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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.

Wednesday, June 27, 1787

June 27, 2020 - 4 minute read

Martin Luther

The Convention has debated, voted, and amended the first five resolutions of the Committee report. At the end of session yesterday, the fifth resolve proposing “that each branch have the right of originating acts” passed nem.con.

This morning John Rutledge moved that the Convention postpone resolution six and instead consider resolutions seven and eight “which involve the most fundamental points; the rules of suffrage in the two branches.” Spending more time on details is futile if consensus cannot be achieved on this critical issue. Without dissent, the Convention agreed.

Resolution seven proposes “that suffrage in the first branch should be according to an equitable ratio,” that is, some formula of proportional representation. Luther Martin was on his feet instantly and delivered what one delegate later called “a lengthy harangue” at “the most inopportune time.” Martin is a staunch anti-nationalist. Born in New Jersey, he graduated with honors from the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) and moved to Maryland where he began to study law while earning his living as a teacher. He was an early supporter of American independence, was appointed attorney general of Maryland in 1778, and vigorously prosecuted loyalists. Two years ago, he was elected to the Confederation Congress, but seldom attends due to other public and private priorities. His law practice is one of the largest and most successful in the country.

He is known to be a heavy drinker, abrupt and often rude, but brilliant. William Pierce’s “character sketches” record that Martin “was educated for the bar and is attorney general for the State of Maryland. This gentleman possesses a good deal of information, but he has a very bad delivery, and so extremely prolix, that he never speaks without tiring the patience of all who hear him. He is about thirty-four years of age.”

Martin’s fellow delegates from Maryland may agree with his arguments, but are often put off by his brash, offensive style. Like James Madison, Robert Yates of New York keeps a daily journal. “Mr. Martin spoke upwards of three hours, he lamented. “His arguments were too diffuse, and in many instances desultory. It was not possible to trace him through the whole, or to methodize his ideas into a systematic or argumentative arrangement.” Years later, Oliver Ellsworth will complain that the speech “might have continued two months, but for those marks of fatigue and disgust you saw strongly expressed on whichever side of the house you turned your mortified eyes.”

Martin arrived at the Convention on June 9 and has often repeated the same arguments defending the small States’ position. “The general government,” he insisted, “was meant merely to preserve the State governments, not to govern individuals. Its powers ought to be kept within narrow limits; that if too little power was given to it, more might be added; but that if too much, it could never be resumed.” It is only the State governments, to whom the people “have delegated their power,” he declared, which can sanction a new government. “Through their tongue only [the people] can speak; through their ears, only, can hear.”

Of the failures of the States cited by other delegates, Martin blamed the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, “the heaviness of private debts, and the waste of property during the war.” Moreover, he did not believe the instances mentioned by Madison during the course of these debates, that the compacts between Virginia and Maryland and Pennsylvania and New Jersey, violated the Articles; neither did the raising of troops by Massachusetts for defense against the recent rebellion in that State.

Martin admitted that “the States may give up the right of sovereignty, yet they had not, and ought not.” They were, he said, “like individuals in a state of nature equally sovereign and free. To prove his point, he read passages from Locke, Vattel, Lord Summers, Priestly and Rutherford. The States “cannot treat or confederate so as to give up an equality of votes without giving up their liberty.”

Many in the Convention are searching for compromises that can lead to unity. State actions considered by some to be violations of the Articles and even contrary to the liberties of the people have been cited during debate as evidence of the need for a stronger national government. But Martin, while denying much of this, went further, even questioning the motives of the large States. “The propositions on the table,” he charged, “are a system of slavery for ten States. Virginia, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania have 42/90 of the votes. They can do as they please without a miraculous union of the other ten. They will have nothing to do, but to gain over one of the ten to make them complete masters of the rest; they can then appoint an executive, a judiciary and legislate for them as they please…There is and would continue a natural predilection and partiality in men for their own States.”

And on it went for three hours, plowing over ground that had already been well-seeded with arguments for the small States, but his manner of presentation, accusatory tone and rambling diatribe put off even those who agree with him on many points.

Mercifully, he announced that “he was too much exhausted to finish his remarks,” but to the chagrin of his weary audience, he “reminded the House that he should tomorrow resume them.” Martin’s effort had little effect, except to provoke disgust among the delegates. It did nothing to foster conciliation and collaboration. The Convention is still deadlocked over the one issue, if not soon resolved, which could cause the Convention to dissolve.

If there is any pleasant news today, it is that “the gentlemen of the Convention at the Indian Queen” invited Benjamin Franklin to be their dinner guest next Monday.

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