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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.

June 10, 1788

August 16, 2021 - 4 minute read

Three Cents Note

Ratification of the Constitution by Virginia was by no means guaranteed.  Patrick Henry, George Mason, Richard Henry Lee, James Monroe, Benjamin Harrison, John Tyler, Sr., and William Grayson, luminaries in Virginia’s political constellation, had announced their opposition to the Constitution. Each had been active in the Patriotic drive for independence and would continue to provide leadership in Virginia and the United States for years into the future. Henry, Harrison, and Tyler had served as governors of Virginia. Harrison’s son, William Henry Harrison, would become the ninth President of the United States and the first to die while in office, succumbing to a severe bout of pneumonia after only 31 days as President.

John Tyler, Sr. was the father of President John Tyler, who would succeed William Henry Harrison upon Harrison’s death in 1841. He will become the first Vice President to assume the office of President without being elected to it, earning the sobriquet “His Accidency.” 

Richard Henry Lee and William Grayson will be the first to represent Virginia in the United States Senate when the new government under the Constitution convenes in 1789. Grayson had represented Virginia in the Confederation Congress and helped to assure passage of the Northwest Ordinance, including the provision that forbade slavery in the Northwest Territories. He will serve in the Senate for only one year, becoming the first member of Congress to die while in office. James Monroe will be selected to complete Grayson’s term and later serve as President of the United States from 1817 – 1825.

Serving as the United States minister to France, Thomas Jefferson also harbored deep misgivings about the Constitution and had been making his views known through letters to leaders in more than one State, including his friend and confidante, James Madison.  Writing to Madison in December 1787, Jefferson had listed those parts of the Constitution with which he agreed, then continued, “I will now add what I do not like.”

Jefferson’s first criticism was “the omission of a bill of rights providing clearly and without the aid of sophisms for freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, restrictions against monopolies, the eternal and unremitting force of the habeas corpus laws, and trials by jury.”  To this he added his concern that the Constitution did not provide sufficiently for rotation in office, “and most particularly in the case of the President.”

Jefferson noted that he was “not a friend to a very energetic government,” but his reservations could be overcome. He placed his faith in the people, adding that “it was his hope that the education of the people will be attended to; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.” 

If the foes of the Constitution constituted a formidable opposition, it was matched by an equally impressive team of rivals – James Madison, Edmund Pendleton, George Nicholas, “Light Horse Harry” Lee, and John Marshall.  Madison had drafted the initial plan presented by Edmund Randolph at the Constitutional Convention.  Known as the Virginia Plan, it had formed the basis of the Convention’s deliberations.  With Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, Madison had authored pro-Constitution essays already known as “The Federalist” and circulated in book form before the Virginia ratifying convention had convened. When Randolph switched sides and threw his support to the Constitution on June 4, the pro-Constitution team was strengthened. As the sitting governor, his opinion was significant.  Later, President George Washington will appoint him as the nation’s first Attorney General.

Edmund Pendleton, a respected lawyer and judge, had served as President of the Virginia Convention which endorsed independence. Elected as the first Speaker of Virginia’s House of Delegates, he was now sitting as President of the ratification convention. Like Pendleton, John Marshall was an attorney and already well regarded for his intellect and ability at the law. Later, he will be appointed as fourth Chief Justice of the United States and preside for thirty-four years over some the nation’s most important constitutional cases. 

Among lesser known, but equally influential, advocates for the Constitution, was George Nicolas. An attorney and close friend of James Madison, Nicholas was not only an effective ally during the Virginia ratifying convention but will exercise significant leadership in Kentucky after being appointed as the first United States Attorney for the District of Kentucky by President Washington. As the chief drafter of the Kentucky Constitution, he will be known as the “Father of the Kentucky Constitution.”

Admired for his horsemanship, “Light Horse Harry” Lee acquired his nickname as commander of a mixed legion of calvary and infantry during the War for Independence. Revered as a war hero, he will serve one term in the House of Representatives before being elected governor of Virginia in 1791. Eight years later he will pen George Washington’s eulogy, forever memorializing his friend as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Although Lee was a vigorous advocate for union and the Constitution, his son, General Robert E. Lee, will later be among those who will choose the path of disunion when the United States descends into civil war.

 This “clash of titans” was mirrored in the political division of the 170 delegates elected to make this historic decision – delegates to the Virginia ratifying convention appeared to be almost evenly divided between those supporting and those opposing ratification. Fortunately for posterity, David Robertson, “a shorthand gentleman,” was given a seat in the gallery and extensively recorded the convention’s deliberations. Conceding there were instances during which conversations of people in the gallery impeded his hearing every word, and despite the fact that some, such as Madison, could scarcely be heard above the din, Robertson provided history with the most complete and copious records of all the ratifying conventions.

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