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MVB, Senate speech on constitutional amendments, 18 March 1824

Mr. Van Buren, of New York, said, that it had not been his intention to add any thing to the remarks he had heretofore submitted on the motion now under consideration, but some explanation on his part had become necessary. It would, he thought, be injustice, as well to his constituents as to himself, to suffer the new views which had been taken of the subject by his honorable colleague, to pass unnoticed. In discharging the duty thus imposed upon him, he would not increase the excitement which has been manifested, by giving any latitude to the discussion which the occasion did not call for. No portion of the time of the Senate would be occupied by him, in discussing the constitutionality of a Congressional caucus; nor in considering any of those nice distinctions which challenged respect for the proceedings of conventions of one description, and denied it to others; nor in detecting those still more subtle refinements which regarded meetings of the same character as sometimes proper, and others destructive of the purity of elections and dangerous to the liberties of the people. He could not satisfy himself that this was either the place or the occasion for discussions of that character. But, whilst he abstained from following his colleague in the remarks having reference to this subject, which he had allowed himself to make, Mr. V. B. hoped he would not be understood as wishing to raise a question as to the propriety of the course which his colleague thought proper to pursue. It would not become him to do so. The principal ground taken for the postponement of the resolution, on a former occasion, related to the excitement produced by the approaching election, and the superior fitness of a future period for the consideration of the subject. This ground had now been much enlarged. It had been observed by an honorable member from North Carolina, in opposition to the motion, that the necessity of some amendment of the Constitution, in this respect, was generally admitted, and had been extensively called for by the people. Mr. V. B. understood his colleague not only to deny the fact alleged, as to the state of public opinion, but to contest the propriety of any amendment of the Constitution on the subject of the choice of President and Vice President. It was on those two points he would make a few remarks.

It could not, he thought, be necessary, and might not be proper, to detain the Senate by a minute statement of the various proceedings of Congress, and of the States, on the subject. A very brief reference to them would show that the gentleman from North Carolina was supported by facts in the opinion he had expressed. Mr. V. B. believed that, on examination, it would be found that the first movement on the subject had been made by the State he had the honor, in part, to represent. It was now twenty-two years since the Legislature of New York, shortly after an election, and under circumstances entirely disconnecting the measure with any pending controversy, had, with great unanimity, passed resolutions in favor of an amendment of the Constitution of the United States, requiring the division of the respective States into districts for the choice of Electors, and authorizing their selection immediately by the people. Those resolutions were communicated to Congress, and would be found on the journals of the Senate; since that time the subject had been acted upon, at various periods, and in different forms, as well by Congress as the Legislatures of the different States. Of the proceedings of the latter, those of North Carolina and New Jersey have been most conspicuous. The Legislature of North Carolina passed resolutions, nearly similar to those of New York, and sent them to the different States for concurrence. New York instructed her Senators, and requested her Representatives, to endeavor to obtain the amendment proposed by North Carolina, and many of the States gave similar instructions. At least three times within eleven years, and as late as the year 1822, resolutions, proposing amendments to the Constitution upon the subject of the election of President and Vice President, have passed this body, by more than the Constitutional majority, and there had been few sessions for several years, in which the subject had not been more or less acted upon. Early in the present session resolutions for amendment had been proposed by Senators from Missouri, New Jersey, South Carolina, Massachusetts, and New York. Their respective propositions had been referred to a committee, combining much of the talent and experience of the Senate, of which his colleague was a member. The subject had been considered with great care, and a plan reported, containing, as the committee thought, the best parts of the resolutions referred to them. In that report, he understood the committee were unanimous, and appearances certainly indicated the adoption of some resolution on the subject at the present session. Such were his impressions, and he thought that such had been the opinions of the members of the Senate generally. In view of the facts he had stated, he could neither repress nor conceal his disappointment in finding the motion for postponement now supported on the ground that no amendment was desired by the people.

Mr. V. B. said that, although the resolution he had proposed had not been wholly adopted by the committee, and notwithstanding he desired material alterations of that reported, still, if he should be unsuccessful in his endeavors to obtain the alteration he wished, he would cheerfully vote for the amendment reported by the committee. He considered it to be far preferable, for all concerned, to the existing provisions of the Constitution. It would be unwise, he thought, to examine the merits of the various plans proposed, before the Senate decided on the present motion. He was unwilling to occupy the time of the Senate in discussions, which might be rendered worse than useless, by the postponement of the subject; but his honorable colleague had taken one view of the question, which rendered a brief reply indispensable. If Mr. V. B. had correctly understood his colleague, he had spoken of the proposed amendment, as an attempt, on the part of the large States. to deprive the smaller States, in the Confederacy, of their equal votes, in the House of Representatives, in the choice of President, on the ground of its being a usurpation which ought to be repressed; and, thus considering the subject, he had enlarged on the circumstances under which this right was conceded to the small States, and had spoken of the great danger to which they were exposed, from the possible combination between the States of Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York. Mr. V. B. thought it due to his constituents, from their relation to the question in that form, and to himself, also, as having introduced one of the resolutions, to disclaim, for both, any views of the character alluded to. A reference to what had taken place here, ought to dispel the erroneous impression which had been made on the mind of his colleague. The first proposition for the amendment of the Constitution, in this respect, offered at this session, came from Missouri, the youngest, and, except one, or perhaps two, the smallest State in the Confederacy; and the others, from New Jersey, South Carolina, Massachusetts, and New York, in the order in which he had named these States. The propositions from New Jersey and South Carolina yielded the principle of giving to each State an equal vote, on receiving what they regarded as an equivalent. That equivalent consisted in the division of the large States into districts, to which, by the suggestion of the gentleman from South Carolina, was added the proposition, which could not but prove conservative of the interest of all, the removal of the decision from the House of Representatives. The principal difference between the plan he had the honor to propose, and those of which he had last spoken, was, that, instead of providing for the ultimate decision of the question by the House of Representatives, as was done in that of the gentleman from New Jersey, he proposed a second reference to the Electors; and, instead of sending it back as often as might be necessary to a choice, as proposed by the gentleman from South Carolina, Mr. V. B.'s plan compelled a choice on the second ballot by the Electors; a majority of the committee, to which the several propositions had been referred, were from small States, and they had agreed on an amendment, founded on principles of reciprocal concessions for the general good. This was all that the Representatives of the large States had, as he understood them, contended for. They could not, ought not, did not, desire that the small States should surrender any portion of the power and influence now secured to them by the Constitution, unless these States should, themselves, think, that their own condition would be improved, and the general welfare promoted, by their doing so, on receiving concessions, fully equivalent, from the large States. Considerations of such liberal and equitable character had been held out on both sides, and the conflicting interests of the different States, on this point, arising from their unfortunate inequality, had hitherto, to the honor of the Senate, been commented upon without the least acrimony, and under the control of feelings which promised the most auspicious results. Mr. V. B. said that nothing had taken place to change his views or disposition on the subject. He was anxious to continue the discussion, and was willing to lend his feeble efforts to obtain the adoption of some resolution, on the subject, at this session. To this end, he was ready, on the part of his constituents, to make all reasonable sacrifices. If, however, gentlemen thought that the next session would be a more propitious period, and the character, of the debate, on this motion, certainly afforded some reason to believe that it might be so, he would bow, respectfully, to the will of the majority. Until, however, that was expressed, he would continue to oppose the postponement.

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Source: <em>Annals of Congress</em>
Collection: N/A
Series: Series 4 (3 December 1821-31 December 1824)