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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.

Thursday, August 23, 1787

August 23, 2020 - 5 minute read

First steam boat

The last two days have been tense behind the closed doors and shuttered windows of the East Room in the State House as delegates to the Convention contended strenuously over an issue that could disrupt the union – slavery. The rule of secrecy has been effective. Their deliberations have remained confidential. The absence of information makes it easier for public pronouncements about the meeting to remain optimistic. Today, The Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser carried this tidbit:

The punctuality with which the members of the Convention assemble every day at a certain hour, and the long time they spend in the deliberations of each day (sometimes 7 hours) are proofs, among other things, how much they are entitled to the universal confidence of the people of America. Such a body of enlightened and honest men perhaps never before met for political purposes in any country upon the face of the earth.

William Paterson has returned to New Jersey but stays in contact by mail with Oliver Ellsworth, among others. His letter today is full of questions. “What are they about? When will they rise? Will they agree upon a system energetic and effectual or will they break up without doing anything to the purpose?” Recollecting his own impressions of the Convention as “full of disputation and noise as the wind,” he noted cynically, “it is said that you are afraid of the very windows and have a man planted under them to prevent the secrets and doings from flying out..” Nevertheless, he acknowledged that “the business is detailed. I hope you not have as much altercation upon the detail, as there was in getting the principles of the system.”

In the meantime, William Davie has notified North Carolina’s Governor Caswell that he left the Convention on August 13. By then, he wrote, “the general principles were already fixed, and considering the state and nature of my business, I felt myself fully at liberty to return [home], especially as No. Carolina is so fully and respectfully represented.”

Davie’s letter reminds us there is “life outside” of the Convention. Family and business responsibilities back home require attention. James McHenry’s correspondence to his wife Peggy advises about her uncle’s creditors and bankruptcy, while Elbridge Gerry writes to his new young wife and infant daughter frequently, asking for updates about home and their health.

Convention all day, delegation dinners and strategy sessions in the evening, and writing letters at night, require some time for rest and diversion. Nathaniel Gorham and Rufus King have been spending time in the local library, “sometimes sauntering there for amusement,” perusing books on heraldry, “looking for the coats of arms of most of our acquaintances.” Gorham copied a sheet on the Dane family which he forwarded to Nathan Dane. (A member of the Continental Congress, Dane had drafted the resolution calling for the Convention.) Yesterday, after the session adjourned, a group accompanied Dr. William Johnson to the Delaware River for the first successful trial run of John Fitch’s steamboat, the Perseverance.

This morning, the Committee of Eleven delivered its report, proposing that the government “make laws for organizing, arming, and discipling the militia, and for governing such parts of them as may be employed in the service of the U.S., reserving to the States respectively, the appointment of the officers, and authority of training the militia.” James Madison moved to amend the proposal to give Congress the power to appoint officers of the rank of general, leaving to the States to appoint lesser officers. Gerry was incensed. Why not just destroy the State governments altogether or have an executive for life, or even a hereditary executive? He warned his colleagues, “This is pushing the experiment too far. Some people will support a plan of vigorous government at every risk. Others of a more democratic cast will oppose it with equal determination. And a civil war may be produced by the effect.” In the end, the Committee’s recommendation passed generally as presented and Madison’s proposal died 3 – 8.

Returning to the report of the Committee of Detail which has dominated the Convention’s attention since August 7, delegates were presented with this broad, new language: “This Constitution and the laws of the U.S. made in pursuance thereof, and all treaties made under the authority of the U.S. shall be the supreme law of the several States and of their citizens and inhabitants.” It also binds State judges in their decisions. Surprisingly, such a bold, revolutionary statement passed without dissent or discussion. Not even Gerry objected.

As the delegates turned to the next section of the report, Charles Pinckney unexpectedly moved to add “an additional power to be vested in the legislature of the U.S. - ‘to negative all laws passed by the several States interfering in the opinion of the legislature with the general interests and harmony of the union, provided that two thirds of each House assent to the same.’” Several delegates dismissed the proposal as unnecessary; after all, they had just agreed that the new Constitution would be the law of the land and “paramount to State laws.” Madison was a “friend to the principle,” but the proposition needs to be “made better.” Perhaps it should be referred to a committee, he suggested.

“How is the power to be exercised?” asked George Mason, concerned with its practicality. “Is no road or bridge to be established without the sanction of the general legislature? Is it to sit constantly in order to receive and revise the State laws?” Ellsworth asserted the proposal would “require either that all laws of the State legislatures should previously to their taking effect be transmitted to the general legislature, or be repealable by the latter.” Rutledge would have no part of it. “If nothing else, this alone would damn and ought to damn the Constitution,” he declared. “Will any State ever agree to be bound hand and foot in this manner? It is worse than making mere corporations of them, whose bylaws would not be subject to this shackle.”

Madison’s motion to commit failed and Pinckney withdrew his proposition. It is clear that the tussle over the powers of the federal and state governments is not over.

Resuming its review of the report of the Committee of Detail, the Convention considered Article IX, Sect. 1, empowering the Senate to make treaties, appoint ambassadors, and judges of the supreme court.” Making treaties is substantively different than making appointments, especially appointment of judges. Each requires separate consideration. Edmund Randolph “observed that almost every speaker has made objections to the clause as it stands,” prompting the delegates to refer it, without objection, to the Committee of Five, earlier constituted.

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