Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
(?-1899)
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First Pub. Date
1881
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
Pub. Date
1899
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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CONVENTION OF 1787

I.302.1

CONVENTION OF 1787, The (IN U. S. HISTORY). The fatal defects of the confederacy (see CONFEDERATION. ARTICLES OF) had become obvious even during the long space of time between its adoption by congress and its ratification by all the states. In 1780 Hamilton, then a young man of 23, stated elaborately, in a private letter, the evils of the existing government and the necessity of its reformation by a convention of all the states. In May, 1781, the first public proposal of this means of revisal was made by Pelatiah Webster in a pamphlet. In the summer of 1782 the legislature of New York, and in 1785 the legislature of Massachusetts, by resolution recommended such a convention. But even after the convention had been called, congress only approved of it at the last moment, impelled thereto by the failure of the impost plan of 1786, which New York alone refused to ratify. The hesitation of congress had reason. The only method of amendment allowable by the articles of confederation was a unanimous concurrence of the states; but, as the evils of the confederacy became more glaring, the flat impossibility of unanimity among the states became more evident. If such a convention was merely to recommend changes, it must act as a body of private persons, and its recommendations could have no legal or official weight except through the approval of congress. If its recommendations were to be adopted by the ratification of all the states, the convention could plainly do no more than congress had repeatedly and vainly done. If its recommendations were to be adopted by a smaller number than all the states, then plainly a real, though peaceable, revolution was to be accomplished, and this was the final result.

I.302.2

—In the spring of 1785 the legislatures of Virginia and Maryland, in the exercise of their plenary power to regulate commerce, had appointed commissioners to lay down joint rules for the navigation of the Potomac. Washington's attention was fixed on the matter, and in March, during a visit to Mount Vernon, a plan was concerted by the commissioners for the general commercial regulation of the Chesapeake bay and its tributaries. As this was a subject of general interest, it naturally grew into a resolution, which was passed by the Virginia legislature, Jan. 21, 1786, appointing eight commissioners to meet delegates from the other states at Annapolis, in the following September, to consider the trade of the United States and its proper regulation, and report to the states. Five states (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia) sent delegates to the meeting; four others appointed delegates who failed to attend; and the other four made no appointments. Representing a minority of the states, the delegates merely reported that the defective system of the general government absolutely prevented any hope of a proper regulation of trade, and recommended another convention for the single object of devising improvements in the government. As the report cautiously provided that the improvements were to be ratified by the legislatures of all the states, congress could properly sanction the proposed convention, and did so, Feb. 21, 1787. May 14 had been appointed for the meeting of the convention, but a quorum of seven states was not secured until May 25, when George Washington, who had with extreme difficulty been induced to act as delegate from Virginia, was made president.

I.302.3

—The list of delegates (55 during all the four months' sittings) will be found under the article CONSTITUTION. They represented the conservative intelligence of the country very exactly; from this class there is hardly a name, except that of Jay, which could be suggested to complete the list. Of the destructive element, that which can point out defects but can not remedy them, which is eager to tear down but inapt to build up, it would be difficult to name a representative in the convention; and as the debates were wisely made secret, this element had no power, during the convention's four months' session, of influencing its action, or exaggerating its difficulties. Of these difficulties the first was the balancing of the opposing ideas of the large states and the small states, and the second and third were created by the opposite feelings of the two sections, north and south, on the subject of commerce and the slave trade. In short, the task of the convention was to frame such a plan of government as should induce two almost distinct nations, one with six, and the other with seven, separate constituent commonwealths, to unite into one representative republic; and the secret and method of its success will be found under the article COMPROMISES.

I.302.4

—May 25, seven states were represented (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina); May 28, Massachusetts and Connecticut, May 31, Georgia, and June 2, Maryland, had competent representatives present; but New Hampshire had no delegates present until July 23. Rhode Island was not represented at all. A more fortunate union of accidents for even-handed compromise could hardly have been imagined. The "large" states (see COMPROMISES, I.) had, through all the preliminary debates, a majority of six to five, large enough to insure a general run of success in nationalizing the new government, but not so large as to obviate the necessity of deference to the minority.

I.302.5

—In the proceedings of the convention the nationalizing party was first in the field. Hardly had the convention been organized, and rules adopted, when, May 29, Edmund Randolph, of Virginia, presented the Virginia plan, designed to establish "a more energetic government," and reduce the "idea of states" to a minimum. It consisted of 15 resolutions, in substance as follows. 1. That the articles of confederation should be corrected and enlarged. 2. That the representation in both branches of congress should be proportioned to the quotas of contribution, or to population. 3. That congress should have two branches. 4. That the first branch [representatives] should be chosen by the people. 5. That the second branch [senate] should be chosen by the representatives out of a number of nominations by the state legislatures. 6. That congress, besides the powers of the confederacy, should legislate wherever state legislation might interrupt the harmony of the United States [that is, as to commerce, taxation, etc.], should have a veto power on state laws, and should coerce delinquent states. 7. That congress should choose the executive. 8. That the executive, with a part of the judiciary, should have a limited veto on acts of congress. 9. That a judiciary should be formed. 10. That new states should be admitted. 11. That the United States should guarantee a republican government to each state. 12. That all the obligations of the confederacy should be assumed. 13. That provision should be made for amendments. 14. That members of state governments should be bound by oath to support the new government. 15. That the new constitution should be ratified, not by the state governments, but by popular conventions. Charles Pinckney, of South Carolina, the same day submitted a draft of a constitution in 16 articles, which, as printed, follows the general idea of the Virginia plan, but agrees in so many particulars with the constitution as finally adopted that it is probable that it was altered as the debates proceeded.

I.302.6

—May 30, the convention, in committee of the whole, took up the Virginia plan, and continued the examination of each resolution in turn until June 13, when the plan, in 19 resolutions, was reported favorably to the convention. The main changes produced by the debate had been, that a national government ought to be established; that the representatives should hold office for three years, and the senators (chosen directly by state legislatures) for seven years; that the power of coercing delinquent states should not be granted, that the executive should consist of one person, elected for seven years and ineligible the second time; and that the executive alone should possess the veto power. The next day a request was made for adjournment, as a federal, or league, system was in preparation. It was offered the following day, June 15, by William Paterson, of New Jersey, and was therefore generally known as the Jersey plan. It was in substance as follows: 1. That the articles of confederation should be revised, corrected and enlarged. 2. That congress [remaining still a single body] should be given the additional powers of taxation and regulation of commerce. 3. That the system of requisitions should be continued, with power in congress to enforce their collection in delinquent states. 4. That congress should choose the executive. 5. That a judiciary should be established. 6. That members of state governments should be bound by oath to support the constitution. 7. That acts of congress and treaties should be "the supreme law of the respective states," "anything in the respective laws of the individual states to the contrary notwithstanding;" and that the executive should coerce refractory states or individuals. 8. That new states should be admitted. 9. That provision should be made for deciding state disputes as to territory. 10. That naturalization should be uniform. 11. That citizens of a state, committing crimes in another state, should be punished by the state whose peace had been broken. June 16, the convention again went into committee of the whole on both plans, and, June 19, reported the inadmissibility of the Jersey plan and an adherence to the Virginia plan. During the debate, June 18, Alexander Hamilton, of New York, objecting very strongly to the Jersey plan, as a continuation of the vicious state sovereignty of the confederation, and almost as strongly to the Virginia plan, as only (to use his own phrase) "pork still, with a little change of the sauce," proposed a plan of his own, whose main features were that the assembly [representatives] were to be chosen by the people for three years, the senate to be chosen for life by electors chosen by the people, and the governor [president] to be chosen for life by electors, chosen by electors, chosen by the people; and that the state governors should be appointed by the federal government, and should have an absolute, not a limited, veto on the acts of their state legislatures. His plan was "praised by everybody, and supported by none."

I.302.7

—Until July 23 the convention was busy in debating the 19 resolutions referred to it, and in compromising (see COMPROMISES, I., II.) the opposite views of its members. July 24, its proceedings and compromises, Pinckney's plan, and the Jersey plan, were given to a "committee of detail," consisting of five members, and July 26, three new resolutions were given to the same committee, and the convention adjourned until August 6, when the committee of detail reported a draft of a constitution, in 23 articles. This draft, in essentials, begins already to bear a strong resemblance to the present constitution, in which, however, the 23 articles are consolidated into 7. In the draft the preamble read, "we, the people of" the several states (naming them in order). By its ninth article the senate was made a court to try disputes between states as to territory. (See CONFEDERATION, ARTICLES OF, IX.) By other articles the president, with the title of "His Excellency," was to be chosen by congress for seven years, and not eligible for a second term, and was to be impeachable by the house of representatives and tried by the supreme court; and there was no provision for a vice-president, the senate choosing its own president. During the debate on the draft, which lasted for over a month, the third great compromise, giving to congress complete control over commerce, and to Georgia and South Carolina in return 20 years' continuance of the slave trade (see COMPROMISES, III.), was adopted; the vice-president's office was created; the electoral system was introduced (see ELECTORS); and the fugitive slave clause added to article IV. Sept. 12, the amended draft was given to a committee of five, Gouverneur Morris, Johnson, Hamilton, Madison and King, for revision of its style and arrangement. In the committee, by common consent, the work was intrusted mainly to Morris, who could therefore fairly claim, nearly 30 years afterward, that "That instrument [the constitution] was written by the fingers which write this letter."

I.302.8

—Sept. 13, the constitution was reported to the convention very nearly in its present form. Some few changes were made; the three-fourths vote required to pass bills over the veto was changed to a two-thirds vote; the method of amendment by general convention was added; and a motion for a bill of rights was lost by a tie vote. Several propositions for new articles were voted down, as introduced too late in the day. The convention then settled on a rule which, however necessary, was to hazard most seriously the adoption of its work. It voted down a proposition for a new convention, to consider the amendments which might be proposed by the states, thus throwing down the gage of battle to the destructive element, and forcing upon the states the alternative of unconditional adoption or rejection of the constitution as it came from the convention's hands. The consequences were at once apparent. Many delegates, such as Randolph, Gerry and Mason, who had entered the convention with the most angry antipathy to the state sovereignty of the confederacy, were now taken aback by a complete view of the very national system which had grown up under their fingers. In spite of an urgent appeal from Washington, and a dexterous suggestion of Dr Franklin that the constitution should be signed only as "Done in Convention by the unanimous consent of the States present," without expressing any approval of it, 16 of the 55 delegates who had personally attended refused or neglected to sign it. Of these, two, Yates and Lansing, of the three New York delegates, had left the convention in disgust, July 5, on the adoption of the first compromise. A list of the delegates who signed the constitution, of those who did not sign, and of those who did not attend, will be found under the article CONSTITUTION. Sept. 17, having by resolution requested the congress of the confederacy to submit the constitution to popular state conventions, and to provide for putting it into effect when ratified, the convention adjourned finally.

I.302.9

—The constitution, the resolutions of the convention, and a letter from Washington, its president, were transmitted to the congress of the confederacy, then in session, and that body, Sept. 28, by resolution unanimously passed, directed copies of these papers to be sent to the state legislatures, to be submitted to state conventions. (For their proceedings see CONSTITUTION, II.)

I.302.10

—No attempt has been made to give any details of the extended and voluminous debates of the convention, but they constitute an essential part of its history. In the debates the leaders of the nationalizing party were Hamilton, Madison, King, Wilson and Gouverneur Morris; of the decentralizing, or state rights, party, Lansing, Yates, Patterson, Luther Martin and Bedford; of those who began with the former, and ended with the latter, Gerry, Mason and Randolph; and of the shifting vote, which, with a natural bent one way or the other, was always anxious for conciliation and compromise, Franklin, Johnson, Sherman, Ellsworth and the two Pinckneys.

I.302.11

—The injunction of secrecy laid upon the debates and proceedings was never removed. The last act of the convention was a resolution that its papers should be left with Washington, subject to the order of the new congress, if ever formed under the constitution. March 19, 1796, Washington deposited in the state department three manuscript volumes; the first (in 153 pages) being the journal, the second (in 28 pages) the proceedings in committee of the whole, and the third (in 8 pages) the yeas and nays. The whole was published, with additions from Madison's notes, by the state department in October, 1819.

I.302.12

—See 1 Hamilton's Life of Hamilton. 284; 3 Hildreth's United States, 477, 482; 3 Hamilton's United States, 520; 9 Washington's Writings, 509; 2 Marshall's Life of Washington, 105; 2 Rives' Life of Madison; 1 Curtis' History of the Constitution, 341; 1 Elliot's Debates, 116, (Report of the Annapolis Convention); 2 Hamilton's Works, 336, 409; 12 Journals of Congress (edit. 1800), 15; Story's Commentaries, § 272; 2 Curtis' History of the Constitution; Jameson's Constitutional Convention; Journal of the Convention of 1787; Yates' Secret Proceedings of the Convention; 5 Elliot's Debates (Madison Papers); 3 Sparks' Life of Gouverneur Morris, 323; H. B. Dawson's The Federalist (Introduction), and Jay's Letters in answer.

ALEXANDER JOHNSTON.

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