Constitution Sunday: A Sharp Exchange at the Massachusetts Convention

Massachusetts Ratifying Convention

January 17, 1788

For those debating the Constitution’s ratification, no detail of the draft document was forgotten. To detractors, like the Honorable Mr. Turner who rose on January 17, 1788 at the Massachusetts Ratifying Convention, there were hidden dangers throughout the document. One that he raised was that Congress “may alter the place for chusing representatives in the general Congress.” Turner, before the Convention, said to look to abuses of power: if members of Congress wished to help themselves, as people in power often do, then this is one way in which they may do so; they could alter the place to be inaccessible for three-fourths of the population. “The great law of self preservation will prevail,” Turner said, and it didn’t stop there. There were forces at work in the country that were changing the country and its people: “paper money, and the practice of privateering, have produced a gradual decay of morals—introduced pride—ambition—envy—lust of power—produced a decay of patriotism, and the love of commutative justice.” By giving this Constitution and the members of Congress this power, the Convention was creating the chance for abuse, and where that risk can be prevented, it should, so Turner reasoned.

Nonsense, said the Rev. Mr. West. The mere possibility of power being abused is not a persuasive reason to strike this provision from the draft. To follow this line of reasoning was to prescribe the government no power at all: if men were so imperfect as to inevitably abuse their power at each turn, then no government could be sustained. To the Reverend, Turner had violated a fundamental rule of persuasion: “An argument which proves too much, it is said, proves nothing.”

Then, when Capt. Snow arose, he said, “It has been said, Mr. President, that there is too much power delegated to Congress, by the section under consideration—I doubt it; I think power the hinge on which the whole Constitution turns. Gentlemen have talked about Congress moving the place of elections from Georgia to the Mohawk river, but I never can believe it. I will venture to conjecture we shall have some honest men in our Congress.”

In retrospect, this power has not seen widespread abuse, and it did remain in the draft Constitution as ratified. It is housed in Article I, Section IV, Clause I and states: “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but Congress may at any time make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Place of chusing Senators.”

One Comment

Leave a Reply