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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 30, 1787

June 30, 2020 - 4 minute read

Oliver Ellsworth

In a surprise statement this morning, New Jersey’s David Brearley moved that Convention President George Washington write to New Hampshire, “informing it that the business pending before the Convention is of such a nature as to require the immediate attendance of the deputies of that State.” Rufus King said he had written privately to them more than once and believed they would soon arrive. James Wilson is concerned it would violate the secrecy principle by “spreading alarm,” while John Rutledge “could see neither the necessity nor the propriety” of it. In short order, the motion failed by 2 – 5 – 1, but reveals the anxiety of the small States against large State domination of the Convention.

Oliver Ellsworth represents Connecticut and, like his colleagues Roger Sherman and William Johnson, is searching for compromise. For the third time, Connecticut proposed equal representation in the Senate, leaving proportional representation in the first branch. James Wilson was unyielding. “Such an equality will enable the minority to control in all cases whatsoever…Seven States will control six…It would be in the power, then, of less than one-third to overrule two-thirds when a question should happen that divides the States,” he concluded. “Can we forget for whom we are forming a government? Is it for men, or the imaginary beings called States?”

Ellsworth and Sherman are close friends, having served together on Connecticut’s Superior Court. They are both lodging at Mrs. Marshall’s boarding house on Second Street and even share religious views as New Light Calvinists. Today, it was Ellsworth who took the lead and responded to Wilson. Wilson’s assertion “that the minority will rule the majority” is not true,” he began. “The power is given to the few to save them from being destroyed by the many…If security be all that the great States wish for, the first branch secures them. The danger of combination among them is not imaginary.”

In an uncharacteristic show of temper, James Madison corrected Ellsworth’s assertion that there was no instance “in which confederated States had not retained to themselves a perfect equality of suffrage.” Citing examples of such confederacies, he moved on to criticize Connecticut’s behavior in the Confederation Congress. Ellsworth had appealed to the “faith plighted in the existing federal compact” but Madison charged that “Connecticut was perhaps the least able to urge this plea.” On more than one occasion, he said, Connecticut had failed “to perform the stipulated acts from which no State was free.” Recently, its legislature “refused to pass a law for complying with the financial requisitions of Congress and even sent a letter to that effect to Congress.” Noting that he has criticized a number of States, including his own, “for an infraction of the Confederation,” he pointedly asked, “Has [Connecticut] paid, for the last two years, any money into the continental treasury?”

Ellsworth defended his State while “assuring the House that whatever might be thought of the representatives of Connecticut, the State is entirely federal in her disposition.” Then he “appealed to her great exertions during the War, supplying both men and money. The muster rolls would show she had more troops in the field than Virginia.”

In a second surprising outburst, Madison acknowledged differences among the States, including size, but also others, “the most material of which resulted partly from the climate, but principally from (the effects of) their having or not having slaves.” The “great division of interests in the United States” Madison declared, does “not lie between the large and small States; it lies between the Northern and the Southern, and if any defensive power were necessary, it ought to be mutually given to these two interests.” No one responded.

The debate grew more and more heated. Rufus King claimed to be “astonished that, if we were convinced that every man in America was secured in all his rights, we should be ready to sacrifice this substantial good to the phantom of State sovereignty.” Young Jonathan Dayton opposed the Virginia Plan, considering it a “novelty, an amphibious monster…that would never be received by the people.” As for justifications for it, Dayton remarked caustically, “When assertion is given for proof, and terror substituted for argument,” he “presumed they would have no effect, however eloquently spoken.”

Delaware’s Gunning Bedford bluntly accused the large States of “seeking to aggrandize themselves at the expense of the small. They think no doubt that they have right on their side, but interest has blinded their eyes.” Every State has its interests,” he charged. “Just “look at the votes which have been given on the floor of this house, and it will be found that their numbers, wealth, and local views have actuated their determinations.“ He lashed out at individual States for their specific interests, adding, “I do not, gentlemen, trust you.”

Bedford did not believe the large States dare to dissolve the confederation but “if they do, the small States will find some foreign ally of more honor and good faith, who will take them by the hand and do them justice.” He did “not mean by this to intimidate or alarm. It was a natural consequence which ought to be avoided by enlarging the federal powers, not annihilating the federal system.”

Rufus King’s earlier remarks had been intense, but Bedford had gone too far. King “could not sit down without taking some notice of the language of the honorable gentleman from Delaware. I am concerned for what fell from the gentleman…”Take a foreign power by the hand!” I am sorry he mentioned it, and I hope he is able to excuse it to himself on the score of passion.” King “was grieved that such an expression had fallen from his lips.”

Fortunately for everyone, tomorrow is Sunday and a time to cool tempers.

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