The first Constitutional Convention



THE method of obtaining an American Constitution through a representative convention was historical, and was suggested when the idea was to form a union that should be consistent with allegiance to the crown. It was renewed in the speculations on independence, and in "Common Sense," in 1776. When the aim was to reform the Confederation, a convention was suggested by Hamilton in 1780; by Pelatiah Webster in 1781; by the New York legislature in 1782; was named in Congress by Hamilton in 1783; was proposed by Richard Henry Lee in a letter in 1784; and was recommended by Governor Bowdoin in a speech to the Massachusetts legislature in 1785. No action, however, grew out of these suggestions. In 1786, the Assembly of Virginia, under the lead of Madison, appointed commissioners to meet in convention and consider the question of commerce, with the view of altering the Articles of Confederation; and it was made the duty of this committee to invite all the States to concur in the measure.

The convention met at Annapolis, with delegates from five States, on September II, 1786. The representation was so partial that no action was taken, other than to urge the appointment of commissioners from all the States, to meet in Philadelphia, on the second Monday of the next May, to consider such measures as were necessary' to adapt the Federal Constitution to the exigencies of the Union.

In the mean time, national affairs grew worse. To the chronic neglect to comply with the requisitions of Congress, the New Jersey legislature added positive refusal by an act of legislation. The legislatures of States having ports for foreign commerce taxed the people of other States trading through them; others taxed imports from sister States; in other instances the navigation-laws treated the people of other States as aliens. The authority of Congress was disregarded by violating not only the treaty of Paris, but treaties with France and Holland..

This was the period of "Shays' Rebellion" in Massachusetts, in which the spirit and example of disobedience to law, exhibited for years by the local legislatures, broke out among a people. It created a profound impression. At home it seemed a herald of approaching anarchy; abroad it exalted the hopes of monarchists and was regarded as the knell of republicanism. The treason was easily subdued by a military force, under General Lincoln, called out by Governor Bowdoin. It was the first rising in arms against a government established by the people in this State, and thus far has proved the last. It had the effect to ripen the public mind for a general government.

Immediately after this event (November 9, 1786), Virginia appointed commissioners to the projected convention. Other States quickly followed, all the States electing delegates except Rhode Island.

The delegates elect were summoned to meet in Philadelphia on the fourteenth day of May [1787], in Independence Hall; but, a majority of the States not being then represented, those present adjourned from day to day until the twenty-fifth. They then organized into a convention, should appoint the governor of each State, who should have a negative on the laws to be passed by the legislature. This plan was not acted on. On the 19th of June the committee of the whole reported to the House that they did not assent to the resolutions offered by the Hon. Mr. Patterson, but submitted again the nineteen resolutions before reported. The first was, "That it is the opinion of this committee that a National Government ought to be established, consisting of a supreme legislature, judiciary, and executive."

This determination to frame a new government brought face to face in the Convention the antagonisms of American society: the errors of opinion and rooted prejudices; the local interests, jealousies, and ambitions of the people of the several States. The slavery question rose to fearful eminence. It was connected with the question of representation, or the mode in which the political power should be distributed. Madison, on the 30th of June, in an elaborate speech, delineated the great division of interests in the United States, as not being between the large and the small States, but as arising from their having or not having slaves. "It lay," he said, "between the Northern and Southern;" and he went on to show how certain arrangements "would destroy the equilibrium of interests between the two sections." In this he probed the cause of the passion that mingled in the debates. The storm was fearful. "I believe," Luther Martin said, "near a fortnight, perhaps more, was spent in the discussion of this business, during which we were on the verge of dissolution, scarce held together by the strength of a hair;" and this is confirmed by a letter from Washington, who said that he almost despaired of seeing a favorable issue to the proceedings, and therefore repented of having had any agency in the business.

During this period Franklin made his well-known impressive speech on introducing a motion that prayers be said in the Convention. In another characteristic speech, on the wide diversity of opinion, he said that when a broad table is to be made, and the edges of planks do not fit, the artist takes a little from both and makes a good joint. In like manner, here, both sides must part with some of their demands, in order that they may join in some accommodating proposition. The work of healing commenced when the compromise was agreed to, fixing the basis of representation by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to serve for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other persons, and giving to each State one representative for every forty thousand inhabitants, and to each State an equal vote in the Senate.

After the adjustment of representation, there remained the difficulty of discriminating between the two spheres of power, local and general. The proposal of Hamilton to endow a central government with power to appoint the local governors met with little, if any, favor. The advocates of the old Articles made it their chief point to preserve to the States their importance; and Madison, the foremost advocate of the Virginia plan, said that "he would preserve the State rights as carefully as the trial by jury." The clear and profound George Mason said that, "notwithstanding his solicitude to establish a national government, he never would agree to abolish the State governments, or render them absolutely insignificant. They were as necessary as the general government, and he would be equally careful to preserve them. He was aware of the difficulty of drawing the line between them, but hoped it was not insurmountable." He also said he was sure "that, though the mind of the people might be unsettled on some points, yet it was settled in attachment to republican government." Local self-government, union, and republicanism were as laws inscribed on the tablets of the American heart; and it was the office of the able men of the Convention to devise for their wants the letter of a written constitution.

In these discussions the Convention had passed on the nineteen resolutions. On the 23rd of July it was determined that its proceedings "for the establishment of a national government," excepting the executive, should be referred to a committee, for the purpose of reporting the draft of a constitution conformably to them; and the next day, when five members were reported as this committee, the propositions submitted by Pinckney and Patterson were also referred to it. On the 6th of August the committee reported; when another month of debate followed, during which the clauses relative to the slave-trade and the rendition of slaves were agreed to,--on which hung mighty issues. They are of the past now. They were the price that was paid for republican government, an instrument of vast good in the present and for the future. On the 8th of September a committee of five was appointed "to revise the style of and arrange the articles agreed to by the House." This work was intrusted to Gouverneur Morris, and to him belongs the credit of the simple style and clear arrangement of the Constitution. The committee reported on the twelfth, when the printing of the Constitution was ordered. Three days were occupied in revising it, when it was ordered to be engrossed. It was then read, when Franklin rose with a speech in his hand, which was read by James Wilson.

"I confess," it begins, "that there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve; but I am not sure I shall never approve them. For, having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions, even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that, the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment and to pay more respect to the judgment of others. .

"In these sentiments, sir, I agree to that Constitution, with all its faults, if they are such, because I think a general government necessary for us, and there is no form of government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered; and believe, further, that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall be so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other."

Franklin concluded by moving a form in which the Constitution should be signed by the members.

At this point Mr. Gorham, of Massachusetts, proposed to reduce the basis of representation from forty thousand to thirty thousand persons. This was sustained by Washington, in the only speech made by him during the Convention.

When he rose to put the question on the motion of Mr. Gorham, he said,--

"That although his situation had hitherto restrained him from offering his sentiments on questions depending in the House, and, it might be thought, ought now to impose silence upon him, yet he could not forbear expressing his wish that the alteration proposed might take place. It was much to be desired that the objections to the plan recommended might be made as few as possible. The smallness of the proportion of representatives had been considered, by many members of the Convention, an insufficient security for the rights and interests of the people. He acknowledged that it had always appeared to himself among the exceptionable parts of the plan; and, late as the present moment was for admitting amendments, he thought this of so much consequence that it would give him much satisfaction to see it adopted."

This impressive appeal was followed by a unanimous vote in favor of the motion. There was then a vote on the question whether the Constitution should be agreed to as engrossed in order to be signed, and all the States answered aye. There was then a debate on signing. Hamilton now entered upon the course that reflects high honor on him as a patriot. He was anxious that every member should sign, saying, "No man's ideas were more remote from the plan than his own were known to be; but is it possible to deliberate between anarchy and convulsion on one side, and the chance of good to be expected from the plan on the other?"

All the members signed the Constitution, excepting Edmund Randolph and George Mason, of Virginia, and Elbridge Gerry, of Massachusetts. While the last members were signing, Franklin, the Nestor of the assembly, looking towards the President's chair, at the back of which a rising sun happened to be painted, observed to a few members near him that painters had found it difficult to distinguish in their art a rising from a setting sun. "I have," said he, "often and often, in the course of the session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the President, without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting; but now, at length, I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun." The instrument was attested in the form submitted by him: "Done in Convention, by the unanimous consent of the States present, the 17th day of September, in the year of our Lord 1787, and of the Independence of the United States of America the twelfth."





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