time, dare impose & collect a tax on ye. people? To these causes & not to the frequency of elections, the effect, as far as it existed ought to be chiefly ascribed.
Hunt and Scott, Debates description begins Gaillard Hunt and James Brown Scott, eds., The Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Which Framed the Constitution of the United States of America. Reported by James Madison (New York, 1920). description ends , 169.
1. Versions of this speech were reported by Robert Yates and John Lansing, Jr.
Yates’s version reads:
“This question has already been considered in several points of view. We are now forming a republican government. Real liberty is neither found in despotism or the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments.
“Those who mean to form a solid republican government, ought to proceed to the confines of another government. As long as offices are open to all men, and no constitutional rank is established, it is pure republicanism. But if we incline too much to democracy, we shall soon shoot into a monarchy. The difference of property is already great amongst us. Commerce and industry will still increase the disparity. Your government must meet this state of things, or combinations will in process of time, undermine your system. What was the tribunitial power of Rome? It was instituted by the plebeans as a guard against the patricians. But was this a sufficient check? No—The only distinction which remained at Rome was, at last, between the rich and poor. The gentleman from Connecticut forgets that the democratic body is already secure in a representation. As to Connecticut, what were the little objects of their government before the revolution? Colonial concerns merely. They ought now to act on a more extended scale, and dare they do this? Dare they collect the taxes and requisitions of congress? Such a government may do well, if they do not tax, and this is precisely their situation.” (Yates, Secret Proceedings and Debates description begins Robert Yates, Secret Proceedings and Debates of the Convention Assembled at Philadelphia, in the Year 1787, For the Purpose of Forming the Constitution of The United States of America (Albany, 1821). description ends , 170–71.)
Lansing’s version reads:
“Hamilton—We are now considering the Cause of Democracy—he is attached to a free Government and would chearfully become a Martyr to it—The occasional Violence of Democracy and the uniform Tyranny of a Despot are productive of the same Consequences.—to prevent them he is for tuning the Government high—In the ordinary Progress of Things we must look to a Period as not very remote when Distinctions arising from Property will be greater—You must devise a Repository of the Rights of the wealthy—At Rome after the Institution of the tribunitian Power greater Distinctions arose from the unequal Distribution of Riches and Rich and Poor were more oppressive Distinctions than patrician and plebian. Under the Colonial Government of Connecticut its Objects were contracted—but we have taken a new Station—Its Powers ought to be enlarged in Proportion to the Magnitude of the Objects it is intended to embrace. He will therefore go beyond any of the Ideas advocated by either Party. Is for nine Years.” (Notes of John Lansing description begins Joseph R. Strayer, ed., The Delegate from New York or Proceedings of the Federal Convention of 1787 from the Notes of John Lansing, Jr. (Princeton, 1939). description ends , 84–85.)
2. The Convention debated the term of office to be prescribed for members of the second branch of the proposed legislature.
3. Madison’s remarks occurred earlier in the debate on June 26.
4. Roger Sherman, whose remarks preceded those made by H, argued that as government was instituted for the governed “it ought … to be so constituted as not to be dangerous to their liberties. The more permanency it has the worse if it be a bad Govt. Frequent elections are necessary to preserve the good behavior of rulers” (Hunt and Scott, Debates description begins Gaillard Hunt and James Brown Scott, eds., The Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Which Framed the Constitution of the United States of America. Reported by James Madison (New York, 1920). description ends , 168).
5. Sherman had said that in Connecticut frequency of elections had promoted stability in government (Hunt and Scott, Debates description begins Gaillard Hunt and James Brown Scott, eds., The Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Which Framed the Constitution of the United States of America. Reported by James Madison (New York, 1920). description ends , 169).