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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 29, 1787

June 29, 2020 - 4 minute read

Poor Richard's Almanac & Benjamin Franklin

There is no equal to Benjamin Franklin for humor, wit, and sound advice for everyday living. Since Franklin began publishing Poor Richard’s Almanac in 1732, his quips have become legendary and oft quoted. His obituary for a child’s pet squirrel named Skugg is a mainstay of children’s rhyme. “Here lies Skugg,” he wrote, “snug as a bug in a rug.” His advice runs from “a penny saved is a penny earned” to “there are no gains, without pains.”

In Franklin’s Way to Wealth, he expanded on an old proverb, using one word as a metaphor for a “small detail.” “For the want of a nail, the shoe was lost;” he began. “For the want of a shoe, the horse was lost; for the want of a horse, the rider was lost; for the want of a rider, the battle was lost; for the want of a battle, the kingdom was lost, and all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.” “Nail,” a small, inconsequential word until placed in a larger context and consequence.

Today, the Constitutional Convention devoted nearly all of its time debating a motion presented yesterday that centers on one small, but very consequential word - “not.” The first phrase of the seventh resolution of the Committee report proposes “that the rights of suffrage in the first branch of the national legislature ought not to be according to the rule established in the Articles of Confederation.” New York’s John Lansing and New Jersey’s Jonathan Dayton simply proposed “to strike the word ‘not’ out of the first phrase of the seventh resolution,” in effect reversing the intent of the Committee report proposing proportional representation.

For days, both sides have exhaustively advanced their positions with little progress toward a mutually acceptable solution. Dr. William Johnson was the first to speak, the bitter division weighing heavily on him. “The controversy must be endless whilst gentlemen differ in the grounds of their arguments,” he said. “Those on one side considering the States as districts of people composing one political society, those on the other considering them as so many political societies.” Perhaps both sides have a point. Perhaps “instead of being opposed to each other, [they] ought to be combined; that in one branch the people ought to be represented; in the other, the States.”

Nathaniel Gorham asked the Convention to consider which States would be harmed the most if the Confederation were to fall apart. “A rupture of the union would be an event unhappy for all, but surely the large States would be least unable to take care of themselves, and to make connections with one another.” The small States, he declared, would be the “most interested in establishing some general system for maintaining order.”

James Madison picked up on this. If the Confederacy fails and each State would need to “depend on itself for its security from distant powers or from neighboring States,” he said, the result could be “fatal to the internal liberty of all.” The weaknesses of the small States could easily induce them to “introduce some regular military force against sudden danger from their powerful neighbors.” In time of war, great discretionary powers are given to the executive. “The means of defense against foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home…Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.” Only because Great Britain in an island, less vulnerable to invasion, has it been “an exception to the general fate of Europe.”

Gorham drilled down to a specific case. What would be the situation of Delaware if the union dissolved? Would she not be at the mercy of Pennsylvania? Or would her true interest not lie in consolidating with Pennsylvania? Consolidation would “put it out of the power of Pennsylvania to oppress her.” What about Massachusetts? It was “originally three colonies – the old Massachusetts, Plymouth, and the province of Maine. The same apprehensions existed then” but now “all parties are safe and satisfied.”

The case was “similar with Connecticut and New Haven, as well as New Jersey which was “made one society out of two parts.” Should a separation of States take place, Gorham warned, “the fate of New Jersey would be worst of all. She has no foreign commerce and can have but little. Pennsylvania and New York will continue to levy taxes on her consumption.”

Alexander Hamilton added a new perspective. “It has been said,” he began, “that if the smaller States renounce their equality, they renounce at the same time their liberty. The truth is, it is a contest for power, not for liberty.” Will those “composing the small States be less free than those composing the larger?” he asked. No, they will “lose power,” but they will not be “less free.” Moreover, if the union falls, “alliances will immediately be formed with different rival and hostile nations of Europe who will foment disturbances among ourselves and make us parties to all their own quarrels.”

To those who argued in days past that the object of our government should be “domestic tranquility and happiness at home,” Hamilton warned that “no government could give us tranquility and happiness at home which did not possess sufficient stability and strength to make us respectable abroad.”

Before the vote was taken on “striking the word ‘out’ from the seventh resolution,” Elbridge Gerry “lamented that instead of coming here like a band of brothers, belonging to the same family, we seem to have brought with us the spirit of political negotiators.” William Pierce agreed, still seeking the common good while stating, “’tho from a small State, he feels himself a citizen of the United States.” The motion failed 4 – 6 – 1. The next controversy looming is whether suffrage in the second branch should be the same as the first branch.

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