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speech on the constitution resumed - Alexander Hamilton, The Works of Alexander Hamilton, (Federal Edition), vol. 2 
The Works of Alexander Hamilton, ed. Henry Cabot Lodge (Federal Edition) (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904). In 12 vols. Vol. 2.
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speech on the constitution resumed
June 21, 1788: Mr. Hamilton resumed his argument. When, said he, I had the honor to address the committee yesterday, I gave a history of the circumstances which attended the convention, when forming the plan before you. I endeavored to point out to you the principles of accommodation on which this arrangement was made, and to show that the contending interests of the States led them to establish the representation as it now stands. In the second place, I attempted to prove that, in point of number, the representation would be perfectly secure.
Sir, no man agrees more fully than myself to the main principle for which the gentlemen contend. I agree that there should be a broad democratic branch in the National Legislature. But this matter depends on circumstances. It is impossible, in the first instance, to be precise and exact with regard to the number; and it is equally impossible to determine to what point it may be brought in future to increase it. On this ground, I am disposed to acquiesce. In my reasonings on the subject of government, I rely more on the interests and opinions of men, than upon any speculative parchment provisions whatever. I have found that constitutions are more or less excellent, as they are more or less agreeable to the natural operation of things; I am therefore disposed not to dwell long on curious speculations, or pay much attention to modes and forms, but to adopt a system whose principles have been sanctioned by experience, adapt it to the real state of our country, and depend on probable reasonings for its operation and result. I contend that sixty-five and twenty-six, in two bodies, afford perfect security in the present state of things; and that the regular progressive enlargement, which was in the contemplation of the general convention, will leave not an apprehension of danger in the most timid and suspicious mind. It will be the interest of the large States to increase the representation. This will be the standing instruction to their delegates. But the members of Congress will be interested not to increase the number, as it will diminish their relative influence. In all the reasoning upon this subject, there seems to be this fallacy: They suppose that the representative will have no motive of action, on the one side, but a sense of duty; or, on the other, but corruption. They do not reflect that he is to return to the community—that he is dependent on the will of the people—and that it cannot be his interest to oppose their wishes. Sir, the general sense of the people will regulate the conduct of their representatives. I admit that there are exceptions to this rule. There are certain conjunctures when it may be necessary and proper to disregard the opinions which the majority of the people have formed; but, in the general course of things, the popular views, and even prejudices, will direct the actions of the rulers.
All governments, even the most despotic, depend, in a great degree, on opinion. In free republics it is most peculiarly the case. In these the will of the people makes the essential principle of the government, and the laws which control the community receive their tone and spirit from the public wishes. It is the fortunate situation of our country, that the minds of the people are exceedingly enlightened and refined. Here, then, we may expect the laws to be proportionately agreeable to the standard of a perfect policy, and the wisdom of public measures to consist with the most intimate conformity between the views of the representative and his constituent. If the general voice of the people be for an increase, it undoubtedly must take place. They have it in their power to instruct their representatives, and the State Legislatures, which appoint the Senators, may enjoin it also upon them. If I believed that the number would remain at sixty-five, I confess I should give my vote for an amendment, though in a different form from the one proposed.
The amendment proposes a ratio of one for twenty thousand. I would ask: By what rule or reasoning is it determined that one man is a better representative for twenty than for thirty thousand? At present we have three millions of people; in twentyfive years we shall have six millions; and in forty years nine millions; and this is a short period as it relates to the existence of States. Here, then, according to the ratio of one for thirty thousand, we shall have, in forty years, three hundred representatives. If this be true, and if this be a safe representation, why be dissatisfied? Why embarrass the Constitution with amendments that are merely speculative and useless? I agree with the gentleman, that a very small number might give some color for suspicion. I acknowledge that ten would be unsafe; on the other hand, a thousand would be too numerous. But, I ask him, why will not ninety-one be an adequate and safe representation? This, at present, appears to be the proper medium. Besides, the President of the United States will be himself the representative of the people. From the competition that ever subsists between the branches of the government, the President will be induced to protect their rights, whenever they are invaded by either branch. On whatever side we view this subject, we discover various and powerful checks to the encroachments of Congress. The true and permanent interests of the members are opposed to corruption. Their number is vastly too large for easy combination. The rivalship between the houses will for ever prove an insuperable obstacle. The people have an obvious and powerful protection in their own State governments. Should anything dangerous be attempted, these bodies of perpetual observation will be capable of forming and conducting plans of regular opposition. Can we suppose the people's love of liberty will not, under the incitement of their legislative leaders, be roused into resistance, and the madness of tyranny be extinguished at a blow? Sir, the danger is too distant; it is beyond all rational calculations.
It has been observed that a pure democracy, if it were practicable, would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved, that no position in politics is more false than this. The ancient democracies, in which the people themselves deliberated, never possessed one feature of good government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity. When they assembled, the field of debate presented an ungovernable mob, not only incapable of deliberation, but prepared for every enormity. In these assemblies the enemies of the people brought forward their plans of ambition systematically. They were opposed by their enemies of another party; and it became a matter of contingency, whether the people subjected themselves to be led blindly by one tyrant or by another.
It was remarked yesterday that a numerous representation was necessary to obtain the confidence of the people. This is not generally true. The confidence of the people will easily be gained by a good administration. This is the true touchstone. I could illustrate the position by a variety of historical examples both ancient and modern. In Sparta, the Ephori were a body of magistrates, instituted as a check upon the Senate and representing the people. They consisted of only five men; but they were able to protect their rights, and therefore enjoyed their confidence and attachment. In Rome the people were represented by three tribunes, who were afterwards increased to ten. Every one acquainted with the history of that republic will recollect how powerful a check to the senatorial encroachments this small body proved; how unlimited a confidence was placed in them by the people whose guardians they were; and to what a conspicuous station in the government their influence at length elevated the plebeians. Massachusetts has three hundred representatives; New York has sixty-five. Have the people in this State less confidence in their representation than the people of that? Delaware has twenty-one: do the inhabitants of New York feel a higher confidence than those of Delaware? I have stated these examples to prove that the position is not just. The popular confidence depends on circumstances very distinct from considerations of number. Probably the public attachment is more strongly secured by a train of prosperous events, which are the result of wise deliberation and of vigorous execution, and to which large bodies are much less competent than small ones. If the representative conducts with propriety, he will necessarily enjoy the good-will of the constituent. It appears, then, if my reasoning be just, that the clause is perfectly proper, upon the principles of the gentleman who contends for the amendment, as there is in it the greatest degree of present security, and a moral certainty of an increase equal to our utmost wishes.
It has been observed that a large representation is necessary to understand the true interests of the people. This opinion is by no means true in the extent to which it is carried. I would ask: Why may not a man understand the interests of thirty as well as of twenty? The position appears to be based upon the unfounded presumption that all the interests of all parts of the community must be represented. No idea is more erroneous than this. Only such interests are proper to be represented as are involved in the powers of the General Government. These interests come completely under the observation of one or a few men; and the requisite information is by no means augmented in proportion to the increase of number. What are the objects of the government? Commerce, taxation, etc. In order to comprehend the interests of commerce, is it necessary to know how wheat is raised, and in what proportion it is produced in one district and in another? By no means. Neither is this species of knowledge necessary in general calculations upon the subject of taxation. The information necessary for these purposes is that which is open to every intelligent inquirer; and of which five men may be as perfectly possessed as fifty. In regal governments there are usually particular men to whom the business of taxation is committed. These men have the forming of systems of finance and the regulation of the revenue. I do not mean to commend this practice. It proves, however, this point: that a few individuals may be competent to these objects; and that large numbers are not necessary to perfection in the science of taxation. But, granting for a moment that this minute and local knowledge the gentlemen contend for is necessary, let us see if, under the new Constitution, it will not probably be found in the representation. The natural and proper mode of holding elections will be to divide the State into districts, in proportion to the number to be elected. This State will consequently be divided at first into six. One man from each district will probably possess all the knowledge the gentlemen can desire. Are the Senators of this State more ignorant of the interests of the people than the Assembly? Have they not ever enjoyed their confidence as much? Yet, instead of six districts, they are elected in four; and the chance of their being elected from the smaller divisions of the State consequently diminished. Their number is but twenty-four; and their powers are coextensive with those of the Assembly, and reach objects which are most dear to the people —life, liberty, and property.
We hear constantly a great deal which is more calculated to awake our passions and create prejudices than to conduct us to truth and teach us our real interests. I do not suppose this to be the design of gentlemen. Why, then, are we told so often of an aristocracy? For my part, I hardly know the meaning of this word as it is applied. If all we hear be true, this government is really a very bad one. But who are the aristocracy among us? Where do we find men elevated to a perpetual rank among our fellow-citizens, and possessing powers entirely independent of them? The arguments of the gentlemen only go to prove that there are men who are rich, men who are poor; some who are wise, and others who are not; that, indeed, every distinguished man is an aristocrat. Does the new government render a rich man more eligible than a poor one? No! It requires no such qualification. It is bottomed on the broad and equal principle of your State constitution.
Sir, if the people have it in their option to elect their most meritorious men, is this to be considered an objection? Shall the Constitution oppose their wishes and abridge their most invaluable privilege? While property continues to be pretty equally divided, and a considerable share of information pervades the community, the tendency of the people's suffrages will be to elevate merit even from obscurity. As riches increase and accumulate in few hands, as luxury prevails in society, virtue will be in a greater degree considered as only a graceful appendage of wealth, and the tendency of things will be to depart from the republican standard. This is the real disposition of human nature; it is what neither the honorable member nor myself can correct. It is a common misfortune that awaits our State constitution, as well as all others.
There is an advantage incident to large districts of election, which, perhaps, the gentlemen, amidst all their apprehensions of influence and bribery, have not adverted to. In large districts the corruption of the electors is much more difficult. Combinations for the purposes of intrigue are less easily formed. Factions and cabals are little known. In a small district, wealth will have a more complete influence, because the people in the vicinity of a great man are more immediately his dependents, and because this influence has fewer objects to act upon. It has been remarked that it would be disagreeable to the middle class of men to go to the seat of the new government. If this be so the difficulty will be enhanced by the gentleman's proposal. If his argument be true, it proves that the larger the representation is the less will be your chance of having it filled. But, it appears to me frivolous to bring forward such arguments as these. It has answered no other purpose than to induce me, by way of reply, to enter into discussions which I consider as useless and not applicable to our subject.
It is a harsh doctrine, that men grow wicked in proportion as they improve and enlighten their minds. Experience has by no means justified us in the supposition that there is more virtue in one class of men than in another. Look through the rich and the poor of the community; the learned and the ignorant. Where does virtue predominate? The difference indeed consists, not in the quantity, but kind of vices, which are incident to the various classes; and here the advantage of character belongs to the wealthy. Their vices are probably more favorable to the prosperity of the State than those of the indigent, and partake less of moral depravity.
After all, we must submit to this idea, that the true principle of a republic is that the people should choose whom they please to govern them. Representation is imperfect in proportion as the current of popular favor is checked. This great source of free government, popular election, should be perfectly pure, and the most unbounded liberty allowed. Where this principle is adhered to; where, in the organization of the government, the legislative, executive, and judicial branches are rendered distinct; where, again, the legislative is divided into separate houses, and the operations of each are controlled by various checks and balances, and above all by the vigilance and weight of the State governments, to talk of tyranny and the subversion of our liberties, is to speak the language of enthusiasm. This balance between the National and State governments ought to be dwelt on with peculiar attention, as it is of the utmost importance. It forms a double security to the people. If one encroaches on their rights they will find a powerful protection in the other. Indeed, they will both be prevented from overpassing their constitutional limits by a certain rivalship, which will ever subsist between them. I am persuaded that a firm union is as necessary to perpetuate our liberties as it is to make us respectable; and experience will probably prove that the National Government will be as natural a guardian of our freedom as the State Legislatures themselves.
Suggestions of an extraordinary nature have been frequently thrown out in the course of the present political controversy. It gives me pain to dwell on topics of this kind; and I wish they might be dismissed. We have been told that the old Confederation has proved inefficacious, only because intriguing and powerful men, aiming at a revolution, have been for ever instigating the people and rendering them disaffected to it. This, sir, is a false insinuation.
I will venture to assert that no combination of designing men under heaven will be capable of making a government unpopular which is in its principles a wise and good one, and vigorous in its operations.
The Confederation was framed amidst the agitation and tumult of society. It was composed of unsound materials, put together in haste. Men of intelligence discovered the feebleness of the structure in the first stages of its existence, but the great body of the people, too much engrossed with their distresses to contemplate any but the immediate causes of them, were ignorant of the defects of their Constitution. But, when the dangers of war were removed, they saw clearly what they had suffered, and what they had yet to suffer from a feeble form of government. There was no need of discerning men to convince the people of their unhappy situation. The complaint was coextensive with the evil, and both were common to all classes of the community. We have been told that the spirit of patriotism and love of liberty are almost extinguished among the people, and that it has become a prevailing doctrine, that republican principles ought to be hooted out of the world. Sir, I am confident that such remarks as these are rather occasioned by the heat of argument, than by a cool conviction of their truth and justice. As far as my experience has extended, I have heard no such doctrine, nor have I discovered any diminution of regard for those rights and liberties, in defence of which the people have fought and suffered. There have been, undoubtedly, some men who have had speculative doubts on the subject of government, but the principles of republicanism are founded on too firm a basis to be shaken by a few speculative and skeptical reasoners. Our error has been of a very different kind. We have erred through excess of caution, and a zeal false and impracticable. Our councils have been destitute of consistency and stability. I am flattered with a hope, sir, that we have now found a cure for the evils under which we have so long labored. I trust that the proposed Constitution affords a genuine specimen of representative and republican government; and that it will answer, in an eminent degree, all the beneficial purposes of society.
June 21, 1788—Mr. Hamilton: Mr. Chairman, I rise to take notice of the observation of the honorable member from Ulster. I imagine the objections he has stated are susceptible of a complete and satisfactory refutation. But, before I proceed to this, I shall attend to the arguments advanced by the gentleman from Albany and Dutchess. These arguments have been frequently urged, and much confidence has been placed in their strength. The danger of corruption has been dwelt upon with peculiar emphasis, and presented to our view in the most heightened and unnatural coloring. Events merely possible have been magnified, by distempered imagination, into inevitable realities; and the most distant and doubtful conjectures have been formed into a serious and infallible prediction. In the same spirit, the most fallacious calculations have been made. The lowest possible quorum has been contemplated, as the number to transact important business, and a majority of these to decide in all cases on questions of infinite moment. Allowing, for the present, the propriety and truth of these apprehensions, it would be easy, in comparing the two Constitutions, to prove that the chances of corruption under the new are much fewer than those to which the old is exposed. Under the old Confederation, the important powers of declaring war, making peace, etc., can be exercised by nine States. On the presumption that the smallest constitutional number will deliberate and decide, those interesting powers will be committed to fewer men under the ancient than under the new government. In the former, eighteen members, in the latter, not less than twenty-four, may determine all great questions. Thus, on the principles of the gentlemen, the fairer prospect of safety is clearly visible in the new government. That we may have the fullest conviction of the truth of this position, it ought to be suggested, as a decisive argument, that it will ever be the interest of the several States to maintain, under the new government, an ample representation; for, as every member has a vote, the relative influence and authority of each State will be in proportion to the number of representatives she has in Congress. There is not, therefore, a shadow of probability that the number of acting members, in the General Legislature, ever will be reduced to a bare quorum; especially as the expense of their support is to be defrayed from a federal treasury. But, under the existing Confederation, each State has but one vote. It will be a matter of indifference, on the score of influence, whether she delegates two or six representatives; and the maintenance of them, forming a striking article in the State expenditures, will for ever prove a capital inducement to retain or withdraw from the Federal Legislatures those delegates which her selfishness may too often consider as superfluous. There is another source of corruption, in the old government, which the proposed plan is happily calculated to remedy. The concurrence of nine States, as has been observed, is necessary to pass resolves the most important, and on which the safety of the public may depend. If these nine States are at any time assembled, a foreign enemy, by dividing a State, and gaining over and silencing a single member, may frustrate the most indispensable plan of national policy, and totally prevent a measure essential to the welfare or existence of the empire. Here, then, we find a radical, dangerous defect, which will for ever embarrass and obstruct the machine of government, and suspend our fate on the uncertain virtue of an individual.
What a difference between the old and new Constitution strikes our view! In the one, corruption must embrace a majority; in the other, her poison, administered to a single man, may render the efforts of a majority totally vain. This mode of corruption is still more dangerous, as its operations are more secret and imperceptible. The exertions of active villany are commonly accompanied with circumstances which tend to its own exposure; but this negative kind of guilt has so many plausible apologies as almost to elude suspicion.
In all reasonings on the subject of corruption, much use has been made of the examples furnished by the British House of Commons. Many mistakes have arisen from fallacious comparisons between our government and theirs. It is time that the real state of this matter should be explained. By far the greatest part of the House of Commons is composed of representatives of towns and boroughs. These towns had anciently no voice in Parliament; but on the extension of commercial wealth and influence, they were admitted to a seat. Many of them are in possession and gift of the king; and, from their dependence on him, and the destruction of the right of free election, they are stigmatized with the appellation of rotten boroughs. This is the true source of the corruption which has so long excited the severe animadversion of zealous politicians and patriots. But the knights of the shire, who form another branch of the House of Commons, and who are chosen from the body of the counties they represent, have been generally esteemed a virtuous and incorruptible set of men. I appeal, sir, to the history of that House; this will show us that the rights of the people have ever been safely trusted to their protection; that they have been the ablest bulwarks of the British commons; and that, in the conflict of parties, by throwing their weight into one scale or the other, they have uniformly supported and strengthened the constitutional claims of the people.
Notwithstanding the cry of corruption that has been perpetually raised against the House of Commons, it has been found that that House, sitting at first without any constitutional authority, became at length an essential member of the legislature, that they have since, by regular gradations, acquired new and important accessions of privileges and that they have, on numerous occasions, impaired the prerogative and limited the monarchy.
An honorable member from Dutchess (Mr. Smith) has observed that the delegates from New York (for example) can have very little information of the local circumstances of Georgia or South Carolina, except from the representatives of those States; and on this ground insists upon the expediency of an enlargement of the representation; since, otherwise, the majority must rely too much on the information of a few. In order to determine whether there is any weight in this reasoning, let us consider the powers of the National Government, and compare them with the objects of State legislation. The powers of the new government are general, and calculated to embrace the aggregate interests of the Union, and the general interest of each State, so far as it stands in relation to the whole. The object of the State governments is to provide for their internal interests, as unconnected with the United States, and as composed of minute parts or districts. A particular knowledge, therefore, of the local circumstances of any State, as they may vary in different districts, is unnecessary for the federal representative. As he is not to represent the interests or local wants of the county of Dutchess or Montgomery, neither is it necessary that he should be acquainted with their particular resources. But in the State governments, as the laws regard the interest of the people, in all their various minute divisions, it is necessary that the smallest interests should be represented. Taking these distinctions into view, I think it must appear evident that one discerning and intelligent man will be as capable of understanding and representing the general interests of a State as twenty; because one man can be as fully acquainted with the general state of the commerce, manufactures, population, production, and common resources of a State, which are the proper objects of federal legislation. It is presumed that few men originally possess a complete knowledge of the circumstances of other States. They must rely, therefore, on the information to be collected from the representatives of those States. And if the above reasoning be just, it appears evident, I imagine, that this reliance will be as secure as can be desired. Sir, in my experience of public affairs, I have constantly remarked, in the conduct of the members of Congress, a strong and uniform attachment to the interests of their own State.
These interests have on many occasions been adhered to with an undue and illiberal pertinacity, and have too often been preferred to the welfare of the Union. This attachment has given birth to an unaccommodating spirit of party, which has frequently embarrassed the best measures. It is by no means, however, an object of surprise. The early connections we have formed, the habits and prejudices in which we have been bred, fix our affections so strongly, that no future objects of association can easily eradicate them. This, together with the entire and immediate dependence the representative feels on his constituent, will generally incline him to prefer the particular before the public good. The subject on which this argument of a small representation has been most plausibly used, is taxation. As to internal taxation, in which the difficulty principally rests, it is not probable that any general regulation will originate in the National Legislature. If Congress, in times of great danger and distress, should be driven to this resource, they will undoubtedly adopt such measures as are most conformable to the laws and customs of each State. They will take up your own codes, and consult your own systems. This is a source of information which cannot mislead, and which will be equally accessible to every member. It will teach them the most certain, safe, and expeditious mode of laying and collecting taxes in each State. They will appoint the officers of revenue agreeably to the spirit of your particular establishments, or they will make use of their own. Sir, the most powerful obstacle to the members of Congress betraying the interests of their constituents, is the State Legislatures themselves, who will be standing bodies of observation, possessing the confidence of the people, jealous of federal encroachments, and armed with every power to check the first essays of treachery. They will institute regular modes of inquiry. The complicated domestic attachments which subsist between State legislators and their electors, will ever make them vigilant guardians of the people's rights. Possessed of the means and the disposition of resistance, the spirit of opposition will be easily communicated to the people, and, under the conduct of an authorized body of leaders, will act with weight and system. Thus it appears that the very structure of the Confederacy affords the surest preventives from error, and the most powerful checks to misconduct.
Sir, there is something in an argument that has been urged, which, if it proves any thing, concludes against all union and all governments; it goes to prove that no powers should be entrusted to any body of men, because they may be abused. This is an argument of possibility and chance—one that would render useless all reasonings upon the probable operation of things, and defeat the established principles of natural and moral causes. It is a species of reasoning sometimes used to excite popular jealousies, but is generally discarded by wise and discerning men. I do not suppose that the honorable member who advanced the idea had any such design. He undoubtedly would not wish to extend arguments to the destruction of union or government; but this, sir, is its real tendency. It has been asserted that the interests, habits, and manners of the thirteen States are different; and hence it is inferred that no general free government can suit them. This diversity of habits, etc., has been a favorite theme with those who are disposed for a division of our empire, and, like many other popular objections, seems to be founded on fallacy. I acknowledge that the local interests of the States are in some degree various, and that there is some difference in the manners and habits. But this I will presume to affirm, that from New Hampshire to Georgia the people of America are as uniform in their interests and manners as those of any established in Europe. This diversity, to the eye of a speculatist, may afford some marks of characteristic discrimination, but cannot form an impediment to the regular operation of those general powers which the Constitution gives to the united government. Were the laws of the Union to new-model the internal police of any State; were they to alter, or abrogate at a blow, the whole of its civil and criminal institutions; were they to penetrate the recesses of domestic life, and control, in all respects, the private conduct of individuals,—there might be more force in the objections; and the same Constitution, which was happily calculated for one State, might sacrifice the welfare of another. Though the difference of interests may create some difficulty, and apparent partiality, in the first operations of government, yet the same spirit of accommodation, which produced the plan under discussion, would be exercised in lessening the weight of unequal burdens. Add to this that, under the regular and gentle influence of general laws, these varying interests will be constantly assimilating, till they embrace each other and assume the same complexion.—Elliot's Debates, vol. ii.
June 21, 1788.—Mr. Hamilton: I only rise to observe that the gentleman has misunderstood me. What I meant to express was this: that if we argued from possibilities only,—if we reasoned from chances, or an ungovernable propensity to evil, instead of taking into view the control which the nature of things, or the form of the Constitution, provided,—the argument would lead us to withdraw all confidence from our fellow-citizens, and discard the chimerical idea of government. This is a true deduction from such reasoning.—Elliot's Debates, vol. ii.
June 21, 1788.—Mr. Hamilton: It is not my design, Mr. Chairman, to extend this debate by any new arguments on the general subject. I have delivered my sentiments so fully on what has been advanced by the gentleman this morning, that any further reasoning from me will be easily dispensed with. I only rise to state a fact with respect to the motives which operated in the General Convention. I had the honor to state to the committee the diversity of interests which prevailed between the navigating and non-navigating, the large and the small, States, and the influence which those States had upon the conduct of each. It is true, a difference did take place between the large and the small States, the latter insisting on equal advantages in the House of Representatives. 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 this occasion, the members rose from one side and the other, and declared that the plan reported was entirely a work of accommodation, and that to make any alterations in it would destroy the Constitution. I discovered that several of the States, particularly New Hampshire, Connecticut, and New Jersey, thought it would be difficult to send a great number of delegates from the extremes of the continent to the national government; they apprehended their constituents would be displeased with a very expensive government; and they considered it as a formidable objection. After some debate on this motion, it was withdrawn. Many of the facts stated by the gentleman and myself are not substantially different. The truth is, the plan, in all its parts, was a plan of accommodation.—Elliot's Debates, vol. ii.