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Smith of South Carolina Opposes Submitting Madison's Proposed Amendments to the Committee of the Whole House (8 June 1789)

by Nick Williford (NAWilliford)

Cite as: NAWilliford, ‘Smith of South Carolina Opposes Submitting Madison's Proposed Amendments to the Committee of the Whole House (8 June 1789)’ in Bill of Rights 2018 Editors' Commentary, Quill Project at Pembroke College (Oxford, 2019), item 252.


Immediately following Madison’s motion to form a Committee of the Whole to present his proposed amendments, William Loughton Smith of South Carolina protested the ‘inexpediency of taking up the subject at the present moment, in a committee of the whole, while matters of the greatest importance and of immediate consequence were lying unfinished. The great business of the revenue appeared to him to claim a constant and uninterrupted attention till compleated.’ (Gazette of the United States, edition of 10 June 1789, 66). That the South Carolinian was the spearhead of opposition to taking up the issue of amendments is notable in that South Carolina, like some other states, enjoined its representatives ‘to exert their utmost abilities and influence to effect an alteration of the Constitution, conformably to the aforegoing resolutions’ (South Carolina Form of Ratification). It is also notable, however, that South Carolina's form of ratification expressed no reservation about protections for liberties. Rather, that document contains reservations relating to structural relations of the power of the federal government to that of the state. Thus, Madison's protests concerning the pressing need to address the potential threat to traditional liberties may have carried less resonance.

Smith argued that either appointing a select committee to consider the amendments recommended by the state conventions or tabling the proposals for the consideration of House members ‘would enable the House to enter upon business better prepared than could be the case by a sudden transition from other important concerns to which their minds were strongly bent...’ (Annals of Congress, 1st Cong., 1st sess., 441). These appeals to practicality were tempered, however, by his contention that ‘it must appear extremely impolitic to go into the consideration of amending the Government, before it is organized, before it has begun to operate....I wish, therefore, gentlemen would consent to the delay: for the business which lies in an unfinished state—I mean particularly the collection bill—is necessary to be passed…' (Ibid.). Smith 'moved therefore, that instead of referring the subject to a committee of the whole, a select committee should be raised, to take into consideration the amendments proposed by the several States’ (Gazette of the United States, edition of 10 June 1789, 66).

Smith’s opposition to taking the subject up at that time seems rather definite. As the debate wore on, with several other speakers in opposition, Madison protested that he had a duty to bring the matter up to satisfy those suspicious of the extensive power of the new federal government. Smith again intervened declaring that if Madison’s purpose had been to do his duty, then he had done so. ‘[I]f he did not succeed, he was not to blame.’ Smith was willing to go into committee for the sole purpose of receiving the proposals, and stated that afterwards, he would move to the effect (surely tongue in cheek): ‘That, however desirous this House may be to go into the consideration of amendments to the constitution, in order to establish the liberties of the people of America on the securest foundations, yet the important and pressing business of the Government prevents their entering upon that subject at present’ (Annals of Congress, 1st Cong., 1st sess., 445-46).

Smith was not alone in opposition to taking up the matter, however. Madison’s attempt to present his proposed amendments initiated an extensive debate during which the various opinions on the need or wisdom of discussing Constitutional amendment was brought to bear. It is unclear whether Smith made a formal motion to form a select committee to consider Madison’s proposals and, if so, the motion did not receive a second, as the debate proceeded on the basis of the wisdom of taking up amendments at all at that time and the most efficacious manner of doing so.

Approved for publication