Constitution Sunday: Governor Samuel Huntington on the Need for Coercive National Power

Connecticut Ratifying Convention.

January 9, 1788

When Connecticut’s Governor, Samuel Huntington, rose to speak at the state’s ratifying convention, he rose to second a motion by General Parsons to “assent to, ratify, and adopt the Constitution,” but in seconding the motion, Governor Huntington provided perspective and context for why he was asking the state’s delegates to ratify. To the Governor, the debate and potential ratification of the Constitution was “a new event in the history of mankind.—Heretofore, most governments have been formed by tyrants, and imposed on mankind by force.” This Constitution was being considered during a “time of peace and tranquility” and, “with calm deliberation,” the representatives were framing a novel system of government that accounted for the pitfalls that other governments had not avoided.

Governor Huntington had listened to the delegates’ arguments and said, “It does not give me pain, but pleasure, to hear the sentiments of those gentlemen who differ from me.” Through the debate and the deliberation would come the wisdom necessary to make the Constitution an effective document that would mitigate the harms that befall civilizations. Thus, it pleased the Governor when the debate about the nature of the government and its similarities to other systems of government did not center on “theoretical dissertations, but from experience, from what has actually taken place among mankind.” According to him, “[t]here is such a love of liberty implanted in the human breast, that no nation ever willingly gave up its liberty.” When nations lost their liberty, it was because the country stopped supporting its government—as that opened the door to tyranny—and where the government was equipped with checks on power (such as a bicameral legislature), it brings balance to the government and gives that government “a renovating principle, by which it will be able to right itself.”

But, one issue that arose at Connecticut’s convention (and elsewhere) was the issue of empowering the federal government. Although the national government under the Articles of Confederation had been diminutive and there was broad agreement as to expanding it, there remained a question of how far to expand its reach. A part of this debate centered on the diverse states each of which had its own government that would change under an adopted Constitution. In light of these circumstances, Governor Huntington said,

The author of nature has given to mankind a certain degree of insight into futurity. As far as we can see a probability that certain events will happen, so far we do well to provide and guard. But we may attempt to go too far; it is in vain to think of providing against every possible contingency. The happiness of civil society depends not merely upon their constitution of Government, but upon a variety of circumstances. One constitution may suit one particular nation exceedingly well; when a different one would suit another nation in different circumstances. Even among the American States there is such a difference in sentiments, habits, and customs, that a government, which would be very suitable for one, might not be agreeable to another.

For him, there was “an extreme want of power in the national government; and it is my opinion that this Constitution does not give too much.” The power vested in the federal government would not be so great as to endanger the powers in the state governments, and the state governments would continue to be “strenuous advocates” for their populations. Besides that, the sustainability of the government and the liberty of the people would always depend on the people themselves: “While the great body of the freeholders are acquainted with the duties which they owe to their God, to themselves, and to men, they will remain free. But if ignorance and depravity should prevail, they will inevitably lead to slavery and ruin. Upon the whole view of this Constitution, I am in favour of it, and think it bids fair to promote our national prosperity.” What the nation needed, according to Governor Huntington, was to “exercise mutual candour for each other, and sincerely endeavour to maintain our liberties,” and if the Americans did that, they “may long continue to be a free and happy people.”

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