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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.

July 8, 1788

September 27, 2021 - 4 minute read

George Clinton Painting

News that New Hampshire had ratified the Constitution on June 21, thereby becoming the ninth and final State necessary for adoption of the Constitution, did not reach Richmond, Virginia until June 28, three days after Virginia made the same decision. Just before dawn a hundred miles away, an express rider brought the news to Alexandria, near to George Washington’s Mount Vernon home, prompting Washington to write to his old comrade-in-arms, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. 

For Washington, as with many battle-worn patriots, dates and days long past were seared in their memories. After relating to Pinckney Virginia’s decision to ratify, Washington “recollected that this day is the anniversary of the battles of Sullivan’s Island and Monmouth.” Nevertheless, Washington agreed to attend a festive entertainment celebrating Virginia’s decision in favor of the Constitution and shared his optimism with Pinckney. “I think we may rationally indulge the pleasing hope that the Union will now be established on a durable basis,” he wrote, “and that Providence seems still disposed to favour the members of it, with unequalled opportunities for political happiness.”

The next day an express rider set off for Poughkeepsie, New York, to deliver news of Virginia’s ratification to delegates meeting in New York’s ratifying convention. In the meantime, Washington was concerned about his friend James Madison. 

Madison had arrived in Philadelphia in early May,1787, two weeks prior to the Constitutional Convention, after having spent weeks devising a plan which was eventually introduced by Edmund Randolph as the Virginia Plan and became the foundation for the Convention’s deliberations. Madison participated vigorously in the debates and kept the most extensive records of that event.

From the day the Constitutional Convention adjourned on September 17, Madison had labored unceasingly in the effort to secure ratification of the Constitution. While still representing Virginia in the Confederation Congress, he collaborated with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay to write The Federalist, a series of eighty-five essays designed to explain and advocate for the new plan of government. At the Virginia convention the burden of parrying against the imposing personality and first-rate oratory of Patrick Henry fell to Madison. According to one observer, “Mr. Madison is the one who, among all the delegates, carried the votes of the two parties. He was always clear, precise, and consistent in his reasoning and always methodical and pure in his language.” 

Bushrod Washington, George Washington’s nephew, wrote that Madison defended the Constitution “with force of reasoning and a display of such irresistible truths that opposition quitted the field.” Anti-Constitutionalist James Monroe reported to Thomas Jefferson that “Madison took the principal share in the debate.” Perhaps no one expressed Madison’s contribution better than Archibald Stuart, a delegate to the Virginia convention who observed daily Madison’s indefatigable efforts. “Madison came boldly forward and supported the Constitution with the soundest reason and most manly eloquence I have heard,” he wrote to a friend. “He understands his subject well and his whole soul is engaged in its success, and it appeared to me he would have flashed conviction into every mind.”

On June 9, Madison wrote to Hamilton and Rufus King complaining of a “bilious attack” that had laid him up for two days and was still keeping him from the convention. On June 16, he had a relapse, writing to Hamilton that “my health is not good, and the business is wearisome beyond expression.” On several occasions David Robertson, the convention’s recorder, noted that Madison’s voice was weak, “too low to be heard.” 

Maintaining constant communications with Washington, sometimes drafting two letters in a single day, on June 13 Madison had apologized for not writing for several days. “For two reasons,” he wrote, one being “a bilious indisposition which confined me for some days.”

On June 23, two days before Virginia ratified and while the decision was still hanging in the balance, Washington responded to Madison. “”I hear with real concern of your disposition,” he wrote. “I understood that you intended to proceed immediately from Richmond, when the Convention shall have arisen. Relaxation must have become indispensably necessary for your health, and for that reason I presume to advise you to take a little respite from business and to express a wish that part of the time might be spent under this roof on your journey thither.”  He advised that “moderate exercise, and books, occasionally, with the mind unbent, will be your best restoratives,” and closed with an affectionate assurance that “no one will be happier in your company than your sincere & affect. Servt.”

Madison accepted Washington’s invitation and arrived at Mount Vernon on July 4. For the next several days, Washington’s diary, generally a robust account of his activities for the day, contained almost no information, except for entries such as “Mr. Madison and Doctr. Suart, with a son of Mr. Willm. Lee, arrived from Richmond” and “I remained at home all day with Mr. Madison.” On July 8, Madison left for New York to return to the Confederation Congress, now charged with implementing the Constitution. Establishing the new government would require determining dates for choosing Electors who would elect the President and determining when and where the new government would convene.

New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island had not yet ratified, nor was their assent assured. Rhode Island had refused to participate in the Constitutional Convention and even decided not to hold a ratification convention. North Carolina’s convention was scheduled to convene in July. New York had begun its convention on June 17, and elected Governor George Clinton as its President. Clinton was as opposed to the Constitution as Patrick Henry had been in Virginia - and Madison was now wending his way to New York.

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