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Jackson of Georgia Opposes Consideration of Amendments (8 June 1789)

by Nick Williford (NAWilliford)

Cite as: NAWilliford, ‘Jackson of Georgia Opposes Consideration of Amendments (8 June 1789)’ in Bill of Rights 2018 Editors' Commentary, Quill Project at Pembroke College (Oxford, 2019), item 253.


Upon Madison's motion that the House go into a Committee of the Whole to consider his proposals for amendments to the Constitution, James Jackson of Georgia opposed taking up the subject of amendments, proposing that any consideration of the subject be postponed until March 1790 (Annals of Congress, 1st Cong., 1st sess., 443). Jackson took the floor immediately following William Smith of South Carolina, who also opposed entering into the subject (see commentary, 'Smith of South Carolina Opposes...'). Like Smith, Jackson urged that the House could not neglect the revenue bill. Yet, Jackson positioned himself more squarely against undertaking amendments at all. Jackson reasoned, ‘If I agree to alterations in the mode of administering this Government, I shall like to stand on the sure ground of experience, and not be treading air. What experience have we had of the good or bad qualities of this constitution? Can any gentleman affirm to me one proposition that is a certain and absolute amendment? I deny that he can’ (Ibid. 442).

Jackson dismissed the arguments that the Constitution as ratified did not provide sufficient protections for long-held rights: ‘Much has been said by the opponents to this constitution, respecting the insecurity of jury trials, that great bulwark of personal safety. All their objections may be done away, by proper regulations on this point, and I do not fear but such regulations will take place. The bill is now before the Senate, and a proper attention is shown to this business.’ Asserting that none could oppose such a regulation, Jackson asks, ‘Then why should we fear a power which cannot be improperly exercised?’ (Ibid.). Jackson's seemingly firm belief that simple regulation could guarantee basic liberties is all the more remarkable in light of the statements that he would make but a month later in regard to compensation for the Senate: 'All Governments incline to despotism, as naturally as rivers run into the sea. Despotism makes its way gradually, by slow and imperceptible steps; we shall, ere were are aware, get beyond the gulf, and then we shall be astonished how we reached there' (Ibid. 683).

Jackson noted that Georgia ratified the Constitution by a unanimous vote. Although, he would not oppose amendments to satisfy those of other states, provided such were based upon experience, the people of Georgia were ‘satisfied with it, in its present form’ (Gazette of the United States, edition of 10 June 1789, 66). Similar arguments arose in several speakers’ addresses. Roger Sherman of Connecticut would make such a point later in the debate, arguing that Connecticut ratified the Constitution by a great majority, and ‘they desired no amendments’ (Annals of Congress, 1st Cong., 1st sess., 445; see also the Speech of John Vining of Delaware, Ibid. 448). Assuming a unanimous assent to every aspect of the instrument by reifying the entire population of a state, whose approbation is presumed by the silence regarding amendment in the formal ratification forms, while an effective rhetorical device, deflects the issue. Sherman, at least, certainly must have been aware of this fact, as he was a member of the Connecticut ratification convention, which form of ratification indicated that nearly a quarter of the delegates dissented from ratification. Indeed, the speeches from that convention collected in Elliot’s Debates, although all in favour of ratification, indicate anything but unanimity (see 2 Elliot’s Debates, 185-202).

More interesting, however, is the resort to a claimed desire for experience before addressing the issue of amendment. This point, too, would be a theme in the arguments of those opposed to taking up amendments (see Speech of Sherman, Annals of Congress, 1st Cong., 1st sess., 465-66; and of Vining, Ibid. 448). These arguments represent a salient divergence of viewpoint between the proponents of immediate amendment and those that sought delay or were reluctant to address the issue at all. The fear of experiment based on theoretical speculation was shared by many, not only in the First Congress, but at the Philadelphia Convention as well. This fear only could have been encouraged by the experience in various states during the revolutionary and confederation periods. Indeed, at the Philadelphia Convention, Elbridge Gerry was reluctant to present the Constitution to popular conventions because, in the eastern states, at least, ‘The people…have (at this time) the wildest ideas of Government in the world’ (M. Farrand (ed.), The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (New Haven, London, & Oxford, 1911), vol. I, p. 123, available at http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/farrand-the-records-of-the-federal-convention-of-1787-vol-1). A desire to eschew wild theoretical ideas probably underlay Vining’s objection to taking up the subject of amendments in the debate on 8 June when he stated that he opposed taking it up at that time, not only ‘because more important business is suspended,’ but also ‘for want of experience.’ Vining allowed, however, that nevertheless he ‘wish[ed] to see every proposition which comes from that worthy gentleman [Madison] on the science of Government; but I think it can be presented better by staying where we are...’ (Annals of Congress, 1st Cong., 1st sess., 448.) Unfortunately, whether this comment was made with the sarcastic intent that the statement seems to bear or was rather merely oratorical deference is lost in the bare transcript.

On the other hand, the proponents of immediate amendment asserted that their insistence on inserting safeguards to the rights of free people was not speculative theory. In fact, Virginia’s resolution calling for a convention of states, introduced in the House earlier in the session on 5 May, directly addressed this point. While noting that the delegates to the Virginia ratification convention ratified the Constitution ‘from motives of affection to our sister States’ they nevertheless ‘gave the most unequivocal proofs, that they dreaded its operation under the present form.’ The application asserts that the objections raised by the convention ‘were not founded in speculative theory, but deduced from principles which have been established by the melancholy example of other nations in different ages…’ These principles are such that ‘experience has taught us, are necessary to secure from danger the unalienable rights of human nature’ (Commonwealth of Virginia, Gen’l Assembly, 14 Nov. 1788 (Introduced to U.S. House of Representatives as an application for convention of states on 5 May 1789)). Similarly, many of the objections lodged by various ratifying conventions, such as Virginia, New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, as well as those lodged by North Carolina (which refused ratification until amendments were introduced), were deeply influenced by such rights as had been hard-won in the English law during the political conflicts of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (see forms of ratification of the named states; ‘Amendments Proposed by North Carolina (November 21, 1789), Consource, available at https://www.consource.org/document/amendments-proposed-by-north-carolina (incorporating the objections raised by the state convention of 1788)). Rhode Island, at the time of the debate, was yet to call a ratification convention, but would issue a similar declaration when it finally ratified in May 1790. For these people, the conflicts of this not too distant history must have seemed experience enough. Madison gave voice to this mindset when he responded to the opponents of taking up amendments: ‘I believe that the great mass of the people who opposed [the Constitution], disliked it because it did not contain effectual provisions against encroachments on particular rights, and those safeguards which they have been long accustomed to have interposed between them and the magistrate who exercises the sovereign power…’ (Annals of Congress, 1st Cong., 1st sess., 450).

Like Smith's motion, it is unclear whether Jackson made a formal motion, and, if so, it did not receive a second. Once again the debate proceeded unimpeded, and Smith and Jackson were but the first interveners in a protracted debate that would occupy the House on this day.

Approved for publication