The Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, 1789-1791

The Daily Advertiser

Mr. LIVERMORE was in favor of the motion. He thought the power of the house to originate money bills, was a sacred deposit, and ought not to be violated. He contended, that giving the power in question to the Secretary would abridge this right, and would be to make him the source from which all systems of finance, and all measures of revenue would flow. He thought it improper that any person not a member should have authority to make any propositions on this subject.
Mr. SEDGWICK contended that it was next to impossibility that a popular assembly, composed of members from different states, in which the objects of revenue were so various, and their local circumstances so different, could be competent to form a good system of measures respecting revenue. It was a subject which required the closest application, the longest study, and the most extensive survey of things, to render persons adequate to the task. These were only in the power of an individual, who should devote his time and talents to it.
He thought there was no danger of an undue influence. There would always, he presumed, be a spirit of independence in the house of representatives, which would not be borne down by the executive branch.
Mr. BOUDINOT said the power was thought to be dangerous only because measures might be introduced into the house, which it would be improper for them to adopt. He had indeed too good an opinion of them to suppose they could be influenced to adopt a bad measure recommended by an executive officer. It was contended that information might be gained from the Secretary by individual members. But this, he said, was giving up the point. If the information was in fact to be drawn from him, was it not more safe to obtain it in a public manner, than by private persuasion? One of the grand principles of the constitution was the responsibility of officers. Now if the plans which the Secretary had formed were introduced into the house through the medium of individual members, he could not be answerable if they proved pernicious in their execution; but if they should undergo a public examination, as officially coming from him, they would render him responsible for all the consequences.
Mr. Boudinot added some other observations to prove from example the disadvantages resulting from a want of responsibility in matters of finance, the dangers of secret influence, and the various evils which the states had felt in not having a revenue officer of this kind, with these powers, and on whom the censure of the public could be centered.
Mr. HARTLEY thought the provision inconsistent with the principles of the constitution. He said the gentleman's arguments proved too much; they went to prove that one man could understand the interests of this country better than a number; and consequently that representation was useless and unnecessary. The words in question appeared to him to be too strong. He was willing that the house should draw information from the Secretary at their pleasure, but that he should not be permitted to obtrude his propositions on the legislature whenever he thought proper, as by the bill seemed to be provided.
Mr. GERRY was in favor of one object of the clause, which was to make it the duty of the officer to give information; but from the arguments which gentlemen had advanced in its support, he thought it was necessary to expunge it. He conceived that the power contended for, as explained by the gentlemen, necessarily included the idea of originating a money bill. This house by the constitution was entrusted with revenue matters, and to originate all systems respecting them. Now it seemed to be the intention to transfer this trust and give up the most important power. Gentlemen had, he said, dwelt much on responsibility. For his part, he had no precise idea of its meaning. Was the officer to be responsible for the effects of a measure which he had only proposed? Was he impeachable for an error in judgment?
He conceived that the same arguments which had been now urged would be used when a plan of revenue was submitted by the secretary. The members would be told that they were not competent to judge of finances; that they came together with local views, and without any general knowledge; that the system proposed was the result of great study and observation, and that it was not proper to oppose it— This, he thought, would give an undue influence, and have a tendency to preclude examination. Members would be told that it being his duty officially to bring in bills, it would be his duty officially to pass them.
Mr. LAURANCE said when the subject came before the house in a former stage, there was no difficulty about giving the power. All the difficulty then arose from the want of a proper character to exercise it. It was contended strongly that there ought to be a board established. Now, gentlemen had the wonderful sagacity to discover that each individual member would be competent to form systems of revenue. But if members were competent to form plans of revenue, they were certainly capable of judging of them; they could detect the falsehood of a statement, or the impolicy of a measure: How then could a dangerous influence be established? Gentlemen, he said, seem to confound terms— Was giving a power to recommend, giving a power to decide? It certainly had no connection; but yet gentlemen had talked of giving the officer power to originate money bills.
He said it had been a misfortune to the United States that this same power had not been trusted to an individual. If it had been, the finances of this country would not have been in such a state of derangement as at present.
If this power was not given to the secretary, Mr. Laurance said, the other duties of his office would be merely mechanical, and such as did not require either considerable abilities or judgment. He wished to know if a bill could be said to be originated till it had received the assent of this house— Any individual might bring forward a bill, but this was not the originating it.
Mr. GERRY acknowledged that he, on a former occasion, had observed that there were but few great financiers in the world. He had indeed been informed of but one.[1 ]He was still of the same opinion. He knew of no man in the United States who was capable of conducting and managing the finances of the union. A gentleman, who was a member of the Senate,[2] had made a greater progress in the science than any other; but he did not imagine even that gentleman competent to the business, in its present complicated condition. But it had been said that gentleman seemed possessed of the wonderful sagacity now to discover that any individual of the house would have more knowledge of finances than an officer appointed for that business: He would ask that gentleman, if he had not sagacity enough to discover, that his (Mr. Gerry's) arguments only went to prove, that the whole body or a chosen committee might possess as much information as any officer whatever?
Mr. FITZSIOMONS moved to strike out the word "report" from the clause, and insert the word "prepare." He said, if he understood the gentlemen, they were not opposed to the deriving information, when it should be wanted, from the Secretary; but were unwilling to give him a power of obtruding at pleasure his advice and his systems on the legislature. He thought this would be a proper remedy for the difficulty, and such as would satisfy the gentlemen.
Mr. SILVESTER was in favor of the clause, and thought it was the essential part of the bill.
Mr. MADISON observed that by looking into the Journals of the late Congress, it would be found that, when the department of finance was established, the same words or very similar words were used to vest the same power in that officer. His duty was expressed to be, to digest and report plans for the improvement of the finances. In a subsequent ordinance to establish the board of treasury; the same powers were annexed to that board as belonging to the office of finance; so that this power existed at this moment, as far as the treasury board had an existence. Perhaps if the board had exercised this power, they might have been of service to the public. It was true, he said, that the Secretary might have some influence in the house; but a comparison should be made between the inconveniencies and dangers on one side and on the other. In his opinion there was more to be apprehended from the ill effects of impolitic and indigested systems, and from ignorance, and a fluctuation of measures, than from all the influence which the Secretary could create.
The gentleman (Mr. Gerry) had asked what was meant by responsibility; and what responsibility there could be for an error in judgment? There might be, at least, he answered, a responsibility in point of reputation, a responsibility to the public opinion. It was well known that men of talents and distinction had a great regard for public opinion, and that when they were to perform any duties for the discharge of which their reputation was pledged, they would take care to perform them well.
He said, if the person who should recommend measures and propose plans was considered as originating money bills, the President might be said to possess the power; for the constitution had made it one of his duties to recommend such measures to the legislature as he should judge expedient. If the principle of the gentlemen were admitted, the house would be abridged of the right, and the President would have the power of originating revenue laws.
Mr. LIVERMORE observed in answer to Mr. Madison, that although the late Financier and Board possessed the power contended for, yet the case was materially different. Congress had these officers in their power; they could remove them when they pleased; and even if they adopted a measure respecting revenue in consequence of their proposals, it could not have operation till it had the sanction of the several states.
The debate on this subject was continued by several other gentlemen, and the question being put on Mr. Page's motion, was negatived, and the question on the motion of Mr. Fitzsimons, was carried.
[Text omitted. -Ed.]***
    [1.] Probably Richard Price
    [2.] Robert Morris