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MVB, Speech on the elective franchise, 25 September 1821

Mr. Van Buren, said he was opposed to the amendment under consideration, offered by the gentleman from Albany, (Chief Justice Spencer;) and he would beg the indulgence of the committee, for a short time, while he should attempt to explain the reasons, which, in his opinion, required its rejection. The extreme importance which the honorable mover had attached to the subject, and the somber and frightful picture which had been drawn by his colleague, (the Chancellor) of the alarming consequences, which would result from the adoption of a course, different from the one recommended, rendered it a duty, which those, who entertained a contrary opinion, owed to themselves and their constituents, to explain the motives which governed them. If a stranger had heard the discussions on this subject, and had been unacquainted with the character of our people, and the character and standing of those, who find it their duty to oppose this measure, he might well have supposed, that we were on the point of prostrating with lawless violence, one of the fairest and firmest pillars of the government, and of introducing into the sanctuary of the constitution, a mob or a rabble, violent and disorganizing, as were the Jacobins of France; and furious and visionary as the radicals of England, are, by some gentlemen, supposed to be. The honorable gentleman from Albany (the Chancellor,) tells us, that if we send the constitution to the people, without the provision, contemplated by the proposition now under consideration, it will meet with the scorn of the wise, and be hailed with exultation by the vicious and the profligate. He entertained, he said, a high personal respect for the mover of this amendment, and also for his learned colleague, who had so eloquently and pathetically described to them the many evils and miseries which its rejection would occasion; he declared his entire conviction of his sincerity in what he had uttered, his simplicity of character, he had himself so feelingly described, his known candour and purity of character would forbid any one to doubt, that he spoke the sentiments of his heart. But believing as he did, that those fears and apprehensions were wholly without foundation, it could not be expected, that he would suffer them to govern his conduct.

Permit me to ask, (said Mr. Van Buren) where are the wise men to be found, who it is supposed would pass a censure so severe on our conduct? Did the honourable gentleman allude to the wise men of the east—Throughout their dominions, not a constitution is to be found, containing, in form or substance, the provision contemplated by the amendment. Did he allude to their descendants in the west? In Ohio, and partially in Illinois and in Indiana? Their constitutions were in this particular as ours would be, if this amendment was adopted. Did he allude to those of the south? In none of their constitutions, nor in those of any state in the union (except North-Carolina) was such a provision as that proposed by the amendment to be found. In the constitution of the Union, too, which has been in operation long enough to test the correctness and soundness of its principles, there was no excessive freehold representation. That constitution was now the boast and pride of the American people, and the admiration of the world. He presumed there was not an individual in that committee, who would question the sufficiency of the general government, for the protection of life, liberty and property. Under this government, and the several state constitutions, the states had been, and continued to be, rapidly advancing in public improvements, and the nation was in the full fruition of the blessings of civil and religious liberty; every one was sitting quietly and safely under his own vine and fig tree, and every one enjoying, without molestation, the fruits of his own labour and industry.

It could not, therefore, fail to strike the mind of every man, that the great alarm, which had been attempted to be excited upon this subject, was entirely imaginary—certainly without adequate foundation.—Why, then, he would ask, had the appeal been made to the fears and apprehensions of the committee?

In the grave and portentous deductions, which the honorable gentleman, who supported the amendment, had drawn from the rejection of the amendment under consideration, the question raised by it, had been, in a great degree, disregarded, if not entirely lost sight of. The committee had been entertained with the most frightful conjectures, on subjects, if not wholly, certainly in a great degree, unconnected with the object of the amendment. They had been told of the present bad character, and worse propensities of a great portion of their present population—the demoralizing effects of great manufacturing establishments, which might, or might not, hereafter grow up among us, had been pourtrayed in the darkest colours—the dissolute and abandoned character of a large portion of the inhabitants of the old cities of Europe, and the probability of similar degeneracy in this happy land, had been represented in hideous deformity—And all the powers of eloquence, and the inventions of imagination, had been enlisted, to present to our view, a long train of evils, which would follow, from extending the right of suffrage to such a description of people. And all this had been done, to procure the adoption of the amendment under consideration. He would now put the question to the sober sense of the committee, and to the highly respectable and venerable gentlemen, who had thought proper to press these matters upon them in this stage of the discussion, with what propriety had this been done? Did the amendment raise the question, whether any, and what amount of property should be a requisite qualification for a voter? Whether contributions to the public for the protection of property, in the shape of taxes shall be required? or whether personal services, either in the public defense, or for public improvements, should be deemed sufficient? These, he said, were questions brought into view by the report of the select committee, and on which, they would hereafter have to act, but they were not now under discussion. When they would come before them, then would the past, the present, and probable future character of the population of this state, be proper subjects for consideration.

From data, to be obtained in the comptroller’s office, it might with safety be stated, that the personal property in the state, which was the subject of taxation, amounted to about one hundred and fifty million of dollars; and that the real estate was valued at two hundred and fifty-six millions. The true question, then, presented to the committee by this amendment, was, whether this one hundred and fifty millions of personal property, which annually contributed to defray the public burdens, and to promote public improvements; and which was not now directly represented in any branch, should be wholly excluded from representation in one branch of the legislature; and that the one possessed of most power, and by far the most important of the two. But this was not all.

By the census of 1814, it appeared, that of 163,000 electors in this state, upwards of 75,000 were freeholders, under $250, and all of them householders, who may possess any amount of personal property—men who have wives and children to protect and support; and who have every thing but the mere dust on which they trod to bind them to the country. And the question was, whether, in addition to those who might, by this Convention, be clothed with the right of suffrage, this class of men, composed of mechanics, professional men, and small landholders, and constituting the bone, pith, and muscle of the population of the state, should be excluded entirely from all representation in that branch of the legislature which had equal power to originate all bills, and a complete negative upon the passage of all laws; from which, under the present constitution, proceeded the power that had the bestowment of all offices, civil and military in the state: and above all, which, in the language of an honourable member from Albany, as a court of dernier resort, was entrusted with the life, liberty, and property, of every one of our citizens. This, said he, is, in sober truth, the question under discussion; and it would seem to him to be only necessary, that it should be fairly stated, and correctly understood, to secure its rejection. This was the grievance, under which so great a portion of the people of this state had hitherto laboured. It was to relieve them from this injustice, and this oppression, that the Convention had been called; and it was, and always had been, a matter of astonishment to him, that a reformation in this particular had been so long delayed.

There were two words, continued Mr. V. B., which had come into common use with our revolutionary struggle; words which contained an abridgment of our political rights; words which, at that day, had a talismanic effect; which led our fathers from the bosoms of their families to the tented field; which, for seven long years of toil and suffering, had kept them to their arms; and which finally conducted them to a glorious triumph. They were “TAXATION and REPRESENTATION;” nor did they lose their influence with the close of that struggle. They were never heard in our halls of legislation, without bringing to our recollections the consecrated feelings of those who won our liberties, or without reminding us of every thing that was sacred in principle.

It was, said he, but yesterday, that they afforded the strongest evidence of their continued hold upon our feelings and our judgments, by the triumph they effected, over the strongest aversions and prejudices of our nature—on the question of continuing the right of suffrage to the poor, degraded blacks. Apply, said he, for a moment, the principles they inculcate to the question under consideration, and let its merits be thereby tested. Are those of your citizens represented, whose voices are never heard in your senate? Are these citizens in any degree represented or heard, in the formation of your courts of justice, from the highest to the lowest? Was, then, representation in one branch of the legislature, which by itself can do nothing—which, instead of securing to them the blessings of legislation, only enables them to prevent it as an evil, any thing more than a shadow? Was it not emphatically “keeping the word of promise to the ear, and breaking it to the hope? Was it not even less than the virtual representation, with which our fathers were attempted to be appeased by their oppressors? It was even so; and if so, could they, as long as this distinction was retained, hold up their heads, and, without blushing, pretend to be the advocates for that special canon of political rights, that taxation and representation were, and ever should be, indissoluble? He thought not.

In whose name, and for whose benefit, he inquired, were they called upon to disappoint the just expectations of their constituents, and to persevere in what he could not but regard as a violation of principle? It was in the name, and for the security of ‘farmers,’ that they were called upon to adopt this measure. This, he said, was, indeed, acting in an imposing name; and they who used it, knew full well that it was so. It was, continued Mr. V. B., the boast, the pride, and the security of this nation, that she had in her bosom a body of men who, for sobriety, integrity, industry, and patriotism, were unequalled by the cultivators of the earth in any part of the known world; nay, more, to compare them with men of similar pursuits in other countries, was to degrade them. And woeful must be our degeneracy, before any thing, which might be supposed to affect the interests of the farmers of this country, could be listened to with indifference by those who governed us.

He could not, he said, yield to any man in respect for this invaluable class of our citizens, nor in zeal for their support: But how did this matter stand? enquired Mr. V. B. Was the allegation that they were violating the wishes, and tampering with the security of the farmers, founded in fact, or was it merely colourable? Who, he asked, had hitherto constituted a majority of the voters of the state? The farmers—who had called for, and insisted upon the Convention. Farmers and freeholders! Who passed the law admitting those, who were not electors, to a free participation in the decision of the question of Convention or No Convention, and also in the choice of delegates to that body. A legislature, a majority of whom were farmers, and probably every one of them freeholders, of the value of two hundred and fifty dollars and upwards! The farmers of this state had, he said, by an overwhelming majority, admitted those who were not freeholders, to a full participation with themselves in every stage of this great effort to amend our constitution, and to ameliorate the condition of the people: Could he, then, ought he to be told, that they would be disappointed in their expectations, when they found that by the provisions of the constitution as amended, a great proportion of their fellow citizens were enfranchised, and released, from fetters which they themselves had done all in their power to loosen? He did not believe it. Again, enquired Mr. V. B. Who are we, that have been chosen to perform this great, and he could not but think, good work? A great majority of us are practical farmers; all freeholders, and of no small amounts. Were they their own worst enemies? Could they be suspected of a want of fidelity to the freehold interest? No! The farmers had looked for such an event; they earnestly desired it. Whatever ravages the possession of power might have made in the breasts of others, they at least had shewn that they could ‘feel power without forgetting right.’ If any thing, (said Mr. Van Buren,) could render this invaluable class of men dearer and more estimable than they were, it was this magnanimous sacrifice which they had made on the altar of principle, by consenting to admit those of their fellow citizens, who, though not so highly favoured as themselves by fortune, had still enough to bind them to their country, to an equal participation in the blessings of a free government. Thus, Mr. V. B. said he understood their wishes, and he would govern himself accordingly; having the consolation to know, that if he should have misunderstood them, they would have the power of rescuing themselves, from the effects of such misapprehension, by rejecting the amendments, which should be proposed for their adoption.

But let us, said he, consider this subject in another and different point of view; it was their duty, and he had no doubt it was their wish, to satisfy all, so that their proceedings might meet with the approbation of the whole community; it was his desire to respect the wishes and consult the interest of all; he would not hamper the rich nor tread upon the poor, but would respect each alike. He would, he said, submit a few considerations to the men of property, who think this provision necessary for its security, and in doing so, he would speak of property in general, dropping the important distinction made by the amendment offered between real and personal estate. Admitting, for the sake of argument, that the distinction was just, and wise, and necessary, for the security of property, was the object effected by the present regulation? He thought not; property was not now represented in the senate on the extent it was erroneously supposed to be. To represent individual property, it would be necessary that each individual should have a number of votes in some degree at least, in proportion to the amount of his property; this was the manner in which property was represented, in various corporations and in monied institutions. Suppose in any such institution one man who had one hundred shares, another, one share, could you gravely tell the man who held one hundred shares, that his property was represented in the direction, if their votes were equal. To say that because a man worth millions, as is the case of one in this committee, has one vote, and another citizen worth only two hundred and fifty dollars in real estate, has one vote for senators, that therefore their property is equally represented in the senate, is, to say the least, speaking very incorrectly; it is literally substituting a shadow for a reality; and though the case he had stated by way of illustration, would not be a common one, still the disparity which pervaded the whole community, was sufficiently great to render his argument correct.

If to this it was answered, as it had been by the gentleman from Albany, (Mr. Van Vechten) that the amount was not material; that the idea of their representing freeholders would be sufficient; his reply was, that this purpose was already effected by the constitution as it stands. It now provides that the senators shall be freeholders; and that part of the constitution it was not proposed to alter. There was no objection to fixing the amount of the freehold required in the elected, and to place it on a respectable, but not extravagant footing. If, therefore, an ideal representation of property was of any value, that object was fully obtained without the amendment. But the preservation of individual property, is not the great object of having it represented in the senate.

When the people of this state shall have so far degenerated; when the principles of order or of good government which now characterize our people, and afford security to our institutions, shall have so far given way to those of anarchy and violence, as to lead to an attack on private property, or an agrarian law; to which allusion had been made by the gentleman from Albany, (Mr. Kent); or by an attempt to throw all the public burthens on any particular class of men; then all constitutional provisions will be idle and unavailing, because they will have lost all their force and influence. In answer to the apprehension so frequently expressed, that unless this amendment prevails, there is nothing to prevent all the taxes being laid on the real estate, it is only necessary to state, that there is no more in the constitution of the United States, than there will be in ours, if the amendment fails, to prevent all the revenues of the union from being raised by direct taxation. And was such a fear ever entertained for the general government? How is it possible for gentlemen to suppose, that in a constitutional regulation, under which all the states are enjoying the most ample security for property, an individual state would be exposed to danger?

It is only (said Mr. V. B.) to protect property against property, that a provision in the constitution, basing the representation on property, is, or ought to be, desired in one branch of the government. It is when improvements are contemplated at the public expense, and when for those and for other objects, new impositions are to be put upon property, then it is that the interest of different sections of the state come in contact—and then it is that their respective weight in the legislature, becomes important to them. As for instance, the question of the canal, although the west, the north, and the south might unite in favour of that improvement, and its support by taxation, if that should ever become necessary, the middle and north western parts of the state might not feel that interest, and contemplate that advantage from the measure, as to induce them to consent to be taxed for its support or creation. Again—if it should be proposed to relieve the state from burthens, by calling in the public dues; in that case, that part of your state from which they are due, would have an interest in the question different from the others; in the imposition, increase or decrease of duties on salt, for instance, the effect would be the same; indeed, in all improvements at the public expense, the advantage must, more or less, be equal, while the monies to make them, are raised from the people at large. On such occasions the representation which the different sections of the state have, in proportion to the taxes they pay, may become material. To give to property its relative weight in such cases, in Massachusetts, where this subject has been examined and discussed with a degree of wisdom and research highly honourable to the character of the state, they have thought it wise to apportion their representation in the senate on the basis of the assessment list. Is this representation enjoyed in any reasonable sense, under the existing constitution? Let facts decide.

By the assessment lists in the comptroller's office, it appears that the southern district pays taxes on one hundred and thirteen millions of dollars—the western on fifty-five millions only—and yet the latter has nine senators, and the former only six; and after the next apportionment the disproportion will be still greater. Again—the western district, he said, paid one fifth more tax than the middle, which pays only forty-five millions, and yet their representation in the senate was equal. Again—the eastern and middle districts possessed only one third of the wealth, and about three-sevenths of the population of the state, and they elect a majority of the senators. And, to conclude, the city of New-York alone, pays taxes on sixty-nine millions of dollars, being twenty-seven millions more than the whole eastern district—twenty-four millions more than the middle district, and fourteen millions more than the western district, and the western district sends nine senators—the middle nine, and the eastern eight, and the city of New-York one.

The representation, then, of property in the senate, under the existing constitution, was, he said, as it respected individual estates, wholly delusive, and as it respected the interest of property in the different sections of the state so flagrantly unequal as to destroy practical advantage to property from a representation of it, and not only so, but made it infinitely worse than if property was not professed to be represented at all.

Under the present constitution, as it now stands, said Mr. V. B. that in equality must and would continue; and he would ask, whether it was desirable to retain this distinction as it now existed, and whether it was productive of one solitary advantage? He thought not, and so he believed all reflecting men on examination, would likewise think. If it was not advisable to retain it, the next enquiry was, could it be altered? could the Massachusetts system be adopted? He would, he said, put it to the understandings of gentlemen, to say, whether, in view of public opinion as they knew it to be, and with a consciousness of the controling and omnipotent influence, which public opinion had, and justly had, in a country and government like ours, they supposed that the system could be improved.

I am convinced many reflecting men will say no; must say no; there is no room for misunderstanding. Even in Massachusetts, where this now forms a part of their constitution, a re-apportionment of their senate was deemed necessary, and adopted by their Convention, and rejected by the people, by an overwhelming majority, while the abolition of the property qualification for the elector had met with their cordial support. It was rejected, because although the Convention were in favour of that system of apportionment, the people were opposed to it, and were determined that nothing farther should be done under it. If, then, in Massachusetts, where the regulation already exists, it cannot be much longer sustained, no sensible man would deceive himself with the hope that it could be adopted here now, nor ought it to be adopted by us, if it were practicable, for reasons not now necessary to give.

And what, he enquired had been its practical effects? had they been such as to afford any additional security to property? had the members of the senate, for years past, been more respectable for talents or integrity? had they shewn a greater regard for property? had they been more vigilant in guarding the public treasury than the assembly?

The senate, he said, was the only legislative body in which he had ever had the honour of a seat; and he had been there from a very early age—almost all his political connexions had been with that body—his earliest political recollections were associated with its proceedings, and he had had, in some of its proceedings, as much cause for individual gratification as could well, under the same circumstances, fall to the lot of any man; notwithstanding which, and also the strong partiality he had always felt for that body, he could not say, that in the many years he was there, the sentiment ever occurred to him, that such was the case. On the contrary, a regard to truth constrained him to say, that every thing, which regarded the imposition of public burdens, and the disposition of public property, were more closely looked into, and more severely scrutinized by the assembly than the senate. The sense of immediate responsibility to the people, produced more effect on the assembly, than the consideration, that they represented those, who were supposed principally to bear the burdens, did in the senate; and such, he conscientiously believed, would always be the case. He asked the members of the committee, whether they believed, that there had been a moment for the last forty years, when a proposition in the assembly to make an unjust distinction between real and personal property, in the imposition of public burdens, would not have been hooted out of that body, if any one had been found mad enough to have dared its introduction? Why, then, he asked, alarm ourselves by fears for the future, which the experience of the past had demonstrated to be erroneous? Why disregard the admonitions of experience, to pursue the dubious path of speculation and theory.

He had no doubt but the honourable gentlemen who had spoken in favour of the amendment, had suffered from the fearful forebodings which they had expressed. That ever to be revered band of patriots who made our constitution, entertained them also, and therefore they engrafted in it the clause which is now contended for. But a full and perfect experience had proved the fallacy of their speculations, and they were now called upon again to adopt the exploded notion; and on that ground, to disfranchise, if not a majority, nearly a moiety, of our citizens. He said he was an unbeliever in the speculations and mere theories on the subject of government, of the best and wisest men, when unsupported by, and especially when opposed to, experience. He believed with a sensible and elegant modern writer, “That constitutions are the work of time, not the invention of ingenuity; and that to frame a complete system of government, depending on habits of reverence and experience, was an attempt as absurd as to build a tree, or manufacture an opinion.”

All our observation, he said, united to justify this assertion—when they looked at the proceedings of the Convention which adopted the constitution of the United States, they could not fail to be struck by the extravagance, and, as experience had proved, the futility of the fears and hopes that were entertained and expressed, from the different provisions of that constitution, by the members. The venerable and enlightened Franklin, had no hope if the president had the qualified negative, that it would be possible to keep him honest; that the extensive power of objecting to laws, would inevitably lead to the bestowment of doucers to prevent the exercise of the power; and many, very many of the members, believed that the general government, framed as it was, would, in a few years, prostrate the state governments. While, on the other hand, the lamented Hamilton, Mr. Madison, and others, distressed themselves with the apprehension, that unless they could infuse more vigour into the constitution they were about to adopt, the work of their hands could not be expected to survive its framers. Experience, the only unerring touchstone, had proved the fallacy of all those speculations, as it had also those of the framers of our state constitution, in the particular now under consideration; and having her records before them, he was for being governed by them.

But, continued Mr. Van Buren, we are told that the reason why the senators have not been more respectable, has been owing to the mode of their election, and that, if the districts are reduced in size, the representation will be improved. This, he considered, in every view of the matter, incorrect. Some gentlemen had insinuated that they had heretofore been nominated in Albany. In this he presumed they were not sincere, and if they were, he could see no reason why that could not as well be done for the counties as for a large district. He should suppose it would be less difficult to manage the Convention of a single county, than that of a whole district. But further, the senators are now as much nominated by the counties as they then would be.

How would they be chosen if confined to the counties? Meetings of the respective parties, which now, and always will exist, would be held; and at such county meetings the candidates for senators would be nominated. As the districts now are, the candidates, in some cases, are nominated at district Conventions. The delegates to these conventions, are chosen at county meetings, and instructed who to nominate from the respective counties, and the instances were rare in which such instructions were disregarded. The mode of their nomination, therefore, would be in effect the same.

But was it not probable, said he, that the increase of the senatorial districts to the number of senators, as intended by the mover of the amendment, would lessen the respectability of the selections. Parties would always exist, and they would always consult their interest in the selection of candidates for public places. Their first and chief object was success: to ensure that, they would, when in large districts, select a man whose standing and talents were such as to render it probable that his name would be acceptable in remote parts of the district, whilst if the election was confined to a small district, they might be induced to reward a favourite for mere party services, when confident that there would be no danger in the attempt.

But this was not the only point of view in which the notion of small districts would interfere with the arguments in support of the amendment under consideration. One which had been urged by the honourable mover, and one which was entitled, perhaps, to most consideration, was the propriety, if not necessity, of making the two branches of the legislature, as different in their creation and organization as is practicable, to ensure the advantages to be derived from having two branches. In this point of view, the circumstance of representing different counties and territories was of no mean value. Members of the assembly were not unfrequently much concerned in the advancement of the local interests of their respective counties. And in all such cases, if they and the senators represent the same men, their feelings and influence in regard to every matter relating to their respective counties, would be the same. But if not—if the senator was the representative of a district composed of a number of counties, he would feel his responsibility encreased in proportion to the extension of his trust: and he would act upon, and as far as was practicable, reconcile the clashing views of the members from the different counties in his district.

The expectation, therefore, that the senate would be improved by any thing to be done on the score of districts, was, he thought, without foundation; and the question under consideration, should be tested under a conviction that the provision contended for, would, for the future, produce as much effect as it had for the past, and no more.

If, then, it was true that the present representation of property in the senate was ideal, and purely ideal, did not, continued Mr. V. B. sound policy dictate an abandonment of it, by the possessors of property? He thought it did; he thought so because he held it to be at all times, and under all circumstances, and for all interests, unwise to struggle against the wishes of any portion of the people—to subject yourselves to a wanton exposure to public prejudice to struggle for an object, which, if attained, was of no avail. He thought so, because the retaining of this qualification in the present state of public opinion, would have a tendency to excite jealousy in the minds of those who had no freehold property, and because more mischief was to be apprehended from that source than any other. It was calculated to excite that prejudice because not requiring sufficient to effect the object in view, it, in the language of Dr. Franklin, “exhibited liberty in disgrace, by bringing it in competition with accident and insignificance.”

But, said Mr. V. B. we have been referred to the opinions of General Hamilton, as expressed in his writings in favour of the constitution of the United States, as supporting this amendment. He should not detain the committee by adding any thing to what had been said of his great worth, and splendid talents. He would omit it, because he could not add to the encomiums which had been delivered on this floor, on his life and character. The tribute to departed worth had been justly paid by the honourable gentlemen from Albany and Orange, (Messrs. Spencer and Duer.) But there was nothing in the Federalist to support the amendment:—Without troubling the committee by reading the number which had been referred to, it would be sufficient for him to say, that it could not be supposed, that the distinguished men who had done a lasting benefit to their country, and had earned for themselves the highest honours, by the work in question, could have urged the propriety, of a property representation, in one branch of the legislature, in favour of a constitution, which contained no such provision. They had not done so.

We were, said Mr. V. B. next referred by the honourable mover of the amendment, to the opinion of Mr. Jefferson, as expressed in his Notes on Virginia. In making that reference, the honourable gentleman had done himself credit; and had rendered but justice to the merits of the distinguished individual, whose opinion he had sought to enlist on his side. He had truly said, that now, when the strong party feeling which attended the public measures in which Mr. Jefferson was an actor, had in some degree subsided, most men united in the acknowledgment of his deserts. That sentiment, however, it appeared, was not general, since the gentleman from Columbia (Mr. E. Williams) distinctly avows, the retention of his old prejudices. Whilst that gentleman was trumpet-tongued, in denouncing the impropriety of indulgence, in party feelings by others, he had given them the strongest reason to believe, that his own were immortal; that they had not only survived the “era of good feeling” through which we had passed, but were likely to continue. But that notwithstanding, he still thought of Mr. Jefferson, as he always had done, he would condescend to use him for the occasion. Sir, said Mr. V. B. it is grating to one's feelings, to hear a man, who has done his country the greatest service, and who at this moment occupies more space in the public mind, than any other private citizen in the world, thus spoken of. But no more of this.

Mr Jefferson did complain, in 1781, of the constitution of Virginia, because the two branches of their legislature were not sufficiently dissimilar, but he did not point out the mode in which he thought that object could be best effected.

In 1783, when, as he had before stated, a convention was expected in Virginia, he prepared a form of government to be submitted to the people, in which he provided the same qualification for both branches, and shewed clearly, either that his opinion had undergone a change on the subject, or that he supposed the object would be effected by the difference of their term of service, and the districts they represented.

The next consideration which had been pressed upon the committee by the honourable mover of the amendment, was, the apprehension that the persons employed in the manufactories which now were, or which, in the progress of time, might be established amongst us, would be influenced by their employers. So far as it respected the question before the committee, said Mr. V. B. it was a sufficient answer to the argument, that if they were so influenced, they would be enlisted on the same side, which it was the object of the amendment to promote, on the side of property. If not—if they were independent of the influence of their employers, they would be safe depositories of the right. For no man, surely, would contend that they should be deprived of the right of voting on account of their poverty, except so far as it might be supposed to impair their independence, and the consequent purity of the exercise of that invaluable right.

The honourable gentleman from Albany, (Mr. Spencer) had next directed their attention to the borough elections in England, as evidence of the consequences which might be expected from the non-adoption of his amendment. Mr. V. B. said he could not, in his view of the subject, on the most mature reflection, have selected an argument better calculated to prove the amendment to be unwise and improper, than this one, on which the gentleman mainly relied for its support. What, sir, said he, was the cause of the corruptions which confessedly prevail in that portion of the representation in the parliament of Great Britain? Was it the lowness of the qualifications of the electors, in comparison with the residue of the country? No. In many of the boroughs a freehold qualification was required; in most, that they should be burgage holders; and in all, that they should be freemen, paying scot and lot. Compare, said Mr. V. B. these qualifications with those required in Westminster, and it will be found that the lowest of the former are equal to the latter. It could not be necessary for him to say, that if the will of the people prevailed in any election in England—if patriotism and public spirit was sure to find its appropriate reward any where in that country, it was at the Westminster elections. The qualifications of the electors, therefore, was not the cause, except it was in some instances where the election was confined to a very few, as for instance, to the mayor and common council of a borough. But I will tell you, sir, said Mr. V. B. what is the cause—it is because the representation in question, is a representation of things, and not of men—it is because that it is attached to territory, to a village or a town, without regard to the population; as by the amendment under consideration, it is attempted here to be attached to territory, and to territory only. Suppose, for a moment, that the principles on which the report of the select committee is based, and which the amendment opposes, should be applied to the representation in the parliament of Great Britain—that instead of her present representation, it should be apportioned among all their subjects who contribute to the public burthens? Would you hear any complaints in that country on the subject of their rotten boroughs? No, sir; but on the contrary, that reform in parliament would be at once obtained, for which the friends of reform in that devoted country have so long contended, and which they probably never will obtain, except (to use the language of the gentleman from Albany) at the point of the bayonet. He could not, therefore, but think that the illustration resorted to, by the honourable mover of the amendment, was most unfortunate to his argument, nor ought he to withhold his thanks for the suggestion.

There were, continued Mr. V. B. many, very many, considerations, besides those he had noticed, which could, with propriety and profit, be urged on this occasion, to shew the impropriety of the amendment. There were several which it was his intention at first to urge. He had designed too, to notice some of the remarks which fell from the gentleman from Columbia, (Mr. Williams,) but as he was not certain that what he should say, would produce that state of feeling necessary on so interesting a subject, he would omit it. The time which he had already occupied—the very flattering attention with which the committee had listened to him, an attention demanding and receiving his utmost gratitude, induced him to forbear from trespassing further on their patience. The great importance, therefore, of having various interests, various talents, and men of various pursuits, in the senate, to secure a due attention to, and a perfect understanding of, the various concerns to which legislation might be applied in this state, the origin of the freehold requisition in England and here, together with the reasons why that distinction, though proper at the time of the adoption of our constitution, had almost entirely ceased to be wise or just: and also the causes which must inevitably render it in a short time, in our country at least, very unnecessary and ineffectual, together with topics like those, he would leave to the very judicious remarks which had already been made, and to such as might hereafter be made by others.

If he could possibly believe, added Mr. V. B. that any portion of the calamitous consequences could result from the rejection of the amendment, which had been so feelingly pourtrayed by the honourable gentleman from Albany, (Mr. Kent,) and for whom he would repeat the acknowledgment of his respect and regard, he would be the last man in society who would vote for it. But, believing, as he conscientiously did, that those fears were altogether unfounded; hoping and expecting that the happiest results would follow from the abolition of the freehold qualification, and hoping too, that caution and circumspection would preside over the settlement of the general right of suffrage, which was hereafter to be made, and knowing, besides, that this state, in abolishing the freehold qualifications, would but be uniting herself in the march of principle, which had already prevailed in every state of the union, except two or three, including the royal charter of Rhode-Island, he would cheerfully record his vote against the amendment.

Also printed in the following:

"Mr. Van Buren and the Elective Franchise in New York," The Washington Globe, 25 October 1834.

"Mr. Van Buren and the Elective Franchise in New York," The Washington Globe, 1 September 1836.

"Life of Martin Van Buren," Extra Globe, 16 June 1840.

 

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Source: Nathaniel Carter and William L. Stone, Reports of the Proceedings and Debates of the Convention of 1821, Assembled for the Purpose of Amending the Constitution of the State of New-York: Containing All the Official Documents . . . (1821)
Collection: N/A
Series: Series 3 (17 February 1815-2 December 1821)