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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, July 27, 1787

July 27, 2020 - 4 minute read

Charleston Firemen Saluting the Old Flag

Beginning with the introduction of the Virginia Plan by Edmund Randolph on May 25, delegates from twelve of the thirteen States have considered how to achieve the task placed on them by the Continental Congress, “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation…to render the federal constitution adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the Union.” From the outset, delegates from small States have been single-minded in their efforts to protect themselves from large States, prompting William Paterson to introduce the New Jersey Plan two weeks later, an alternative to that proposed by Randolph. 

The deadlock between the small and large States was finally broken by the Great Compromise on July 16 when the Convention voted for proportional representation in the first branch of government and equality of States in the second branch. Weeks of debate revealed other divisions – commercial against agrarian interests, northern versus southern States, those who trust “the people” and those who do not. The issue of slavery has influenced some decisions, including those regarding representation, but has not yet been addressed directly or to its full extent.

After weeks of deliberation, dozens of votes, and numerous votes to reconsider previous votes, the Committee of Detail is now charged with arranging all of this into a workable, comprehensible arrangement, or as George Washington put it, “to draw into method and form the several matters which had been agreed to by the Convention as a Constitution for the United States.” Members of the Committee were elected by ballot and consist of Edmund Randolph of Virginia, James Wilson of Pennsylvania, John Rutledge of South Carolina, Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts, and Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut. 

The Committee is geographically balanced, each section of the country represented from the deep south to the heart of New England in the north. All but Gorham are attorneys and know each other from their service in the Continental Congress. Rutledge and Wilson are so well acquainted that Rutledge stayed at Wilson’s home when he first arrived in Philadelphia. In Convention, they were both instrumental in devising the three-fifths compromise for representation.

All of them are staunch nationalists, except Ellsworth, a strong proponent of States’ rights who had assisted in achieving equality of States in the second branch of the legislature. But even Ellsworth has evolved to understanding the need for a stronger government. Each has been a leader in the Convention and enjoys the confidence of their colleagues. 

History will record their future contributions to the new Republic. John Randolph will become the nation’s first Attorney General, while Wilson, Ellsworth and Rutledge will be appointed as Supreme Court Justices, although with a twist. In 1795, future President George Washington will nominate Rutledge to succeed John Jay as Chief Justice of the United States. Rutledge will take office as a recess appointment, but when the Senate reconvenes, it will deny his confirmation, primarily over his opposition to a treaty. Rutledge will be succeeded as Chief Justice by Oliver Ellsworth.

Gorham ably chaired the Committee of the Whole as it deliberated the Virginia and New Jersey Plans; now John Rutledge will chair the Committee of Detail. The Rutledge family was already a South Carolina dynasty when John became a member of that State’s legislature in 1761 at the age of twenty-one. He had studied law at the Middle Temple in London and managed the family estate as his law practice and reputation began to take old. At twenty-five, he was appointed the State’s attorney general. In the meantime, he married Elizabeth Grimke who bore him ten children, the youngest son strangely named States.

From the beginning, Rutledge was a patriot, attending the Stamp Act Congress in New York in 1765, heading the South Carolina delegation to the First Continental Congress, chairing the committee that drafted his State’s constitution in 1776, and commanding the State’s militia. Under the new constitution, Rutledge was promptly elected president. 

In mid-June 1776, British forces were positioned off Sullivan’s island, just outside Charleston, preparing to fire on Col. William Moultrie’s troops at Fort Sullivan. Sullivan’s island was a spit of land at the entrance to Charleston Harbor, ideal for protecting the city from enemy warships, but the fort was only half constructed. When Major Gen. Charles Lee, appointed by Congress to command the southern Continental Army, arrived in Charleston with reinforcements, he surveyed the fort and the island, ordering an immediate evacuation. It would be folly to waste resources on a partially constructed “slaughter-pen.” A British attack would last only thirty minutes and South Carolina soldiers would be massacred. 

Rutledge thought otherwise, sending a brief written message to Moultrie. “General Lee wishes you to evacuate,” he wrote. “You will not do it without an order from me.  I would sooner cut off my hand than write one.” On June 28, British battleships pounded Fort Sullivan for nine grueling hours, but with little success – the walls of the fort were fortified with palmetto logs whose spongy nature absorbed the force of the cannonballs rather than exploding. The British withdrew its expedition force and did not return to South Carolina until 1780. Since that day, South Carolina has been known as the Palmetto State.

Rutledge continued as President of South Carolina until 1778, the year the legislature proposed a new constitution. When Rutledge vetoed it, believing it was too close to “direct democracy,” and the legislature overrode his veto, he resigned. The constitution was then  revised, and Rutledge reelected as President.  When Charleston finally fell to the British in 1780, Rutledge’s property was confiscated, and he narrowly avoided capture by escaping to North Carolina. Rutledge remained governor until 1782 when his brother-in-law, John Matthews, succeeded him.

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