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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, June 22, 1787

June 22, 2020 - 4 minute read

1781 Dime

Delegates to the Constitutional Convention continue to meet at 11:00 each morning, six days a week, for about five hours. Future generations will imagine them in their waist coats, breeches and stockings, some with powdered hair or hair pulled back in a queue, sitting around tables covered with green baize cloth, standing and rising, hands gesturing in the air as they debate the weighty issues which will decide the future of the United States.  

But these are just men, faced with the mundane cares of everyday life. John Lansing records in his diary that today he “did not attend Convention, being indisposed.” Last evening William Blount wrote home, noting the “necessity for more money to be remitted to me.” Earlier, the North Carolina delegates wrote to Governor Caswell with a request for “an additional draught for two months to cover expenses.” Several delegates have brought their wives to Philadelphia, but most must be content to exchange letters from home and manage businesses, farms, and plantations from a distance.

The minutes of today’s meeting of the Philadelphia Street Commission provide another small glimpse into the daily lives of the men during their stay in Philadelphia. The Commission approved payment to Michael Wartman “for the sum of fifteen pounds on account of work with his teams at the common sewer on Fourth Street.” It also responded to a “complaint to this Board of the very great difficulty arising from the carriages passing in front of the State House, so that the Honorable Convention now sitting there, are much interrupted by the noise of the same.” To remedy the problem, the Commission “resolved that a quantity of gravel now hauling out of the sewer in Fourth Street, be laid on Chestnut Street, in front of the State House.” That’s one way to reduce carriage noise!

Coincidentally, today the Convention addressed one of these issues, namely, compensation for public service. The third resolve of the plan before them proposes that members of the first branch “receive fixed stipends to be paid out of the national treasury.” To the contrary, Oliver Ellsworth proposed that State legislatures pay for the representatives of their own States. “Observing that the manners of different States are very different in the style of living and in the profits accruing from the exercise of like talents,” he said, “what would be deemed a reasonable compensation in some States, in others would be very unpopular.” 

Hugh Williamson agreed and reminded his colleagues of “the prospect of new States to the westward.” They would be poor, he said, and “pay little into the common treasury.” In addition, “they would have a different interest from the old States,” and he did not think “the latter ought to pay the expenses of men who would be employed in thwarting their measures and interests.” 

James Madison took exception to Williamson’s remarks, “particularly the policy suggested by Mr. Williamson of leaving members from the poor States beyond the mountains to the precarious and parsimonious support of their constituents.” Whatever method of compensation, he declared, “if western States should be admitted into the Union, they ought to be considered as equals and brethren.”

Rufus King opposes national representatives being compensated by the States legislatures. It would be unwise, he said, to create “a dependency on the States.” John Randolph agreed, arguing that “a dependence would be created that would vitiate the whole system.” Alexander Hamilton summarized their position more dramatically. “Those who pay,” he cautioned, “are the masters of those who are paid.” Moreover, he continued, “Payment by the States would be unequal as the distant States would have to pay for the same term of attendance and more days in traveling to the seat of government.”

The issue of a “fixed stipend” is another matter. Should there be a “fixed stipend” and, if so, who should set it? Nathaniel Gorham adamantly opposes leaving the issue to the State legislatures who “were always pairing down salaries.” The result would be “keeping out of office men most capable.” King was the only delegate to favor fixed compensation, “supposing it would be best to be explicit as to the compensation to be allowed.” But he was not strongly for it and arguments against were compelling. Wilson argued the obvious, that “as circumstances would change” there would be a “call for a change of the amount.” Gorham preferred leaving it to the national legislature to “provide for their own wages from time to time, as the State legislatures do.”

James Madison leans toward setting a fixed compensation, but one that could be flexible and “might be done by taking a standard which would not vary with circumstances.” Sherman contended for “referring both the quantum and the payment of it to the State Legislatures.” At every step, Sherman continues to be a States’ rights advocate.

At the end of the day, despite several motions made and defeated, neither of these issues was resolved. The only progress made was substituting “adequate substitution” for “fixed stipends.” It passed

Finally, a brief exchange of views centered on the allowable age for members of the first branch of the legislature. George Mason proposed twenty-five years. Recalling his own youth, he admitted, “that his political opinions at the age of twenty-one were too crude and erroneous to merit an influence on public measures.” It has been said, he continued, “that Congress had proved a good school for our young men. It might be so, but if it were, he would choose that they should bear the expense of their own education.”

Only Wilson objected, saying the motion “tended to damp the efforts of genius and laudable ambition. There is no more reason for incapacitating youth than age.” Mason’s motion passed 7 – 3 – 1, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Georgia voting “nay, New York divided. 

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