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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.

Tuesday, June 26, 1787

June 26, 2020 - 4 minute read

Colonial Town Meeting

The second, or upper, branch of the proposed national government is now being called the “Senate” by some delegates. Yesterday’s session adjourned without a final decision on the length of terms members of the Senate may serve. The fourth resolution of the Committee’s report proposes a term of seven years.

A succession of motions was voted on with virtually no discussion. Nathaniel Gorham proposed four years with one-fourth to be elected every year. Edmund Randolph prefers “seven years, to go out in fixed proportion.” Hugh Williamson and Roger Sherman opt for six years “as being more convenient,” while George Read and Robert Morris proposed that members of the second branch hold their offices “during good behavior,” in essence, for life. For the second time, Gen. Pinckney proposed four years.

Finally, after Charles Pinckney’s protracted speech and this indecisive series of votes, one delegate moved to adjourn. Evenly divided, 5 – 5, the motion to adjourn failed. Maryland, as usual, was divided, even over a motion to adjourn! The Convention took one more vote, that the terms of Senators be five years. It failed, with Maryland still divided. The Convention adjourned.

The first order of business this morning was to complete what had been left undone yesterday. Mr. Gorham proposed six-year terms for Senators, “with one third of the members to go out every second year.” Unlike yesterday’s abbreviated debate, today’s consideration of this topic took a more studied approach. James Madison put the matter in perspective. “In order to judge the form to be given to this institution,” he said, “it will be proper to take a view of the ends to be served by it.” What is to be the purpose of the Senate? For Madison, it is to “first protect the people against their rulers” and “secondly to protect the people against the transient impressions into which they themselves might be led.” The “people themselves” are “liable to temporary errors.” The first branch of government, elected by the people, is “liable to err also, from fickleness and passion.”

For Madison, the best defense against this danger “would be to select a portion of enlightened citizens, whose limited number and firmness might seasonably interpose against impetuous councils.” The second branch would, in effect, check the first branch. Lengthy terms for Senators permit long-term perspectives, opportunities for acquiring more knowledge of the public interests, and more sober reflection.

Justifying his position, Madison observed that “in all civilized countries the people fall into different classes having a real or supposed difference of interests.” There will be, he said, “creditors and debtors, farmers, merchants and manufacturing…rich and poor.” He agreed with Charles Pinckney’s remarks yesterday that the current American population is generally homogeneous, but that will inevitably change in the future and we are “framing a system which we wish to last for ages. We should not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce. An increase in population will of necessity increase the proportion of those who will labor under all the hardship of life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings.” Power could slide into the hands of the poor, he cautioned. Already there have been signs of the “leveling spirit.” Shay’s Rebellion is only one instance.

“How,” he asked, “is this danger to be guarded against on republican principles?” The answer, he asserted, is to be found “in the establishment of a body in the government sufficiently respectable for its wisdom and virtue.” Additionally, a term of nine years would increase stability.

Roger Sherman disagrees. Government is created for those who live under it, he said, “it ought therefore to be so constituted as not to be dangerous to their liberties. The more permanency it has, the worse if it be a bad government. Frequent elections are necessary to preserve the good behavior of rulers.” He thought “six or four years would be sufficient.”

Alexander Hamilton addressed Sherman directly. Sherman, he said, “seemed not to recollect that one branch of the proposed government was so formed, as to render it particularly the guardians of the poorer orders of citizens,” that is, election by the people. To prove the point, Hamilton cited problems in Connecticut, Sherman’s own State.

Elbridge Gerry did not deny Madison’s contention that “the majority will generally violate justice when they have an interest in so doing,” but he “did not think there was any such temptation in this country. Our situation is very much different and the great body of lands yet to be parceled out and settled would very much prolong the difference.” He also saw “the evils arising from a frequency of elections,” thus he prefers four or five years. James Wilson supports nine years. It would provide stability and efficacy of our government in the eyes of other countries, many which now will not conclude treaties with us.” When the vote was finally taken, the Convention voted 7 – 4 for six-year terms, one third to be rotated annually. New York, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Georgia voted against.

Although Gen. Pinckney believes Senators should not receive a salary since he believed “the senatorial branch was meant to represent the wealth of the country,” all but South Carolina agreed that Senators should “receive a compensation for the devotion of their time to the public service.” How they are to be paid is as controversial as that same subject was to the first branch. Oliver Ellsworth proposed they be paid by the State legislatures. “If the Senate was meant to strengthen the government, it ought to have the confidence of the States,” he asserted. Madison and Jonathan Dayton countered. Ellsworth’s motion would make the Senate mere agents of the States. It would be fatal to the independence of the Senate, they argued. Ellsworth’s motion failed, as did the motion to have Senators paid out of the national treasury, resulting in a stalemate. There is much left to be accomplished.

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