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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, June 2, 1787

June 02, 2020 - 4 minute read

John Dickinson

On July 4, 1776 only two delegates abstained from signing the Declaration of Independence. One was John Dickinson, among the most renown patriots throughout the colonies, primarily for his Letters from a Farmer from Pennsylvania. Published in newspapers and as pamphlets and broadsides in 1767 and 1768, it helped unite the colonies against the Intolerable Acts. But in 1776, still hoping for reconciliation with the British and unsure if the colonies could come together effectively, he did not sign the Declaration, knowing full well he had delivered “the finishing blow to my once too great, and my integrity considered, now too diminished popularity.”

His popularity may have temporarily diminished, but his patriotic zeal did not. Soon after, Dickson marched to New York with the Philadelphia militia to support General Washington’s new Continental Army. Known as “the Penman of the Revolution,” he had served as President of Delaware and preceded Benjamin Franklin as President of Pennsylvania. As a member of the Second Continental Congress, he chaired the committee which drafted the Articles of Confederation. Now, he brings his experience and knowledge to improve them.

This morning, before the Convention resolved into the Committee of the Whole, three new delegates were introduced: William Samuel Johnson from Connecticut, Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer from Maryland, and John Lansing, Jr. from New York.  After their credentials were read, the Committee resumed discussion about the proposed executive branch of the government.

James Wilson offered an amendment that the States be divided into districts for the purpose of electing the executive, which he called the Executive Magistracy.  Citizens qualified to vote for the first branch of the national government would elect members in their district as electors, who in turn would elect the Executive Magistracy.  After a brief consideration, the proposal was roundly defeated 2 – 8.  With little further discussion, election of the executive by the national legislature for a term of seven years was agreed to 8 – 2 (Pennsylvania and Maryland voting “nay”).

The next issue was raised by Dr. Franklin, moving that expenses of the executive should be paid for, but the executive should “receive no salary, stipend fee or whatsoever for their services.” Acknowledging his advanced age, Franklin was unwilling to “trust his observations” supporting his position, so he “reduced them to writing” and requested the Committee’s permission to read them.  Mr. Wilson offered to read for him, an offer  Franklin graciously accepted. The entire text was reproduced in James Madison’s notes.

“There are two passions which have a powerful influence on the affairs of men,” he began. “These are ambition and avarice; the love of power and the love of money…when united in view of the same object, they have in many minds the most violent effects.” But there are men, he asserted, who will serve without being paid. Among them are leaders of the Quaker religion, and “one, to bring the matter home…that of the General of our armies [who] executed for eight years together without the smallest salary.”

When Wilson finished reading the lengthy narrative, Alexander Hamilton (New York) seconded Franklin’s motion out of courtesy to its maker.  No debate ensued and the proposition was postponed, but “treated with great respect for its author.”

The manner of appointing the executive being temporarily resolved, the Committee then turned to how the executive might be removed. By the national legislature upon a request by a majority of the States? By the national legislature on its own? By impeachment? Each alternative had its advocate. 

Then John Dickinson took the floor, seeming to recall the silence of many delegates the day before.  “The business is so important,” he said, “that no man ought to be silent or reserved.” He then went into a lengthy discourse, “the sum of which was, that the legislative, executive and judiciary departments ought to be made as independent as possible.”  While searching for the arrangement appropriate to our circumstances, there are two sources of stability, he said. These are the proposed two branches of the national legislature and the division of the country into states. “Considerable powers [should] be left with the States,” he continued, and hoped that “each State would retain an equal voice in at least one branch of the national government.” 

William Pierce, his colleague from Georgia, wrote in his “character sketches” he had often heard that Dickinson “was a great orator, but I found him an indifferent speaker – his language is irregular and incorrect – his flourishes (for he sometimes attempts them) are like expiring flames, they just show themselves and go out.” But “he is a scholar and said to be a man of very extensive information…He will ever be considered one of the most important characters in the United States.”

Dickinson was every bit the scholar, fathered by a judge and surrounded by books and tutors as a young man.  He studied the law at the Middle Temple in London and, much to the surprise of some, in 1768 he composed “The Liberty Song”, one of first patriotic songs in the colonies. 

 Before adjournment, the Committee agreed the executive could be removed by impeachment and would be ineligible to serve after a term of seven years. Whether the executive would be “plural or “singular” was postponed to another day.

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