Constitutional Convention. Remarks on
Equality of Representation of the States in the Congress1
[Philadelphia, June 29, 1787]
Mr. Hamilton2 observed the individuals forming political Societies modify their rights differently, with regard to suffrage. Examples of it are found in all the States. In all of them some individuals are deprived of the right altogether, not having the requisite qualifications of property. In some of the States the right of suffrage is allowed in some cases and refused in others. To vote for a member in one branch, a certain quantum of property, to vote for a member in another branch of the Legislature, a higher quantum of property is required. In like manner States may modify their right of suffrage differently, the larger exercising a larger, the smaller a smaller share of it. But as States are a collection of individual men which ought we to respect most, the rights of the people composing them, or of the artificial beings resulting from the composition. Nothing could be more preposterous or absurd than to sacrifice the former to the latter. It has been sd. that if the smaller States renounce their equality, they renounce at the same time their liberty. The truth is it is a contest for power, not for liberty. Will the men composing the small States be less free than those composing the larger. The State of Delaware having 40,000 souls will lose power, if she has 1/10 only of the votes allowed to Pa. having 400,000: but will the people of Del: be less free, if each citizen has an equal vote with each citizen of Pa. He admitted that common residence within the same State would produce a certain degree of attachment; and that this principle might have a certain influence in public affairs. He thought however that this might by some precautions be in a great measure excluded: and that no material inconvenience could result from it, as there could not be any ground for combination among the States whose influence was most dreaded. The only considerable distinction of interests, lay between the carrying & non-carrying States, which divide instead of uniting the largest States. No considerable inconvenience had been found from the division of the State of N. York into different districts of different sizes.
Some of the consequences of a dissolution of the Union, and the establishment of partial confederacies, had been pointed out. He would add another of a most serious nature. Alliances will immediately be formed with different rival & hostile nations of Europes, who will foment disturbances among ourselves, and make us parties to all their own quarrels. Foreign Nations having American dominions are & must be jealous of us. Their representatives betray the utmost anxiety for our fate, & for the result of this meeting, which must have an essential influence on it. It had been said that respectability in the eyes of foreign Nations was not the object at which we aimed; that the proper object of republican Government was domestic tranquility & happiness. This was an ideal distinction. No Governmt. could give us tranquility & happiness at home, which did not possess sufficient stability and strength to make us respectable abroad. This was the critical moment for forming such a Government. We should run every risk in trusting to future amendments. As yet we retain the habits of union. We are weak & sensible of our weakness. Henceforward the motives will become feebler, and the difficulties greater. It is a miracle that we were now here exercising our tranquil & free deliberations on the subject. It would be madness to trust to future miracles. A thousand causes must obstruct a reproduction of them.3
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 , 186–87.
1. The remarks attributed to H by Robert Yates are as follows:
The course of my experience in human affairs might perhaps restrain me from saying much on this subject. I shall, however, give birth to some of the observations I have made during the course of this debate. The gentleman from Maryland [Luther Martin] has been at great pains to establish positions which are not denied. Many of them, as drawn from the best writers on government, are become almost self-evident principles. But I doubt the propriety of his application of those principles in the present discussion. He deduces from them the necessity that states entering into a confederacy must retain the equality of votes—this position cannot be correct—Facts plainly contradict it. The parliament of Great Britain asserted a supremacy over the whole empire, and the celebrated Judge Blackstone labors for the legality of it, although many parts were not represented. This parliamentary power we opposed as contrary to our colonial rights. With that exception, throughout that whole empire, it is submitted to. May not the smaller and greater states so modify their respective rights as to establish the general interest of the whole, without adhering to the right of equality? Strict representation is not observed in any of the state governments. The senate of New-York are chosen by persons of certain qualifications, to the exclusion of others. The question, after all is, is it our interest in modifying this general government to sacrifice individual rights to the preservation of the rights of an artificial being, called states? There can be no truer principle than this—that every individual of the community at large has an equal right to the protection of government. If therefore three states contain a majority of the inhabitants of America, ought they to be governed by a minority? Would the inhabitants of the great states ever submit to this? If the smaller states maintain this principle, through a love of power, will not the larger, from the same motives, be equally tenacious to preserve their power? They are to surrender their rights—for what? for the preservation of an artificial being. We propose a free government—Can it be so if partial distinctions are maintained? I agree with the gentleman from Delaware [George Read], that if the state governments are to act in the general government, it affords the strongest reason for exclusion. In the state of New-York, five counties form a majority of representatives, and yet the government is in no danger, because the laws have a general operation. The small states exaggerate their danger, and on this ground contend for an undue proportion of power. But their danger is increased, if the larger states will not submit to it. Where will they form new alliances for their support? Will they do this with foreign powers? Foreigners are jealous of our encreasing greatness, and would rejoice in our distractions. Those who have had opportunities of conversing with foreigners respecting sovereigns in Europe, have discovered in them an anxiety for the preservation of our democratic governments, probably for no other reason, but to keep us weak. Unless your government is respectable, foreigners will invade your rights; and to maintain tranquillity, it must be respectable—even to observe neutrality, you must have a strong government. I confess our present situation is critical. We have just finished a war which has established our independency, and loaded us with a heavy debt. We have still every motive to unite for our common defence. Our people are disposed to have a good government, but this disposition may not always prevail. It is difficult to amend confederations—it has been attempted in vain, and it is perhaps a miracle that we are now met. We must therefore improve the opportunity, and render the present system as perfect as possible. Their good sense, and above all, the necessity of their affairs, will induce the people to adopt it.” (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 , 185–87.)
John Lansing, Jr., made the following record of H’s remarks:
“Hamilton—In the Course of his Experience he has found it difficult to convince Persons who have been in certain Habits of thinking. Some desultory Remarks may not be improper. We can modify Representation as we think proper.
“The Question simply is, what is general Interest. Larger States may submit to an Inequality of Representation to their Prejudice for a short Time—but it cannot be durable. This is a Contest for Power—the People of all States have an Inequality of Representation.
“So long as State Governments prevail State Influence will be perpetuated.
“There may be a Distinction of Interests but it arises merely from the carrying and noncarrying States.
“Those Persons who have had frequent Opportunities of conversing with the Representatives of European Sovereignties know they are very anxious to perpetuate our Democracies. This is easily accounted for—Our weakness will make us more manageable. Unless your Government is respectable abroad your Tranquility cannot be preserved.
“This is a critical Moment of American Liberty—We are still too weak to exist without Union. It is a Miracle that we have met—they seldom occur.
“We must devise a System on the Spot—It ought to be strong and nervous, hoping that the good Sense and principally the Necessity of our Affairs will reconcile the People to it.” (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 , 92–94.)
Rufus King’s version of H’s remarks reads:
“Men are naturally equal, and societies or States, when fully independent, are also equal. It is as reasonable, and may be as expedient, that States should form Leagues or compacts, and lessen or part with their national Equality, as that men should form the social compact and, in doing so, lessen or surrender the natural Equality of men. This is done in every society; and the grant to the society affects Persons and Property; age, minority & Estates are all affected.
“A Man may not become an Elector or Elected, unless of a given age & having a certain Estate. Let the People be represented according to numbers, the People will be free: every Office will be equally open to all and the majority of the People are to make the Laws. Yet it is said that the States will be destroyed & the People will be Slaves—this is not so. The People are free, at the expense of an artificial & ideal Equality of the States.” (King, The Life and Correspondence of Rufus King description begins Charles R. King, The Life and Correspondence of Rufus King (New York, 1894). description ends , I, 610–11.)
2. On June 27, the Convention took up the resolutions of the Virginia Plan dealing with representation in the two houses of the legislature. The plan proposed that representation in both houses be in proportion to population. The debate was continued on June 28 and 29.
3. H left the Constitutional Convention on June 29. Although he did not again take part in the debates until August 13, he probably returned soon after August 6. In his first speech of June 23, 1788, to the New York Ratifying Convention he stated: “Some private business calling me to New-York, I left the Convention for a few days: On my return, I found a plan, reported by the committee of details; and soon after, a motion was made to increase the number of representatives.” On August 6 the Committee of Detail reported a plan of a constitution. It was not until September 8, however, that a motion was made to increase the number of representatives. It was probably this plan and motion to which H referred in his speech of June 23, 1788, before the New York Ratifying Convention.