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MVB, Speech on senate districts, 15 October 1821

Mr. Van Buren said, that before the Convention resolved itself into a committee of the whole, he wished to submit a plan, for the ultimate division of the state into senatorial districts, and to provide for their election until that was done. Being chairman of the committee of the whole, this, he said, was the only course for him to bring it before the Convention, and without entering into a discussion of the merits of the various projects before them, he would content himself with a very brief explanation of the one he was about to propose.

He had not, he said, anticipated much difficulty on this subject, or any other connected with the report of the legislative committee. Without having carefully examined or minutely scrutinized the plan for the election of senators, reported by the select committee, he had acquiesced in its propriety, chiefly from the respect he felt for the very intelligent committee who had reported it. The discussion, however, which had already taken place in committee, had satisfied him, that though he would still prefer it to some of the plans suggested, it was however liable to such serious objections, as to render it extremely desirable that another and better should be attempted. Under these impressions, he had thought favourably of the course which had been suggested by the gentleman from Dutchess (Mr. Tallmadge) and had intended, as far as his situation would admit of his interference, to give it his support. The remarks of the honourable President yesterday, however, had entirely satisfied him, that it would be unwise to attempt a division of the state into senatorial districts in the constitution, but that it ought to be left to the legislature. He was persuaded, that this was the only wise course: and to carry the resolution and suggestions of the President into effect, he had prepared a plan, which embraced also as much of the report of the select committee as was consistent with a future, instead of a present division, and which he would read.

“I. That it shall be the duty of the first legislature, under the amended constitution, to divide the state into districts not less than eight in number, to be denominated senatorial districts; and to make a just apportionment of thirty-two senators, among the said districts. If the said division and apportionment, shall not be effected by the said first legislature, the same may be completed by the succeeding one.

“II. That the said districts, shall not, hereafter, be less in number than eight; but their number may be increased. They shall consist of as equal a number of inhabitants, as may be, (excluding aliens, paupers, persons of colour not taxed, and convicts.) If a district shall consist of more than one county, the counties shall be contiguous to each other; and no county shall be divided in the formation of a senatorial district.

“III. That the first senate, under the amended constitution, and until a new division and apportionment of, and among the senatorial districts be made, shall be chosen by the four great districts, as they at present exist, in the following proportions, viz: The southern district, seven senators; the middle district, seven senators; the eastern district, seven senators: and the western district, eleven senators.

“IV. That as soon as the senate shall meet, after the first election, to be held in pursuance of the amended constitution, they shall cause the senate to be divided, by lot, into four classes, eight in each class, and numbered one, two, three, and four; and the seats of the members of the first class, shall be vacated at the expiration of the first year; of the second class, at the expiration of the second; and so on continually; to the end, that the fourth part of the senate shall be annually chosen.

“V. That when the state shall have been so divided into senatorial districts, by the legislature chosen under the amended constitution, it shall be the further duty of the legislature, making such division, to make a just apportionment of the senators elected, among the said districts.

Mr. V. B. said it would be perceived, that he left it in the discretion of the legislature, to divide the state into as many districts as they thought proper, not less than eight. He wished, however, to be distinctly understood, that he was opposed to thirty-two districts. He would not enter into the discussion on that point, because he should not be on the floor when the subject was under debate, and also, because he knew, that the reasons against such a measure would be urged by gentlemen, fully adequate to the task. He would therefore only say, that in his opinion, the notion of dividing the state into small districts, for the purpose of bringing the elected home to the electors, would, if carried into effect, share the fate of most popular notions; it would be running into an unwise and pernicious extreme, it would be carrying it to an extent, which could not be gone into, without seriously prejudicing one of the best features of that part of the constitution, which relates to the legislative department.

His plan, he said, proposed, that the division and apportionment should be made by the first legislature under the amended constitution; this he considered proper for many reasons. It was by no means certain, and was indeed very improbable, that amendments would be submitted to the people in time, for the next legislature to act upon them. But if they could be, it would still, in his opinion, be improper, for them to do so. First, because the division is to be made for, and to be binding on, the electors under the extended right of suffrage, provided by the amended constitution, and if the division and apportionment were made next winter, it would be made by men, who do not represent those for whom they act; which was utterly indefensible. Secondly, the different territories, which will be the subject of division, are not now represented in the senate in the same proportion, that they will be, under the right of suffrage, for which the division is intended. The southern and western districts, particularly, would be loosers, as neither of them had now as large a representation in the senate as they would be entitled to, under the new constitution. Thirdly, the same inequality and injustice would exist as to the house of assembly, who are to take an equal part in the work of division and apportionment. It would, therefore, both in principle and convenience, be wrong, that it should be done by the present legislature, if that was even practicable.

On an examination of the census, it would be found, that the division he had made among the great districts is in all respects equal; except that a little more was given to the southern and smallest district, than she was in strictness entitled to, but that was justifiable for several reasons.

He could not, he said, anticipate the objections, which might be raised to the plan he had proposed. There would be no difficulty in apportioning the senators elect among the new districts, as the nominations for the first senate would doubtless be made, with a view to a partition of the senatorial districts. If gentlemen should think it necessary, the power might be given to the legislature to vacate the seats of such members as should fall in districts beyond their proportion; but this he could not think, would be necessary, as the cases in which the apportionment could not, in consequence of the residence of the senators, be made perfectly equal, would be very limited; and such inequality, if it existed at all, would certainly be the least evil which could result from any course.

Without therefore, feeling any anxiety on the subject, other than that, which he presumed was common to all, he hoped the plan he proposed might be adopted; because he thought it under all circumstances, the best which had yet been proposed. He hoped so also, because it would relieve the Convention from the necessity of making a present division, which he thought objectionable. First, because the Convention had not the same information, which the legislature might have. Secondly, because they had not, consistently with the due discharge of their duties, in respect to the other important matters which remained yet to be acted upon, sufficient time to bestow on a work, requiring such critical and accurate examination, to afford the least hope of making it satisfactory. Thirdly, because, divide the state as they would, many counties would be dissatisfied, and he apprehended more danger to the final adoption of the amendments from the dissatisfaction arising from this source, than from any other. This consideration, if it was necessary now to make the division, ought to be disregarded; but inasmuch as the division and distribution could be more satisfactorily made hereafter, he thought the Convention might, with great propriety, suffer themselves to be influenced by it.

It was, he said, a fixed principle, with him, not unnecessarily to do any thing which might endanger the final adoption of the valuable amendments to the constitution which the Convention had already made, and others, which were contemplated to be made.

In conformity to a motion of Mr. Van Buren the said proposition was referred to the committee of the whole when on the legislative department, and ordered to be printed.

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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)