The 1787 Constitutional Convention – Citizenship Requirements Debated

August 13, 1787 (click the link to read Madison’s notes)


Again, the delegates spent this day fine tuning details of the working of Congress. A major focus was the number of years of citizenship required to serve in the House and Senate.

Influences on the Delegates

In light of the Russian involvement in the last election, the debate over citizenship instructs us that the delegates had the same concerns we now have.

Mr. WILSON and Mr. RANDOLPH moved to strike out “seven years,” and insert, “four years,” as the requisite term of citizenship to qualify for the House of Representatives. Mr. WILSON said it was very proper the electors should govern themselves by this consideration; but unnecessary and improper that the Constitution should chain them down to it.
Mr. GERRY wished that in future the elegibility might be confined to natives. Foreign powers will intermeddle in our affairs, and spare no expense to influence them. Persons having foreign attachments will be sent among us and insinuated into our councils, in order to be made instruments for their purposes. Every one knows the vast sums laid out in Europe for secret services. He was not singular in these ideas. A great many of the most influential men in Massachusetts reasoned in the same manner.
Mr. WILLIAMSON moved to insert nine years instead of seven. He wished this country to acquire as fast as possible national habits. Wealthy emigrants do more harm by their luxurious examples, than good by the money they bring with them.
Mr. WILSON cited Pennsylvania as a proof of the advantage of encouraging emigrations. It was perhaps the youngest settlement (except Georgia) on the Atlantic; yet it was at least among the foremost in population and prosperity. He remarked, that almost all the general officers of the Pennsylvania line of the late army were foreigners; and no complaint had ever been made against their fidelity or merit. Three of her Deputies to the Convention (Mr. R. MORRISMr. FITZSIMONS, and himself) were also not natives. He had no objection to Colonel HAMILTON’S motion, and would withdraw the one made by himself.
Mr. BUTLER was strenuous against admitting foreigners into our public councils.

George Mason looked to England and France for assistance.

The practice in England was in point. The House of Lords does not represent nor tax the people, because not elected by the people. If the Senate can originate, they will in the recess of the Legislative sessions, hatch their mischievous projects, for their own purposes, and have their money bills cut and dried (to use a common phrase) for the meeting of the House of Representatives. He compared the case to Poyning’s law, and signified that the House of Representatives might be rendered by degrees, like the Parliament of Paris, the mere depository of the decrees of the Senate. As to the compromise, so much had passed on that subject that he would say nothing about it. He did not mean, by what he had said, to oppose the permanency of the Senate. On the contrary he had no repugnance to an increase of it, nor to allowing it a negative, though the Senate was not, by its present constitution, entitled to it. But in all events, he would contend that the purse-strings should be in the hands of the representatives of the people.

Using England as an example, James Wilson of PA thought it a bad idea to keep money bills just in the House.

Mr. WILSON was himself directly opposed to the equality of votes granted to the Senate, by its present constitution. At the same time he wished not to multiply the vices of the system. He did not mean to enlarge on a subject which had been so much canvassed, but would remark, as an insuperable objection against the proposed restriction of money bills to the House of Representatives, that it would be a source of perpetual contentions, where there was no mediator to decide them. The President here could not, like the Executive Magistrate in England, interpose by a prorogation, or dissolution. This restriction had been found pregnant with altercation in every State where the constitution had established it. The House of Representatives will insert other things in money bills, and by making them conditions of each other destroy the deliberate liberty of the Senate. He stated the case of a preamble to a money bill sent up by the House of Commons in the reign of Queen Anne, to the House of Lords, in which the conduct of the misplaced Ministry, who were to be impeached before the Lords, was condemned; the commons thus extorting a premature judgment without any hearing of the parties to be tried, and the House of Lords being thus reduced to the poor and disgraceful expedient of opposing, to the authority of a law, a protest on their Journals against its being drawn into precedent. If there was any thing like Poyning’s law in the present case, it was in the attempt to vest the exclusive right of originating in the House of Representatives, and so far he was against it. He should be equally so if the right were to be exclusively vested in the Senate. With regard to the purse-strings, it was to be observed that the purse was to have two strings, one of which was in the hands of the House of Representatives, the other in those of the Senate. Both Houses must concur in untying, and of what importance could it be which untied first, which last. He could not conceive it to be any objection to the Senate’s preparing the bills, that they would have leisure for that purpose, and would be in the habits of business. War, commerce, and revenue were the great objects of the General Government. All of them are connected with money. The restriction in favor of the House of Representatives would exclude the Senate from originating any important bills whatever.

The delegates revisited the citizenship requirement but left it as it was.
John Dickinson extolled the wisdom of acting on experience rather than reason.

Mr. DICKINSON. Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us. It was not reason that discovered the singular and admirable mechanism of the English constitution. It was not reason that discovered, or ever could have discovered, the odd, and, in the eyes of those who are governed by reason, the absurd mode of trial by jury. Accidents probably produced these discoveries, and experience has given a sanction to them. This is, then, our guide. And has not experience verified the utility of restraining money bills to the immediate representatives of the people? Whence the effect may have proceeded, he could not say; whether from the respect with which this privilege inspired the other branches of government, to the House of Commons, or from the turn of thinking it gave to the people at large with regard to their rights; but the effect was visible and could not be doubted.


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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