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Higginson, Stephen (1743-1828) to [Henry Knox]

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Gilder Lehrman Collection #: GLC02437.10209 Author/Creator: Higginson, Stephen (1743-1828) Place Written: Boston, Massachusetts Type: Autograph letter signed Date: 8 February 1787 Pagination: 4 p. ; 37.2 x 23.6 cm.

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Gilder Lehrman Collection #: GLC02437.10209 Author/Creator: Higginson, Stephen (1743-1828) Place Written: Boston, Massachusetts Type: Autograph letter signed Date: 8 February 1787 Pagination: 4 p. ; 37.2 x 23.6 cm.

Summary of Content: Informs Knox that he (Higginson) spoke to Congress, including "Mr. Maddison," about forming a special convention to revise the Articles of Confederation. Discusses the need to draft a new document for the basis of government as the "Confederation is incompetent to the purposes for which it was established, the managing the affairs of the Union." States that "to delegate rights to Congress, and at the same time to withold from them the means of exercising those rights, is trifling and absurd." Watermarked with a IV and a hunting horn inside a crest with GR underneath. "Free" stamped on address leaf with no signature.

Background Information: Higginson was a delegate for Massachusetts to the Continental Congress and took an active part in suppressing Shays' Rebellion. He also served the United States government as a navy agent. ...Maddison is probably James Madison, who played a large role in designing the Constitution.See More

Full Transcript: [draft]
D Sir Boston February 8.th 1787. -

Your Letter of 28th last Month I have received, and am pleased to find that your Sentiments and my own are so exactly ...coincident, as to the Subject of it; and that there is so good a prospect of a general Convention in May, as you have represented. As early as "83, while I was at Congress, I pressed upon M.r Maddison and others the Idea of a Special Convention, for the purpose of revising the Confederation, and increasing the powers of the Union, the obtaining of which, we all agreed to be essential to our national dignity and happiness. But they were as much opposed to this Idea, as I was to the measures they were then pursuing, to effect, as they said, the same thing. They have, however, now adopted the Idea, and have come forward with a proposition to attempt practising upon it. -
It is an agreed, and, as I conceive, a clear point, that the Confederation is incompetent to the purposes for which it was established, the managing the affairs of the Union. powers delineated on paper can not alone be sufficient. the Union must not only have the right to make Laws and requisitions, but it must have the power also of compelling obedience thereto; otherwise our federal Constitution will be a mere dead Letter. to delegate rights, to Congress, and at the same time to withhold from them the means of exercising these rights, is trifling and absurd. the powers of the Union must be increased, and those of the States individually must be abridged; they can not both be perfectly sovereign and independent at the same time; the federal must have power to controul the individual Governments of the States, in some points at least: - And unless the States shall soon consent to part with some of their rights as Sovereign States, they will very soon be involved in one general scene of disorder and distress. -
The Government of the Union must be the result of deliberation and choice, or of necessity and chance. by an early adoption of a liberal and extensive system of Government, we may secure to ourselves and posterity every national felicity, and by wisely conceding a part of our separate independency, and concentring our Views to the Union, we may avert those public Calamities, which now threaten the dissolution of the Governments of the several States and which may eventually involve them in all [2] all the horrors of a civil War. But in order to this, our present federal Government must be critically examined, and the causes of the indifference or opposition of some of the States in the Union to federal measures be well understood; or we never shall be able precisely to determine wherein it is deficient, nor discover the true and proper remedies to be applied. - Should this enquiry be attempted by Congress, they must necessarily be subject to frequent interruptions; and being deputed by the States with other Views, and for other purposes, we may reasonably presume they will never all of them be thoroughly fitted for such an enquiry. But if they were subject to no interruptions from the pressure of other Business, and were in every respect equal to any other set of men that can be deputed for the purpose; still no representation on the subject from Congress to the States, will ever have the same weight, as from a well appointed and special Convention. when a man, who is to exercise them, asks for additional powers, especially of the legislative and executive kind, we naturally suppose that a lust of domination may have led him to ask for more than is absolutely necessary, or than may comport with the public safety and happiness. from this Jealousy, so natural to man, we [struck: might] [inserted: may] expect an opposition to the most clear and judicious recommendations from Congress, for increasing the powers of the Union. These are weighty objections in my mind to attempting an increase of those powers thro' the medium of Congress; but none of them will apply in an equal, if in any degree to a special Convention. -
There are men in the several States of the first rate Abilities, who can not be persuaded to go to Congress, or to engage permanently in public life; but they may be prevailed on to enter upon so important and special a Business, as the forming a new federal Constitution. - the collective Wisdom of a special Convention, may probably therefore be greater than that of Congress. But were all other things exactly equal, their having no other object to attend to, and their being free from those local attachments, those partial Views, which more or fewer of the members of Congress will ever have, the Subject would probably be more liberally and ably discussed in such a Convention. and as its members would generally return to private life, and, in common with others, be subject to the operation of that System of Government, which they may have agreed to recommend; the people at large will have the fullest assurance, that no greater powers can be recommended by such persons, than they shall think absolutely necessary for the safety and happiness of the State. -
From these Observations you will easily perceive, that I am quite [3] quite of your Sentiment, and in favour of the proposed Convention. - The report of their grand Committee to Congress the last Summer, on this Subject, is, in my mind, far short of the Object - their proposed Amendments can not effect a radical Cure - the powers of Congress will still be upon paper only, and no efficiency to the Union can result from it, was their report to be adopted. - This State entered into the measure of appointing a general Convention the last year with much readiness; but the Sentiments delivered to the two houses by M.r King and M.r Dane, have produced a great change in the disposition of the members. Those Gentlemen, I fancy, have now different Ideas of the matter, and will not now think there is so great a resemblance between our County Conventions, in their Views and principles, and that proposed to be held at Philadelphia in May, as they then thought. nor will they now imagine the same danger can result to the Union from the latter, as our experience has proved was justly apprehended from the former to this Commonwealth. - I hope the two houses will this Session come into the measure, and appoint Delegates; but I have some doubts, whether they can so soon be brought off from the Sentiments they have imbibed from M.r King and M.r Dane. -
If a delegation should take place, M.r King will probably be in it. was I to nominate, I should write thus "King, Lowell, Dana, Parsons and Gerry", M.r Jackson, M.r Cabot and others if they would engage might be added, or substituted in case of failure. as to myself, I am out of the question, having neither qualities nor leisure for the Business. -
Should there be a general Convention in May, and they proceed to form a federal Constitution, I wish to have them empowered to perfect the system, and give it immediate operation, if nine States in Convention shall agree to it, without a referrence to Congress, or their Constituents - for much time must otherwise be lost, and perhaps such a difference of Sentiment may arise, as to the report, as may entirely defeat the Object. next to this, I should prefer having their report referred to Congress, and if there approved of by nine States, they to be authorised to give it immediate operation. But I fear the States can not be brought to either of these points; their several Legislatures perhaps have not a right to delegate such powers, either to Congress, or to the general Convention; and if they had the right, so fond are they of retaining power in their own hands, and of having everything appear to originate with, or proceed from themselves, that I doubt much whether they could be brought to the exercise of it. To refer the doings of the Convention to the several Legislatures for adoption, would be to hazard the Object, as much perhaps, as to recur to the people at large. Men who are vested with such [4] such powers, as are the Legislatures in the several States, will not readily consent to a transfer of any part of their own rights to others. Such bodies of men are always jealous of the power of others, especially of such as are above, and can in any instance or degree controul them; and though they may be subject to annual Elections; they do, while in Office, feel strongly for the importance of that Body of which they are members: - beside which, many of them consider themselves not only as Candidates for a future election, but as having in their own hands the sure means of retaining their Seats as long as they please; with such Men, this principle will operate proportionably stronger. - If the reference should be made to the people at large throughout the Union who can be expected, considering their discordant Views and interests, but a diversity and opposition of Sentiment: that can not be done away and which must in all probability prevent their agreeing upon any general System of Government. The most probable way in my mind, of meeting with Success, would be to have special State Conventions appointed, to whom the report of the general Convention should be referred, and they be directed to report to Congress their [inserted: dissent or] approbation [struck: or dissent] there [struck: fore] and if nine of those State Conventions shall report in favour of the System, Congress shall be authorised thereupon, to declare it to be the federal Constitution of Government; and the States shall be compellable to conform to and govern themselves by it: This mode is, I think, most likely to be adopted by the people in the several States, as it will give each of them a Voice in the revision of the doings of the general Convention, and it will avoid the difficulties which may probably attend a reference to Congress to the several Legislatures, or to the people at large. And if Congress were now to recommend to the several States, to appoint Delegates to the general Convention, and to form their several State Conventions for considering the report of the general Convention, the whole Business might soon be in train for a speedy and happy issue. in this case, the people in the several States, to prevent any doubts or difficulties, might at their next elections authorise their several Legislatures, by special instructions, to make the appointments necessary to the purposes above stated. -
You will now Sir know my Sentiments on the question you proposed. they are given to you frankly, hastily and without much System. you will consider this Letter therefore, as the free communications of a friend, fitted only for your private inspection, and will attend to them not with the Eyes or feelings of a Critic I am persuaded. -
I have not now time to touch upon any other matters and must hastily though with much respect subscribe myself dear Sir
Your very hum.bl Servant.
Stephen Higginson
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People: Higginson, Stephen, 1743-1828
Knox, Henry, 1750-1806
Madison, James, 1751-1836

Historical Era: The New Nation, 1783-1815

Subjects: Government and CivicsArticles of ConfederationUS ConstitutionUS Constitutional ConventionContinental CongressCongress

Sub Era: Creating a New Government

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