A Citizen of New Haven by Roger Sherman, Letter II
December 25, 1788
Observations the New Federal Constitution
In order to form a good Constitution of Government, the legislature should be properly organized, and be vested with plenary powers for all the purposes for which the government was instituted, to be exercised for the public good as occasion may require.
The greatest security that a people can have for the enjoyment of their rights and liberties, is that no laws can be made to bind them nor any taxes imposed upon them without their consent by representatives of their own chusing, who will participate with them in the public burthens and benefits; this was the great point contended for in our controversy with Great Britain, and this will be fully secured to us by the new constitution. The rights of the people will be secured by a representation in proportion to their numbers in one branch of the legislature, and the rights of the particular states by their equal representation in the other branch.
The President and Vice-President as well as the members of Congress will be eligible for the fixed periods, and may be re-elect as often as the electors shall think fit, which will be a great security for their fidelity in office, and give greater stability and energy to government than an exclusion by rotation, and will be an operative and effectual security against arbitrary government, either monarchial or aristocratic.
The immediate security of the civil and domestic rights of the people will be in the government of the particular states. And as the different states have different local interests and customs which can be best regulated by their own laws, it should not be expedient to admit the federal government to interfere with them, any farther than may be necessary for the good of the whole. The great end of the federal government is to protect the several states in the enjoyment of those rights, against foreign invasion, and to preserve peace and a beneficial intercourse among themselves; and to regulate and protect our commerce with foreign nations.
These were not sufficiently provided for by the former articles of confederation, which was the occasion of calling the late Convention to make amendments. This they have done by forming a new constitution containing the powers vested in the federal government, under the former, with such additional powers as they deemed necessary to attain the ends the states had in view, in their appointment. And to carry those powers into effect, they though it necessary to make some alterations in the organization of the government: this they supposed to be warranted by their commission.
The powers vested in the federal government are clearly defined, so that each state still retain its sovereignty in what concerns its own internal government, and a right to exercise every power of a sovereign state not particularly delegated to the government of the United States. The new powers vested in the United States, are, to regulate commerce; provide for a uniform practice respecting naturalization, bankruptcies, and organizing, arming and training the militia; and for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States; and for promoting the progress of science in the mode therein pointed out. There are some other matters which Congress has power under the present confederation to require to be done by the particular states, which they will be authorized to carry into effect themselves under the new constitution; these powers appear to be necessary for the common benefit of the states, and could not be effectually provided for by the particular states.
The objects of expenditure will be the same under the new constitution, as under the old; nor need the administration of government be more expensive; the number of members of Congress will be the same, nor will it be necessary to increase the number of officers in the executive department or their salaries; the supreme executive will be in a single person, who must have an honourable support; which perhaps will not exceed the present allowance to the President of Congress, and the expence of supporting a committee of the states in the recess of Congress.
It is not probable that Congress will have occasion to sit longer than two or three months in a year, after the first session, which may perhaps be something longer. Nor will it be necessary for the Senate to sit longer than the other branch. The appointment of officers may be made during the session of Congress, and trials on impeachment will not often occur, and will require little time to attend to them. The security against keeping up armies in time of peace will be greater under the new constitution than under the present, because it can’t be done without the concurrence of two branches of the legislature, nor can any appropriation of money for that purpose be in force more than two years; whereas there is no restriction under the present confederation.
The liberty of the press can be in no danger, because that is not put under the direction of the new government.
If the federal government keeps within its proper jurisdiction, it will be the interest of the state legislatures to support it, and they will be a powerful and effectual check to its interfering with their jurisdiction. But the objects of federal government will be so obvious that there will be no great danger of any interference.
The principal sources of revenue will be imposts on goods imported, and sale of the western lands, which will probably be sufficient to pay the debts and expences of the United States while peace continues; but if there should be occasion to resort to direct taxation, each state’s quota will be ascertained according to a rule which has been approved by the legislatures of eleven of the states, and should any state neglect to furnish its quota, Congress may raise it in the same manner that the state ought to have done; and what remedy more easy and equitable could be devised, to obtain the supplies from a delinquent state?
Some object, that the representation will be too small; but the states have not thought fit to keep half the number of representatives in Congress that they are entitled to under the present confederation; and of what advantage can it be to have a large assembly to transact the few general matters that will come under the direction of Congress.–The regulating of time, place and manner of elections seems to be as well secured as possible; the legislature of each state may do it, and if they neglect to do it in the best manner, it may be done by Congress;–and what motive can either have to injure the people in the exercise of that right? the qualifications of the electors are to remain as fixed by the constitutions and laws of the several states.
It is by some objected, that the executive is blended with the legislature, and that those powers ought to be entirely distinct and unconnected, but is not this a gross error in politics? The united wisdom and various interests of a nation should be combined in framing the laws. But the execution of them should not be in the whole legislature; that would be too troublesome and expensive; but it will not thence follow that the executive should have no voice or influence in legislation. The executive in Great Britain is one branch of the legislature, and has a negative on all laws; perhaps that is an extreme not to be imitated by a republic, but the partial negative vested in the President by the new Constitution on the acts of Congress and the subsequent revision, may be very useful to prevent laws being passed without mature deliberation.
The Vice-President while he acts as President of the Senate will have nothing to do in the executive department; his being elected by all the states will incline him to regard the interests of the whole, and when the members of the senate are equally divided on any question, who so proper to give a casting vote as one who represents all the states?
The power of the President to grant pardons extends only to offences committed against the United States, which can’t be productive of much mischief, especially as those on Impeachment are excepted, which will include offenders from office.
It was thought necessary in order to carry into effect the laws of the Union, to promote justice, and preserve harmony among the states, to extend the judicial powers of the United States to the enumerated cases, under such regulations and with such exceptions as shall be provided by law, which will doubtless reduce them to cases of such magnitude and importance as cannot safely be trusted to the final decision of the courts of particular states; and the constitution does not make it necessary that any inferior tribunals should be instituted, but it may be done if found necessary; ’tis probable that the courts of particular states will be authorized by the laws of the union, as has been heretofore done in cases of piracy, &c., and the Supreme Court may have a circuit to make trials as convenient, and as little expensive as possible to the parties; nor is there anything in the constitution to deprive them of trial by jury in cases where that mode of trial has been heretofore used. All cases in the courts of common law between citizens of the same state, except those claiming lands under grants of different states, must be finally decided by courts of the state to which they belong, so that it is not probable that more than one citizen to a thousand will ever have a cause that can come before a federal court.
Every departure and officer of the federal government will be subject to the regulation and control of the laws, and the people will have all possible securities against oppression. Upon the whole, the constitution appears to be well framed to secure the rights and liberties of the people and for preserving the governments of the individual states, and if well administered, to restore and secure public and private credit, and to give respectability to the states both abroad and at home. Perhaps a more perfect one could not be formed on mere speculation; and if upon experience it shall be found deficient, it provides an easy and peaceable mode to make amendments. It is not much better to adopt it than to continue in present circumstances? Its being agreed to by all the states present in Convention, is a circumstance in its favour, so far as any respect is due to their opinions.