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, May 8, 1787

May 08, 2020 - 4 minute read

James Madison (his friends call him “Jemmy”) has been in town since last Thursday.  While he spends much of his time in his room at Mrs. House’s boardinghouse studying and preparing for the convention, he has been visiting with Benjamin Franklin and other friends, maintaining his correspondence, and following up on reports about a slave who had run away from his plantation in Virginia.  

Madison has just come from New York City where he represents Virginia in the Confederation Congress. He was in attendance on February 21 when Congress voted to call a convention.  According to the record, the purpose of the convention is quite clear –  “for the express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.”  Any revisions will be proposals only and not take effect until agreed to by Congress and confirmed by the States.

Apparently, according to Madison, there was some disagreement in Congress prior to the vote.  Connecticut was against it “in every form.”  Some members were concerned that having a special convention to propose changes instead of having Congress undertake the task would undermine the authority of Congress itself. Indeed, many members believed what Dr. Johnson, a member from Connecticut, declared out loud, that this action will be a “deadly blow to the existing Confederation.”  Others believed what Dr. Johnson declared but saw it in a different light - as “the harbinger of a better Confederation.”  

It is fortunate for us and history that Mr. Madison keeps such copious notes.  As he informs us, many members of Congress held back and did not reveal their real wishes and expectations, but “all agreed and owned that the federal government in its existing shape is inefficient and cannot last long.”

The southern and middle states seem to be the most anxious for changes that will preserve the Union and give due energy to a national government.  Strangely, Mr. Bingham of Pennsylvania wants to see the confederacy divided into several distinct confederacies. No one else in Congress endorsed it, but we have heard the idea has got into some newspapers.

The February 21 resolution passed by Congress was inevitable because the Articles of Confederation are wholly inadequate.  In fact, seven States had already begun to select delegates before Congress voted. Virginia and New Jersey were the first to take action, both near the end of November. They were followed by Pennsylvania in December and New Hampshire, Delaware and Georgia by mid-February. The remaining States are likely to act soon.  So far, most of the delegates are not current members of Congress, with the exceptions of Mr. Madison and William Blount of Virginia, and William Few and William Pierce of Georgia.  

Most of the States have assumed all of their delegates might not be able to attend every session, so they provided how many among them would be authorized to represent their State if some were absent. They also made provision for replacing delegates if they were to die before the convention ends. Attention to this level of detail demonstrates just how serious the States are about reform.  

 It will well-known that George Washington and Benjamin Franklin will attend the convention.  Mr. Franklin is 81 years old, in poor health, and frequently suffering from excruciating pain.  But his mind is sharp, and he has been holding meetings of the Society for Political Inquiries in his home, listening to the opinions of his fellow citizens, and advocating for his own. General Washington is suffering from rheumatism and the death in January of his favorite brother, John Augustine. It is to the credit of Mr. Madison’s prodding and encouragement that Washington finally agreed to be a delegate, but just days before he was to leave Mt. Vernon he received a message from an exhausted courier that both his sister and his mother were in “extreme illness.”  He rushed to their home in Fredericksburg  and was greeted with good news that they were both recovering.  After several days, he returned home to Mt. Vernon on April 30, in time to prepare for his trip to Philadelphia.

The presence of Mr. Franklin and General Washington will add both dignity and enhanced credibility to the coming convention.  Added to their prestige are the knowledge and experience of others who had fought during the Revolutionary War or drafted documents advocating republican government, the rights of citizens, and freedom of conscience.  George Mason had authored the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776 and is regarded as one of the great intellectual minds of the age.  George Wythe is a noted classics scholar and judge in Virginia.  Edmund Pendleton is a Virginia planter, lawyer and patriot who worked alongside Washington and Patrick Henry to lead Virginia’s vote for independence.

Pennsylvania’s James Wilson and Gouvernor Morris will in all likelihood make important contributions at the convention.  Wilson studied law under John Dickenson and had written and debated forcefully for independence, eventually signing the Declaration of Independence itself. Dickenson is known as the “Penman of the Revolution” and later served as President of both Pennsylvania and Delaware.  Morris and his colleague from New Jersey, William Paterson, are well-regarded for their legal prowess and persuasive intellect.  We have good reports about other delegates and remain anxious for their deliberations to begin.

Back to top