MVB, speech in the United States Senate on the introduction of a proposition to amend the Constitution of the United States, in relation to the choice of President and Vice President, 28 December, 1823

MVB, speech in the United States Senate on the introduction of a proposition to amend the Constitution of the United States, in relation to the choice of President and Vice President, 28 December, 1823

Extract from a speech delivered by Martin Van Buren, in the Senate of the United States, on the 28th December 1823, on the introduction of a proposition to amend the Constitution of the United States in relation to the choice of President and Vice President. Reported for the National Intelligencer.

Having said this much upon that branch of the subject, Mr. V. B. would proceed to state briefly, another point, in which the proposition he offered differed essentially from the others proposed, and in which difference was involved a principle in the Government, as important, in his view, as any which had for sometime been discussed on that floor. In doing so, it was a subject of gratification to him, that this principle had no reference to the relative and conflicting interests of the States in the confederacy, but looked equally to the welfare and security of all. To a correct understanding of the point he wished to present, it became necessary to take a brief view of the principle upon, and the circumstances under which, our present form of Government was established. Under the articles of confederation, the representation of each State in the General Government was equal. The Union was in all respects purely Federal, a league of sovereign States upon equal terms. To remedy certain defects, by supplying certain powers, the convention which framed the present Constitution was called. That convention, it is now well known, was immediately divided into parties, on the interesting question of the extent of power to be given to the new Government: whether it should be federal or national: whether dependent upon, or independent of the State Governments. It is equally well known, that that point, after having several times arrested the proceedings of the convention, and threatened a dissolution of the Confederation, subsequently divided the People of the States, on the question of ratification. He might add, that with the superadded question of what powers might have been given by the Constitution to General Government, to the agitation of which the feelings which sprung out in the Convention greatly contributed, it had continued to divide the People of this country down to the present period. The party in the Convention in favor of a more energetic Government, being unable to carry, or, if able, unwilling to hazard the success of the plan with the States, a middle course was agreed upon. That was, that the Government should be neither federal or national, but a mixture of both. That of the Legislative Department, one branch, the House of Representatives should be wholly national, and the other, the Senate, wholly federal. That, in the choice of the Executive, both interests should be regarded, and that the Judicial should be organized by the other two. But to quiet effectually the apprehensions of the advocates for the rights and interests of the States, it was provided that the General Government should be made entirely dependent for its continuance, on the will and pleasure of the State Governments. Hence, it was decided that the House of Representatives should be apportioned among the States, with reference to their population, and chosen by the People; and power was given to Congress to regulate and secure their choice, independent of, and beyond the control of the State Governments. That the Senate should be chosen exclusively by the State Legislatures, and that the choice of the electors of President and Vice President, although the principle of their apportionment was established by the Constitution, should, in all respect, except the time of their appointment and of their meeting, be under the exclusive control of the Legislatures of the several States. The scheme of government thus formed, was submitted to the People of the respetive States, through their Legislatures, for ratification. For a season its ratification was warmly opposed in almost every State. Although the control over the choise of but one branch of one department of the Government, was vested in Congress, danger to the rights of the States was every where apprehended, and the question of the ratification of the Constitution rendered extremely doubtful. 

To stem this torrent of opposition, the most distinguished commentators on the proposed plan (the authors of the Federalist,) placed strongly and truly before the People of the States, the fact of the dependence of the General upon the State Governments, and the constitutional right of those Governments, of even a majority of them, if the power they had conferred should be abused, to discontinue the new Government by withholding its Senate and Chief Magistrate. Among other things, they said-"The State Governments may be regarded as constituent and essential parts of the Federal Government, whilst the latter is no wise essential to the operation or organization of the former. Without the intervention of the State Legislatures, the President of the United States cannot be elected at all. They must in all cases have a great share in his appointment, and will perhaps, in most cases, themselves determine it. The Senate will be elected absolutely and exclusively by the State Legislatures. Even the House of Representatives, though drawn immediately from the People, will be chosen very much under the influence of that class of men whose influence over the People obtains for themselves an election into the State Legislatures. Thus each of the principal brances of the Federal Government, will owe its existence, more or less, to the favor of State Governments, and must consequently feel a dependence which is much more likely to beget a disposition too obsequious, than too overbearing toward them." The ratification by a sufficient number of the States was obtained. On reference, however, to the proceedings of the State Conventions, it will be seen, that in several of the States, the control by Congress, over the choice of Representatives merely, was strongly recommended against. That amendments were proposed for its qualification, by the States of South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and New York. That most of them resolved that it should be a standing instruction to their Delegates in Congress, to endeavor to effect that and other amendments proposed. The proposition of the gentleman from New Jersey, to which Mr. V. B. had alluded, would, if adopted, break an important link in the chain of dependency of the General upon the State Governments. It would surrender to the General Government all control over the election of President and Vice President, by placing the choice of electors on the same footing with that of Representatives. It would at this time be, premature to go into a minute examination of the provisions of the resolution alluded to, to show that such would be its effects. Upon examination, it will be found that such would be its construction. That it does in substance what another proposition, upon their table, originating in the other House, does in words. But even was there doubt upon that subject, that doubt should be removed by an express provision, reserving to the States their present control over the election except as to what is particularly provided for in the resolution now proposed. If it is fit to take from the States their control over the choice of electors of President and Vice President, and give it to the Federal Government, it would be equally proper, under the popular idea of giving their election to the people, to divide the States into districts for the choice of Senators, as was proposed in the Convention, and give to Congress the control over their election also. If the system be once broken in upon in this respect, the other measure will naturally follow, and we will then have what was so much dreaded by those who have gone before us, and what he feared would be so much regretted by those who come after—a completely consolidated Government—a government in which the State governments would be no otherwise known or felt than as it became necessary to control them. To all this, Mr. Van Buren was opposed. He was so , because it was a matter not necessarily or fitly connected with the subject under consideration, that being a question between the States themselves, as to their relative interest, a question which might and ought to be settled, and leave their relation to the Federal Government as it stands at present. The other is a question between the States collectively and the Federal Government, affecting most materially the relation they now bear to each other. But, even if it were presented under different circumstances, he would oppose it—because, however ardent his attachment to the Federal Government, and however anxious he might be to sustain it in the exercise of the powers given to it by the constitution—and, in that respect, he would be trusted, go as far as any man ought to go—he was unwilling to destroy or even to release its dependence on the State governments. At the time of the adoption of the federal constitution, it was a question of much speculation and discussion, which of the two governments would be most in danger from the accumulation of influence by the operation of the power distributed by the constitution. That discussion was founded on the assumption that they were, in several respects, rival powers, and that such powers would always be found in collision. The best lights which could then be thrown upon the subject, were derived from the examples afforded by the fates of several of the governments of the old world, which were deemed to be, in some respects, similar to ours. But the governments in question having operated upon, and been administered by people whose habits, characters, tempers, and conditions, were essentially different from ours; the inferences to be derived from that source, were, at best, unsatisfactory. Mr. V. B. thought that experience, the only unerring criterion by which matters of this description could be tested, had settled for us the general point of the operation of the powers conferred by the constitution upon the relative strength and influence of the respective governments. It was in his judgment, susceptible of entire and undue increase of the strengths and control of the General Government, and a correspondent reduction of the influence, and consequently of the respectability, of the State governments. The evidence in support of this position was abundant, and if the matter should come under full discussion, could be readily afforded. He thought, further, that existing causes, which were every day gaining force, would, for the future, more rapidly increase that operation. He considered the qualified dependence of the General upon the State Governments, as their strong arm of defence to protect them against future abuses. Under that view of the subject, he was opposed to so material a change of the present condition of the respective governments, as would be produced by the amendment to which he objected. He was in favor of leaving matters, in that respect, as they stood. 

Editorial Process Complete
Editorial Note:

Printed in Mr. Van Buren's Opinions, [April 1835]