August 9, 10 and 11: Republican Nationalism

Today is catchup day: reflections on the debates of August 9, 10 and 11.

On August 9, the delegates discussed an issue with contemporary resonance: immigration. The question was how long senators should have to have been citizens before serving. The proposition on the table was four years. Gouverneur Morris, fearing foreign agents as senators—or at least foreign intrigues to influence the Senate—moved to extend it to 14 years.

That sparked firm responses from Madison, Franklin and Wilson. Madison felt the restriction involved “a tincture of illiberality” that might affect all immigrants, not just senators. If the Constitution succeeded, “men who love liberty and wish to partake its blessings, will be ready to transfer their fortunes hither. All such would feel the mortification of being marked with suspicious incapacitations though they sd. not covet the public honors.”

Madison’s words, echoed by Franklin and Wilson—the latter an immigrant himself—provide compelling context for today’s immigration debates: Immigrants, Madison concludes, do the United States an honor by desiring to live here.

On August 10, Madison objected to empowering Congress to set property qualifications for voting.

The qualifications of electors and elected were fundamental articles in a Republican Govt. and ought to be fixed by the Constitution. If the Legislature could regulate those of either, it can by degrees subvert the Constitution. A Republic may be converted into an aristocracy or oligarchy as well by limiting the number capable of being elected, as the number authorised to elect.

The passage is especially interesting in light of Madison’s belief, stated to the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829, that the Virginia Senate should protect property in human beings. He got it right the first time.

On August 11, Madison and John Rutledge of South Carolina proposed that each house of Congress be required to keep a journal of its proceedings. Strikingly, the motion was almost immediately and almost unanimously rejected. The grounds of the rejection are clouded by the motion’s specification that the Senate could operate secretly “when acting not in its Legislative capacity.” That implied, Maryland’s John Mercer said, that the Senate could exercise non-legislative powers. Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut felt the whole clause should be rejected.

James Wilson replied that “the expunging of the clause would be very improper. The people have a right to know what their Agents are doing or have done, and it should not be in the option of the Legislature to conceal their proceedings.” George Mason noted that the people would object to “mak[ing] a conclave of their legislature.”

The Convention removed the clause about the Senate acting in a capacity other than legislative—a reference to its unique powers with respect to treaties—and authorized each branch to exercise its judgment as to when secrecy was required. The requirement for journals was then approved unanimously.

There is a theme across these days: the republican thrust of the Convention and especially its most nationalist members. That connects the ideas that the people should be free to choose recent immigrants as senators, that the franchise should not be overly restricted and that the proceedings of Congress should be visible to the voters who would hold the body accountable.

Leave a Reply