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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.

September 16, 1788

November 22, 2021 - 5 minute read

Constitution Postage Stamp

On September 9, 1788, the Pennsylvania Mercury demanded to know why Congress had not acted to organize the new government under the Constitution. It had been adopted not only by nine States, the required number for adoption, but by eleven. “The great voice of the people has not been respected by our rulers,” it complained. “The impending ruin which has long threatened to overwhelm the United States, instead of rousing them to action, seems to have thrown them into a lethargy.”

The ninth State to ratify was New Hampshire. It had approved the Constitution on June 21. On July 2 its form of ratification was read to the Confederation Congress meeting in New York City. The same day Congress appointed a committee to review all of the ratification instruments and recommend a plan for “putting the said Constitution into operation.” Subsequently, news arrived that Virginia and New York had also ratified.

“Why had not Congress complied with the recommendation of the federal convention, in organizing the new government, when adopted by nine States?” the Mercury demanded. “We are told,” it continued, “that they cannot agree in appointing a place of meeting for the new Congress…Surely they cannot fix upon any permanent place of residence for their successors, who will have the power of determining for themselves.” Impatient at such “uninteresting and trivial debates,” the Mercury concluded by admonishing Congress: “Let the place of meeting be New York, Philadelphia, or Baltimore, nay, the banks of the Potowmac, Ohio, or Mississippi – let it be any where; but for Heaven’s sake, let the vox populi prevail – let the government be put in motion.”

Reports received by the Pennsylvania Mercury were generally accurate. The place for convening the new Congress had been a matter of robust disagreement. However, it was not a trivial matter. In fact, it was a very practical matter. Attendance in Congress might easily be diminished if the location was not fairly accessible. Some members from the South objected to New York because it was too far north. On the other hand, moving the capital from New York to another location would create an unnecessary financial burden.

A northern capital was problematic for some in the South who believed restrictions might be placed on the use of slaves which some members of Congress might want to bring with them. What about financial and other advantages that would accrue to the city designated as the nation’s capital? Should the capital be inland or on the seacoast? What should be its location with respect to the western territories which would inevitably organize and join the union as new States?

Writing from New York where Congress was still in session on August 11, James Madison wrote to George Washington, summarizing the lack of progress locating the new Congress. “Philadelphia was first named and negatived by a voice from Delaware,” he began. “New York came forward next. Lancaster was opposed to it and failed. Baltimore was next tried and to the surprise of everyone had seven votes…the next day New York was inserted…with the aid of the vote of Rhode Island. Rhode Island, however, has refused to give a final vote in the business and has actually retired from Congress.”

Two weeks later, Madison followed up on his earlier letter to Washington. Not only was the issue of the location of the new government still unresolved, but “the departure of Rhode Island and the refusal of North Carolina to participate further in the business” left only eleven states to decide and “in this number there are not seven States for any place.” For Madison, it was “truly mortifying that the outset of the new government should be immediately preceded by such a display of locality.”

Complicating matters was the Circular letter from New York to the other States encouraging a convention to consider amendments. “I find it is everywhere,” Madison noted, “and particularly in Virginia, laid hold of as the signal for united exertions in pursuit of early amendments.” Delay was on the side of the Anti-federalists and Madison knew it.

Finally, on September 12, Virginia’s Henry Lee, moved that, “Whereas longer delay in executing the previous arrangements necessary to put into operation the federal government may produce national injury, Resolved…the present seat of Congress [be] the place for commencing proceedings under the said Constitution.” His motion included terms already proposed earlier in July - “that the first Wednesday in January next be the time for appointing electors in the several States…that the first Wednesday in February next be the day for the electors to assemble in their respective states and vote for a president, and that the first Wednesday in March next be the time” for the new government to convene.

Edward Carrington, also representing Virginia, proposed a substitute - that a place more “centrally located” be considered. Surprisingly, Carrington’s motion was seconded by Madison, but defeated 6 - 3 - 1, with Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Virginia voting “no.” Georgia was divided. The next day, September 13, nine States voted to approve Lee’s motion. Only Delaware voted against the measure. Maryland was absent. Madison was relieved. “Further delay could only discredit Congress and injure the object in view,” he wrote to Edmund Randolph. “Maryland went away before the question was decided in a temperature [and] Delaware was equally inflexible,” he continued. As to the last-minute attempt to choose a place more centrally located, “between the North River and the Potowmac,” its rejection left the only viable alternative – “to agree to New York or to strangle the government in its birth.”

Scheduled to meet in New York on March 4, 1789, the first meeting of Congress was delayed until April 1 due to the lack of a quorum. “This is a very mortifying situation,” lamented Representative Fisher Ames of Massachusetts. “We lose credit, spirit, everything. The public will forget the government before it is born.” Nevertheless, the new government had finally convened. Its first two sessions were held in New York City. The third convened in Philadelphia on December 6, 1790. Earlier, on July 16, President Washington had signed into law the Permanent Seat of Government Act, establishing the location of a new federal city “on the river of the Potomac, at some place between the mouths of the Eastern Branch and Conococheague.” It would become known as Washington, the District of Columbia.

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