Center for Strategic Communication

John Francis Mercer

John Francis Mercer

Politics is the division of power. Or so it is axiomatic for me.

Politics is also a market in violence-backed assets, with tribute, resource flows captured and secured by violence (or the threat thereof) being the most prized. Most political activity is an attempt to win and hold tributes. Conquest can be seen as an attempt to incorporate foreign political markets in tribute into domestic markets.

As its core currency is violence, politics tends to shift power into those hands that use violent power most effectively to win tribute. Tongue in cheek, I call this the “efficient violence hypothesis”, a play on the efficient market hypothesis.

The role of influence in politics, wearing such hats as legitimization, tradition, or customs, is what constitutes most politics within a polity. Much of this is the “truck, barter, and exchange” of tribute between different networks of influence as they slither ’round each other.

Much of this strikes me as obvious. So obvious that older generations must have sensed something of the sort. In this light, I found two speeches delivered by John Francis Mercer of Maryland at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 interesting. On the subject of how legislators in the future U.S. Constitution were to be paid, Mercer said [as recorded by Little Jemmy and with my smoothing]:

Mr. Mercer: It is a first principle in political science, that wherever the rights of property are secured, an aristocracy will grow out of it. Elective governments also necessarily become aristocratic, because the rulers being few can and will draw emoluments for themselves from the many.

The governments of America will become aristocracies. They are so already. The public measures are calculated for the benefit of the Governors, not of the people. The people are dissatisfied and complain. They change their rulers, and the public measures are changed, but it is only a change of one scheme of emolument to the rulers, for another. The people gain nothing by it, but an addition of instability and uncertainty to their other evils.

Governments can only be maintained by force or influence. The executive has no force. Deprive him of influence by rendering the members of the legislature ineligible to executive offices, and he becomes a mere phantom of authority. The aristocratic part will not even let him in for a share of the plunder.

The legislature must and will be composed of wealth and abilities, and the people will be governed by a Junto. The executive ought to have a council, [composed of] members of both Houses. Without such an influence, the war will be between the aristocracy and the people. [Mercer] wished it to be between the aristocracy and the executive. Nothing else can protect the people against those speculating legislatures which are now plundering them throughout the United States.


Mr. Mercer was extremely anxious on this point. What led to the appointment of this Convention? The corruption and mutability of the legislative councils of the States. If the plan does not remedy these, it will not recommend itself; and we shall not be able in our private capacities to support and enforce it: nor will the best part of our citizens exert themselves for the purpose. It is a great mistake to suppose that the paper we are to propose will govern the United States? It is the men whom it will bring into the government and [their] interest in maintaining it that is to govern them. The paper will only mark out the mode and the form. Men are the substance and must do the business. All government must be by force or influence. It is not the King of France but 200,000 janissaries of power that govern that kingdom. There will be no such force here. Influence then must be substituted and [Mercer] would ask whether this could be done if the members of the Legislature should be ineligible to offices of state, whether such a disqualification would not determine all the most influential men to stay at home, and prefer appointments within their respective States.

The ever amusing Gouverneur Morris made a few remarks worthy of repeat:

Mr. Gouverneur Morris: Exclude the officers of the army and navy [from office], and you form a band having a different interest from and opposed to the civil power: you stimulate them to despise and reproach those “talking Lords who dare not face the foe.” Let this spirit be roused at the end of a war, before your troops shall have laid down their arms, and though the Civil authority “be entrenched in parchment to the teeth” [the officers of the army and navy] will cut their way to it. He was against rendering the members of the Legislature ineligible to [executive branch] offices. He was for rendering them eligible again after having vacated their [congressional] Seats by accepting office. Why should we not avail ourselves of their services if the people choose to give them their confidence? There can be little danger of corruption either among the people or the [State] legislatures who are to be the electors. If they say: “we see their merits, we honor the men, we choose to renew our confidence in them”, have they [the people or legislators] not a right to give them a preference; and can they be properly abridged of it?


Mr. Gouverneur Morris: [raised] the case of a war, and [what if] the citizen most capable of conducting it, happening to be a member of the Legislature> What might have been the consequence of such a regulation at the commencement, or even in the course of the late contest for our liberties?

George Washington had been a member of both the Virginia House of Burgesses and the Second Continental Congress when selected to lead the Continental Army in 1775.

Later still:

Mr. Gouverneur Morris: remarked that if the members [of the House of Representatives] were to be paid by the States it would throw an unequal burden on the distant States, which would be unjust as the [U.S. Congress] was to be a national assembly. [Mr. Gouverneur Morris] moved that the payment [of Congressional salaries] be out of the national treasury; leaving the [amount] to the discretion of the national legislature. There could be no reason to fear that they would overpay themselves.

The result of this debate?

Article I, Section 6:

The Senators and Representatives shall receive a Compensation for their Services, to be ascertained by Law, and paid out of the Treasury of the United States…

No Senator or Representative shall, during the Time for which he was elected, be appointed to any civil Office under the Authority of the United States, which shall have been created, or the Emoluments whereof shall have been encreased during such time; and no Person holding any Office under the United States, shall be a Member of either House during his Continuance in Office.

And a later surprise addition by Little Jemmy long after he passed into the next life.

Amendment 27:

No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.