Lee’s Objections to the Constitution
Richard Henry Lee
October 16, 1787
LETTER FROM THE HON. RICHARD HENRY LEE, ESQ.,
ONE OF THE DELEGATES IN CONGRESS FROM THE STATE OF VIRGINIA,
TO HIS EXCELLENCY, EDMUND RANDOLPH, ESQ.,
GOVERNOR OF SAID STATE.
It has hitherto been supposed a fundamental maxim, that, in governments rightly balanced, the different branches of legislature should be unconnected, and that the legislative and executive powers should be separate. In the new Constitution, the President and Senate have all the executive, and two thirds of the legislative power. In some weighty instances, (as making all kinds of treaties, which are to be the laws of the land,) they have the whole legislative and executive powers. They, jointly, appoint all officers, civil and military; and they (the Senate) try all impeachments, either of their own members or of the officers appointed by themselves.
Is there not a most formidable combination of power thus created in a few? and can the most critic eye, if a candid one, discover responsibility in this potent corps? or will any sensible man say that great power, without responsibility, can be given to rulers with safety to liberty? It is most clear that the parade of impeachment is nothing to them, or any of them: as little restraint is to be found, I presume, from the fear of offending constituents. The President is for four years’ duration; and Virginia (for example) has one vote of thirteen in the choice of him, and this thirteenth vote not of the people, but electors, two removes from the people. The Senate is a body of six years’ duration, and, as in the choice of President, the largest state has but a thirteenth vote, so is it in the choice of senators. This latter statement is adduced to show that responsibility is as little to be apprehended from amenability to constituents, as from the terror of impeachment. You are, therefore, sir, well warranted in saying, either a monarchy or aristocracy will be generated: perhaps the most grievous system of government may arise.
It cannot be denied, with truth, that this new Constitution is, in its first principles, highly and dangerously oligarchic; and it is a point agreed, that a government of the few is, of all governments, the worst.
The only check to be found in favor of the democratic principle, in this system, is the House of Representatives; which, I believe, may justly be called a mere shred or rag of representation; it being obvious to the least examination, that smallness of number, and great comparative disparity of power, render that house of little effect, to promote good or restrain bad government. But what is the power given to this ill-constructed body? To judge of what may be for the general welfare; and such judgments, when made the acts of Congress, become the supreme laws of the land. This seems a power coëxtensive with every possible object of human legislation. Yet there is no restraint, in form of a bill of rights, to secure (what Doctor Blackstone calls) that residuum of human rights which is not intended to be given up to society, and which, indeed, is not necessary to be given for any social purpose. The rights of conscience, the freedom of the press, and the trial by jury, are at mercy. It is there stated that, in criminal cases, the trial shall be by jury. But how? In the state. What, then, becomes of the jury of the vicinage, or at least from the county, in the first instance—the states being from fifty to seven hundred miles in extent? This mode of trial, even in criminal cases, may be greatly impaired; and, in civil cases, the inference is strong that it may be altogether omitted; as the Constitution positively assumes it in criminal, and is silent about it in civil causes. Nay, it is more strongly discountenanced in civil cases, by giving the Supreme Courts, in appeals, jurisdiction both as to law and fact.
Judge Blackstone, in his learned Commentaries, art. Jury Trial, says, “It is the most transcendent privilege, which any subject can enjoy or wish for, that he cannot be affected either in his property, his liberty, or his person, but by the unanimous consent of twelve of his neighbors and equals—a constitution that, I may venture to affirm, has, under Providence, secured the just liberties of this nation for a long succession of ages. The impartial administration of justice, which secures both our persons and our properties, is the great end of civil society. But if that be entirely intrusted to the magistracy,—a select body of men, and those generally selected, by the prince, of such as enjoy the highest offices of the state,—these decisions, in spite of their own natural integrity, will have frequently an involuntary bias towards those of their own rank and dignity. It is not to be expected from human nature, that the few should always be attentive to the good of the many.” The learned judge further says, that “every tribunal, selected for the decision of facts, is a step towards establishing aristocracy—the most oppressive of all governments.”
The answer to these objections is, that the new legislature may provide remedies! But as they may, so they may not; and if they did, a succeeding assembly may repeal the provisions. The evil is found resting upon constitutional bottom; and the remedy, upon the mutable ground of legislation, revocable at any annual meeting. It is the more unfortunate that this great security of human rights—the trial by jury—should be weakened by this system, as power is unnecessarily given in the second section of the third article, to call people from their own country, in all cases of controversy about property between citizens of different states, to be tried in a distant court, where the Congress may sit; for although inferior congressional courts may, for the above purposes, be instituted in the different states, yet this is a matter altogether in the pleasure of the new legislature; so that, if they please not to institute them, or if they do not regulate the right of appeal reasonably, the people will be exposed to endless oppression, and the necessity of submitting, in multitudes of cases, to pay unjust demands, rather than follow suitors, through great expense, to far-distant tribunals, and to be determined upon there, as it may be, without a jury.
In this congressional legislature, a bare majority of votes can enact commercial laws; so that the representatives of the seven Northern States, as they will have a majority, can, by law, create the most oppressive monopoly upon the five Southern States, whose circumstances and productions are essentially different from those of theirs, although not a single man of these voters are the representatives of, or amenable to, the people of the Southern States. Can such a set of men be, with the least color of truth, called a representative of those they make laws for? It is supposed that the policy of the Northern States will prevent such abuses. But how feeble, sir, is policy, when opposed to interest, among trading people! and what is the restraint arising from policy? Why, that we may be forced, by abuse, to become ship-builders! But how long will it be before a people of agriculture can produce ships sufficient to export such bulky commodities as ours, and of such extent? and if we had the ships, from whence are the seamen to come?—4,000 of whom, at least, will be necessary in Virginia. In questions so liable to abuse, why was not the necessary vote put to two thirds of the members of the legislature?
With the Constitution came, from the Convention, so many members of that body to Congress, and of those, too, who were among the most fiery zealots for their system, that the votes of three states being of them, two states divided by them, and many others mixed with them, it is easy to see that Congress could have little opinion upon the subject.
Some denied our right to make amendments; whilst others, more moderate, agreed to the right, but denied the expediency of amending; but it was plain that a majority was ready to send it on, in terms of approbation. My judgment and conscience forbade the last; and therefore I moved the amendments that I have the honor to send you enclosed herewith, and demanded the yeas and nays, that they might appear on the Journal.
This seemed to alarm; and, to prevent such appearance on the Journal, it was agreed to transmit the Constitution without a syllable of approbation or disapprobation; so that the term “unanimously” only applied to the transmission, as you will observe by attending to the terms of the resolve for transmitting. Upon the whole, sir, my opinion is, that, as this Constitution abounds with useful regulations, at the same time that it is liable to strong and fundamental objections, the plan for us to pursue will be to propose the necessary amendments, and express our willingness to adopt it with the amendments, and to suggest the calling a new convention for the purpose of considering them. To this I see no well-founded objection, but great safety and much good to be the probable result. I am perfectly satisfied that you make such use of this letter as you shall think to be for the public good; and now, after begging your pardon for so great a trespass on your patience, and presenting my best respects to your lady, I will conclude with assuring you that I am, with the sincerest esteem and regard, dear sir, your most affectionate and obedient, humble servant,
RICHARD H. LEE.