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· PENNSYLVANIA CONVENTION, 1837.
as to the propriety of adopting the amendment of the gentleman from Montgomery, as he considered the objections which had been urged against it by the gentleman on his left, (Mr. HOPKINSON) perfectly conclu. sive. lf, when the proposition came up fairly for consideration, and it should be found that the language, in which it was expressed was objectionable, let another provision be inserted instead of it, couched in such terms as could not be mistaken.
Mr. STERIGERE, of Montgomery, said, that he did not mean to speak on the proposition which he had had the honor to submit yesterday. It seemed to him to have already been sufficiently discussed on both sides of the Convention, to enable every one to vote on it. He was at a loss to perceive the relevancy of a great portion of what had been said. It consisted, for the most part of crimination and recrimination, and of an investigation into the causes of, and objections to, the registry law. A few objections had been raised this morning in relation to his amendment, but of which he would take but little notice. One of the objections was—that it was out of place. Now, if that was any reason why it should not receive the attention of the committee, then it ought to be voted down. But, he apprehended it was no objection. On a plea of that sort any proposition, however good it might be, could be got rid of. Some gendemen had contended that the amendment ought to be put in the Bill of Rights. In his opinion, that was exactly the place in which it ought not to be found—for ihat document had reference to public rights, while his amendment related to personal rights. He must say, that after a proposition had been discussed, and the principle of it settled, it looked like an excuse for getting rid of it, to set up the objection that it was in the wrong place. The gentleman from Philadelphia (Mr. HOPKINSON) had remarked upon the correctness and clearness of the language of the Constitution of 1790, and he had offered a criticism on the amendment, and asked the meaning of that word “restriction". He (Mr. STERIGERE) would refer that gentleman to the language of section eighth of the Constitution in relation to the press. “The printing presses shall be free to every person who undertakes to examine the proceedings of the Legislature, or any branch of Government. And no law shall ever be made to restrain the right thereof”, &c. The gentleman might just as well ask what was the meaning of the word “ restrain", in that section. It was one of similar import. Many such criticisms as the gentleman had made, might be offered in regard to the language of other parts of the Constitution, and with as much propriety. In the fifth section of the same article, for instance"elections shall be free and equal”. Now, he would ask what was the meaning of that sentence? Why, it was a truism, like many other propositions which were to be found in public documents. It was like the assertion—that “all men are born free and equal”—which did not admit of being literally construed, or carried out, for in all cases, it was not applicable. He maintained that the word "restriction" was as plain in its meaning as any other word in the Constitution, and about which no doubt or cavil had been raised. He had seen all parties, who had obtained the ascendency, exercise their authority in a manner that he utterly condemned. And the object he had in view was to prevent whatever party might be in power, from imposing restrictions on any particular election district, in order to subserve their political interests. He desired to make the right of suffrage equal all
over the State. The gentleman from Fayette (Mr. FULLER) had objected to the amendment as being out of place. That, however, was a mere matter of opinion, and gentlemen might make that excuse to avoid voting for it. Those who were opposed to its principle would vote against it; but those who were in favor of it would not consider the place as material.
Mr. FULLER, of Fayette, said the gentleman was mistaken if he supposed that he was opposed to the principle of the proposition. He desired that some such principle as was contained in the proposition of the gentleman from Montgomery, might be inserted in the Constitution. His only objection to it was, that, as it proposed a restriction on the Legislature, it belonged to the Bill of Rights; and he hoped, therefore, that the gentleman would withdraw the motion.
Mr. STERIGERE explained, that he had not supposed that the gentleman from Fayette was opposed to the proposition, and that he had urged it was out of place as an excuse for not voting for it. He had not intended to impute any wrong motives to him. The remark which he made was general.
The Chair said that the discussion was taking a very wide range, and subjects had been introduced into it wholly unconnected with the question immediately under consideration. He must say that he considered these personal and political remarks out of order. He hoped, then, that for the future, gentlemen would see the propriety of abstaining from remarks of that character.
Mr. Banks, of Mifflin, hoped that the gentleman from Montgomery would withdraw his amendment, at least, for the present. He thought, that from the intimations which had been thrown out all around, that the gentlemen must be assured that it would be negatived, if he pressed it now. He (Mr. B.) regarded the objection raised by different gentlemen with regard to the place where it should be inserted, as insufficient. He was reminded by it of the story of a young lady, who, wishing to offer to her dancing master some little present, as a token of gratitude, approached him rapidly and informally, in the fullness of her heart. Bah! cried he, that is not the way.
Upon a second trial, she succeeded better, and he said that will do, but the elbow is not sufficiently turned. Now, if the gift was of an acceptable kind, he was not for asking whether the elbow was turned out or turned in. He hoped the amendment would be adopted without regard to the form and order in which it was offered.
Mr. PORTER, of Northampton, said he should be very happy, at all times, to turn his elbow in such a way as to suit the gentleman from Mifflin; but he could not agree with him that it was of no consequence whether the place was proper or not. The gentleman from Montgomery said he did not care where the provision was, so it was adopted. But he thought order was Heaven's first law, and that, in this as well as other matters, it was very essential.
Mr. SMYTH, of Centre, rose and said, that he believed the gentleman from Northamption was out of order.
The Chair said he was not aware that there existed any rule of order.
Mr. PORTER then proceeded: He recollected that the rule stated that a member could not speak more than twice, and that the gentleman from
Fayette and himself were the only two delegates who took an exception to it. With regard to the amendment, he would remark, that he approved of the principle of it, but thought it was not in the right place. But, when the gentleman from Montgomery asserted (as he had before observed) that he did not care where the provision was, so long as it was inserted, he must say to that gentleman, that he had always found it better to do every thing according to order. He did not approve of gentlemen running one way and pulling another. Now, that was not his (Mr. PORTER's) practice. He generally went straight forward. He repelled the insinuation that this objection was an excuse for opposing the provision. Those who impeached the motives of others without just cause were generally impeachable themselves.
Mr. DICKEY, of Beaver, hoped the gentleman from Northampton would recollect that hereafter, and that he would not impute improper motives to members of the Legislature of 1835-6.
Mr. BELL said that it was a matter of much regret, that, on every subject which had the most remote connection with the politics of the county of Philadelphia, or where the topics which agitate that community could in any manner be introduced into a pending discussion, gentlemen suffered themselves to be drawn away from the clear and dispassionate discussion of the question at issue, and were too apt to degenerate into unpleasant personalities. This was to be deeply lamented, as it unfited gentlemen for the serious consideration and enlightened decision of important propositions. That those now under consideration was of this character, and he entreated members to bend their attention to it, freed from exciting feelings so well calculated to unsettle and disturb the judgment.
One or two gentlemen approve the principle involved in the amendment offered by the gentleman from Montgomery, but object that here is not the place proper for its introduction ; but he called upon those gentlemen to reflect, that if they permited their objections, founded merely in form, to overrule their approbation of the proposed provision, they might find our difficulties so far increased as to be unconquerable, when they reached what was considered, by them, as the proper place, the Bill of Rights. Sir, (said Mr. B.) if the principle be correct in itself, it is of little consequence whether, for the present, it be engrafted on the article now under revision, or introduced elsewhere. Let us, sir, unite to recognize the principle as one which ought to be introduced among our Constitutional provisions ; and if, hereafter, when we come to fit together the several parts of the amended instrument, we should find that more naturally it ought to find a place in the Bill of Rights, it can be transfered thence without difficulty.
Another objection had been made by the gentleman from Philadelphia, (Mr. HOPKINSON) against the phraseology of the proposed amendment, which he could not but regard as hypercritical
, The objection is, that the word “restriction", as here applied, is vague and indefinite; that much difficulty would be experienced in putting upon it a construction. But, sir, (said Mr. B.) it appears to me that this phrase is sufficiently determinate, especially when taken in connexion with the preceding part of the sentence.
The object is to preserve the election laws equal throughout the State ; and for this purpose, no greater or other “restriction” is imposed, &c. This, however, was a minor objection. If the
language of the proposition needed amendment, it might be put in such a shape as would be satisfactory, and he knew of none on this floor more competent to the task than the learned gentleman whose critical acumen had suggested the doubt. He could not agree with the gentleman from Northampton (Mr. Porter) that the provision in the Bill of Rights, providing for the freedom and equality of elections, met and supplied the defect which it was the object of the proposed amendment to remedy. It was not his intention, (Mr. B. said) to enter into an elaborate investigation of this Constitutional provision, though it might be easy to show that, although somewhat ambiguous, the framers of the Constitution, by this provision, only intended to guarantee the general free exercise of the elective franchise, and not to prohibit legislative interference in the regulation of that franchise ; so that it is still left open to the Legislature to impose burdens on one section of the Commonwealth, from which all other sections are free.' The case of a distinction in the mode of the exercise of this right was not anticipated, and, therefore, not provided for—for it was not until recently, that a Legislature of Pennsylvania ventured the introduction of such a distinction. But, it is sufficient for the argument in favor of the amendment proposed, that doubts exist in the minds of Constitutional lawyers, whether the provision of the Bill of Rights prohibits the Legislature from the enactment of such laws as may amount, almost, to a prohibition of one of the most exalted rights a freeman can exercise the right of voting—in one portion of the State, while elsewhere it is left untrammeled. If the doubt exists, the propriety of providing for a removal of that doubt is obvious. It was not necessary—perhaps, it would be improper, (said Mr. B.) that he should enter upon an investigation of the merits or demerits of what has been called the “ registry law". The members from the city and county of Philadelphia were fully competent to spread before the committee its operation, for good or evil, upon the community they represent. Certain it is, that, with a large portion of that community, the law was exceedingly unpopular, and regarded as one of the most odious enactments that ever disgraced the face of our statute book. We must all recollect the loud and bitter complaints which the people of Philadelphia sent forth on this subject. Meeting after meeting denounced the law, while the press held it up to public indignation as a most iniquitous piece of legislation. The fact is, sir, it was a surprise upon the people: it was intended to affect, many-nay, a vast majority of whom had never dreamt of such a regulation, until they were astounded by the intelligence of the passage of the law. Nor is this all. The enactment of this statute was a surprise upon the Legislature itself. As I am informed by an intelligent gentleman on this floor, who then occupied a seat in the House of Representatives, this law was introduced towards the close of the session, engrafted upon another act regulating certain election districts, and, upon a representation, that its object was entirely local and satisfactory to the city and county, suffered to pass without examination. Sir, (said Mr. B.) so strong was public feeling and opinion against this law, that at the very next session of the Legislature, the popular branch, coming directly from the people, passed a repealing act with great unanimity. And how was the repeal of this obnoxious law prevented ? Sir, to employ a phrase, boastingly used by the gentleman from Beaver, (Mr. DickeY) himself a member of the Senate, it was presented by the "SPAR
TAN BAND”, who then, by accident, formed the majority in the other branch of the General Assembly. Yes, sir, it was the “Spartan band", some of whom had, for reasons good or bad, deserted their party–who, opposing the undoubted wishes of the people, and setting at naught their will, prevented for a time the removal of the burden. The delegate from Beaver, (Mr. D.) has told you, sir, that the same majority in the Senate will continue to defeat all attempts to repeal this law for years to come, and he seems to exult in the opportunity which has been afforded him to thwart the popular desire. But, sir, I thank heaven, that, gifted as that gentleman is, he is not endowed with the gift of pre-science; and, maugre his boast, if he live but a short time, he will live to see that Senate redeemed, and democratic Pennsylvania enjoying a democratic representation in both branches.
But, sir, to return to the proposed amendment of the gentleman from Montgomery : its object is to forbid to the Legislature a course of partial legislation, by which the dearest rights of a portion of the people might be invaded, and subjected to intolerable restrictions : It proposes to preserve uniformity of regulation in regard to a subject, where uniformity is of ths utmost consequence. Under the Constitution as it stands, the Genoral Assembly, as it is argued, and probably truly so, have the power to impose on any particular district it may select, arbitrary and unjust restraints upon the right of suffrage. Will any gentleman here say that a power so liable to abuse should be continued ? Why, sir, it is easy to imagine the existence of a fac pus Legislature, actuated by partisan feelings, which, listening only to the suggestions of party spirit, might, under the pretence of regulating it, be led to impose on the right of voting in a dis. trict of adverse political views, such burdens as would almost amount to disfranchisement. This, it is said, has already been done. Whether so or not, it is not now necessary to determine ; it is sufficient that it might be done. A measure of this character might be hazarded against a comparatively small portion of the State, when a Legislature would not dare an imposition of the kind upon the whole people. The simple question then is, whether such authority should be less within the scope of legislative power? If gentlemen reflect, they must answer in the negative ; and as the principal uses of written Constitutions is to restrain improper and vicious legislation, Mr. B. trusted that members would perceive the propriety of adopting the amendment.
Mr. McCahen, of Philadelphia, said he would read a part of the registry law of Pennsylvania, in order to show gentlemen that this proposition was really necessary to prevent partial legislation. He then read as follows :
“ And they shall add to the said list or lists, the name or names of such person or persons, as they shall find to be duly qualified to vote, as aforesaid, and whose name or names may have been omited from said lists, and they shall certify that they have duly examined and corrected said lists, and shall return the same, so certified, to the Sheriff, who shall safely keep the same until the day of general election, and shall deliver them to the said judges and inspectors, on the morning of the general election, before the opening of the polls thereof, which said list, duly attested by the said Sheriff
, shall be deemed and taken to be the only and conclusive evidence of the qualifications of the electors thereof", &c.