Skip to Main Content

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, June 28, 1787

June 28, 2020 - 4 minute read

First Continental Congress & Benjamin Franklin

This morning, as promised yesterday by Luther Martin as he wound down his ranting rebuke of the plan before them, he “resumed his discourse, contending that the general government ought to be formed for the States, not for individuals.” It does not matter whether the national legislature is elected by the State legislatures or the people, he insisted. Either way, if the States are to have votes in proportion to their numbers of people, “the smaller States would be enslaved.”

Martin repeated arguments already made more than once, concluding that he “would rather confederate with any single State, than submit to the Virginia Plan.” James Madison noted Martin’s “discourse was delivered with much diffuseness and considerable vehemence.”

Several days ago, Hugh Williamson had raised the probability of new States from the west being admitted to the union. Today, he urged the Convention to keep this in view. They “would be small States, they would be poor States, they would be unable to pay in proportion to their numbers.” They would be tempted, Williamson posited, “to combine for the purpose of laying burdens on commerce and consumption, which would fall with greatest weight on the old States.”

Madison rose to rebut Martin. After an extensive response, he concluded, “In a word, the two extremes before us are a perfect separation and a perfect incorporation of the thirteen States. In the first case they would be independent nations subject to no law, but the law of nations. In the last, they would be mere counties of one entire republic, subject to one common law. In the first case the smaller States would have everything to fear from the larger. In the last they would have nothing to fear.”

Roger Sherman was the last to speak on the subject, pointing out that “the rich man who enters into society along with the poor man, gives up more than the poor man, yet with an equal vote he is equally safe. Were he to have more votes than the poor man in proportion to his superior stake, the rights of the poor man would immediately cease to be secure. This consideration prevailed when the Articles of Confederation were formed.”

The debate seems to be going nowhere. There is much talk, but little progress on the major issues bitterly dividing the large and small States. Martin’s diatribe merely fueled tensions that had already begun to surface.

Observing the scene around him with the wisdom and perspective of an elderly, experienced statesman, Benjamin Franklin rose and addressed the President of the Convention. This time, no one was asked to read his remarks for him. “Mr. President,” he began,“ The small progress we have made after four or five weeks close and continual reasonings with each other – our different sentiments on almost every question…producing as many noes and ayes, is methinks a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the human understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own want of political wisdom, since we have been running about in search of it. We have gone back to ancient history of models of government and examined the different forms of those republics which, having been formed with the seeds of their own dissolution, now no longer exist. And we have viewed modern states all round Europe, but find none of their constitutions suitable to our circumstances.”

“In this situation of this assembly,” he continued, “groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understanding?” He reminded the delegates that “in the beginning of our contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection. Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor…And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need his assistance? I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth – that God governs in the affairs of men… And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that “except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.” Without his concurring aid we shall succeed in building this political building no better than the builders of Babel. We shall be divided by our little partial local interests, our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and bye word down to future ages.” [Italics in the original. In Franklin’s original manuscript, the word “God” is underscored twice.]

Franklin concluded by moving “that henceforth prayer employing the assistance of Heaven and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the clergy of this city be requested to officiate in that service.” Sherman seconded the motion.

Responding kindly to its author, Alexander Hamilton noted that “however proper such a resolution might have been at the beginning of the Convention,” at this late date it might lead the public to believe the Convention is in trouble. Williamson observed that the Convention has no funds to pay a clergyman. To “give a favorable aspect to the measure,” Edmund Randolph recommended that “a sermon be preached at the request of the Convention on 4th of July.”

With respect for Dr. Franklin, the Convention “silently postponed the matter by adjourning without voting on the motion.” But its impact on the delegates was sobering, reminding them of their obligation to embrace mutual sacrifice and summon their best efforts to ensure establishment of our government in the future will not be left “to chance, war, or conquest.”

Back to top