Speech in the Continental Congress on Revenue

February 21, 1783

Mr. Madison said that he had observed throughout the proceedings of Congress relative to the establishment of such funds that the power delegated to Congress by the confederation had been very differently construed by different members & that this difference of construction had materially affected their reasonings & opinions on the several propositions which had been made; that in particular it had been represented by sundry members that Congress was merely an Executive body; and therefore that it was inconsistent with the principles of liberty & the spirit of the Constitution, to submit to them a permanent revenue which wd. be placing the purse & the sword in the same hands; that he wished the true doctrine of the confederation to be ascertained as it might perhaps remove some embarrassments; and towards that end would offer his ideas on the subject.

He said that he did not conceive in the first place that the opinion was sound that the power of Congress in cases of revenue was in no respect Legislative, but merely Executive: and in the second place that admitting the power to be Executive a permanent revenue collected & dispensed by them in the discharge of the debts to wch. it sd. be appropriated, would be inconsistent with the nature of an Executive body, or dangerous to the liberties of the republic.

As to the first opinion he observed that by the articles of Confederation Congs. had clearly & expressly the right to fix the quantum of revenue necessary for the public exigences, & to require the same from the States respectively in proportion to the value of their land; that the requisitions thus made were a law to the States, as much as the acts of the latter for complying with them were a law to their individual members: that the fœderal constitution was as sacred & obligatory as the internal constitutions of the several States; and that nothing could justify the States in disobeying acts warranted by it, but some previous abuse or infraction on the part of Congs.; that as a proof that the power of fixing the quantum & making requisitions of money, was considered as a legislative power over the purse, he would appeal to the proposition made by the British Minister of giving this power to the B. Parliamt. & leaving to the American assemblies the privilege of complying in their own modes; & to the reasonings of Congress & the several States on that proposition. He observed further that by the articles of Confederation was delegated to Congs. a right to borrow money indefinitely, and emit bills of Credit which was a species of borrowing, for repayment & redemption of which the faith of the States was pledged & their legislatures constitutionally bound. He asked whether these powers were reconcileable with the idea that Congress was a body merely Executive? He asked what would be thought in G. B. from whose constitution our Political reasonings were so much drawn, of an attempt to prove that a power of making requisitions of money on the Parliament, & of borrowing money for discharge of which the Parlt. sd. be bound, might be annexed to the Crown without changing its quality of an Executive branch; and that the leaving to the Parliamt. the mode only of complying with the requisitions of the Crown, would be leaving to it its supreme & exclusive power of Legislation?

As to the second point he referred again to the British Constitution & the mode in which provision was made for the public debts; observing that although the Executive had no authority to contract a debt; yet that when a debt had been authorized or admitted by the parliament a permanent & irrevocable revenue was granted by the Legislature, to be collected & dispensed by the Executive; and that this practice had never been deemed a subversion of the Constitution or a dangerous association of a power over the purse with the power of the Sword.

If these observations were just as he concieved them to be, the establishment of a permanent revenue not by any assumed authority of Congress, but by the authority of the States at the recommendation of Congs: to be collected & applied by the latter to the discharge of the public debts, could not be deemed inconsistent with the spirit of the fœderal constitution, or subversive of the principles of liberty; and that all objections drawn from such a supposition ought to be withdrawn. Whether other objections of sufficient weight might not lie agst. such an establishmt. was another question. For his part altho' for various reasons* he had wished for such a plan as most eligible, he had never been sanguine that it was practicable & the discussions which had taken place had finally satisfied him that it would be necessary to limit the call for a general revenue to duties on commerce & to call for the deficiency in the most permanent way that could be reconciled with a revenue established within each State separately & appropriated to the Common Treasury. He said the rule which he had laid down to himself in this business was to concur in every arrangemt that sd appear necessary for an honorable & just fulfilment of the public engagements, & in no measure tending to augment the power of Congress which sd appear to be unnecessary, and particularly disclaimed the idea of perpetuating a public debt.


*Among other reasons privately weighing with him, he had observed that many of the most respectable people of America supposed the preservation of the Confederacy, essential to secure the blessings of the revolution, and permanent funds for discharging debts essential to the preservation of Union. A disappomtmt to this class wd certainly abate their ardor & in a critical emergence might incline them to prefer some political connection with G B as a necessary cure for our internal instability, again. Without permanent & general funds he did not concieve that the danger of convulsions from the army could be effectually obviated, lastly he did not think that any thing wd be so likely to prevent disputes among the States with the calamities consequent on them. The States were jealous of each other, each supposing itself to be on the whole a creditor to the others. The Eastern States in particular thought themselves so with regard to the S States (see Mr Ghorum in the debates of this day). If general funds were not introduced it was not likely the balances wd be ever be discharged, even if they sd be liquidated. The consequence wd be a rupture of the confederacy. The E States wd at sea be powerful & rapacious, the S opulent & weak. This wd be a temptation, the demands on the S Sts would be an occasion, Reprisals wd be instituted, Foreign aid would be called in by first the weaker, then the stronger side, & finally both be made subservient to the wars & politics of Europe.