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Proceedings of the Debate in the House on Madison's Motion to Go into a Committee of the Whole for Consideration of Certain Proposed Amendments to the Constitution (8 June 1789)

by Nick Williford (NAWilliford)

Cite as: NAWilliford, ‘Proceedings of the Debate in the House on Madison's Motion to Go into a Committee of the Whole for Consideration of Certain Proposed Amendments to the Constitution (8 June 1789)’ in Bill of Rights 2018 Editors' Commentary, Quill Project at Pembroke College (Oxford, 2019), item 269.


Jackson’s opposition to amendment elicited responses from Benjamin Goodhue of Massachusetts and Aedanus Burke of South Carolina, both supporting the proposition of amendment, but arguing that the present was not the proper time. Goodhue stated that Jackson had a right to move to postpone consideration of amendment until March 1790, but that Goodhue believed that the issue should be dealt with earlier. He noted that many constituents desired ‘that something should be added to the constitution, to secure in a stronger manner their liberties from the inroads of power.’ ‘Yet’, he continued, ‘I think the present time premature; inasmuch as we have other business before us…essential to the public interest.’ When that business is complete, he said, he would ‘concur in taking up the subject of amendments’. Similarly, Burke stated that he thought amendments necessary, ‘but this was not the proper time to bring them forward.’ Therefore, he desired that the matter be postponed, pledging to bring the matter forward later himself, if necessary. (Annals of Congress, 1st Cong., 1st sess., 443.)

With these affirmations of the necessity of undertaking amendment while urging delay, Madison again entered into the debate. He noted that Jackson was correct in opposing his motion ‘because he is unfriendly to the object….’ But those who claimed to support amendments being proposed in that session, do not ‘stand on good ground when they object to the House going into committee on this business.’ Madison acknowledged the pressing nature of the business before the House, ‘But if we continue to postpone from time to time, and refuse to let the subject come into view, it may occasion suspicions, which, though not well founded, may tend to inflame or prejudice the public mind against our decisions….’ He stated that, although pressing business remains before the house, he ‘wish[ed] to commence the consideration at the present moment.’ He ‘only wish[ed] to introduce the great work’ and did not expect all to be done immediately. Showing a proper attention to the appeals for such amendments would ‘inspire reasonable hope in the advocates for amendments, that full justice will be done to the important subject.’ Madison concluded, ‘I hope the House will not decline my motion for going into a committee.’ (Ibid. 443-44)

Roger Sherman of Connecticut then intervened, pleading again that the present was not the proper time to enter into the matter. Many members felt a duty to attend to the subject, he contended. Thus, ‘there is no apprehension it will be passed over in silence’. Sherman observed that the people primarily desired a functioning government, which is why they ratified the Constitution first rather than rejecting it until amendments were made, like North Carolina. (See, Resolution of the North Carolina Convention, 1 August 1788, in 1 Elliot’s Debates, 331-32 (rejecting ratification until ‘a declaration of rights, asserting and securing from encroachments the great principles of civil and religious liberty, and the unalienable rights of the people, together with amendments to the most ambiguous and exceptional parts’ of the Constitution be ‘laid before Congress, and the convention of the states’)). Despite the more important pressing concerns of organising the the executive and judiciary and completing the system of revenue, Sherman would consent to going into committee ‘for the purpose of receiving his propositions’ but he objected to having the important work still outstanding interrupted, which would ‘alarm the fears of twenty of our constituents where it will please one.’ (Ibid. 444-45)

Alexander White of Virginia, ‘hoping that the House [would] not spend much time on this subject, till the more pressing business is despatched’, noted however that he believed that a majority of those that ratified the Constitution did so with the belief that the it would be examined ‘at some convenient time’ with the intent that it might be ‘judiciously amended.’ Whether this could be done without experience of its operation was an open question. He hoped consideration would proceed ‘with all convenient speed.’ Although, he did not believe there were many in his district that desired alteration, but there were ‘people in other parts who will not be satisfied unless some amendments are proposed.’ Accordingly, he would support going into a committee of the whole to receive the proposals and to refer them to a special committee to report on them. ‘Mature consideration’ would at least lessen the complaints of critics. (Ibid. 445)

At this point, William Smith of South Carolina, who had previously opposed Madison’s motion to go into a committee of the whole to consider the proposed amendments, spoke and allowed that he would support going into committee merely to accept the proposals and dismiss them. (Ibid. 445-46. See previous Commentary, 'Smith of South Carolina Opposes...') Smith’s dismissiveness and the train of speakers in opposition seems to have prompted John Page of Virginia to rise in support of Madison’s motion.

Noting that the matter probably would have been concluded already ‘[i]f no objection had ben made to his motion’, Page stated that Madison had shown him some of the proposed amendments. ‘[T]hey are very important, and I sincerely wish the House may receive them.’ Page opined that, after the proposals were published, those who were demanding amendment would be more inclined to wait until the House had more time to adequately deal with them. He stated, however, ‘Putting myself into the place of those who favor amendments, I should suspect Congress did not mean seriously to enter upon the subject.’ In that event people would begin to look to ‘the alternative contained in the fifth article’ and join in the call for a new convention. ‘How dangerous such an expedient would be I need not mention; but I venture to affirm, that unless you take early notice of this subject, you will not have power to deliberate.’ Page argues that going into the committee to receive the proposals would not take much time, nor would it distract from other matters if the House would accept Madison’s motion. (Ibid. 446)

Regardless of Page’s assurance that Madison’s proposals touched important points and that the matter could be concluded relatively quickly, John Vining of Delaware spoke against the House going into a committee of the whole. ‘The great amendment which the Government wants is expedition in the despatch of business.’ Vining pointed out that, although they were urged that the matter would take a short time, none could say that it ‘may not be procrastinated into days, weeks, nay, months[.] It is not the most facile subject that can come before the Legislature of the Union.’ If going into committee was only to inform the House, this could be done by tabling or publishing the propositions. Vining opposed the motion on two further points. First, he, like Jackson, cautioned against amendments based on speculation. Second, he raised the concern that the Constitution’s text did not permit entering into consideration unless two-thirds of both houses first deemed it necessary.

Vining continued that the best way to quieten ‘the public mind, [would] be to pass salutary laws.’ He notes that thus far Congress has completed very little in way of legislation. He asks with some justification how amendments might be proposed relating to the judicial branch when the bill regulating it was still being formed in the Senate. Madison knows the importance of finishing the outstanding business before taking up new matters, he states. ‘[Madison] will not, therefore, persist in a motion which tends to distract our minds, and incapacitates us from making a proper decision on any subject.’ Although, Vining is strongly in favor of the Constitution’s present form, if convinced, he would ‘cheerfully assist in correcting’ any imperfections. The present, however, was not the proper time; important business lay before the House and the lack of experience of the new government means that such amendments were as likely to harm as correct it. (Ibid. 446-48)

With these speakers in opposition to his motion, Madison rose and withdrew the motion to go into a committee of the whole, and instead moved that a select committee be formed to receive them. Yet, in so doing, Madison took the opportunity to present each of his proposed amendments one by one—delivering what one assumes to be the entirety of the speech he had planned at the outset to deliver to the committee of the whole. (Ibid. 448-59)

This hightlights the fact that up to this point in the proceedings none of the speakers knew the substance of Madison’s proposals with the exception of Page, who spoke in Madison’s favor. Yet, ignorance of their substance does not explain the seeming intransigent reluctance to enter into the matter, which would recur many times during the session when the subject was raised. Some speakers, such as Jackson, even alluded to the fact that substantial criticisms had been levelled at the ratified document due to lack of protections for certain liberties, such as trial by jury. And indeed, even after Madison presented his proposals, and it was evident that most dealt with basic civil safeguards, which would have been commonly shared as basic indicia of a free government even in those states that had not proposed amendments, many in the House continued to oppose entering into open discussion. These arguments generally pleaded lack of time.

As the summary above indicates, however, more time was expended in pleading lack of time than would have been had certain members of the House simply relented. The insistence of the several speakers against receiving the proposals, or that the committee be formed merely to receive them for information, probably indicates a deep aversion on the part of some members to entering into what many may have foreseen as a potentially destructive process that would undermine the nascent federal government.

Approved for publication