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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 8, 1787

June 08, 2020 - 4 minute read

Gunning Bedford

The Virginia Plan, introduced by Gov. Randolph on May 29, proposed that “the National Legislature ought to be empowered to negative all laws passed by the several States, contravening, in the opinion of the National Legislature, the articles of Union.” The next day, after agreeing to add language proposed by Benjamin Franklin, to wit, “or any treaty subsisting under the authority of the union,” the Committee of the Whole approved it “without debate or dissent”

This morning, the Committee agreed to reconsider that vote and thoroughly debate the subject. The debate began when Charles Pinckney moved that “the National Legislature should have authority to negative all laws which they should judge to be improper.” Pinckney contended forcefully that “the States must be kept in due subordination to the nation.”  Appealing to effectiveness and unity, he observed that “this universal negative was in fact the cornerstone of an efficient national government…and the States are more one nation now, than the Colonies were then.” 

When Madison seconded the motion, he drew on the deficiencies of the State governments laid out months earlier in his “Vices of the Political System of the United States.”  Experience, he said, had shown a constant tendency in the States to encroach on the federal authority; to violate national treaties; to infringe the rights and interests of each other; and to oppress the weaker party within their respective jurisdictions.”  A negative could help to prevent “these mischiefs.”  His conclusion referred to comments by John Dickinson during yesterday’s session. “In a word,” he began, “to recur to the illustrations borrowed from the planetary system, this prerogative of the general government is the great pervading principle that must control the centrifugal tendency of the States; which, without it, will continually fly out of their proper orbits and destroy the order and harmony of the political system.”

Pinckney and Madison found support from expected sources. James Wilson quickly dismissed as impractical Roger Sherman’s idea that the cases in which “the negative ought to be exercised” should be defined. He then reminded his colleagues that “among the first sentiments expressed in the first Congress was that Virginia is no more. That Massachusetts is no more, that Pennsylvania is no more. We are now one nation in brethren. We must bury all local interests in distinctions.”  Madison’s notes record that “this language continued for some time.”

Wilson continued, “No sooner were the State Governments formed than their jealousy and ambition began to display themselves. Each endeavored to cut a slice from the common loaf, to add to its own morsel, till at length the confederation became frittered down to the important condition in which now it stands.” Finally, he concluded, “to correct its vices is the business of this convention. One of its vices is the want of an effectual control in the whole over its parts.”

This time, John Dickinson agreed with Wilson, his former student: “We must either subject the States to the danger of being injured by the power of the National Government, or the latter to the danger of being injured by that of the States.” For Dickinson, “the danger is greater from the States.”

Gunning Bedford was both astonished and alarmed. Bedford and Dickinson both represent Delaware, an early advocate for a convention to amend the Articles of Confederation. It had selected its delegates in early February, “fully convinced of the necessity of revising the Federal Constitution…and being willing and desirous of co-operating with the Commonwealth of Virginia and the other States.” However, it bound its delegates to support continuation of the current Article providing that “each State shall have one vote.”

Bedford aimed his barbs directly at Dickinson. “Where would be the danger to the States of this power?” he asked incredulously. Referring Dickinson “to the smallness of our own State,” he warned it “may be injured at pleasure without redress.”  The motion before them he found, “is meant to strip the small States of their equal right of suffrage. In this case Delaware would have about 1/90 for its share in the General Councils, whilst Pennsylvania and Virginia would possess 1/3 of the whole…Will not these large States crush the small ones whenever they stand in the way of their ambitions or interested views?”

Bedford also questioned how the proposed negative would be exercised. Are State laws to be suspended until they can be sent seven or eight hundred miles and “undergo the deliberations of a body who may be incapable of judging them? Is the National Legislature to sit continually in order to revise the laws of the States?” Bedford was joined by Pierce Butler (S. Carolina) who was “vehement” against the State legislatures having the power to negative State laws. It could “cut off all hope of equal justice to the distant States.” The proposal failed 3 – 7 – 1 with Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia in favor of the proposal, and Delaware divided.

William Pierce’s notes describe Bedford as “about 32 years old, and very corpulent.”  He is a lawyer, Pierce continues, “and in his profession, I am told, has merit.  He is a bold and nervous speaker and has a very commanding and striking manner – but he is warm and impetuous in his temper, and precipitate in his judgment.” Born in Philadelphia, Bedford graduated with honors from the College of New Jersey where James Madison was a classmate. After studying law in his hometown, he moved to Dover, Delaware, with his wife and set up a successful law practice. A former attorney general of Delaware and current member of the Confederacy Congress, he is a strident advocate for the small States.

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