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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, June 7, 1787

June 07, 2020 - 5 minute read

Patrick Henry

Yesterday, the Committee of the Whole voted a second time that the first branch of the national government should be elected by the people. Now the Committee must consider how the second branch will be selected. Resolve No. 5 of the Virginia Plan proposes that “the members of the second branch of the National Legislature ought to be elected by those of the first.”  

The subject having been postponed earlier, John Dickinson rose to propose an alternative, moving that “the members of the second branch ought to be chosen by the individual legislatures.” Roger Sherman seconded the motion, observing that the arrangement would maintain “a due harmony between the two governments” and be an incentive for the States to support the national government.” 

Before directly addressing Dickinson’s motion, several delegates deliberated the size and nature of the second branch. Hugh Williamson (N. Carolina) called them “Senators,” preferred a small number, and “wished that each State should have at least one.” Dickenson wanted a “numerous body,” hoping there would be “80 and twice 80 of them.” They should be, he said, “of the most distinguished characters, distinguished for their rank in life and their weight of property, and bearing as strong a likeness to the British House of Lords as possible; such characters are more likely to be selected by the State Legislatures than any other mode.” 

James Wilson rose, strenuously objecting to his former teacher under whom he had studied the law. “The British government,” he insisted, “cannot be our model…Our manners, our laws, the abolition of entails and of primogeniture, the whole genius of the people are opposed to it.” 

Dickinson’s ultimate objective, on this topic or any other at the Convention, is “the preservation of the States in a certain degree of agency.” Preservation of the States is, he said, “indispensable…The attempt to abolish the States altogether would degrade the Councils of our Country, would be impracticable, would be ruinous.” He then launched into a colorful imagery, comparing the “proposed National System to the Solar System, in which the States were the planets, and ought to be left to move freely in their proper orbits.”  Mr. Wilson,” he charged,  “wished to extinguish these planets.”

If the State governments were to no longer exist and all power drawn from the people at large, Dickinson argued, “the consequence would be that the national government would move in the same direction as the State governments…and would run into the same mischiefs. The reform would only unite the 13 small streams into one great current, pursuing the same course without any opposition whatever.”

Again, Wilson disagreed. Speaking forcefully in his deep Scottish burr, he did not see the danger of the States being devoured by the national government. To the contrary, he wished to keep the States from devouring the national government!  Moreover, he was “not for extinguishing these planets, as was supposed by Mr. Dickinson – neither did he on the other hand, believe that they would warm or  enlighten the sun. Within their proper orbits they must still be suffered to act for subordinate purposes (for which their existence is made essential by the great extent of our Country).”

Still fixated on Shay’s Rebellion in Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry continued to oppose placing too much trust in the people  “The people,” he said, “have two great interests, the landed interest and the commercial.” “The people” chiefly compose the landed interests and are far more numerous than those comprising the commercial interests. To have both houses of the national legislature elected by the people would provide little security for other interests. In short, “the commercial and monied interest would be more secure in the hands of the State Legislatures than of the people at large.” 

Elbridge’s concern about “commercial interests” was not without foundation, nor was it borne of individual greed or self-interest. During the Revolutionary War, the States heavily taxed their citizens to support the war effort but often refused or were unable to contribute the amount the Continental Congress required. Eventually, Congress resorted to printing paper money to pay soldiers, suppliers, and others.  Some were paid with government bonds.  By 1780, a Continental paper dollar was worth about one-fortieth of a cent in gold or silver – hence the source the modern expression “not worth a Continental” for something of little or no value.

At war’s end, following the example set by Congress, States began printing paper money.  In some States, merchants accepted it.  In others, such as Rhode Island and Massachusetts, management of the State’s debts and finances resulted in the imposition of onerous taxes.  Between 1774 and 1786, taxes in Massachusetts increased by nearly one thousand percent. Combined with languishing trade, personal debt, and a poor agricultural market, conditions were ripe for insurrection by poor farmers such as Captain Shay and thousands like him.  Making matters worse, weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation stood in the way of other nations concluding treaties with the United States. They simply did not trust its authority. The problem of paper money and its nefarious consequences will be addressed again and again.

George Mason (often referred to as Colonel Mason) closed the debate bridging both positions. “Whatever power may be necessary for the National Government,” he said, “a certain portion must necessarily be left in the States.” The country is too large for one government “to pervade the extreme parts of the U. S. so as to carry equal justice to them.” Consequently, “the State legislatures also ought to have some means of defending themselves against encroachments of the national government.” The best way to do this is to give them a share in the national establishment. After a prolonged, intense debate, Mr. Dickinson’s motion that the State legislatures appoint the Senate passed unanimously.

Most evenings are spent with delegates “in company” with each other.  George Washington’s diary records his dinner with Benjamin Franklin last night.  Since Franklin’s dining room seats twenty-four, it is likely they were joined by other delegates or dignitaries. Tonight, Washington dined “with a Club of Convention Members at the Indian Queen.” It was a tense, but good day.

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