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January 18, 1788

March 08, 2021 - 5 minute read


picture of Fisher Ames

The representatives’ chambers in the Massachusetts State House were too small to accommodate the large number of delegates attending the ratifying convention as well as anxious observers watching from the galleries The convention had agreed to accept an invitation from a church on Brattle Street to use its facilities, but after only one day’s deliberations under wholly inadequate acoustics, the delegates were forced to return to the State House. They immediately authorized a second committee to find a more suitable location and on January 17 the convention moved to the Long Land Congregational Church.

In the meantime, debate had begun in earnest on Monday, January 14. The Constitution was read publicly to the assembled delegates, after which they agreed to Caleb Strong’s motion that the Constitution be considered paragraph by paragraph before any vote would be taken. “Every member shall have had an opportunity to express his sentiments,” Strong had proposed, “after which the convention will consider and debate at large the question whether this convention will adopt and ratify the proposed Constitution.”

The delegates also agreed to invite Elbridge Gerry to its sessions “to answer any questions of fact that the convention may ask, respecting the passing the Constitution.”  Gerry had been a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, but unlike his fellow delegates from Massachusetts, had joined with George Mason and Edmund Randolph when they refused to sign the Constitution. Moreover, he was the only one of the Massachusetts delegates not elected to the ratification convention. However, his views were important to some and the convention was committed to a full, open, and transparent debate.

In the afternoon of January 14, the convention proceeded to consider the first section of the Constitution which calls for a bicameral legislature composed of a House of Representatives and a Senate. After a “short conversation,” the convention moved on to the second section, “the first paragraph of which caused a lengthy debate.”  Article I Section 2 addresses the election of members of the House and their terms of office. Article I Section 4 regulates the time, place, and manner of their election. Together these two sections consumed the remainder of the day and were the subject of vigorous debate for the ensuing three days.

Addressing his fellow delegates, Dr. John Taylor rose in opposition to two-year terms for Representatives, preferring that they be elected annually. “Frequent elections,” he argued, “have been considered as the safeguard of the liberties of the people” and “their annihilation will be the avenue through which tyranny will enter.” The Articles of Confederation provided for annual elections, he reminded his colleagues. Moreover, the Articles contained “additional securities in the right to recall any or all of our members from Congress.” The Constitution contains neither of these safeguards, he added. “These considerations, and others make me in favor of annual elections; and the further we deviate therefrom, the greater the evil.”

Taylor was a delegate from Douglass in Worchester County where the court had been forced to shut down during Shays’ Rebellion just a year earlier. In fact, several towns in Massachusetts elected delegates sympathetic to farmers in the west who had rebelled against the State’s economic policies which had brought foreclosures on their property. Many had been forced into bankruptcy and poverty. Governor James Bowdoin’s heavy taxation and military response to the rebellion led to his defeat in the 1787 gubernatorial contest and the election of John Hancock as his successor. Once in office, Hancock and the newly elected legislature lowered taxes, instituted fiscal reforms, and pardoned many of the participants in the rebellion. These men harbored deep suspicions against any government that was not easily replaced by the people, hence their insistence on annual elections.

Taylor was not alone voicing his opposition to two-year terms.  Among those supporting him was Gen. Samuel Thompson. Recalling the Bowdoin administration’s handling of Shays’ Rebellion, he argued that “had the last administration continued one year longer, our liberties would have been lost and the country involved in blood.” But the argument laid out the next morning by Fisher Ames, a young attorney from Dedham already gaining a reputation for his oratorical skills, was the most effective. He began his lengthy exposition inauspiciously, citing his lack of regret that “we are not unanimous upon this question.” The diversity of opinion was not “an impediment in our way to the discovery of truth,” he said. In fact, it was most salutary.

After Ames acknowledged his own personal support for frequent elections, he posited that just because “annual elections are safe,” it does not follow that “biennial elections are dangerous; for both may be good.” His reasons for supporting biennial elections for Representatives in Congress, he continued, were “drawn from three sources: from the extent of the country to be governed; the objects of their legislation; and the more perfect scrutiny of our liberty.” Annual elections may be good for the state legislature, but “the business of the federal government will be very different. At least two years in office will be necessary to enable a Representative to judge the interests of States he never saw.” Additionally, he continued, “the objects of their power are few and national.” Elections every two years will allow members to “feel some independence in their seats. The factions of the day will expire before the end of his term.”

Wrangling over terms of office drug on, frequently repetitive, but Ames’ thoughtful analysis already had a profound effect in favor of the Federalist cause. Sam Adams, known to be skeptical of the Constitution, had asked a question about this provision of the Constitution and much of Ames’ response had been directed to answering him. When Ames concluded his remarks, Adams commented that “he had heard sufficient to satisfy himself of its propriety.” Although much about the Constitution would continue to be the subject of warm debate, Adams was convinced of at least this one point. Then Gilbert Dench of Hopkinton rose to announce that “his objections to biennial elections” had also “been removed.” Adams’ change was perceived as an important victory for the Federalists and the Constitution.

Later, Fisher Ames will handily defeat Sam Adams by a vote margin of nearly twenty percent in the first congressional elections to be held under the Constitution. He will serve in the House of Representatives as one of the Federalists’ most effective and eloquent leaders until March 3, 1797. After leaving Congress, he will remain active in politics and in 1805 selected to be the president of his alma mater, Harvard College. He will decline the position due to ill health.

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