On June 3, the second day of the Virginia ratifying convention, delegates agreed to George Mason’s motion to go through the Constitution “clause by clause” before voting on the general question of ratification. It was a logical approach to deliberating the merits of the Constitution and had been used in most of the other ratifying conventions. James Madison was delighted. More than any other delegate, he was fully prepared to explain in detail the meaning and purpose of each provision. However, Patrick Henry refused to be restrained by such a rule. His non-compliance was obvious from the first day of debate and would characterize his style until the convention would adjourn later in June.
The next morning, the clerk read the Constitution’s Preamble and the first two sections of Article 1, opening debate on creation of a national Congress. George Nicholas masterfully defended apportionment of Congress among the states, the method of electing it members, and its authority to “alter the time, place, and manner of holding elections.”
But then, in a remarkable display of oratorical and political dexterity, Patrick Henry effectively redefined the debate, turning its focus to issues of greatest concern to himself and his allies rather than adhering to the systematic analysis to which the convention had already agreed, and Nicholas had complied. Well aware of his ability to command and move an audience, Henry also knew that the Virginia legislature was scheduled to reconvene on June 30. Many convention delegates were also members of the legislature and would be required, by law, to leave the convention to attend the legislative session. Prolonged debate was an advantage the Anti-federalists would press; procrastinate to an adjournment without making a decision.
Henry would speak on at least seventeen of the twenty-three daily sessions, often speaking more than once. On one occasion, he spoke for seven hours. Exasperated, Edmund Randolph complained on behalf of many delegates. “If we go on in this irregular manner, contrary to our resolutions,” he grumbled, “instead of three or six weeks, it will take us six months to decide this question!”
On June 10, Nicholas lodged his own complaint. “Although we have sat eight days,” he groaned, “so little has been done, that we have hardly begun to discuss the question regularly. The rule of the house to proceed clause by clause has been violated. Instead of doing this, gentlemen alarm us by declamations without reason or argument – by bold assertions that we are going to sacrifice our liberties.”
Increasingly irritated, Nicholas again objected on June 13, urging “that the convention should either proceed according to the original determination, clause by clause, or rescind that order and go into the Constitution at large.” Henry objected to both suggestions. Instead, he asserted that there remained many topics to be discussed, including navigation rights on the Mississippi, and insisted that members of Congress immediately provide to the convention “transactions of Congress relative to the navigation of the river.” Fatigued by Henry’s continued domination of the debates, Nicholas and James Madison acquiesced.
Henry’s motion to shift discussion to rights on the Mississippi had less to do with provisions of the Constitution itself than with creating more doubt among the delegates from the Kentucky region, whose economy depended on access to the mighty river. “The interests of Virginia and Kentucky,” he stressed, “are most intimately and vitally connected.” Nicholas countered, declaring that the failure of Congress to satisfactorily resolve the issue was proof that the “Confederation is not sufficient for the purposes for which it was instituted.” Randolph rose to support Nicholas but prefaced his remarks by noting “so many attempts… and so many inducements [had been] offered to influence the delegates from Kentucky.”
Wrangling over the Mississippi endured until late in the day when “a storm arose, which was so violent as to compel Mr. Corbin to desist, and the committee to rise.” Adjournment due to weather, but for some perhaps a welcome respite.
Later that evening, weary from lack of progress and Henry’s manipulation of the convention’s deliberations, James Madison wrote to George Washington, apprising him of the situation and concluding that the final decision “may depend on the Kentucky members, who seem to be more against than in favor of the Constitution.” In fact, he mused, “the majority will certainly be very small on whatever side it may finally lie, and I dare not encourage much expectation that it will be on the favorable side.”
The same evening, Gouverneur Morris, one of Pennsylvania’s most effective delegates to the Constitutional Convention and crafter of “We the people of the United States,” wrote a letter to Alexander Hamilton. In Virginia on business, Morris had spent ten days observing the Virginia convention and reported that “matters are not going so well.” Hamilton had asked Morris to contribute to the series of essays which had by now been published as “The Federalist,” but Morris had declined, leaving the work to Hamilton, Madison and John Jay.
However, Morris put his formidable writing skills to good use by composing a humorous ditty summarizing the Virginia convention: “The State’s determined resolution was to discuss the Constitution / For this the members come together, melting with zeal and sultry weather / And here to their eternal praise, to find it’s hist’ry spend three days / The next three days they nobly roam thro ev’ry region far from home / Call in the Grecian, Swiss, Italian, the Roman, Dutch rapscallion / Fellows who freedom never knew, to tell us what we ought to do / The next three days they kindly dip yee deep in the River Mississippi / Nine days thus spent ere they begin, let us suppose them fairly in / and then resolve my gentle friend, how many months before they end.”