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.

Tuesday, August 7, 1787

August 07, 2020 - 4 minute read

James McHenry Founding Father

The Convention opened this morning with two of the most strident advocates of states’ rights absent – Luther Martin and William Paterson. Several members are on their way back to Philadelphia but have been delayed. None of the delegates from New Jersey have arrived and, with the withdrawal of John Lansing and Robert Yates on July 10, only ten States are represented.

As soon as the Convention was called to order, Charles Pinckney moved to refer the report of the Committee of Detail to a Committee of the Whole. It was strongly opposed by several delegates, primarily because it would produce an unnecessary delay. The motion failed 3 – 8, with Maryland, led by James McHenry, voting in favor.

The Preamble was agreed to nem. con., beginning with “We the people,” followed by a list of the States from north to south, concluding with “do ordain, declare, and establish the following Constitution for the government of ourselves and our posterity.” Articles I and II also passed unanimously, styling the new government as “The United States of America” and indicating it will “consist of supreme legislative, executive, and judicial powers.”

Article III creates a Congress composed of a House of Representatives and Senate, “each of which shall in all cases have a negative on the other.” Immediately, Gouverneur Morris moved to remove “in all cases” and insert “legislative acts.” Following a brief, inconclusive discussion, the motion failed on a 5 -5 vote but will most likely be revisited.

Generating some debate was James Madison’s request to know why the Committee had fixed the time for the legislature to meet on the first Monday every December. Why not simply require that it meet at least once a year and let the legislature itself determine the time? Nathaniel Gorham, a member of the Committee, provided the answer. If the time is not fixed, the States would not be able to schedule their elections. The New England States fixed the time in their constitutions and it was not inconvenient. Most important, an annual meeting is necessary “as a check on the executive department.” Another member of the Committee, Edmund Randolph, proposed adding “unless a different day shall be appointed by law.” This provides flexibility for the legislature to change the date of meeting, while maintaining an otherwise fixed date, the first Monday in December. Madison prefers May, primarily because December would require traveling “in the most inconvenient seasons of the year.” Oliver Ellsworth noted that spring meetings interfere with spring planting and almost all of the legislators are “more or less connected with agriculture.” Randolph then reminded the Convention that they had just voted to give the legislature the authority to change the time. “The time is of not great moment now,” he said, “as the legislature can vary it.” The motion for “May” instead of “December” died a quick 2 – 8 death.

Article IV, Sect. 1 of the Report engendered the most contentious debate of the day. It provides that members of the House of Representatives shall be elected every two years by the people of the States. Qualified voters are to be the same “as those of the electors [voters] in the several States, of the most numerous branch of their own legislatures.” Again, Morris was ready with an amendment, proposing to strike “qualifications of electors” in order to consider some other provision to limit the “right of suffrage to freeholders [landowners].”

Committee member James Wilson stressed “this part of the report was well-considered by the Committee.” It was difficult, he said, to form any uniform rule of qualifications for all of the States. It would be “hard and disagreeable for the same persons, at the same time, to vote for representatives in the State legislature and to be excluded from a vote in the national legislature.” Ellsworth agreed, “The people will not readily subscribe to the national constitution if it subjects them to be disfranchised.” Moreover, the States are the best judge of “the circumstances and temper of their own people.” Then, he asked, “How shall the freehold be defined?” Shouldn’t every taxpayer be eligible to vote for those who can “levy and dispose of his money?” What about the merchants and manufacturers?

Morris was not convinced. His motive is to prevent aristocracy. “Give the vote to people who have no property,” he argued, “and they will sell them to the rich who will be able to buy them…The man who does not give his vote freely is not represented. It is the man who dictates the vote…Nine-tenths of the people are at present freeholders. As to merchants, etc., if they have wealth and value the right, they can acquire it. If not, they don’t deserve it.” South Carolina’s Pierce Butler took the opposite position. Limiting the vote to landowners would become the basis of an aristocracy, he said, not depriving the landless of the vote.

Surprisingly, James Madison was inclined to agree with Morris, but Benjamin Franklin was not. “It is of great consequence,” he cautioned, “that we should not depress the virtue and public spirit of our common people, of which they displayed a great deal during the war…The sons of a substantial farmer, not being themselves freeholders, would not be pleased at being disenfranchised, and there are a great many persons of that description.”

Having attended his first meeting just yesterday, John Mercer’s first utterance was in opposition to the plan before them. “The Constitution is objectionable in many points,” he said, “but in none more than the present…The people cannot know and judge of the characters of the candidates. The worse possible choice will be made. The towns can unite their voices in favor of one favorite; and by that means always prevail over the people of the country, who being dispersed will scatter their votes among a variety of candidates.” 

Finally, John Rutledge closed the debate, advising against limiting the vote to landowners by arguing “it would create division among the people and make enemies of all those who should be excluded.” Morris’s motion failed, supported only by Delaware.

Back to top