Birth of the Nation: The First Federal Congress, 1789-1791 Back to the Exhibit

Speech by Rep. James Jackson of Georgia, June 8, 1789


I am of opinion we ought not to be in a hurry with respect to altering the constitution. For my part I have no idea of speculating in this serious manner on theory; 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 constitution? Can any gentleman affirm to me one proposition that is a certain and absolute amendment? I deny that he can. Our constitution, sir, is like a vessel just launched, and lying at the wharf she is untried, you can hardly discover any one of her properties; it is not known how she will answer her helm, or lay her course; whether she will bear in safety the precious freight to be deposited in her hold. But, in this state, will the prudent merchant attempt alterations? Will he employ two thousand workmen to rear off the planking and take asunder the frame? He certainly will not. Let us gentlemen, fit out our vessel, set up her masts, and expand her sails, and be guided by the experiment in our alterations. If she sails upon an uneven keel, let us right her by adding weight where it is wanting. In this way, we may remedy her defects to the satisfaction of all concerned; but if we proceed now to make alterations, we may deface a beauty; or deform a well proportioned piece of workmanship; in short. Mr. Speaker, I am not for amendments at this time, but if gentlemen should think it a subject deserving of attention, they will surely not neglect the more important business, which is now unfinished before them. Without we pass the collection bill, we can get no revenue, and without revenue the wheels of government cannot move. I am against taking up the subject at present, and shall therefore be totally against the amendments, if the government is not organized, that I may see whether it is grievous or not.

When the propriety of making amendments shall be obvious from experience, I trust there will be virtue enough in my country to make them. 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 shewn to this business. Indeed I cannot conceive how it could be opposed; I think an almost omnipotent emperor would not be hardy enough to set himself against, it. Then why should we tear a power which cannot be improperly exercised.

We have proceeded to make some regulations under the constitution, but have met with no inaccuracy unless it may be said, that the clause respecting "vessels bound to or from one state be obliged to enter, clear, or pay duties in another," is somewhat obscure, yet there is nor sufficient, I trust, in any gentleman’s opinion to induce an amendment. But let me ask what will be the consequence of taking up this subject? are we going to finish it in an hour? I believe not; it will take us more than a day, a week, a month—it will take a year to complete it! and will it be doing our duty to our country to neglect or delay putting the government in motion., when every thing depends upon its being speedily done?

Let the constitution, have a fair trial, let it be examined by experience, discover by that test what its errors are, and then talk of amending; but to attempt it now is doing it at risk, which is certainly imprudent. I have the honor of coming from a state that ratified the constitution by the unanimous vote of a numerous convention: the people of Georgia have manifested their attachment to it, by adopting a state constitution framed upon the same plan as this. But although they are thus satisfied, I shall not be against such amendments as will gratify the inhabitants of other states, provided they are judged of by experience and not theory. For this reason I wish the consideration of the subject postponed until the first of March, 1790.

(From The Congressional Register, vol. I, page 416 -- Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

digitized from DHFFC transcription   
Back to the Exhibit
Go to Exhibit Home
First Federal Congress Project



Copyright © 1999 First Federal Congress Project. All rights reserved.