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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.

Monday, August 6, 1787

August 06, 2020 - 4 minute read

After an eleven-day recess, the Convention reconvened to receive the report of the Committee of Detail. A new delegate, John Francis Mercer of Maryland, arrived as others left, some not to return. Yesterday, James McClurg sent a letter to James Madison informing him he would not be back. “If I thought my return could contribute in the smallest degree,” he wrote, “nothing should keep me away. But as I know the talents, knowledge, and well-established character of our present delegates…I think my attendance now would certainly be useless, perhaps injurious.” William Pierce and William Paterson have also left, not in protest but for other business. At the same time, William Few of Georgia and Maryland’s James McHenry have returned.

After Mercer’s credentials were read, Committee Chairman John Rutledge placed on the secretary’s table approximately sixty copies of the Committee’s report, consisting of seven folio pages with an unusually wide left-hand margin on each page to permit delegates to keep notes or record revisions. The documents had been printed by John Dunlap and David Claypoole, publishers of the Pennsylvania Packet, under a strict injunction of secrecy.

The Journal records “the report, being read once throughout and copies thereof given to the members, it was moved and seconded to adjourn until Wednesday morning.” The motion failed 3 – 3 and “the house then adjourned until tomorrow morning at 11:00 a.m.”

The Committee did not keep minutes of its deliberations, but it appears that Edmund Randolph created an outline or rough draft with a number of insertions by Rutledge, followed by point by point discussions by the entire Committee. James Wilson drew up the final draft with improvements in style and language which the Committee reviewed, amended, and finally approved. In addition to the list of resolutions already approved by the Convention, the Committee used as references the original Virginia and New Jersey Plans, the Articles of Confederation, and the constitutions of several States.

Randolph is acutely aware that “it is a constitution” they are writing. “In the draught of a fundamental constitution,” he wrote, “two things deserve attention. 1. To insert essential principles only, lest the operations of government should be clogged by rendering those provisions permanent and unalterable, which ought to be accommodated to times and events, and 2. To use simple and precise language.” If needed, a preamble should “briefly declare that the present federal government is insufficient to the general happiness, that the conviction of this fact gave birth to this convention,” and “the only effectual mode they could devise for curing this insufficiency is the establishment of a supreme legislative, executive and judiciary.”

The Committee’s draft constitution presented today consists of a preamble and twenty-three articles, divided into forty-one sections. Overall, the Committee acted prudently, limiting its consideration to decisions already made in Convention, but adding depth and organization. It also gave names to institutions, such as “President,” “Congress,” “House of Representatives,” “Supreme Court,” and “Speaker,” as well as concepts such as “we the people,” “privileges and immunities,” and “necessary and proper.” Responding to oft-repeated concerns about the scope of the new government’s powers, the Committee report proposes a list of “enumerated powers” to be exercised by the national legislature, but it also lists restrictions on the States.

After nearly two months of intense, and often contentious debate, the Convention finally has before it a draft constitution, based on issues already considered and decided, if only tentatively. Tomorrow, the Convention will begin considering each article, one by one. Tonight, the delegates will be reading, meeting in small groups, and preparing for the debate to come.

One of the small meetings was called by James McHenry. A delegate from Maryland, McHenry attended the Convention during the last four days in May but departed for Baltimore on June 1 to attend to his sick brother. McHenry was born in Ireland and came to America to study medicine under Benjamin Rush, using his skills to minister to the wounds of American troops during the Revolutionary War, including those at Valley Forge. He is now financially independent due to a healthy inheritance from his father and no longer practices medicine professionally but is intensely interested in politics.

Feeling the need to catch up on the Convention’s proceedings during his absence and “to prepare ourselves to act in unison,” McHenry invited Daniel Carroll, John Mercer, Luther Martin, and Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer to meet. Meeting at Carroll’s lodgings this afternoon, McHenry proposed they “take up the report by paragraphs and give their individual opinions.” Mercer wished to know if McHenry believed the people of Maryland would embrace such a system, to which McHenry replied, “I do not know, but I presume the people would not object to a wise system.” Martin disagreed, disagreeably. The people of Maryland would not approve, he said, and he is personally against it.

The current proposal is before them only because the Convention had voted a compromise, Luther said. Then, turning to Jenifer, he growled, “had Mr. Jenifer voted with me, things would have taken a different turn.” Jenifer shot back. All along he had voted with Martin “till he saw it was in vain to oppose its progress.” McHenry intervened, “begging the gentlemen to observe some order to enable us to do the business we had convened on.” Then he offered a plan to postpone consideration of the report and revert to amending the Articles of Confederation. Martin began listing his specific objections. He opposes a bicameral legislature, election of Congress by the people, reducing powers of the States, and so on. This was going nowhere. Unable to agree on anything, the Maryland men decided to meet again tomorrow, except for Martin who is going to New York for the week. McHenry then prepared questions he plans to present when deliberations begin tomorrow.

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