The Life and Correspondence of Rufus King, Comprising his Letters, private and Official, his Public Documents and his Speeches.
Charles R. King, ed.
Citation Information: Charles R. King, ed. The Life and Correspondence of Rufus King, Comprising his Letters, private and Official, his Public Documents and his Speeches. Vo. 6, 1816-27. (New York: G. P. Putman’s Sons, 1900), p. 399-419, passim.
The Convention which had been called in the State of New York assembled in Albany on August 28, 1821, and chose Daniel D. Tompkins as its President. Mr. Rufus King, who had been elected a delegate from Queens County, addressed the Convention on August 30th, suggesting that it was “highly important to proceed correctly and judiciously in the outset of the business of this Convention… to preserve the greatest possible harmony and good feeling;… that he would propose the formation of a committee to devise the manner in which it was expedient to take up the business;…that such a course, emanating from a numerous committee, would not be likely to excite jealousies, nor to meet personal opposition, but would, in his opinion, lead the Convention to such a calm, temperate and wise deliberation upon the matter before them, as the nature of the subject required. … These considerations forcibly urge the observance of moderation, mutual confidence and the most exemplary prudence in our proceedings.”1
R. KING TO J. A. KING
Albany, Sept. 18, 1821
Our progress in the Convention is slow, but I preserve my confidence in the moderation and good sense of the members. Some few agitators will do their best to affect alterations wh. wd. be matter of regret; but their success is dubious, and their failure not improbable. On reconsideration in a thin house Genl. Root prevailed by 55, to 53 to make the Gov’s term annual: nearly all his strength was present; the absentees are generally for 2 years; some of the one year men are shaking, and I have no doubt that two years will be established.
We are now engaged with Mr. Sanford’s Report: the Patroon has moved an amendment; wh. is normally withdrawn, in order to try the question on striking out the word white, by wh. the colored people wd. be included. I think it an uncertain question… the Patroon proposes that every citizen who has resided a year in the state and six months in the town or city where he claims to vote, who shall have been assessed & paid within 2 yrs any State, town or County or City tax, and the sons of persons qualified as aforesaid between 21 & 22 years of age, shall be an Elector &c. on motion of Judge Childs non but a native Citzn. can be Governor.
Adieu with love to all,
In a letter to his son, Sept. 24th, Mr. King said:
“We are engaged in the right of suffrage and, at present, in a motion Ch. Jus. Spencer to give the election of senators exclusively to electors having a legal or equitable interest in his own or his wife’s right in any lands or tenements in this state, of the value of 250 Dolls.; over and above all debts charged thereon. The Chief Justice, Chan. Kent, Root, Livingston, Cramer, Buel, Tompkins and Williams have hitherto managed the debate.”
The motion of Judge Spencer, after a long debate, in which Mr. King does not appear to have taken part, was rejected by a vote of 100 noes to 19 ayes.
On September 12th the report of the committee on the elective franchise was made, giving the right of suffrage to “every white male citizen,” etc. Mr. Jay moved on the 19th
“that the word white be stricken out. Chancellor Kent supported this motion and among other reasons suggested that the exclusion of negroes might be opposed to the constitution of the United States, which provided that ‘the citizens of each state shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens of the several states.”
To this it was answered that the constitution of the United States applied only to civil, not to political rights. Mr. King in reply said that he would at this time reply to one idea:
“That the constitution of the United States is beyond the control of any acts of any of the states. It is a compact, to which the people of this state, with those of the other states, are parties, and cannot recede from it without the consent of all. With this understanding, let me ask, what is the meaning of the provision quoted by the gentlemen from Albany (Mr. Kent)? Take the fact that a citizen of color, entitled to all the privileges of a citizen, comes here. He purchases a freehold; can you deny him the rights of an elector, incident to his freehold? He is entitled to vote because, like any other citizen, he is freeholder; and every freeholder your laws entitle to vote. He comes here, he purchases property, he pays you taxes, conforms to your laws; how can you then, under the article of the constitution of the United States, which has been read, exclude him? The gentleman from New York (Mr. Radcliff) thinks that the meaning of this provision in the constitution of the United States extends only to civil rights; such is not the text; it is to all rights. This seems to me to lay an insuperable barrier in our way. I am at the same time free to confess that I am fully alive to the difficulties of this question, tho’ I do not feel that they do now press upon us. I am not sure how a black, unless born free, may become a citizen; a red man cannot be a citizen; they cannot even be naturalized, for naturalization can only be effected under the laws of the United States, which limit it to the whites. The subject is evidently full of difficulties, though, as I before said, they are not now pressing. But the period is not distant when they must be.2 As certainly as the children of any white man are citizens, so certainly the children of the black men are citizens; and they must in time raise up a progeny, which will be disastrous to the other races of this country. I will not trouble the Convention further; but I thought it due to the occasion to express my opinion of the constitutional barriers which interpose to prevent our retaining the ‘white’ in the clause.”
It would require more space than can be given here to follow the various propositions which were discussed in the Convention, and therefore notice will be taken only of those in which Mr. King’s views were expressly given both in the Convention and in the correspondence. Upon no subject has there more earnest and lengthened discussion than on that of the elective franchise. Mr. King in a letter to his son Charles, Sept. 30th, says:
“We have spent several days in attempting to ascertain the qualifications of the electors of the executive and legislative officers: a vote passed on Friday 28th, by a small majority, which is but universal suffrage 3… . Should the right of the suffrage be made universal, the foundation of the constitution will be such as to impair any safe reliance on the superstructure…”
In the Convention (page 286), he is reported as expressing similar sentiments:
“If any gentleman had supposed him to be in favor of universal suffrage, as their language would seem to imply, they had grossly misapprehended his sentiments. In his view such an extent of the elective franchise would be in the highest degree dangerous: no government, ancient or modern, could endure it. So far as he was acquainted, public opinion did not require it: he was certain this was so in the quarter of the country which he represented, and he believed the same sentiments were entertained by the people of the west. He was acquainted with the country whence most of them emigrated, and with their fathers, and was confident the sons of such sires could not entertain such extravagant sentiments. The protection of property and the encouragement of honest industry constituted the basis of civil society, and were the primary objects of government. The possession of property was generally an indication of the other qualifications. He would exclude all who had no the capacity to discriminate between candidates, nor the independence to exercise the right discreetly. In his view universal suffrage was perilous to us and to the country; and if it were sanctioned, he should regret having been a member of the Convention.”
It may be noticed that when this subject was resumed and finally passed upon Mr. King voted against the article as adopted, in which the only property qualification was that which required “men of colour” to possess a freehold of $250.
R. KING TO C. KING
Albany, Tuesday, 9 Oct., 1821.
The Suffrage question as reported by the Comee. of 13. is established; it is in effect universal suffrage; the colored people except such as own freeholds of 250 Dol. are exempt from direct taxes, and denied a suffrage.
We are again on the appointing power, particularly on that of Justices of the Peace — the question occurs on a motion to reconsider the vote which negatived the appt. by town meetings. It is doubtful whether the vote will be reconsidered — had the Judges been out of the Convention, this, and other important questions wd. have been otherwise settle: the jealousy is extreme, and will probably assume a personal direction; in which case the effect can not be doubted.
It is perseveringly insisted on, that the control of the appointment of magistrates must be at head quarters: nothing short of this, as we are told, will prevent the State’s falling under the influence and direction of bad men, at whose head would be soon — & — . I know nothing of the political bearing of the question, but from the greater difficulties which attend any other mode, I am persuaded that election in towns would afford the best magistrates. This however will, as I conjecture, fail — and fail by the presence and interference of the Judges…
I conjecture that much apprehension exists in respect to the judiciary report; and that doubts exist whether it will be for, against, the interest of the Judges to be present on the discussion of the questions which will then occur. I cannot feel any hesitation in concluding that their presence will be of no benefit to themselves or to the department to which they belong….
R. KING TO C. GORE
Albany, Oct 14, 1821
MY DEAR FRIEND:
I received in due course, and before I left Jamaica, your letter enclosing that wh. Ch. Justice Parker had written to you, respecting the amendments wh. were proposed to your Constitution; and some days since your affectionate letter of September.4 We have been together almost seven; and in the way we proceed, I can see no period when we may expect to complete our work.
Our Convention are not a numerous body and it seemed reasonable to hope that on this account, as well as on some others, the whole body being natives of this, or the neighboring states, we should proceed harmoniously; and that the general principles or experienced truths, by which we should be guided in repairing our Constitution, would not be denied or contested. A little harmony is a dangerous thing, and occasionally excites, or encourages, a sort of confidence, which disqualifies rather than assists men in the arts as also in the sciences. One every day becomes more and more confirmed in the fact, that education and early habits have more influence on our opinions than the reflections and examinations of mature life. Our population is nearly divided between the old and the new inhabitants. The latter are out of New England, whose laws, customs and usages differ from those of N. York. These considerations have no small influence in creating unexpected difficulties and delays in the business of the Convention. They are felt in almost every measure that we examine, and from the portion of reading information that we possess, every rule or maxim which is made use of to settle points of discussion, are themselves made the subject of more discussion and proof. So that these truths which might under different circumstances be made use of to prove other truths, are themselves questioned. This difficulty, felt on all occasions, will I apprehend be much increased, when we come to the judicial department; there being an opinion entertained by too many persons not only that a separate Court of Chancery is useless, but that the Nisi Prius system sh. be changed for district courts. Should this error prevail, we shall destroy the judicial department in this State.
I see little prospect of getting thro’ with our business before the early part of Nov., and fear that we may be detained beyond that time.
It was my hope and intention to have been able to make you a visit this fall, but Congress will meet on the 3d. of Dec., and I shall barely have time to put my affairs in order for the winter before I shall be obliged to set out for Washington. I add at present affectionate regards to Mrs. G., and assurance of the attachment with which I am my dear friend always and faithfully yours,
R. KING TO C. KING
Albany, Oct, 15, 1821
The affairs of the Convention are to my apprehension in a condition little satisfactory… . I begin to feel no small uneasiness n respect to the issue of our meeting. Perhaps the mode of our proceedings, wh. is unusual, and the want of a better knowledge of men’s views, may create unnecessary alarm: I hope this may prove to be the case. I find less communication of the views of men with whom I am disposed to cooperate, than I had expected; suspicion and jealousies, are more extensive than we could have anticipated.
The Deputies from the City are under embarrassment; they are opposed here, and not supported at home. The men, with whom I am, appear to be honest men, who aim at the public good; but their influence will be entirely destroyed, if their opponents become convinced that they are not only unsupported, but that their views are disapproved by their Constituents. Opinions to this effect are industriously circulated here.
I do not know to what extent former jealousies of Tammany Hall have prevailed among the leaders of the North; but I think I can perceive, that there is no confidence or cordiality between them. All this will work not favorably, in the further progress of the Convention. If it be the opinion of the City, that a central power in respect to Appointment shd. be established here, let it be openly avowed; in this case the Council of Appointment may yet be reinstated, for the V. Pr. said on Saturday “that it was not within the wit of man, and that he defied the wisdom of the Convention, to devise a better plan than the Council of Appointment” — coupling this declaration with the disapprobation of the appointment of the Magistrates in the Counties, which is asserted to prevail in N York, it will not be extraordinary if we shall see strange proceedings on this subject; for my own part, I am unable to measure the depth, or breadth of the politics wh. prevail around me. I have no other guide than that of my own experience, assisted by the principles which I know to be honest, and applicable to the work before me.
I often wish that I had not come hither: and fear that nothing will occur to change my anticipations: but enough. R. K.
Among other provisions proposed in the Convention was one relative to slavery in the State to be incorporated in the constitution. Mr. King objected to this:
“A few days ago, a motion was made to shorten the time during which the remaining slaves within this state should continue to serve their masters, and to declare in the constitution, that slavery does not exist in the state. The consequences of this declaration would be the immediate freedom of these persons. It is known that many of them are old, and that all are without the habits which would enable them to provide for their own subsistence. By the law of the state they will be free in 1827, and, in the meantime, measures may be devised for their support and protection when emancipated; for this reason, and it was a sufficient one, the convention negatived the motion.
“It is now proposed to insert in the constitution a provision confirming the law by which the slaves within this state will be free in 1827. By voting for this provision, those who the other day, voted against immediate emancipation, will manifest their motive, in doing so, to have been in kindness to the slaves, and the provision will also restrain the legislature from prolonging slavery beyond 1827. Nothing concerning slavery is now in the constitution. The votes of those, who with me were opposed to immediate emancipation, require no other explanation than the pernicious effects to the public, as well as to the slaves themselves, of such emancipation. On this account therefore the provision proposed to be inserted in the constitution, is not requisite.
“As to check on the legislature, it is equally unnecessary. The truth and force of public opinion on this subject, is a sufficient restraint on the legislature, and there is therefore no reason to apprehend that the legislature, from any motive, can be prevailed on to postpone the day of emancipation. If a constitutional provision on this subject be not necessary it should not be made, because every act of this character adopted by one of the states, does not fail to excite strong feelings in other states, which in these respects are less happy than ourselves. Against this provision it is moreover urged, that if we omit to mention it in our constitution, it may hereafter be forgotten that slavery once existed in the state. The suggestion may appear to be more specious than solid though it is possible that we may be as fortunate as our ancestors.
“It is now the proud boast of England, that the moment a slave stands on the soil, or breathes her air, he becomes a free man. Yet we are informed that time was when England sold Englishmen into foreign bondage; and that so great was the number of English youths sent for sale to the Irish markets, that Ireland passed a non-importation law to keep them out. If this practice of ancient times be almost sunk in oblivion, does not the circumstance encourage us to hope that the enslaving of black men may hereafter be forgotten; and should we not forbear tot make our constitution a record thereof?
A committee of thirteen was appointed to take into consideration the various propositions relative to the division of the State into senatorial districts. Mr. King was chairman, and in a letter to his son Charles of the 20th says:
“Committee will unanimously report in favor of a division of the state into 8 equal senate districts, so that each district will choose four senators and one of them annually. Perhaps this division of 8 equal districts will be made permanent, and no other power vested in the legislature except to equalize them, but so that continuous territory and the counties be always preserved.”
1. The editor refers for this and other speeches of Mr. King to Reports and Proceeding and Debates of the Convention of 1821, by Carter and Stone.
2. Slavery was in existence in New York until 1827.
3. This was on a motion of Mr. Wheeler, requiring only age and residence as qualifications for electors.
4. Letter from C. Gore to R. King, Sept. 21, 1821.
C. Gore to R. King.
Waltham, Sept. 21, 1821
MY DEAR FRIEND:
I was gratified by your letter from Albany, for although out of the world, I am still interested by what my friends (especially yourself, with whom I bless God I have enjoyed an uninterrupted harmony for now nearly half a century) do in its affairs and in promotion of the public good and their own fame.
I still linger out a painful and useless existence with sufficient disease to smother the little light and intelligence I once possessed and of sufficient force to benumb all those faculties which either give or receive joy without power to end the source of pain and sorrow. I, however, ought not to complain; for I have all the relief that skill can afford, and every attention that the most unbounded affection and most assiduous care can afford. Surely then I ought to bear with patience what I can neither cure nor avoid and from what we are not permitted to escape… Mrs. G. enjoys good health and desires her affectionate regards to you with best wished for your health & happiness.
Faithfully & affectionately your friend
Many other letters show how faithfully and loving he was at this time caring for and watching over his friend’s son, Frederick, who was pursuing his studies at Harvard and who looked up to him and his wife with as much fondness as to his own parents. — EDITOR.