-Monday, Sept. 3, 1787
In last Friday's heated debate on how to ratify the Constitution, Col. George Mason of Virginia said that he would ``sooner chop off'' his right hand than sign the document as it now stands.
FEARING corrupt bargains between Congress and the President, the Convention today prohibited elected members of Congress from holding any other civil office. Similarly, no person holding an appointive office in the new national government can serve in Congress.
Today's decision ended a bitterly debated question - its roots in both the American and the British political experience. Early during the Convention, on four separate days, the delegates clashed on the most effective way to control or to reduce in the new national government the kind of corrupt bargains for public office carried on in the British Parliament. As Maj. Pierce Butler of Georgia told the delegates:
``Look at the history of the government of Great Britain. ... A man takes a seat in parliament to get an office for himself or friends or both; and this is the great source from which flows its great venality and corruption.''
Many of the delegates have held, or currently hold, both elective and appointive offices at the State and national level. It is a custom under the current Articles of Confederation and is believed a method for encouraging qualified individuals to serve in government.
The drive by a majority of delegates to prohibit the practice in the new government is believed to stem in part from resentment and jealousy. Some State officials in the last few years have resented the Confederated Congress's appointing its own members to executive and diplomatic posts.
Today Charles Pinckney III of South Carolina sought unsuccessfully to have the practice continued. To prohibit members of Congress from appointive office, he said, would deny the new government the best qualified and mock the concept of virtue and merit. Col. George Mason of Virginia bluntly replied: ``Instead of excluding merit, the ineligibility will keep out corruption, by excluding office-hunters.''
What apparently gave weight to a narrow majority decision today is the fear that the President would have too much power. Roger Sherman of Connecticut said he was in favor of banning members of Congress from appointive office. Otherwise, ``their eligibility to offices would give too much influence to the Executive,'' he said. Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania feared that a corrupt bargain could be concluded between the President and the Congress if members were simultaneously appointed to other offices.
To the contrary, James Wilson of Pennsylvania replied, if members of Congress were excluded from appointive office the influence of the President would be increased and at the same time it would ``diminish the general energy of the Government.''
Today's debate illustrates two points. First, all delegates, in spite of their opposing arguments, fear a powerful President. Second, the delegates have gone to great lengths to insulate the new national government from the corrupt practices of the past. The disagreement today turned on two views of how human beings will act if given power. One view holds that virtue and merit are the basis of good government. The other view holds that men in power will follow their own self-interests and base motives.
A majority decided today that it is wiser to acknowledge human vice and not allow members of Congress to hold two offices at the same time.
These day-by-day reports on the Constitutional Convention will continue tomorrow.