The 1787 Constitutional Convention – The Senate Debated

photo-1467912407355-245f30185020_optJune 25, 1787 (click the link to read Madison’s notes)


Today, the delegates decided that state legislatures would elect Senators and that they minimum age to be a Senator would be 3o.

Influences on the Delegates

Charles Pinckney from South Carolina opened this day with a tribute to Great Britain but warned that the system of Britain would not work out in the United States.

Much has been said of the Constitution of Great Britain. I will confess that I believe it to be the best constitution in existence; but, at the same time, I am confident it is one that will not or cannot be introduced into this country for many centuries. If it were proper to go here into an historical dissertation on the British Constitution, it might easily be shown that the peculiar excellence, the distinguishing feature, of that government cannot possibly be introduced into our system — that its balance between the Crown and the people cannot be made a part of our Constitution, — that we neither have nor can have the members to compose it, nor the rights, privileges and properties of so distinct a class of citizens to guard, — that the materials for forming this balance or check do not exist, nor is there a necessity for having so permanent a part of our Legislative, until the Executive power is so constituted as to have something fixed and dangerous in its principle. By this I mean a sole, hereditary, though limited Executive.
That we cannot have a proper body for forming a Legislative balance between the inordinate power of the Executive and the people, is evident from a review of the accidents and circumstances which gave rise to the peerage of Great Britain. I believe it is well ascertained, that the parts which compose the British Constitution arose immediately from the forests of Germany; but the antiquity of the establishment of nobility is by no means clearly defined. Some authors are of opinion that the dignity denoted by the titles of dux and comes, was derived from the old Roman, to the German, Empire; while others are of opinion that they existed among the Germans long before the Romans were acquainted with them. The institution, however, of nobility is immemorial among the nations who may properly be termed the ancestors of Great Britain. At the time they were summoned in England to become a part of the national council, the circumstances which contributed to make them a constituent part of that Constitution, must be well known to all gentlemen who have had industry and curiosity enough to investigate the subject. The nobles, with their possessions and dependents, composed a body permanent in their nature, and formidable in point of power. They had a distinct interest both from the King and the people, — an interest which could only be represented by themselves, and the guardianship of which could not be safely intrusted to others. At the time they were originally called to form a part of the national council, necessity perhaps, as much as other causes induced the monarch to look up to them. It was necessary to demand the aid of his subjects in personal and pecuniary services. The power and possessions of the nobility would not permit taxation from any assembly of which they were not a part: and the blending of the deputies of the commons with them, and thus forming what they called their parler-ment, was perhaps as much the effect of chance as of any thing else. The commons were at that time completely subordinate to the nobles, whose consequence and influence seem to have been the only reasons for their superiority; a superiority so degrading to the commons, that in the first summons, we find the peers are called upon to consult, the commons to consent. From this time the peers have composed a part of the British Legislature; and, notwithstanding their power and influence have diminished, and those of the commons have increased, yet still they have always formed an excellent balance against either the encroachments of the Crown or the people.

Pinckney traced the government of Great Britain back through “the forests of Germany” with a nod to the Romans. Pinckney, like other delegates then referred to ancient republics.

The people of this country are not only very different from the inhabitants of any state we are acquainted with in the modern world, but I assert that their situation is distinct from either the people of Greece or Rome, or of any states we are acquainted with among the ancients. Can the orders introduced by the institution of Solon, can they be found in the United States? Can the military habits and manners of Sparta be resembled to ours in habits and manners? Are the distinction of patrician and plebeian known among us? Can the Helvetic or Belgic confederacies, or can the unwieldly, unmeaning body called the Germanic Empire, can they be said to possess either the same, or a situation like ours? I apprehend, not. They are perfectly different, in their distinctions of rank, their constitutions, their manners, and their policy.

Religious liberty was a matter of significant concern to Pinckney. His mention of religious liberty here was a rare reference to religion in this Convention:

Our true situation appears to me to be this, — a new extensive country, containing within itself the materials for forming a government capable of extending to its citizens all the blessings of civil and religious liberty — capable of making them happy at home. This is the great end of republican establishments. We mistake the object of our Government, if we hope or wish that it is to make us respectable abroad. Conquests or superiority among other powers is not, or ought not ever to be, the object of republican systems. If they are sufficiently active and energetic to rescue us from contempt, and preserve our domestic happiness and security, it is all we can expect from them, — it is more than almost any other government insures to its citizens.

Pinckney again returned to his theme that America can’t be governed like Britain:

For a people thus circumstanced are we, then, to form a Government; and the question is, what sort of government is best suited to them?Will it be the British Government? No. Why? Because Great Britain contains three orders of people distinct in their situation, their possessions, and their principles. These orders, combined, form the great body of the nation; and as in national expenses the wealth of the whole community must contribute, so ought each component part to be duly and properly represented. No other combination of power could form this due representation but the one that exists. Neither the peers or the people could represent the royalty; nor could the royalty and the people form a proper representation for the peers. Each, therefore, must of necessity be represented by itself, or the sign of itself; and this accidental mixture has certainly formed a Government admirably well balanced.
But the United States contain but one order that can be assimilated to the British nation — this is, the order of Commons. They will not, surely, then, attempt to form a Government consisting of three branches two of which shall have nothing to represent. They will not have an Executive and Senate [hereditary], because the King and Lords of England are so. The same reasons do not exist, and therefore the same provisions are not necessary.
We must, as has been observed, suit our Government to the people it is to direct. These are, I believe, as active, intelligent and susceptible of good government as any people in the world. The confusion which has produced the present relaxed state is not owing to them. It is owing to the weakness and [defects] of a government incapable of combining the various interests it is intended to unite, and destitute of energy. All that we have to do, then, is to distribute the powers of government in such a manner, and for such limited periods, as, while it gives a proper degree of permanency to the magistrate, will reserve to the people the right of election they will not or ought not frequently to part with. I am of opinion that this may easily be done; and that, with some amendments, the propositions before the Committee will fully answer this end.

Recall that Pinckney introduced his own plan of government near the beginning of the Convention. His oration here set the stage for a consideration of that plan.

1787 Constitutional Convention Series

To read my series examining the proceedings of the Constitution Convention, click here.  In this series, I am writing about any obvious influences on the development of the Constitution which were mentioned by the delegates to the Convention. Specifically, I am testing David Barton’s claim that “every clause” of the Constitution is based on biblical principles. Thus far, I have found nothing supporting the claim. However, stay tuned, the series will run until mid-September.
Constitutional Convention Series (click the link)

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