January 19, 1788 Delegates to the Massachusetts ratifying convention agreed at the outset to consider the proposed Constitution paragraph by paragraph before taking any votes. As they deliberated Article I Section 2 providing that members of the House of Representatives would serve two-year terms and be elected biennially, Gilbert Dench of Hopkinton rose to speak. It is “immaterial whether biennial or annual,” he said. “My difficulty is, whether biennial elections are secured to the people in the fourth section.”
Dench was called to order by the presiding chair. The discussion underway was about Article I Section 2. Dench was told that questions about Section 4 “would more properly be given when the 4th section was under consideration.” In short, stick to the subject as the rules required. However, the next morning, Francis Dana moved that the rules of debate be amended so that “if any member conceives any other clause or paragraph of the Constitution to be connected with the one immediately under consideration, that he have full liberty to take up such other clause or paragraph for that purpose.” The motion passed.
The incident reflected both a commitment by the delegates for a full and thorough debate on the Constitution as well as respect for the opinions of all of its members. Unlike events in Pennsylvania where Federalists hoped to rush through ratification and used strong-arm tactics, the ratification debates in Massachusetts were designed to be deliberative and civil. However, the convention was almost evenly divided and the outcome uncertain. Benjamin Lincoln frequently wrote to George Washington during the convention, sending him local newspapers and prognosticating on the fate of the Constitution in Massachusetts. More than once he shared his opinion that “it is yet impossible to determine absolutely its fate.”
Article 2 Section 4, raised by Dench, assigns to the State legislatures the power to determine “the times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives.” However, it also provides that “the Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations, except as to the places of choosing Senators.” These provisions set off a spirited debate and further revealed the deep-seated distrust of government by many delegates, especially those from western Massachusetts.
Charles Turner, representing the small town of Scituate between Boston and Plymouth, argued that Section 4 was too broad; Congress could abuse its power by choosing places for election in remote locations, making it difficult for people to vote. Moreover, it would work to the advantage of candidates living in that area, disadvantaging those who lived farther away. Congress would be tempted to arrange the time, place, and manner of elections to protect themselves. Bristol’s Col. William Jones agreed. “Congress might keep themselves in to all duration,” he bellowed.
Caleb Strong, Rufus King, and Theophilus Parsons were among those who defended the clause. “What if States refused to hold elections?” they asked. After all, under the Articles of Confederation, Rhode Island had recalled its representatives to the Confederation Congress. Its conduct demonstrated the necessity of giving Congress this power. Strong agreed. “If the legislature of a state should refuse to make such regulations [as to holding elections for the House],” he argued, “the consequence will be that the representatives will not be chosen, and the general government will be dissolved.” Congress’ power to regulate elections would “act as a check, in favor of the people, against any designs of the federal Senate and their constituents, the state legislatures, to deprive the people of their right of election.”
Despite cogent arguments in favor of Article I Section 4, antagonism to and suspicion of government and politicians continued to run high. Such a power over elections is unlimited and unnecessary, its detractors argued. “Congress might perpetuate themselves, and so reign over us,” warned Abraham White of Norton. “We ought to be jealous of rulers,” he exclaimed. “All the godly men we read of have failed; nay, I would not trust a ‘flock of Moseses!’”
Phanuel Bishop, representing Rehoboth and eventually elected to Congress in 1798, shared White’s concern that the power as proposed was unlimited. “Why,” he asked, “if this power was given in order that refractory states may be made to do their duty…why was it not so mentioned?” In the end, Bishop moderated his position, concluding, “if the states shall refuse to do their duty, then let the power be given to Congress.” But, he cautioned, “if they do their duty, Congress ought not to have the power to control elections.”
Turner joined in again. “I do not wish to give Congress a power they can abuse,” he insisted. John Coffin Jones believed Turner was going too far. “To say that power may be abused, is saying what will apply to all power. The federal representatives will represent the people; they will be the people; and it is not probable they will abuse themselves.” Rev. Samuel West agreed. Standing to his full height of six feet, two inches and his weight of two hundred pounds, his preacher’s voice commanded attention. Astonished that objectors to the Constitution rested their arguments on possibilities, he challenged them to focus instead on what was probable. “Is it probable,” he asked, “that we shall choose men to ruin us? Are we to object to all governments? And because power may be abused, shall we be reduced to anarchy and a state of nature?” After listing several “possible” abuses and conceding “there are some things that I do not like in this Constitution,” he concluded “it is necessary that it should be adopted. For may we not rationally conclude that the persons we shall choose to administer it will be, in general, good men?”
Surprised that a minister of the Gospel would “insinuate that our federal rulers would undoubtedly be good men and that we have little to fear from their being entrusted with all power,” General Samuel Thompson responded to West with Biblical references. The Old Testament’s King David was “a man after Gods’ own heart,” and his son Solomon was “blessed with all wisdom.” Nevertheless, he said, observe “the errors they fell into. I extremely doubt the infallibility of human nature. Sir, I suspect my own heart, and I shall suspect our rulers.”
West was supported by Harpwell’s Capt. Isaac Snow. Acknowledging that “we shall have some honest men in our Congress,” he added to the Biblical illustration by reminding the convention that in ancient Israel “there were two who brought a good report – Caleb and Joshua. If there are but two men in Congress who are honest men, and Congress should attempt to do what the gentlemen say they will do, they will bring a good report of it, and I shall stand ready to leave my wife and family, sling my knapsack, and travel westward, to cut their heads off!”