House Address to the President
[27 November 1794]
After JM withdrew his amendment concerning foreign policy, FitzSimons proposed an amendment that denounced the “self-created societies.” This provoked an extended and heated debate in the Committee of the Whole, which approved Giles’s motion to strike out the words “self-created societies” (Annals of Congress description begins Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States … (42 vols.; Washington, 1834–56). description ends , 3d Cong., 2d sess., 898–99, 907–8, 914). On 26 and 27 November the House considered reinstating those words.
Mr. Madison—said he entirely agreed with those gentlemen who had observed that the house should not have advanced into this discussion, if it could have been avoided—but having proceeded thus far it was indispensably necessary to finish it.
Much delicacy had been thrown into the discussion, in consequence of the chief magistrate; he always regretted the circumstance, when this was the case.
This he observed, was not the first instance of difference in opinion between the President and this house. It may be recollected that the President dissented both from the Senate and this House on a particular law (he referred to that apportioning the representatives)1—on that occasion he thought the President right. On the present question, supposing the President really to entertain the opinion ascribed to him, it affords no conclusive reason for the House to sacrifice its own judgment.
It appeared to him, as it did to the gentleman from Georgia, that there was an innovation in the mode of procedure adopted, on this occasion.2 The house are on different ground from that usually taken—members seem to think that in cases not cognizable by law, there is room for the interposition of the House. He conceived it to be a sound principle that an action innocent in the eye of the law, could not be the object of censure to a legislative body. When the people have formed a constitution, they retain those rights which they have not expressly delegated. It is a question whether what is thus retained can be legislated upon. Opinions are not the objects of legislation. You animadvert on the abuse of reserved rights—how far will this go? It may extend to the liberty of speech and of the press.
It is in vain to say that this indiscriminate censure is no punishment. If it falls on classes or individuals it will be a severe punishment. He wished it to be considered how extremely guarded the constitution was in respect to cases not within its limits. Murder or treason cannot be noticed by the legislature. Is not this proposition, if voted, a vote of attainder? To consider a principle, we must try its nature, and see how far it will go; in the present case he considered the effects of the principle contended for, would be pernicious. If we advert to the nature of republican government, we shall find that the censorial power is in the people over the government, and not in the government over the people.
As he had confidence in the good sense and patriotism of the people, he did not anticipate any lasting evil to result from the publications of these societies; they will stand or fall by the public opinion; no line can be drawn in this case. The law is the only rule of right; what is consistent with that is not punishable; what is not contrary to that, is innocent, or at least not censurable by the legislative body.
With respect to the body of the people, (whether the outrages have proceeded from weakness or wickedness) what has been done, and will be done by the Legislature will have a due effect. If the proceedings of the government should not have an effect, will this declaration produce it? The people at large are possessed of proper sentiments on the subject of the insurrection—the whole continent reprobates the conduct of the insurgents, it is not therefore necessary to take the extra step. The press he believed would not be able to shake the confidence of the people in the government. In a republic, light will prevail over darkness, truth over error—he had undoubted confidence in this principle. If it be admitted that the law cannot animadvert on a particular case, neither can we do it. Governments are administered by men—the same degree of purity does not always exist. Honesty of motives may at present prevail—but this affords no assurance that it will always be the case—at a future period a Legislature may exist of a very different complexion from the present; in this view, we ought not by any vote of ours to give support to measures which now we do not hesitate to reprobate. The gentleman from Georgia had anticipated him in several remarks—no such inference can fairly be drawn as that we abandon the President, should we pass over the whole business.3 The vote passed this morning4 for raising a force to compleat the good work of peace order and tranquility begun by the executive, speaks quite a different language from that which has been used to induce an adoption of the principle contended for.
Mr. Madison adverted to precedents—none parallel to the subject before us existed. The inquiry into the failure of the expedition under St. Clair5 was not in point. In that case the house appointed a Committee of enquiry into the conduct of an individual in the public service—the democratic societies are not. He knew of nothing in the proceedings of the Legislature which warrants the house in saying that institutions, confessedly not illegal, were subjects of legislative censure.6
Gazette of the U.S., 2 Dec. 1794 (also reported in Supplement to the Philadelphia Gazette, 29 Nov. 1794, and Independent Gazetteer, 20 Dec. 1794).
1. On Washington’s first exercise of the presidential veto, on the apportionment bill of 1792, see PJM description begins Robert A. Rutland et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison: Presidential Series (1 vol. to date; Charlottesville, Va., 1984—). description ends , 14:261 n. 1.
2. Baldwin spoke just before JM. “Adverting to the usual process in conducting transactions of this nature, he observed, that the present appeared to be a deviation, if not an entire innovation, on the usual mode. During the recess, the President collected and arranged the information which he deemed proper to lay before the House; it cannot, therefore, be expected, that the House should at once, at the threshold of the session, enter into a minute answer to the communications of the President, containing facts and opinions the result of five or six months experience and reflection, before they have had time to examine those opinions, and investigate those facts” (Annals of Congress description begins Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States … (42 vols.; Washington, 1834–56). description ends , 3d Cong., 2d sess., 933).
3. In his speech, Baldwin concluded: “He was fully of opinion, that, rather than spin out the debate to any further length, it would be much more eligible to leave the subject altogether, and take up the other business of the nation. He was sure that the President, for whom he professed the highest respect, could not be pleased with this mode of conducting that before them” (ibid., 934).
4. On the morning of 27 Nov., the House passed the “bill to authorize the President to call out and station a corps of militia in the four Western counties of Pennsylvania, for a limited time.” Washington signed the bill on 29 Nov. (ibid., 932; U.S. Statutes at Large description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America … (17 vols.; Boston, 1848–73). description ends , 1:403).
5. In Committee of the Whole on 24 Nov., Dayton had argued “that these societies had produced the Western insurrection, and, therefore, the Committee were just as well entitled to institute an inquiry in this case, as formerly, regarding the failure of the expedition of General St. Clair” (Annals of Congress description begins Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States … (42 vols.; Washington, 1834–56). description ends , 3d Cong., 2d sess., 905). On JM’s role in the first exercise of legislative oversight of the executive branch, by the 1792 House select committee inquiry into Maj. Gen. Arthur St. Clair’s military defeat, see PJM description begins Robert A. Rutland et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison: Presidential Series (1 vol. to date; Charlottesville, Va., 1984—). description ends , 14:268–69 and nn., 270–71 and n. 1.
6. After further debate, JM was in the minority when the House voted 47–45 to reinstate the words “self-created societies” in FitzSimons’s amendment. The House, however, then defeated the amendment, which only nineteen members supported. On 28 Nov. Nicholas offered a compromise amendment denouncing “combinations of men,” which the House approved (Annals of Congress description begins Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States … (42 vols.; Washington, 1834–56). description ends , 3d Cong., 2d sess., 944–47; for the text of Nicholas’s amendment, see Address of the House of Representatives to the President, 21 Nov. 1794, n. 1).