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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 6, 1787

June 06, 2020 - 5 minute read

Colonial Voting

Yesterday, the Committee of the Whole quickly reviewed the remaining six resolves of the Virginia Plan. Resolve No. 10, “that provision ought to be made for the admission” of new States, passed unanimously. Resolve No. 11 guaranteeing a republican form of government for each State was postponed for further consideration. Without debate, Resolve No. 12 was agreed to.  It simply assures the continuation of the current Confederation Congress “until a given day after the reform of the articles of Union shall be adopted.” The Committee postponed Resolve No. 13 providing for a process to amend the future Constitution without the consent of Congress and Resolve No. 14 requiring State officials to take an oath “to support the articles of Union.”

Resolve No. 15 stimulated a lively debate about the method by which “the amendments which shall be offered to the Confederation” should be ratified. The resolution proposed they be “submitted to an assembly or assemblies of representatives to be expressly chosen by the people.”  Roger Sherman and Elbridge Gerry opposed including the people in the ratification process.  According to James Madison, Gerry “seemed afraid of referring the new system to them.” Sherman said it is “unnecessary.” Madison said it is “essential.”  The question of ratification was postponed, but it represents the division among delegates about how much “the people” should be involved in the new government.

That division appeared again this morning. Earlier, on May 31, the Committee had voted 6 – 2 – 2 that the first branch of government be elected by the people.  Connecticut and South Carolina were in the opposition.  Now, they seek to reverse the decision by a motion put forth by S. Carolina’s Charles Pinckney, “that the first branch of the national Legislature be elected by the State Legislatures, and not by the people.” John Rutledge, also of S. Carolina, seconded the motion. Pinckney believes “the state legislatures would be less likely to promote the adoption of the new government, if they were to be excluded from all share in it.” 

Elbridge Gerry weighed in. The recent uprising in Massachusetts, already known as Shay’s Rebellion, frequently figures in Gerry’s reasoning. “In Massachusetts,” he said, “the worst men get into the legislature. Several of that body had lately been convicted of infamous crimes.”  Nevertheless, he recognizes the necessity of engaging the people in some manner, but “much depends on the mode of election.”  His idea is that “the people should nominate certain persons in certain districts, out of whom the State Legislatures should make the appointment.”  In our time, we might call this “democracy lite” or “democracy once removed.”

Roger Sherman (Conn.) is a “states’ rights” advocate and addressed the issue directly. “If it were in view to abolish the State Governments, the elections ought to be by the people,” he said, but “if the State Governments are to be continued, it is necessary in order to preserve harmony between the national and state governments that the elections to the former should be made by the latter.”  

George Mason countered, “Under the existing Confederacy, Congress represents the States, not the people of the states: their acts operate on the States, not on the individuals. The case will be changed in the new plan of government. The people will be represented; they ought therefore to choose the representatives.”  Georgia’s William Pierce was “for an election by the people as to the 1st branch and by the States as to the 2nd branch; by which means the Citizens of the States would be represented both individually and collectively.”

Whether to trust in the people and defining the relationship between the national government and the State governments are inextricably intertwined. Sherman declared the “objects of the Union” should be few, limited to defense against foreign danger; defense against internal disputes; treaties; and regulating foreign commerce and drawing revenue from it. Other than perhaps a few lesser objects, “all other matters civil and criminal would be much better in the hands of the States.” 

It was on this subject that James Madison delivered his first extensive discourse at the Convention. Election of one branch of the legislature by the people is a “clear principle of free government,” he asserted. Plumbing the deep reservoir of his knowledge of ancient and modern forms of government, Madison explained why confederacies had failed. The major lesson to draw is that “where a majority are united by a common sentiment and have an opportunity, the rights of the minority party become insecure.” But there are many interests or “factions” – rich and poor; debtors and creditors; the landed; the manufacturing and commercial interests; and various religious sects. The remedy to a “united majority,” he asserted, ”is to enlarge the sphere and thereby divide the community into so great a number of interests and parties, that the majority will not be likely at the same moment to have a common interest separate from that of the whole or of the minority.” In the end, Pinckney’s motion for the state legislatures to elect the first branch of the national government failed 3 – 8, votes in favor cast by Connecticut, S. Carolina and a new ally on this subject, New Jersey.

As a delegate from Delaware, George Read was bound by his instructions to support the provision in the Articles of Confederation that “in Congress assembled, each States shall have one vote.” But he was also practical. “Too much attachment is betrayed to the State Governments,” he observed. “We must look beyond their continuance. A national government must soon of necessity swallow all of them.” He was against “patching up the old federal system” and “hoped the idea would soon be dismissed. It would be like putting new cloth on an old garment. The Confederation was founded on temporary principles.  It cannot last. It cannot be amended. If we do not establish a good Government on new principles, we must either go to ruin, or have the work to do over again.”

This evening Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson, listing the names of all the delegates appointed to the Convention.  His letter was cautiously optimistic.  “The names of the members,” he wrote, “will satisfy you that the States have been serious in this business. The attendance of General Washington is a proof of the light in which he regards it.” 

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