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“Every friend to America must reprobate the idea of introducing a standing army in our Republic. The establishment of a well disciplined militia, must be an object the most salutary and desirable. On the permanency of this measure, the happiness & security of the people, & the force and energy of the Government greatly depend…”
Excellent-content manuscript from the Massachusetts legislature in response to Governor John Hancock’s call for consideration of the new Federal Bill of Rights. The state legislative leaders specifically address what would become the Second and Sixth Amendments, dealing with the right to bear arms and trial by jury, respectively. Their response to what would become the Second Amendment shows that its foundation, for many at the time, was fear of a standing army. They also respond favorably to Hancock’s suggestions about state support for education in general, and Harvard (“the University at Cambridge”) specifically. [BILL OF RIGHTS].
Samuel Phillips and David Cobb, Manuscript Document Signed, as Massachusetts Senate President and House Speaker, respectively. [Boston], June 1, 1791. 4 pp. Docket in unknown hand, possibly Hancock, on verso of last page: “Letter by Phillips & Cobb 1791.”
“We are happy in congratulating your Excellency, that the suffrages of the people of this Commonwealth have again placed you in the Chair of Government … The happiness of the people being the end of government, we readily agree with your Excellency that it is the duty of the Legislature to enact wise laws, and to make ample provision for the regular, speedy and equal distribution of Justice. The tryal by Jury, is one of those inestimable priviledges we enjoy as freemen; it is incumbent on us therefore to use every precaution to retain it in its fullest latitude. Such further regulations as are necessary to this great purpose we shall readily adopt, by a revision of the laws ... Every friend to America must reprobate the idea of introducing a standing army in our Republic. The establishment of a well-disciplined militia, must be an object the most salutary and desirable. On the permanency of this measure, the happiness & security of the people, & the force and energy of the Government greatly depend. The subjects recommended by your Excellency we consider as interesting, and none more loudly calls for our attention, than the education of the rising Generation ... Without due attention to this interesting subject, the light of our Country, as your Excellency observes, will begin to fade and its glory be seen in its decline ... We are sensible that the present circumstances of the State render it highly expedient to adopt such measures ... to place our finances upon the most respectable basis ... without having recourse to any schemes for raising money, which will injure the morals of the people or divert their attention from laudable industries & pursuits...”
John Hancock was a critical figure in the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Hancock harbored some misgivings about the powerful central government proposed by the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, including its lack of a Bill of Rights. Massachusetts’ own state constitution, ratified in 1780, drafted principally by John Adams, included a Bill of Rights. The opinion of Hancock, as a popular leader and governor of the state, was crucial to the debate within the ratifying convention, which commenced on January 9, 1788. Four states had already ratified, and Connecticut became the fifth state on that day, but nine were required. It was known that the result in Massachusetts would greatly influence debate in New York and Virginia later that year.
The ratifying convention was almost evenly divided between Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Relishing his role as a statesman above the fray, Hancock worked with Samuel Adams and General William Heath on a compromise: Massachusetts should ratify the constitution, but include in its official transmittal a list of recommended amendments. Hancock agreed that Massachusetts should then issue instructions to its first congressmen to work to enact those amendments in the First Congress.
Hancock’s proposed amendments included the following: “First. That it be explicitly declared, that all powers not expressly delegated by the aforesaid Constitution are reserved to the several states, to be by them exercised [adopted in modified form as the 12th, now 10th amendment] … Secondly. That there shall be one representative to every thirty thousand persons, according to the census mentioned in the Constitution, until the whole number of representatives amounts to two hundred. … Fourthly. That Congress do not lay direct taxes, but when the moneys arising from the impost and excise are insufficient for the public exigencies, nor then, until Congress shall have first made a requisition upon the states, to assess, levy, and pay their respective proportion of such requisitions, agreeably to the census fixed in the said Constitution … Fifthly. That Congress erect no company with exclusive advantages of commerce. … Eighthly. In civil actions between citizens of different states, every issue of fact, arising in actions at common law, shall be tried by a jury, if the parties, or either of them, request it.”
Hancock’s compromise was a political masterstroke. Other Anti-Federalists called either for outright rejection or for a second constitutional convention, each of which frightened Federalists enough to persuade individual delegates to support the concept of a bill of rights. On February 6, ratification passed, 187-168, the closeness of the final vote indicating the importance of the compromise. Four of the next five states to ratify, including New York and Virginia, included similar language in their documents.
Ratification became official on June 21, 1788, when New Hampshire became the ninth state to approve. The first elections took place in late 1788 and early 1789 (varying state to state), and the First Congress convened in New York City on March 4, 1789. George Washington was inaugurated as the first president on April 30. Congressman James Madison—the “Father of the Constitution”—gave an important speech introducing proposals for amendments to the new Constitution on June 8. His advocacy was crucial because, as a Federalist, he had earlier expressed the opinion that a Bill of Rights was unnecessary. After debate, the House passed seventeen amendments on August 24. The Senate took up the amendments in early September, approving some articles and rejecting or altering others, before passing its own version on September 9. The two houses then negotiated their differences. Congress submitted the amendments, now twelve in number, to the states on September 28, 1789.
From there, the battle for a Bill of Rights shifted to the state legislatures, where the process slowed. In Massachusetts, Governor Hancock heartily recommended the amendments, but the legislature rejected the first two (dealing with apportionment of the House and congressional salaries, respectively), as well as the 12th (eventually, 10th) amendment, reserving all rights not granted to the federal government, to the states. A joint committee of both houses was appointed to bring in a compromise bill, but it never reported, and the state ratification process was left incomplete. Eventually, the first two amendments were rejected by the states, and on December 15, 1791, Virginia became the tenth state to ratify the ten remaining amendments (Vermont, which entered the Union in 1791, had ratified in November). With three-quarters of the states having ratified, the Bill of Rights was born.
Incredibly, Massachusetts did not ratify until 1939, in anticipation of the 150th birthday of the Bill of Rights (based on Congressional passage in 1789).
John Hancock (1737-1793) was a Boston merchant prince and leader of the colonial resistance movement. Born in Braintree, he was adopted by his paternal uncle, Thomas Hancock, when his father died in 1742; under his uncle he learned the mercantile trade and was groomed for partnership. The Hancocks engaged in smuggling with the French West Indies in defiance of the Molasses Act. Named a Boston selectman in 1765, Hancock opposed the Stamp Act, and upon passage of the Townshend Duties in 1767, Hancock resolved to prohibit British customs officials from setting foot on his ships. He served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and, in 1774, was elected president of the revolutionary Provincial Congress. He and Samuel Adams were the targets of General Gage’s projected campaign against Lexington and Concord in April 1775. During the war, Hancock served as President of the Continental Congress, 1775-1777, and in that capacity signed the Declaration of Independence in bold script on July 4, 1776. He was later a popular governor of Massachusetts (1780-1785, 1787-1793).
Samuel Phillips, Jr. (1752-1802) was a Harvard graduate, member of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress (1775-1780), and state senator (1780-1801). In 1778, he founded Phillips Academy in his native Andover, a very influential educational institution.
David Cobb (1748-1830), from Attleboro, Massachusetts, served as lieutenant colonel of a Massachusetts regiment in 1777-1778, and was an aide-de-camp to George Washington. Appointed major general of militia, Cobb was active in suppressing Shays’ Rebellion. He served in the state House of Representatives (1789-1793), and was elected its speaker, and later won election to Congress (1793-1795) as a Federalist. Cobb then moved to the district of Maine and won election to the Massachusetts senate in 1802, serving as its president.
Bowling, Kenneth, “‘A Tub to the Whale’: The Adoption of the Bill of Rights,” in Patrick
Conley and John Kaminski, eds., The Bill of Rights and the States (Madison, Wis., 1992), 46-61.
A few marginal chips affecting a few letters of text, two clean fold splits carefully repaired, else very good.