Front Page Titles (by Subject) SPEECH IN THE VIRGINIA CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION. 1 - The Writings, vol. 9 (1819-1836)
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SPEECH IN THE VIRGINIA CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION. 1 - James Madison, The Writings, vol. 9 (1819-1836) 
The Writings of James Madison, comprising his Public Papers and his Private Correspondence, including his numerous letters and documents now for the first time printed, ed. Gaillard Hunt (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1900). Vol. 9.
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SPEECH IN THE VIRGINIA CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION.1
December 2, 1829.
Although the actual posture of the subject before the Committee might admit a full survey of it, it is not my purpose, in rising, to enter into the wide field of discussion, which has called forth a display of intellectual resources and varied powers of eloquence, that any country might be proud of, and which I have witnessed with the highest gratification. Having been, for a very long period, withdrawn from any participation in proceedings of deliberative bodies, and under other disqualifications now of which I am deeply sensible, though perhaps less sensible than others may perceive that I ought to be, I shall not attempt more than a few observations, which may suggest the views I have taken of the subject, and which will consume but little of the time of the Committee, become precious. It is sufficiently obvious, that persons now and property are the two great subjects on which Governments are to act; and that the rights of persons, and the rights of property, are the objects, for the protection of which Government was instituted. These rights cannot well be separated. The personal right to acquire property, which is a natural right, gives to property, when acquired, a right to protection, as a social right. The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. In monarchies, the interests and happiness of all may be sacrificed to the caprice and passions of a despot. In aristocracies, the rights and welfare of the many may be sacrificed to the pride and cupidity of the few. In republics, the great danger is, that the majority may not sufficiently respect the rights of the minority. Some gentlemen, consulting the purity and generosity of their own minds, without adverting to the lessons of experience, would find a security against that danger, in our social feelings; in a respect for character; in the dictates of the monitor within; in the interests of individuals; in the aggregate interests of the community. But man is known to be a selfish, as well as a social being. Respect for character, though often a salutary restraint, is but too often overruled by other motives. When numbers of men act in a body, respect for character is often lost, just in proportion as it is necessary to control what is not right. We all know that conscience is not a sufficient safe-guard; and besides, that conscience itself may be deluded; may be misled, by an unconscious bias, into acts which an enlightened conscience would forbid. As to the permanent interest of individuals in the aggregate interests of the community, and in the proverbial maxim, that honesty is the best policy, present temptation is often found to be an overmatch for those considerations. These favourable attributes of the human character are all valuable, as auxiliaries; but they will not serve as a substitute for the coercive provision belonging to Government and Law. They will always, in proportion as they prevail, be favourable to a mild administration of both: but they can never be relied on as a guaranty of the rights of the minority against a majority disposed to take unjust advantage of its power. The only effectual safeguard to the rights of the minority, must be laid in such a basis and structure of the Government itself, as may afford, in a certain degree, directly or indirectly, a defensive authority in behalf of a minority having right on its side.
To come more nearly to the subject before the Committee, viz.: that peculiar feature in our community, which calls for a peculiar division in the basis of our government, I mean the coloured part of our population. It is apprehended, if the power of the Commonwealth shall be in the hands of a majority, who have no interest in this species of property, that, from the facility with which it may be oppressed by excessive taxation, injustice may be done to its owners. It would seem, therefore, if we can incorporate that interest into the basis of our system, it will be the most apposite and effectual security that can be devised. Such an arrangement is recommended to me by many very important considerations. It is due to justice; due to humanity; due to truth; to the sympathies of our nature; in fine, to our character as a people, both abroad and at home, that they should be considered, as much as possible, in the light of human beings, and not as mere property. As such, they are acted upon by our laws, and have an interest in our laws. They may be considered as making a part, though a degraded part, of the families to which they belong.
If they had the complexion of the Serfs in the North of Europe, or of the Villeins formerly in England; in other terms, if they were of our own complexion, much of the difficulty would be removed. But the mere circumstance of complexion cannot deprive them of the character of men. The Federal number, as it is called, is particularly recommended to attention in forming a basis of Representation, by its simplicity, its certainty, its stability, and its permanency. Other expedients for securing justice in the case of taxation, while they amount in pecuniary effect, to the same thing, have been found liable to great objections: and I do not believe that a majority of this Convention is disposed to adopt them, it they can find a substitute they can approve. Nor is it a small recommendation of the Federal number, in my view, that it is in conformity to the ratio recognized in the Federal Constitution. The cases, it is true, are not precisely the same, but there is more of analogy than might at first be supposed. If the coloured population were equally diffused through the State, the analogy would fail; but existing as it does, in large masses, in particular parts of it, the distinction between the different parts of the State, resembles that between the slave-holding and non-slave-holding States: and, if we reject a doctrine in our own State, whilst we claim the benefit of it in our relations to other States, other disagreeable consequences may be added to the charge of inconsistency, which will be brought against us. If the example of our sister States is to have weight, we find that in Georgia, the Federal number is made the basis of Representation in both branches of their Legislature; and I do not learn, that any dissatisfaction or inconvenience has flowed from its adoption. I wish we could know more of the manner in which particular organizations of Government operate in other parts of the United States. There would be less danger of being misled into error, and we should have the advantage of their experience, as well as our own. In the case I mention, there can, I believe, be no error.
Whether, therefore, we be fixing a basis of Representation, for the one branch or the other of our Legislature, or for both, in a combination with other principles, the Federal ratio is a favourite resource with me. It entered into my earliest views of the subject, before this Convention was assembled: and though I have kept my mind open, have listened to every proposition which has been advanced, and given to them all a candid consideration, I must say, that in my judgment, we shall act wisely in preferring it to others, which have been brought before us. Should the Federal number be made to enter into the basis in one branch of the Legislature, and not into the other, such an arrangement might prove favourable to the slaves themselves. It may be, and I think it has been suggested, that those who have themselves no interest in this species of property, are apt to sympathise with the slaves, more than may be the case with their masters; and would, therefore, be disposed, when they had the ascendancy, to protect them from laws of an oppressive character, whilst the masters, who have a common interest with the slaves, against undue taxation, which must be paid out of their labour, will be their protectors when they have the ascendancy.
The Convention is now arrived at a point, where we must agree on some common ground, all sides relaxing in their opinions, not changing, but mutually surrendering a part of them. In framing a Constitution, great difficulties are necessarily to be overcome; and nothing can ever overcome them, but a spirit of compromise. Other nations are surprised at nothing so much as our having been able to form Constitutions in the manner which has been exemplified in this country. Even the union of so many States, is, in the eyes of the world, a wonder; the harmonious establishment of a common Government over them all, a miracle. I cannot but flatter myself, that without a miracle, we shall be able to arrange all difficulties. I never have despaired, notwithstanding all the threatening appearances we have passed through. I have now more than a hope—a consoling confidence, that we shall at last find, that our labours have not been in vain.
TO GEORGE McDUFFIE.1
Montpellier, May 8, 1830.
I have recd. a copy of the late Report, on the Bank of the U. S. and finding by the name on the envelope, that I am indebted for the communication to your politeness, I tender you my thanks for it.2 The document contains very interesting & instructive views of the subject; particularly of the objectionable features in the substitute proposed for the existing Bank.
I am glad to find that the Report sanctions the sufficiency of the course and character of the precedents which I had regarded as overruling individual judgments in expounding the Constitution. You are not aware perhaps of a circumstance, weighing against the plea that the chain of precedents was broken by the negative on a Bank bill by the casting vote of the President of the Senate, given expressly on the ground that the Bill was not authorized by the Constitution. The circumstance alluded to is that the equality of votes which threw the casting one on the Chair, was the result of a union of a number of members who objected to the expediency only of the Bill, with those who opposed it on constitutional grounds. On a naked question of constitutionality, it was understood that there would have been a majority who made no objection on that score, [the journal of the Senate may yet test the fact.]
Will you permit me Sir to suggest for consideration whether the Report (pg.-10) in the position & reasoning applied to the effect of a change in the quantity on the value of a currency, sufficiently distinguishes between a special currency, and a currency not convertible into specie. The latter being of local circulation only, unless the local use for it increase or diminish, with the increase or decrease of its quantity, [will] be changeable in its value, as the quantity of the currency changes. The metals on the other hand, having a universal currency, would not be equally affected by local changes in their circulating amount, a surplus producing a proportional depreciation at home, might bear the expense of transportation, and avail itself of its current value abroad.
If I have misconceived the meaning of the Report, you will be good enough to pardon the error, and to accept, with a repetition of my thanks, assurances of my great & cordial respect.
[1 ]From Proceedings and Debates of the Virginia State Convention of 1829-30. Richmond, 1830. In 1827-28 the people of the State voted in favor of holding a State convention to revise the constitution and Madison accepted service as a delegate, this being his last public employment. He made but one speech, although he offered several motions. The question before the convention was the qualification for suffrage. The report says: “Mr. Madison now rose and addressed the Chair. The members rushed from their seats, and crowded around him.”
NOTE DURING THE CONVENTION FOR AMENDING THE CONSTITUTION OF VIRGINIA.
Were the Constitution on hand to be adapted to the present circumstances of our Country, without taking into view the changes which time is rapidly producing, an unlimited extension of the right wd probably vary little the character of our public councils or measures. But as we are to prepare a system of Govt for a period which it is hoped will be a long one, we must look to the prospective changes in the condition and composition of the society on which it is to act.
It is a law of nature, now well understood, that the earth under a civilized cultivation is capable of yielding subsistence for a large surplus of consumers, beyond those having an immediate interest in the soil, a surplus which must increase with the increasing improvements in agriculture, and the labor-saving arts applied to it. And it is a lot of humanity that of this surplus a large proportion is necessarily reduced by a competition for employment to wages which afford them the bare necessaries of life. That proportion being without property, or the hope of acquiring it, can not be expected to sympathize sufficiently with its rights, to be safe depositories of power over them.
What is to be done with this unfavored class of the community? If it be, on one hand, unsafe to admit them to a full share of political power, it must be recollected, on the other, that it cannot be expedient to rest a Republican Govt on a portion of the society having a numerical & physical force excluded from, and liable to be turned against it, and which would lead to a standing military force, dangerous to all parties & to liberty itself.
This view of the subject makes it proper to embrace in the partnership of power, every description of citizens having a sufficient stake in the public order, and the stable administration of the laws, and particularly the House keepers & Heads of families; most of whom “having given hostages to fortune,” will have given them to their Country also.
This portion of the community, added to those, who although not possessed of a share of the soil, are deeply interested in other species of property, and both of them added to the territorial proprietors, who in a certain sense may be regarded as the owners of the Country itself, form the safest basis of free Government. To the security for such a Govt. afforded by these combined numbers, may be further added, the political & moral influence emanating from the actual possession of authority and a just & beneficial exercise of it.
It would be happy if a State of Society could be found or framed, in which an equal voice in making the laws might be allowed to every individual bound to obey them. But this is a Theory, which like most Theories, confessedly requires limitations & modifications, and the only question to be decided in this as in other cases, turns on the particular degree of departure, in practice, required by the essence & object of the Theory itself.
It must not be supposed that a crowded state of population, of which we have no example here, and which we know only by the image reflected from examples elsewhere, is too remote to claim attention.
The ratio of increase in the U. S. shows that the present.
How far this view of the subject will be affected by the Republican laws of descent and distribution, in equalizing the property of the citizens and in reducing to the minimum mutual surplusses for mutual supplies, cannot be inferred from any direct and adequate experiment. One result would seem to be a deficiency of the capital for the expensive establishments which facilitate labour and cheapen its products on one hand, and, on the other, of the capacity to purchase the costly and ornamental articles consumed by the wealthy alone, who must cease to be idlers and become labourers. Another the increased mass of labourers added to the production of necessaries by the withdrawal for this object, of a part of those now employed in producing luxuries, and the addition to the labourers from the class of present consumers of luxuries. To the effect of these changes, intellectual, moral, and social, the institutions and laws of the Country must be adapted, and it will require for the task all the wisdom of the wisest patriots.
Supposing the estimate of the growing population of the U. S. to be nearly correct, and the extent of their territory to be 8 or 9 hundred Mils of acres, and one fourth of it to consist of inarable surface, there will in a century or a little more, be nearly as crowded a population in the U. S. as in G. Britain or France, and if the present Constitution (of Virginia) with all its flaws, lasted more than half a century, it is not an unreasonable hope that an amended one will last more than a century.
If these observations be just, every mind will be able to develop & apply them.—Mad. MSS.
[1 ]Copy of the original kindly contributed by W. H. Gibbes, Esq., of Columbia, S. C.
[2 ]The report was introduced in the House by McDuffie, April 13. It may be found in Cong. Debates, 21st Cong. 1st Session, p. 103, appendix.