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Convention: A Daily Journal

Center for Civics Education

Convention: A Daily Journal

Convention: A Daily Journal is a day-by-day journal of the 1787 Constitutional Convention convened by twelve of the original thirteen states to amend the Articles of Confederation and create a “more perfect union.” It chronicles the daily activities of the Convention, profiles the delegates and their interactions with each other, and looks back to life in America in the 1780s. Writing in the first person, the story is told from an “observer” hearing events as told in contemporary newspaper accounts and delegates’ personal notes and letters.

Friday, August 31, 1787

August 31, 2020 - 4 minute read


Today may be considered a landmark in the Convention’s proceedings. Before adjourning, “it was agreed to refer such parts of the Constitution as have been postponed, and such parts of Reports as have not been acted on, to a Committee of a member from each State.” By ballot, the Committee on Postponed Parts appointed Nicholas Gilman (New Hampshire), Rufus King (Massachusetts), Roger Sherman (Connecticut), David Brearley (New Jersey), Gouverneur Morris (Pennsylvania), John Dickinson (Delaware), Daniel Carroll (Maryland), James Madison (Virginia), Hugh Williamson (North Carolina), Pierce Butler (South Carolina), and Alexander Baldwin (Georgia).

However, before getting to that point, several remaining articles of the report of the Committee of Detail had to be considered, including completing the discussion begun yesterday concerning ratification of the new Constitution. It had been agreed that conventions in each State would be held but remaining unresolved is whether States which did not ratify will be included in the new government. Rufus King moved to add to the end of the section on ratification “between the said States,” so as to confine the operation of the government to the States ratifying it. Only Maryland voted “no,” its reasons unrecorded.

Gouverneur Morris moved to strike out “conventions” and let each State pursue its own mode of ratification. By this, he “meant to facilitate the adoption of the plan.” But opposition was formidable. James Madison disagreed and took a practical as well as philosophical approach, reminding his colleagues that “the powers given to the general government” are “being taken from the State governments.” The State legislatures will be more inclined to thwart ratification, he asserted. But Madison also deeply believes that “the people are in fact, the fountain of all power, and by resorting to them, all difficulties are got over.” When the debate concluded, Morris’s motion failed. State Conventions will ratify the Constitution.

The number of States required for the Constitution to go into effect ranged from “nine” to “thirteen” yesterday, with no final decision. Two of Maryland’s delegates, Luther Martin and Daniel Carroll, jointly moved “thirteen” and were soundly defeated. Only Maryland voted “no.” The battle of the numbers finally ended with a vote of 8 – 3 for “nine.” As George Mason explained, “Nine States had been required in all great cases under the Confederation and that number is on that account preferable.” As amended, Article XXI pertaining to ratification was agreed to by all the States, except Maryland. Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer’s “yes” vote was recorded separately from the “no” votes of his Maryland colleagues.

Much of Article XXII has already been discussed, although not formally brought to the floor until now. It provides for the ratification process: the Constitution shall be presented to Congress “for its approbation,” then submitted to a convention in each State. Nearing the end of deliberating the twenty-three articles before them, this subject of ratification invigorated the skeptics. Maryland’s Luther Martin, never a friend of an energic national government, believes the people “will not ratify it unless hurried into it by surprise.” After a while, he said, “the people would be against it.”

Elbridge Gerry, also a vocal critic of the plan before them, but whose frequent questions had actually contributed constructively to the debate, agreed with Martin. He now sees the plan “as full of vices.” He dwelt on “the impropriety of destroying the existing Confederation, without the unanimous consent of the parties to it.” The Convention had just voted that the Constitution will go into effect upon the ratification of nine States. For Gerry, this violated the spirit and letter of the Articles of Confederation which require unanimity.

Opposition is mounting. Even George Mason is having more than second thoughts. He moved to postpone Article XXII, declaring “he would sooner chop off his right hand than put it to the Constitution as it now stands.” He wished “to see some points not yet decided brought to a decision, before being compelled to give a final opinion on this article. Should these points be improperly settled,” he would then desire “to bring the whole subject before another general convention.” Morris agreed, but for quite different reasons. He “had long wished for another convention, that will have the firmness to provide a vigorous government, which we are afraid to do.”

Edmund Randolph broached a new idea. “In case the final form of the Constitution should not permit him to accede to it,” he said, “the State Conventions should be at liberty to propose amendments to be submitted to another General Convention which may reject or incorporate them.” The motion to postpone failed and Article XXII was approved 10 – 1. Maryland again voted “no.”

The Convention has finally arrived at the last recommendation of the report of the Committee of Detail. Article XXIII provides that each assenting State convention should report its ratification to the Confederation Congress. After receiving nine ratifications, Congress should “appoint and publish a day…for commencing proceedings under this Constitution.” State legislatures should then elect Senators and arrange for elections for the House of Representatives. The members of the national legislature should then meet “at the time and place assigned by Congress, and should, as soon as may be, after their meeting, choose the President of the United States and proceed to execute this Constitution.”

Morris moved the strike words pertaining to choosing the President, because at this point, that had not yet been determined. His motion was agreed to 9 – 1 (New Hampshire voting “no”) while the entire article was approved nem. con.

The report of the Committee of Detail fully considered; Roger Sherman moved the creation of the Committee on Postponed Parts. It was agreed to nem. com. – without dissent.

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