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Commissioners representing both parties had met at Alexandria and soon
adjourned to Mount Vernon, where they not only reached an amicable
settlement of the immediate questions before them but also discussed the
larger subjects of duties and commercial matters in general. When
the Maryland legislature came to act on the report, it proposed that
Pennsylvania and Delaware should be invited to join with them in
formulating a common commercial policy. Virginia then went one step
farther and invited all the other States to send commissioners to a
general trade convention and later announced Annapolis as the place of
meeting and set the time for September, 1786.

This action was unconstitutional and was so recognized, for James
Madison notes that "from the Legislative Journals of Virginia it
appears, that a vote to apply for a sanction of Congress was followed
by a vote against a communication of the Compact to Congress," and he
mentions other similar violations of the central authority. That this
did not attract more attention was probably due to the public interest
being absorbed just at that time by the paper money agitation. Then,
too, the men concerned seem to have been willing to avoid publicity.
Their purposes are well brought out in a letter of Monsieur Louis Otto,
French Charge d'Affaires, written on October 10, 1786, to the Comte de
Vergennes, Minister for Foreign Affairs, though their motives may be
somewhat misinterpreted.

"Although there are no nobles in America, there is a class of men
denominated "gentlemen," who, by reason of their wealth, their talents,
their education, their families, or the offices they hold, aspire to a
preeminence which the people refuse to grant them; and, although many of
these men have betrayed the interests of their order to gain popularity,
there reigns among them a connection so much the more intimate as they
almost all of them dread the efforts of the people to despoil them of
their possessions, and, moreover, they are creditors, and therefore
interested in strengthening the government, and watching over the
execution of the laws.

"These men generally pay very heavy taxes, while the small proprietors
escape the vigilance of the collectors. The majority of them being
merchants, it is for their interest to establish the credit of the
United States in Europe on a solid foundation by the exact payment of
debts, and to grant to congress powers extensive enough to compel the
people to contribute for this purpose. The attempt, my lord, has been
vain, by pamphlets and other publications, to spread notions of justice
and integrity, and to deprive the people of a freedom which they have so
misused. By proposing a new organization of the federal government all
minds would have been revolted; circumstances ruinous to the commerce of
America have happily arisen to furnish the reformers with a pretext for
introducing innovations.

"They represented to the people that the American name had become
opprobrious among all the nations of Europe; that the flag of the United
States was everywhere exposed to insults and annoyance; the husbandman,
no longer able to export his produce freely, would soon be reduced to
want; it was high time to retaliate, and to convince foreign powers that
the United States would not with impunity suffer such a violation of the
freedom of trade, but that strong measures could be taken only with
the consent of the thirteen states, and that congress, not having the
necessary powers, it was essential to form a general assembly instructed
to present to congress the plan for its adoption, and to point out the
means of carrying it into execution.

"The people, generally discontented with the obstacles in the way of
commerce, and scarcely suspecting the secret motives of their opponents,
ardently embraced this measure, and appointed commissioners, who were to
assemble at Annapolis in the beginning of September.

"The authors of this proposition had no hope, nor even desire, to see
the success of this assembly of commissioners, which was only intended
to prepare a question much more important than that of commerce. The
measures were so well taken that at the end of September no more than
five states were represented at Annapolis, and the commissioners from
the northern states tarried several days at New York in order to retard
their arrival.

"The states which assembled, after having waited nearly three weeks,
separated under the pretext that they were not in sufficient numbers to
enter on business, and, to justify this dissolution, they addressed to
the different legislatures and to congress a report, the translation of
which I have the honor to enclose to you."*

* Quoted by Bancroft, "History of the Formation of the
Constitution," vol. ii, Appendix, pp. 399-400.

Among these "men denominated 'gentlemen'" to whom the French Charge
d'Affaires alludes, was James Madison of Virginia. He was one of the
younger men, unfitted by temperament and physique to be a soldier, who
yet had found his opportunity in the Revolution. Graduating in 1771
from Princeton, where tradition tells of the part he took in patriotic
demonstrations on the campus - characteristic of students then as now - he
had thrown himself heart and soul into the American cause. He was a
member of the convention to frame the first State Constitution for
Virginia in 1776, and from that time on, because of his ability, he was
an important figure in the political history of his State and of his
country. He was largely responsible for bringing about the conference
between Virginia and Maryland and for the subsequent steps resulting
in the trade convention at Annapolis. And yet Madison seldom took a
conspicuous part, preferring to remain in the background and to
allow others to appear as the leaders. When the Annapolis Convention
assembled, for example, he suffered Alexander Hamilton of New York to
play the leading role.

Hamilton was then approaching thirty years of age and was one of the
ablest men in the United States. Though his best work was done in
later years, when he proved himself to be perhaps the most brilliant
of American statesmen, with an extraordinary genius for administrative
organization, the part that he took in the affairs of this period was
important. He was small and slight in person but with an expressive
face, fair complexion, and cheeks of "almost feminine rosiness." The
usual aspect of his countenance was thoughtful and even severe, but in
conversation his face lighted up with a remarkably attractive smile. He
carried himself erectly and with dignity, so that in spite of his small
figure, when he entered a room "it was apparent, from the respectful
attention of the company, that he was a distinguished person." A
contemporary, speaking of the opposite and almost irreconcilable traits
of Hamilton's character, pronounced a bust of him as giving a complete
exposition of his character: "Draw a handkerchief around the mouth of
the bust, and the remnant of the countenance represents fortitude and
intrepidity such as we have often seen in the plates of Roman heroes.
Veil in the same manner the face and leave the mouth and chin only
discernible, and all this fortitude melts and vanishes into almost
feminine softness."

Hamilton was a leading spirit in the Annapolis Trade Convention and
wrote the report that it adopted. Whether or not there is any truth in
the assertion of the French charge that Hamilton and others thought
it advisable to disguise their purposes, there is no doubt that the
Annapolis Convention was an all-important step in the progress of
reform, and its recommendation was the direct occasion of the calling of
the great convention that framed the Constitution of the United States.

The recommendation of the Annapolis delegates was in the form of a
report to the legislatures of their respective States, in which they
referred to the defects in the Federal Government and called for "a
convention of deputies from the different states for the special purpose
of entering into this investigation and digesting a Plan for supplying
such defects." Philadelphia was suggested as the place of meeting, and
the time was fixed for the second Monday in May of the next year.

Several of the States acted promptly upon this recommendation and in
February, 1787, Congress adopted a resolution accepting the proposal and
calling the convention "for the sole and express purpose of revising
the Articles of Confederation and reporting. .. such alterations... as
shall... render the Federal Constitution adequate to the exigencies of
Government and the preservation of the Union." Before the time fixed for
the meeting of the Philadelphia Convention, or shortly after that
date, all the States had appointed deputies with the exception of New
Hampshire and Rhode Island. New Hampshire was favorably disposed toward
the meeting but, owing to local conditions, failed to act before the
Convention was well under way. Delegates, however, arrived in time to
share in some of the most important proceedings. Rhode Island alone
refused to take part, although a letter signed by some of the prominent
men was sent to the Convention pledging their support.


The body of delegates which met in Philadelphia in 1787 was the
most important convention that ever sat in the United States. The
Confederation was a failure, and if the new nation was to be justified
in the eyes of the world, it must show itself capable of effective
union. The members of the Convention realized the significance of the
task before them, which was, as Madison said, "now to decide forever
the fate of Republican government." Gouverneur Morris, with unwonted
seriousness, declared: "The whole human race will be affected by the
proceedings of this Convention." James Wilson spoke with equal gravity:
"After the lapse of six thousand years since the creation of the world
America now presents the first instance of a people assembled to weigh
deliberately and calmly and to decide leisurely and peaceably upon
the form of government by which they will bind themselves and their

Not all the men to whom this undertaking was entrusted, and who were
taking themselves and their work so seriously, could pretend to social
distinction, but practically all belonged to the upper ruling class. At
the Indian Queen, a tavern on Fourth Street between Market and Chestnut,
some of the delegates had a hall in which they lived by themselves.
The meetings of the Convention were held in an upper room of the State
House. The sessions were secret; sentries were placed at the door to
keep away all intruders; and the pavement of the street in front of
the building was covered with loose earth so that the noises of passing
traffic should not disturb this august assembly. It is not surprising
that a tradition grew up about the Federal Convention which hedged it
round with a sort of awe and reverence. Even Thomas Jefferson referred
to it as "an assembly of demigods." If we can get away from the glamour
which has been spread over the work of the Fathers of the Constitution
and understand that they were human beings, even as we are, and
influenced by the same motives as other men, it may be possible to
obtain a more faithful impression of what actually took place.

Since representation in the Convention was to be by States, just as it
had been in the Continental Congress, the presence of delegations from
a majority of the States was necessary for organization. It is a
commentary upon the times, upon the difficulties of travel, and upon the
leisurely habits of the people, that the meeting which had been called
for the 14th of May could not begin its work for over ten days. The 25th
of May was stormy, and only twenty-nine delegates were on hand when
the Convention organized. The slender attendance can only partially be
attributed to the weather, for in the following three months and a half
of the Convention, at which fifty-five members were present at one time
or another, the average attendance was only slightly larger than that
of the first day. In such a small body personality counted for much,
in ways that the historian can only surmise. Many compromises of
conflicting interests were reached by informal discussion outside of
the formal sessions. In these small gatherings individual character was
often as decisive as weighty argument.

George Washington was unanimously chosen as the presiding officer of the
Convention. He sat on a raised platform; in a large, carved, high-backed
chair, from which his commanding figure and dignified bearing exerted
a potent influence on the assembly; an influence enhanced by the formal
courtesy and stately intercourse of the times. Washington was the great
man of his day and the members not only respected and admired him; some
of them were actually afraid of him. When he rose to his feet he was
almost the Commander-in-Chief again. There is evidence to show that
his support or disapproval was at times a decisive factor in the
deliberations of the Convention.

Virginia, which had taken a conspicuous part in the calling of the
Convention, was looked to for leadership in the work that was to be
done. James Madison, next to Washington the most important member of
the Virginia delegation, was the very opposite of Washington in many
respects - small and slight in stature, inconspicuous in dress as in
figure, modest and retiring, but with a quick, active mind and wide
knowledge obtained both from experience in public affairs and from
extensive reading. Washington was the man of action; Madison, the
scholar in politics. Madison was the younger by nearly twenty years,
but Washington admired him greatly and gave him the support of his
influence - a matter of no little consequence, for Madison was the
leading expert worker of the Convention in the business of framing the
Constitution. Governor Edmund Randolph, with his tall figure, handsome
face, and dignified manner, made an excellent impression in the position
accorded to him of nominal leader of the Virginia delegation. Among
others from the same State who should be noticed were the famous
lawyers, George Wythe and George Mason.

Among the deputies from Pennsylvania the foremost was James Wilson, the
"Caledonian," who probably stood next in importance in the convention to
Madison and Washington. He had come to America as a young man just
when the troubles with England were beginning and by sheer ability had
attained a position of prominence. Several times a member of Congress,
a signer of the Declaration of Independence, he was now regarded as one
of the ablest lawyers in the United States. A more brilliant member
of the Pennsylvania delegation, and one of the most brilliant of the
Convention, was Gouverneur Morris, who shone by his cleverness and quick
wit as well as by his wonderful command of language. But Morris was
admired more than he was trusted; and, while he supported the efforts
for a strong government, his support was not always as great a help as
might have been expected. A crippled arm and a wooden leg might detract
from his personal appearance, but they could not subdue his spirit and

* There is a story which illustrates admirably the audacity of
Morris and the austere dignity of Washington. The story runs that Morris
and several members of the Cabinet were spending an evening at the
President's house in Philadelphia, where they were discussing the
absorbing question of the hour, whatever it may have been. "The
President," Morris is said to have related on the following day, "was
standing with his arms behind him - his usual position - his back to the
fire. I started up and spoke, stamping, as I walked up and down, with my
wooden leg; and, as I was certain I had the best of the argument, as
I finished I stalked up to the President, slapped him on the back, and
said. "Ain't I right, General?" The President did not speak, but the
majesty of the American people was before me. Oh, his look! How I wished
the floor would open and I could descend to the cellar! You know me,"
continued Mr. Morris, "and you know my eye would never quail before
any other mortal." - W. T. Read, Life and Correspondence of George Read
(1870) p.441.

There were other prominent members of the Pennsylvania delegation, but
none of them took an important part in the Convention, not even the aged
Benjamin Franklin, President of the State. At the age of eighty-one his
powers were failing, and he was so feeble that his colleague Wilson read
his speeches for him. His opinions were respected, but they do not seem
to have carried much weight.

Other noteworthy members of the Convention, though hardly in the first
class, were the handsome and charming Rufus King of Massachusetts,
one of the coming men of the country, and Nathaniel Gorham of the same
State, who was President of Congress - a man of good sense rather than of
great ability, but one whose reputation was high and whose presence was
a distinct asset to the Convention. Then, too, there were the delegates
from South Carolina: John Rutledge, the orator, General Charles
Cotesworth Pinckney of Revolutionary fame, and his cousin, Charles
Pinckney. The last named took a conspicuous part in the proceedings in
Philadelphia but, so far as the outcome was concerned, left his mark on
the Constitution mainly in minor matters and details.

The men who have been named were nearly all supporters of the plan for
a centralized government. On the other side were William Paterson of New
Jersey, who had been Attorney-General of his State for eleven years
and who was respected for his knowledge and ability; John Dickinson
of Delaware, the author of the "Farmer's Letters" and chairman of
the committee of Congress that had framed the Articles of
Confederation - able, scholarly, and sincere, but nervous, sensitive,
and conscientious to the verge of timidity - whose refusal to sign the
Declaration of Independence had cost him his popularity, though he was
afterward returned to Congress and became president successively
of Delaware and of Pennsylvania; Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, a
successful merchant, prominent in politics, and greatly interested
in questions of commerce and finance; and the Connecticut delegates,
forming an unusual trio, Dr. William Samuel Johnson, Roger Sherman, and
Oliver Ellsworth. These men were fearful of establishing too strong a
government and were at one time or another to be found in opposition to
Madison and his supporters. They were not mere obstructionists, however,
and while not constructive in the same way that Madison and Wilson
were, they must be given some credit for the form which the Constitution
finally assumed. Their greatest service was in restraining the tendency
of the majority to overrule the rights of States and in modifying the
desires of individuals for a government that would have been too strong
to work well in practice.

Alexander Hamilton of New York, as one of the ablest members of the
Convention, was expected to take an important part, but he was out of
touch with the views of the majority. He was aristocratic rather than
democratic and, however excellent his ideas may have been, they were too
radical for his fellow delegates and found but little support. He threw
his strength in favor of a strong government and was ready to aid the
movement in whatever way he could. But within his own delegation he was
outvoted by Robert Yates and John Lansing, and before the sessions were
half over he was deprived of a vote by the withdrawal of his colleagues.
Thereupon, finding himself of little service, he went to New York and
returned to Philadelphia only once or twice for a few days at a time,
and finally to sign the completed document. Luther Martin of Maryland
was an able lawyer and the Attorney-General of his State; but he was
supposed to be allied with undesirable interests, and it was said that
he had been sent to the Convention for the purpose of opposing a strong
government. He proved to be a tiresome speaker and his prosiness, when
added to the suspicion attaching to his motives, cost him much of the
influence which he might otherwise have had.

All in all, the delegates to the Federal Convention were a remarkable
body of men. Most of them had played important parts in the drama of
the Revolution; three-fourths of them had served in Congress, and
practically all were persons of note in their respective States and had
held important public positions. They may not have been the "assembly of
demigods" which Jefferson called them, for another contemporary insisted
"that twenty assemblies of equal number might be collected equally
respectable both in point of ability, integrity, and patriotism."
Perhaps it would be safer to regard the Convention as a fairly
representative body, which was of a somewhat higher order than would
be gathered together today, because the social conditions of those
days tended to bring forward men of a better class, and because the
seriousness of the crisis had called out leaders of the highest type.

Two or three days were consumed in organizing the Convention - electing
officers, considering the delegates' credentials, and adopting rules of
procedure; and when these necessary preliminaries had been accomplished
the main business was opened with the presentation by the Virginia
delegation of a series of resolutions providing for radical changes
in the machinery of the Confederation. The principal features were the
organization of a legislature of two houses proportional to population
and with increased powers, the establishment of a separate executive,
and the creation of an independent judiciary. This was in reality
providing for a new government and was probably quite beyond the ideas
of most of the members of the Convention, who had come there under
instructions and with the expectation of revising the Articles of
Confederation. But after the Virginia Plan had been the subject of
discussion for two weeks so that the members had become a little more
accustomed to its proposals, and after minor modifications had been made
in the wording of the resolutions, the Convention was won over to its
support. To check this drift toward radical change the opposition headed
by New Jersey and Connecticut presented the so-called New Jersey
Plan, which was in sharp contrast to the Virginia Resolutions, for it
contemplated only a revision of the Articles of Confederation, but after
a relatively short discussion, the Virginia Plan was adopted by a vote
of seven States against four, with one State divided.

The dividing line between the two parties or groups in the Convention
had quickly manifested itself. It proved to be the same line that had
divided the Congress of the Confederation, the cleavage between the
large States and the small States. The large States were in favor
of representation in both houses of the legislature according to
population, while the small States were opposed to any change which
would deprive them of their equal vote in Congress, and though outvoted,
they were not ready to yield. The Virginia Plan, and subsequently the
New Jersey Plan, had first been considered in committee of the whole,
and the question of "proportional representation," as it was then
called, would accordingly come up again in formal session. Several weeks
had been occupied by the proceedings, so that it was now near the end of
June, and in general the discussions had been conducted with remarkably
good temper. But it was evidently the calm before the storm. And the
issue was finally joined when the question of representation in the two
houses again came before the Convention. The majority of the States on
the 29th of June once more voted in favor of proportional representation
in the lower house. But on the question of the upper house, owing to a
peculiar combination of circumstances - the absence of one delegate and
another's change of vote causing the position of their respective States
to be reversed or nullified - the vote on the 2d of July resulted in a
tie. This brought the proceedings of the Convention to a standstill. A
committee of one member from each State was appointed to consider the
question, and, "that time might be given to the Committee, and to
such as chose to attend to the celebration on the anniversary of
Independence, the Convention adjourned" over the Fourth. The committee
was chosen by ballot, and its composition was a clear indication that
the small-State men had won their fight, and that a compromise would be

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Online LibraryMax FarrandThe Fathers of the Constitution; a chronicle of the establishment of the Union → online text (page 6 of 13)