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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.

Saturday, August 11, 1787

August 11, 2020 - 4 minute read

Illustration of the East Room

The Convention has been deliberating the report of the Committee of Detail since Tuesday, but to some it seems much longer. The work is detailed, tedious, and contentious. The East Room was unusually muggy yesterday after a summer rain swept through the city, made even more uncomfortable by the necessity of keeping the windows and doors shut to maintain confidentially. Fortunately, it is cooler today. Nevertheless, summers in Philadelphia can be unhealthy, especially for children.

Yesterday, Elbridge Gerry wrote to his wife, Ann, telling her she “had acted judiciously in not returning this month, for it has been very sickly since we left the city with young children, a great number of whom have died.” Despite being a center for medical education, Philadelphia suffers annual outbreaks of smallpox and other diseases. Mosquito breeding grounds and foul water supplies increase the risks of contracting diseases during the summer months, but children are the most susceptible. 

Gerry remained a bachelor until the age of forty-one when he met and married twenty-two-year-old Ann Thompson, recently returned from Ireland where she had been sent for her education. The Gerrys have been married for less than two years and have an infant daughter. Deliriously happy with his new family, Gerry misses them but approves of their staying in New York simply because Philadelphia “is very unfavorable at present for children.” 

This morning, Gerry engaged in the debate begun yesterday about Article VI, Sect. 7 of the Committee report which requires both Houses to keep a Journal and publish it “from time to time.” He proposed a failed motion to exempt from the Journal matters that “relate to treaties and military operations.” Impatient with what he considers a trivial issue, Oliver Ellsworth said the entire clause should be stricken; the legislature “will not fail to publish their proceedings from time to time and the people will call for it if it should be omitted. ” 

These sentiments alarmed other delegates. James Wilson insisted “the people have a right to know what their agents are doing or have done, and it should not be in the option of the legislature to conceal their proceedings.” Besides, he continued wryly, “this is a clause in the existing confederation.”  George Mason concurred, adding that removing it “would give a just alarm to the people.” Finally, the provision was approved nem. con., with an amendment permitting exempting “such parts as may in their judgment require secrecy.”

Article VI, Sect. 8 provides that “neither House, without the consent of the other, shall adjourn for more than three days, nor to any other place than that at which the Houses are sitting.”  Even this seemingly minor detail raised concerns. For Rufus King, it made moving the legislature from place to place too easy.  Since declaring independence in July 1776, the seat of government has been located in eight different cities. “The mutability of place had dishonored the government,” King asserted, “and requires as strong a cure as we can devise.” 

North Carolina’s Richard Spaight has rarely spoken in Convention, but today he worried that the seat of government might remain permanently in New York where the Confederation Congress is currently meeting, “especially if the President should be a northern man.”  Madison is less concerned about where the seat of government might be than the need for a central residence of the government. “The necessity of a central residence will be more important under the new government than under the old,” he asserted. “The members of the new government will be more numerous. As the powers and objects of the new government will be far greater, more private individuals will have business calling them to the seat of it…It is more necessary that the government should be in that position from which it could contemplate with the most equal eye, and sympathize most equally with, every part of the nation.” 

Sect. 8 was left generally intact, but the discussion clearly demonstrates the need for a fixed capitol for the new government

As the meeting dragged on, Edmund Randolph, as he had promised, moved to revisit Article IV, Sect. 5 concerning “money bills.”  On Wednesday, the Convention deleted the requirement that bills raising or spending money originate in the House of Representatives. Randolph and others had insisted on this provision when they agreed to equality of States in the Senate. The large States had required this, he asserted, because the Senate will be “the more aristocratic body.” The “money bill” provision is a guard against the Senate’s influence. He called on the “smaller States to concur in the measure, as it was the condition by which alone the compromise had entitled them to an equality in the Senate.” If it would help, he would accept a change in language from “all bills for raising or appropriating money” to “a clause specifying that the bills in question should be for the purpose of revenue, in order to repel objections against the words raising money.” He would also agree that the Senate should not be able to “increase or diminish the sum.”

Hugh Williamson seconded the motion, but Charles Pinckney said it “was a mere waste of time” and would not consent to it.

Instead of his usual practice of recording individual comments, Madison simply noted in his diary that “several others spoke for and against the reconsideration, but without going into the merits.” Madison and his colleagues were clearly weary of days and hours attending to every word and phrase of the proposed constitution presented by the Committee of Detail. It was time to adjourn. Randolph’s motion to reconsider was approved with a “let’s get over this” vote of  9 – 0 – 1 with South Carolina divided. Monday was assigned as the day for the reconsideration.

The Convention adjourned for a well-deserved and much-needed day off.

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