The Constitutional Convention: Debates on the Election of the Executive

By ConSource Staff

After the Connecticut Compromise was agreed upon, the Convention shifted focus from the legislature to the executive and judicial branches.  On July 17, the Convention discussed the structure and election of the executive branch of government.  The delegates agreed that the national executive should consist of one person, without vote or further discussion.

The debate then turned to whether the executive would be elected directly by the people, or would be chosen by the legislature.  Mr. Morris argued that election by the legislature gave the national legislature too much power, and the president ought to be elected by the people at large.  Mr. Sherman disagreed, maintaining that the “sense of the nation would be better expressed by the Legislature, than by the people at large.”  Mr. Pinckney argued that the legislature would choose the best executive, because they would want to see that the laws they passed would be properly executed. The Convention voted down the proposal to have the executive elected by the people rather than the legislatures, with only the Pennsylvania delegation supporting the motion.

Mr. Martin then moved that the executive be chosen by “Electors appointed by the several Legislatures of the individual states.”  This was voted down, 8-2, but would resurface in later debates.  The following motion, for the executive “to be chosen by the National Legislature,” passed unanimously.  Lastly, the Convention debated the length of the term of the presidency, and whether the president would be eligible for re-election.  Madison argued that it was,

essential to the preservation of liberty that the Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary powers be separate…The Executive could not be independent of the Legislature if dependent on the pleasure of that branch for a re-appointment…a dependence of the Executive on the Legislature, would render [the Legislature] the Executor as well as the maker of laws, & then according to the observation of Montesquieu, tyrannical laws may be made.

For this reason, Madison did not wish the executive to be eligible for a second term, where he would be subject to re-appointment by the legislature.  These issues, could not be agreed upon, and were postponed for further discussion.

On July 18, the delegations unanimously agreed to allow for an executive veto, which could be overridden by a two-thirds majority vote in the legislature, without a vote or further debate.  The Convention also voted to postpone discussion of the eligibility of the executive to serve multiple terms.

On July 19, Mr. Randolph made the compelling point that if the president were subject to re-election by the legislature, he would have no check on the legislature, and would not use the veto power out of fear that the legislature would vote him out of office at the end of his term.  Mr. Wilson argued that if the president were to be eligible for multiple terms, he cannot be appointed by the Legislature.  Wilson “perceived with pleasure” the sense that indirect election by the people was gaining ground, an idea that he had been espousing throughout the Convention.[i]  Mr. Ellsworth moved that the Executive should be appointed by electors, which passed 6-3-1, and that the electors should be chosen by the State legislatures, which also passed 8-2. 

The debate then returned to whether the executive would be eligible for a second term.  Mr. Martin and Mr. Williamson argued that the executive should not be allowed to serve more than one term because the electors would be liable to undue influence.  The Convention subsequently voted 8-2, to allow the executive to be eligible for multiple terms.  This was likely due in large part to the independence from the legislature created by the indirect election of the executive.

On July 20, the debate turned to whether the executive should “be removable on impeachment and conviction for malpractice or neglect of duty.”  Mr. Pinckney and Mr. Morris moved to strike the impeachment provision from the resolution, arguing that the executive should not be subject to impeachment while in office.  Mr. Wilson contended that the impeachment provision was a necessity to ensure the good behavior of the executive.  Dr. Franklin agreed, saying he favored the impeachment provision because he saw it as the best way to prevent the recourse of assassination attempts against an executive who has committed serious misconduct.  Mr. Randolph believed the provision was essential because the executive would have great opportunities to abuse his power, and there must be some possibility for punishment in the event he does so.  The Convention voted to include the provision that the executive shall be removable by impeachment, by a vote of 8-2, with only Massachusetts and South Carolina against.

Despite these days of negotiation and compromise, the Convention backtracked and, on July 24, moved to reconsider the previous vote to have the executive chosen by electors.  Mr. Williamson proposed, “going back to the original ground; to elect the Executive for 7 years and render him ineligible a 2nd term.”  He believed that ineligibility for a second term was the best way to prevent an executive from attempting to become a King.  On the question for reinstating the election of the executive by national legislature, the Convention voted to approve it 7-4. 

Some delegates who preferred that the executive be limited to one term proposed a longer term.  Mr. King even suggested that a term as long as 20 years would be agreeable.  Recognizing the varied opinions and unlikelihood of persuasion in the whole Convention, the delegates decided to appoint a Detail Committee consisting of five members to draft a revised version of the current resolutions.  The Detail Committee was made up of Mr. Rutledge, Mr. Randolph, Mr. Gorham, Mr. Ellsworth, and Mr. Wilson.  Each member of the committee was a lawyer and was familiar with drafting legal documents, and utilized this experience in preparing a draft of the Constitution.[ii]

On July 26, the Convention continued the discussion on the election of the executive, and approved a motion for a seven-year term with no re-election, by a vote of 7-3-1.  The entire resolution on the executive, as amended, read,

that a National Executive be instituted – to consist of a single person  - to be chosen by the National Legislature – for the term of seven years – to be ineligible a 2nd time – with power to carry into execution the national laws – to appoint to offices in cases not otherwise provided for – to be removable on impeachment & conviction of malpractice or neglect of duty – to receive a fixed compensation for the devotion of his time to the public service, to be paid out of the National Treasury.

The Convention passed this resolution in the affirmative, by a vote of 6-3-1.  The Convention then unanimously voted to adjourn until Monday, August 6, so that the Detail Committee might have time to prepare a report and draft of the Constitution.  With the varied opinions over term length and eligibility for re-election, it would be over a month before the Convention agreed on the four-year renewable term of our Presidency.


[i] William Ewald, James Wilson and the Drafting of the Constitution, 10:5 U. Pa. J. Const. L. 901, 949 (2008), available at https://www.law.upenn.edu/cf/faculty/wewald/workingpapers/10UPaJConstL901(2008).pdf.

[ii] John R. Vile, The Critical Role of Committees at the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787, 48 Am. J. Legal Hist. 147, 163-4 (2006).

ConSource Interns Visit the National Portrait Gallery’s American Origins Exhibit

Last Friday, the ConSource interns visited the National Portrait Gallery’s American Origins exhibit. In what follows, our interns spotlight a historical figure whose portrait caught their attention.

Lucretia Mott, 1793-1880

By Sarah Duska, the College of William & Mary

On Friday, at the National Portrait Gallery, I was amazed at all of the amazing historical figures lining the walls. I was especially impressed by the portrait and description of Lucretia Mott because of her work and energy in controversial issues during a time when women were extremely limited. Mott was born in the year 1793 and lived until 1880.[i] She was alive for the signing of the Constitution of the United States, a document that did not and would not allow her and other women the right to be equal citizens; Mott would not have the chance to vote or be considered, in any aspect, equal to man before her death. Mott went to school, run by the Society of Friends, and following graduation became a teacher.[i] Her interest in women’s rights was sparked when she realized that the men teaching at the school were paid twice as much as the female educators.[ii] Mott was not only interested in women’s rights, but she also had anti-slavery sentiments. Mott became a Quaker minister and her sermons preached about the evil of slavery.[iii] She helped found the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society with which she raised support and awareness of the anti-slavery movement.[iv] Even though a woman’s activeness in society was improper and inappropriate, Mott continued to be a leading activist. Perhaps what Mott is most known for is her collaboration with Elizabeth Stanton in organizing the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848—the first public women’s rights meeting in the United States—where women’s suffrage became the focus of the women’s right movement.[ii] Mott dedicated her life to the abolitionist and women’s civil rights movements. She was an influential and unrelenting force who got to witness the emancipation of slaves and who contributed to the beginning of the women’s rights movement that would eventually lead to the 19th amendment—establishing women as equal citizens. 

[i] United States. National Park Service. “Lucretia Mott.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, 25 June 2014. Web. 20 July 2014.

[ii] Victoria. “Lucretia Mott.” Lucretia Mott. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 July 2014.

[iii] ”Lucretia Mott.” Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2014. Web. 21 July 2014.

[iv] ”Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society Historical Marker.” Explore PA History. Historical Marker, 2011. Web. 21 July 2014.

David Rittenhouse

By Taylor Sneed, the University of Pennsylvania

David Rittenhouse was a prominent figure in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was born in the historical city and left a long standing legacy as one of the leading American scientists of his time. The University of Pennsylvania has a science laboratory named in his honor and one of the central parks in Philadelphia is named, Rittenhouse Square. Rittenhouse was extremely active in the Philadelphia community; he was an elected member of the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention, thus partaking in framing the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776[1]. The Pennsylvania Constitution was the first state Constitution in America and it was the most liberal of the era.

David Rittenhouse’s achievements in Pennsylvania caught the attention of various politicians, including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, as well as George Washington. It was Washington who awarded the title to Rittenhouse as the first Director of the United States Mint.[2] With this title Rittenhouse had a large influence over the history of American coinage. David Rittenhouse’s portrait is displayed in the National Portrait Gallery among a vast amount of influential figures in American history.



[1] Penn Biographies by the University of Pennsylvania

[2] Mary Yurick’s David Rittenhouse 

"PENN BIOGRAPHIES." David Rittenhouse (1732-1796), University of Pennsylvania University Archives. University of Pennsylvania Archives & Records Center, n.d. Web. 21 July 2014.

Yurick, Mary, and Lindley Homol. “David Rittenhouse.” David Rittenhouse. Penn State University Libraries, Fall 2009. Web. 21 July 2014.

Andrew Jackson:  Expansion of Presidential Power

By Michael Laurino, The George Washington University Law School

Andrew Jackson’s expansion of the powers of the presidency began a period that culminated in the strong modern presidency that evolved in the twentieth century.[i]  Jackson’s use of the veto power, both on constitutional and policy grounds, marked the growing strength of the president that was less evident among the six prior presidencies.[ii]   Jackson emphasized the belief that the president was a direct representative of the people, and used this claim to reinforce his decisions whether they were vetoes for policy reasons, removal of Cabinet Secretaries, or presidential interpretation of the constitution.[iii]

Jackson argued that the Congress, President, and Supreme Court must each be guided by its own opinion of the constitution.[iv]  Therefore, Jackson believed it to be his responsibility to sign or veto legislation based on his own interpretation of the bill’s constitutionality, rather than deferring to the Supreme Court for constitutional interpretation.[v]  This view, and the actions resulting from it, earned Jackson the nickname “King Andrew I” from his opposition party, the Whigs.[vi]  Jackson’s position on constitutional interpretation manifested itself in his refusal to enforce the Supreme Court’s decision in Worcester v. Georgia, which sought to uphold a treaty the Cherokee tribe negotiated with the federal government.[vii] In many ways, especially concerning the veto power and the president’s power to remove executive officers, Jackson led the way for the unitary powers of the modern presidency.


[i] Steven G. Calabresi & Christopher S. Yoo, The Unitary Executive During the First Half-Century, 47 Case W. Res. L. Rev. 1451, 1526 (1997).

[ii] Id.

[iii] Leonard B. White, The Jacksonians: A Study in Administrative History 1829-1861 23-28 (1954).

[iv] Id.

[v] Id.

[vi] Steven G. Calabresi & Christopher S. Yoo, The Unitary Executive During the First Half-Century, 47 Case W. Res. L. Rev. 1451, 1529 (1997).

[vii] Worcester v. State of Ga., 31 U.S. 515, 8 L. Ed. 483 (1832).

 

Gouverneur Morris

By Karl Hagnauer, Georgetown University Law Center

Gouverneur Morris’ outsized influence on the Constitution is not matched by public recognition today. While names such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton resonate with even the most casual student of American history, mention Gouverneur Morris and you are likely to be met with blank stares. Born in 1752 in New York, Morris’ service as a delegate in the Continental Congress and eventually the Constitutional Convention merits greater acknowledgement. As a representative from Pennsylvania, Morris served as chairman of the Committee of Style, overseeing the entirety of the text of the Constitution, including the formulation of the Preamble that so many recite today. While Morris was an advocate of assuring a preeminent place for propertied interests in the new government, he decried slavery and pushed for the insertion of language in the Constitution guaranteeing religious liberty. As a strong advocate of a powerful central government, Morris was a natural ally of the ideas expressed in the Federalist Papers and of those pushing for ratification. After serving as the United States’ minister to France following ratification of the Constitution, Morris briefly represented New York in the Senate before going on to chair the Erie Canal Commission. He died in 1816, leaving behind a legacy as one of America’s most influential Founding Fathers. 

The Constitutional Convention: The Connecticut Compromise

By ConSource Staff

By mid-July the Convention had been meeting six days per week for over six weeks, and still had not come to an agreement concerning representation in the two houses of the national legislature.  This issue had proven to be divisive, pitting small-states against large-states in the debate over proportional representation versus equal representation, and northern states against southern states regarding how to count slaves for the purposes of representation and direct taxes.[i]  In late June, several delegates, including Benjamin Franklin feared that these divisions could lead to the disbandment of the Convention and the dissolution of the Union altogether.[ii]  Some compromises were eventually agreed to including the vote to have monetary bills originate in the first branch, and the vote to “allow each State one vote in the 2nd branch [of the legislature].”

The Convention, however, could not reach an agreement on the ratio for the proportion of inhabitants to representatives in the first branch of the legislature, and committed this issue to the Committee of Five.[iii]  On July 9, Gouverneur Morris delivered the Report of the Committee of Five, which suggested approval of the Gerry Committee ratio of representation in the first branch, as to one representative for every 40,000 inhabitants, and 56 representatives overall.  This could not be agreed upon by the delegations, and the issue was committed to another committee, made up of one delegate from each state.[iv] 

On July 10, Rufus King reported from the Committee that 65 members should represent the States in the first meeting of the legislature.  Delegates from the Southern States had qualms with this plan, as the majority of those nine additional representatives would go to northern states, and they felt the wealth of the South was not being adequately represented.  Madison suggested doubling the number of delegates from each state, but this motion failed, largely due to the increased expense this would entail.  The Convention voted 9-2, to approve the amended apportionment of representatives made by the committee.

On Wednesday July 11, Edmund Randolph moved for “requiring the Legislature to take a periodical census for the purpose of redressing inequalities in the Representation.”  Hugh Williamson[v] proposed that a comprehensive census be taken once every year to determine the population in each state.  The frequency of the census could not be agreed upon, but the delegates voted on the first clause of Mr. Williamson’s motion, to have a census of free inhabitants taken when the government was formed.

Mr. Butler and General Pinckney insisted that slaves be included in the rule of representation, and that they be counted equally along with free inhabitants, thus removing the three-fifths clause.  Mr. Butler explained this, saying,

the labour of a slave in South Carolina was as productive and valuable as that of a freeman in Massachusetts, that as wealth was the great means of defence and utility to the Nation they are equally valuable to it with freemen; and that consequently an equal representation ought to be allowed for them in a Government which was instituted principally for the protection of property, and was itself to be supported by property.

Mr. Mason refused to accede to the motion, despite representing the slave state of Virginia, because he believed it to be unjust.  Mr. Butler’s motion was voted down by a vote of 3-7, with only Delaware, South Carolina, and Georgia supporting it. 

Mr. Wilson did not believe that slaves should be counted at all towards the rule of representation.  He argued that they were not citizens, and if they were being counted as property, “why is … other property [not] admitted into the computation?”  Mr. Morris expressed that he was forced to face the dilemma of doing injustice to either the Southern States or to his human nature, and he had to choose the former.  He went on to say,

he could never agree to give such encouragement to the slave trade as would be given by allowing them a representation for their negroes, and he did not believe those States would ever confederate on terms that would deprive them of that trade.

The next day, William Davie[vi] suggested that if the Southern States were deprived of any share of representation for their slaves they, “would never confederate on any terms.”  Mr. Ellsworth moved,

that the ruled of contribution by direct taxation for the support of the Government of the United States shall be the number of white inhabitants, and three fifths of every other description in the several States, until some other rule that shall more accurately ascertain the wealth of the several States can be devised and adopted by the Legislature. 

At the end of the day’s proceedings, the Convention voted 6-2-2, to include the three-fifths clause for determining direct taxation and representation in the first branch of the legislature.  The delegations also voted 8-2, to conduct a census for determining representation every 10 years.

On July 14, Luther Martin called for the question of the whole report of the Gerry Committee to be debated and voted on as amended.  Before this vote, Elbridge Gerry called attention to the idea that the future Western states could present dangers to the original 13 states.  Mr. Gerry  “thought it necessary to limit the number of new states to be admitted into the Union, in such a manner, that they should never outnumber the Atlantic States.”

This motion, if approved, would have capped the potential number of states at 26.  Roger Sherman thought the possibility of future states ever exceeding this number was so remote that the Convention need not even consider it.  The delegates voted down Mr. Gerry’s motion, by a close vote of 4-5-1, thus refusing to limit the future expansion on the Union.

On July 16, the Convention began the proceedings by voting on the whole report as amended, including equality of votes in the second branch of the legislature.  The vote was 5-4-1 in favor of what would become known as the Connecticut (or Great) Compromise, with Pennsylvania, Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia voting against.  This compromise resolved several issues that were long discussed by the Convention including, mandating that a census would be taken within six years of the first meeting of the legislature and every ten years after that, that all bills for appropriating money would originate in the first branch, and finalizing the representation systems in each branch of the legislature.

The next morning, before the proceedings began, the large-state delegates met to discuss whether they would challenge the Connecticut Compromise.  They ultimately decided,

to yield to the smaller States, and to concur in such an Act however imperfect and exceptionable, as might be agreed on by the body, though decided by a bare majority of States and by a minority of the people of the United States.

The Connecticut Compromise solidified the structure of our legislature.  With these hard fought issues resolved, the Convention moved on to discuss the independent Executive and Judicial branches of government.  Be sure to check out the ConSource blog next week for a discussion of the Convention debates on the structure of the Presidency.


[i] Dana Lansky, Proceeding to A Constitution: A Multi-Party Negotiation Analysis of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, 5 Harv. Negot. L. Rev. 279, 3115-16 (2000)

[ii] Id.

[iii] The members appointed to the committee were Mr. Morris, Mr. Gorham, Mr. Randolph, Mr. Rutledge, and Mr. King.

[iv] The committee was made up of Mr. King, Mr. Sherman, Mr. Yates, Mr. Brearley, Mr. Morris, Mr. Reed, Mr. Carroll, Mr. Madison, Mr. Williamson, Mr. Rutledge, and Mr. Houston.

[v] Delegate representing North Carolina, Williamson served on five committees and was known for his keen debating skills.  He signed the Constitution, and fought for ratification. 

[vi] Delegate representing North Carolina, Davie was in favor of a strong central government and his vote swung the North Carolina delegation to vote in favor of the Connecticut Compromise.  He left the Convention on August 13, 1787, and never signed the Constitution, but he fought for the ratification of the Constitution in North Carolina.

The Constitutional Convention: The Gerry Committee Report

By ConSource Staff

On July 5, the Convention returned from its two day adjournment to celebrate Independence Day, and began its proceeding by having Elbridge Gerry deliver the report of his Committee.  The subsequent report consisted of three main propositions.  First, the first branch of the Legislature “shall be allowed 1 member for every 40,000 inhabitants of the description reported in the 7th Resolution of the Committee of the whole House,” thus agreeing to proportional representation in this branch. 

Second, the report proposed,

that all bills for raising or appropriating money, and for fixing the salaries of the officers of the Government … shall originate in the 1st branch of the Legislature and shall not be altered or amended by the 2nd branch; and no money shall be drawn from the public Treasury but in pursuance of appropriations to be originated in the 1st branch.

Finally, the Committee proposed, “That in the 2nd branch each State shall have an equal vote.”  Thus, this report echoed the Connecticut Compromise (also known as the Great Compromise) introduced by Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth on June 29, with the additional required that monetary bills originate in the first branch of the legislature.

James Wilson, as he had expressed when the Connecticut Compromise was originally proposed, opposed this compromise and argued, “the committee had exceeded their powers.”  Wilson proposed dividing these issues up, and debating them individually.  James Madison did not believe that the, “privilege of originating money bills [w]as any concession on the side of the small States.  Experience proved that it had no effect.”  Madison felt that states like Delaware, whose delegates previously threatened that they would go out on their own or seek foreign support, would not actually be so rash, thus they should not be granted such a great concession.

In response, Gunning Bedford[i] backtracked from his earlier statement that the small states would seek aid from foreign powers.  Mr. Bedford suggested,

the condition of the United States requires that something should be immediately done.  It will be better that a defective plan should be adopted, than that none should be recommended.  He saw no reason why defects might not be supplied with meeting 10, 15, or 20 years hence.

Mr. Ellsworth agreed that he was ready to accede to the compromise proposed by the Gerry Committee report, as “some compromise was necessary; and saw none more convenient and reasonable.” 

On July 6, several delegates argued against the 1 to 40,000 ratio for legislative representation proposed in the Gerry Committee report.  Rufus King believed that population growth would lead to an “enormous excess” in the number of representatives, and that the question of the ratio of the lower house should be separated from the Report of the Gerry Committee and given to another committee for examination.  Pierce Butler[ii] contended that “property was the only just measure of representation.  This was the great object of Government; the great cause of war; the great means of carrying it on.” 

Mr. Pinckney did not believe that another committee was necessary to address this issue, and disputed the claims made by Mr. King and Mr. Butler, arguing, 

The value of land had been found on full investigation to be an impracticable rule.  The contributions of revenue including imports and exports must be too changeable in their amount; too difficult to be adjusted; and too injurious to the non-commercial States.  The number of inhabitants appeared to him the only just and practicable rule.

On the motion for committing the clause to a new committee, the delegates approved, by a vote of 7-3-1, with New York, New Jersey, and Delaware voting against, and Maryland divided.  The committee would be made up of five members, Mr. Morris[iii], Mr. Gorham[iv], Mr. Randolph, Mr. Rutledge, and Mr. King. 

The Convention then moved on to a discussion of the clause mandating that monetary bills originate in the first branch of the legislature. Mr. Morris believed it to be an unfair restriction on the second branch, as they would not be able to propose their own monetary bills for comparison and debate.  Mr. Wilson, on the other hand, saw this clause as a fairly trivial concession of the smaller States, because, “if both branches were to say yes or no, it was of little consequence which should say yes or no first, which last.”[v]  

Benjamin Franklin, who was on the Gerry Committee, defended the clause, arguing that they had been asked to restrain the second branch from meddling with monetary bills, and, “[t]his end would, he thought, be best attained, if money affairs were confined to the immediate representatives of the people.  This was his inducement to concur in the report.”

On the question of whether the clause relating to monetary bills should remain as part of the Report, the delegations voted 5-3-3, narrowly passing the motion.

On July 7, the Convention opened by taking up the critical question, “Shall the clause allowing each State one vote in the 2nd branch, stand as part of the Report[?]”

Mr. Gerry and Mr. Sherman argued that the delegates should accede to this agreement, as it was much preferable to having no agreement at all, and would facilitate a vigorous General Government.  The Convention voted 6-3-2 to have this clause stand as part of the Report, with Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina voting against. 

The Convention then voted to postpone the question of the full Report of the Gerry Committee, until the report from the Committee of Five was returned for discussion of proportional representation in the first branch, and adjourned for the day.

The agreement to have equal representation in the second branch of the legislature was a major compromise, ending a debate that had plagued the Convention for weeks.  This was a step in the right direction, but the delegates still had to determine the ratio for representation in the first branch of the legislature, the definition of “inhabitants” for representation, and how frequently to conduct the census.  Be sure to check in on the ConSource blog next week, where these issues, and the final Connecticut Compromise will be discussed.


[i] Delegate from Delaware who supported small state power and the New Jersey Plan.  He later softened his stance and sat on the Committee that drafted the Great Compromise.

[ii] Delegate from South Carolina who introduced the Fugitive Slave Clause.  He focused on establishing protections for the Southern planter elites’ interests, and also supported the three-fifths clause.

[iii] Gouverneur Morris was the chair of the Committee of Five, and penned most of their final draft.  He was a delegate from Pennsylvania who supported a strong central government.

[iv] Nathaniel Gorham was a delegate representing Massachusetts.  He was an active member of debates, served as the chairman of the Committee of the Whole, and sat of the Committee of Detail.  He supported and signed the Constitution.

[v] John R. Vile, The Critical Role of Committees at the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787, 48 Am. J. Legal Hist. 147, 160 (2006).

A Note from Our Executive Director: On Independence Day, Help Preserve Our National Treasures

As we gather to celebrate the Declaration of Independence – one of our true national treasures – I’d like to take a moment to discuss the importance of preserving our precious historic texts. As the late historian Pauline Maier described in her extraordinary work “American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence,” many of our nation’s most treasured documents were not always treated with reverence, or even care. The Declaration of Independence, which we celebrate this week, serves as a particularly striking example of how our nation has evolved in its treatment of precious historic texts.

In 1776, the Declaration of Independence was copied onto low-grade parchment – the “ordinary type of colonial manufacture that could be easily found on sale in Philadelphia.” The Declaration then went on to become “one of the most abused documents in the history of preservation … battered and bandaged since its birth.”

The Continental Congress likely transported the document, along with other papers, as it moved from place to place throughout the Revolutionary War. Later, the Declaration would sit, along with the national government, in New York and Philadelphia, until, in 1800, it was moved to the nation’s new capital in Washington, DC, where it remains today. Once in DC, however, the Declaration was still continually transferred around to various buildings and homes.

In August 1814, when the British invaded Washington, DC, a clerk managed to save the document from destruction by removing it from the city and hiding it in Leesburg, VA.

In 1823, the document was further damaged when a “wetpressing process” was used to make a facsimile copy. The ink on the document continued to fade after the State Department in 1841 “grew tired of pulling the document out to show visitors” and instead put it on display across from a large window, where it was exposed to excessive sunlight for approximately 35 years.

In 1921, the Declaration was transferred to the Library of Congress, where enormous care was taken to protect the already damaged and worn document. In 1952, the Declaration was finally transferred to the National Archives, where it now safely resides in an “airtight thermopane container.”

The Declaration of Independence is also lovingly reproduced by book publishers and digital libraries, like ours at ConSource.org, where we also display a high-resolution manuscript image of the document. Digitization provides yet another way for our nation to commit itself to preserving precious historic texts, so they can be celebrated and studied for years to come. You can help ConSource as we work with archives around the country to digitize and preserve our national treasures.

As we celebrate our majestic Declaration of Independence on July 4th, let us remember how fortunate we are that the original document withstood the test of time – both in terms of the principles it set out, as well as the parchment it was originally printed upon.  And, most importantly, let us, as a nation, commit ourselves to preserving and protecting all of our precious historic texts and the ideals that they so eloquently detail.

With Warmest Wishes for a Happy Independence Day! 

Julie Silverbrook

 

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The Constitutional Convention: Celebrating Independence Day

By ConSource Staff 

As noted in an earlier blog post in our Constitutional Convention series, on June 28, 1787, Benjamin Franklin, in response to growing divisiveness between the delegates, called for a daily prayer to begin each day of business. Some delegates, including Alexander Hamilton, were hesitant to support this motion, because they viewed it as a public sign that the Convention was becoming desperately divided.  In response, Edmund Randolph, moved instead for “a sermon [to] be preached at the request of the convention on 4th of July, the anniversary of Independence.” 

This motion was seconded by Dr. Franklin, and was carried without a formal vote.

On July 2, the Convention agreed to commit the question of representation in the Senate to a Committee made up of one member from each state.[i]  The Committee then agreed to an adjournment for two days, so

that time might be given to the Committee, and to such as chose to attend the celebrations on the anniversary of Independence, the Convention adjourned until Thursday.

While the committee worked toward compromise, other delegates, like Washington, enjoyed a host of Independence Day activities. Washington notes in his diary,

Wednesday next being the Anniversary of Independence, Race Street Church has been procured for the Delivery of an Oration.  I am desired to open the Performance by Prayer, the whole will be rendered by frequent flights of Music, vocal Instrumental.

Washington also noted that the oration was given by a Mr. Mitchell, a local law student, and after the church service, he and other delegates dined at a local tavern. 

When the delegates returned from the Independence Day recess, the Committee presented their Report to the whole of the Convention.  The Committee recommended proportional representation in the first branch, equal representation in the second branch, and a stipulation that monetary bills would have to originate in the first branch.  Be sure to read next week’s ConSource blog post concerning the details of the report, and the subsequent debates and compromise.


[i] The delegates on the Gerry Committee were Elbridge Gerry, Oliver Ellsworth, Robert Yates, William Patterson, Benjamin Franklin, Gunning Bedford, George Mason, Luther Martin, William Davy, John Rutledge, and Abraham Baldwin.

A Note from Our Executive Director: On Independence Day, Help Preserve Our National Treasures

As we gather to celebrate the Declaration of Independence – one of our true national treasures – I’d like to take a moment to discuss the importance of preserving our precious historic texts. As the late historian Pauline Maier described in her extraordinary work “American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence,” many of our nation’s most treasured documents were not always treated with reverence, or even care. The Declaration of Independence, which we celebrate this week, serves as a particularly striking example of how our nation has evolved in its treatment of precious historic texts.

In 1776, the Declaration of Independence was copied onto low-grade parchment – the “ordinary type of colonial manufacture that could be easily found on sale in Philadelphia.” The Declaration then went on to become “one of the most abused documents in the history of preservation … battered and bandaged since its birth.”

The Continental Congress likely transported the document, along with other papers, as it moved from place to place throughout the Revolutionary War. Later, the Declaration would sit, along with the national government, in New York and Philadelphia, until, in 1800, it was moved to the nation’s new capital in Washington, DC, where it remains today. Once in DC, however, the Declaration was still continually transferred around to various buildings and homes.

In August 1814, when the British invaded Washington, DC, a clerk managed to save the document from destruction by removing it from the city and hiding it in Leesburg, VA.

In 1823, the document was further damaged when a “wetpressing process” was used to make a facsimile copy. The ink on the document continued to fade after the State Department in 1841 “grew tired of pulling the document out to show visitors” and instead put it on display across from a large window, where it was exposed to excessive sunlight for approximately 35 years.

In 1921, the Declaration was transferred to the Library of Congress, where enormous care was taken to protect the already damaged and worn document. In 1952, the Declaration was finally transferred to the National Archives, where it now safely resides in an “airtight thermopane container.”

The Declaration of Independence is also lovingly reproduced by book publishers and digital libraries, like ours at ConSource.org, where we also display a high-resolution manuscript image of the document. Digitization provides yet another way for our nation to commit itself to preserving precious historic texts, so they can be celebrated and studied for years to come. You can help ConSource as we work with archives around the country to digitize and preserve our national treasures.

As we celebrate our majestic Declaration of Independence on July 4th, let us remember how fortunate we are that the original document withstood the test of time – both in terms of the principles it set out, as well as the parchment it was originally printed upon.  And, most importantly, let us, as a nation, commit ourselves to preserving and protecting all of our precious historic texts and the ideals that they so eloquently detail.

With Warmest Wishes for a Happy Independence Day!

Julie Silverbrook

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The Constitutional Convention: Calling for Compromise

By ConSource Staff 

To this day, scholars, commentators and politicians discuss the Constitutional Convention as a model for polite but vigorous political debate, and it is viewed as a great effort in deliberation and compromise.[i]  In late June and early July of 1787, the debates at the Convention were at their most heated.  Some delegates even went as far as suggesting that if no agreement were reached, the small-states and large-states would form separate Unions.  Ultimately, this was avoided, and there are a number of crucial factors that eventually led to a compromise over representation in the legislature.

Benjamin Franklin[ii] deserves much credit as a great conciliator, and when debate became particularly contentious he appealed to the delegates’ religious beliefs to overcome their differences.[iii]  Franklin expressed concerns, saying,

the small progress we have made after 4 or 5 weeks close attendance and continual reasonings with each other – our different sentiments on almost every question…is methinks a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the Human Understanding. 

 The other delegates respected Franklin as amongst the wisest delegates, and his opinions were always treated with the utmost respect.[iv]  On June 28, he made a passionate request for prayer and compromise, saying, 

I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth – that God governs in the affairs of men … I therefore beg leave to move – that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business.

This motion was postponed and never voted on, but it helped to change the tone of the debate for the better. 

The next day, the Convention voted 6-4-1 to have proportional representation in the first branch of the national legislature, with Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware voting against, and Maryland divided.  The delegations then approved a motion to postpone consideration of representation in the second branch of the legislature. 

Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth[v], both delegates of Connecticut, introduced what would later be known as the Connecticut Compromise (or Great Compromise).  Ellsworth expressed that he “was not sorry” that the first branch would have proportional representation, and said that he “hoped it would become a good ground of compromise with regard to the second branch.”  He introduced a plan where there would be equal representation in the second branch of the legislature, and proportional representation in the first. 

On June 30, Ellsworth suggested a return to the discussion of equal representation in the Senate.  This was met with opposition from James Wilson who expressed his refusal to give in to a compromise that would allow one-third of the nation’s population to overrule the will of the other two-thirds.  Wilson implored the delegates to consider the sovereignty of the individual, asking, “[c]an we forget for whom we are forming a Government?  Is it for men, or for the imaginary beings called states?” 

Wilson also warned that if this compromise were made, the government would be “neither solid nor lasting.”  Wilson did concede, however, that mandating proportional representation in the Senate would conflict with the goal of having the Senate be a small body. 

In an attempt to introduce another dimension to the debate, James Madison changed the focus to slavery by arguing that

States were divided into different interests not by their difference of size, but by other circumstances; the most material of which resulted partly from climate, but principally from the effects of their having or not having slaves.  These two causes concurred in forming the great division of interests in the U. States.  It did not lie between the large and small States; it lay between the Northern and Southern.

For this reason, Madison proposed a legislative system where one branch had proportional representation based only on free population, and the other had proportional representation based on free population and three-fifths of all others.  This would give the North an advantage in one branch, and the South an advantage in the other.  Though certainly an interesting concept, this proposal never formally came to a vote.

On July 2, Ellsworth’s motion for equal representation in the Senate was brought to a vote, and it failed to pass, by a tied vote of 5-5-1, with Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland voting for, and Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina voting against.  In response to the continued stalemate between the two factions, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney proposed a committee be formed, consisting of one delegate from each State to arrange some compromise.

Mr. Sherman advocated for this proposition, saying, “we are now at a full stop, and nobody he supposed meant that we should break up without doing something.”  He thought a committee “most likely to hit on some expedient.”

Wilson and Madison opposed the idea of a committee.  Madison stressed that it would only be a waste of time, and that any idea that the committee could come up with could be just as easily proposed in the whole Convention.  Wilson objected to the committee having one member from each state because, 

it would decide according to that very rule of voting which was opposed on one side.  Experience in Congress has also proved the inutility of Committees consisting of members from each State. 

Before voting on the motion, Elbridge Gerry defended the idea of committing this question to a committee, saying,

Something must be done, or we shall disappoint not only America, but the whole world … We must make concessions on both sides.  Without these the Constitutions of the several States would have never been formed.[vi]

The delegations voted, 9-2, to bring the question to a committee, with New Jersey and Delaware voting against.  The delegates then voted to have the committee be made up of one member from each state, which passed 10-1, with only Pennsylvania, likely due to Wilson’s protests, voting against.  Mr. Gerry would chair the committee, and members who were considered to be amongst the most moderate were chosen to join him.[vii] 

The Convention was then adjourned for two days so that the committee would have time to structure a compromise, and so that the delegates could attend the celebrations of the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Check in with the ConSource blog next week to read about the Gerry Committee’s report, and the Convention’s 4th of July celebration.


[i] Derek A. Webb, The Original Meaning of Civility: Democratic Deliberation at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention, 64 S.C. L. Rev. 183, 187-89 (2012)

[ii] Delegate from Pennsylvania who was widely respected amongst the delegates for his wisdom.  Franklin consistently encouraged debates, and implored the delegates to look part their own self interests when casting votes.

[iii] Gregory E. Maggs, A Concise Guide to the Records of the Federal Constitutional Convention of 1787 As A Source of the Original Meaning of the U.S. Constitution, 80 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 1707, 1715 (2012).

[iv] Dana Lansky, Proceeding to A Constitution: A Multi-Party Negotiation Analysis of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, 5 Harv. Negot. L. Rev. 279, 310 (2000)

[v] Delegate from Connecticut who, along with Roger Sherman, proposed what came to be known as the Connecticut Compromise.  He was also a vocal abolitionist.

[vii] Dana Lansky, Proceeding to A Constitution: A Multi-Party Negotiation Analysis of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, 5 Harv. Negot. L. Rev. 279, 327 (2000)

The Constitutional Convention: Tensions Run High Over Representation

By ConSource Staff

The tone of the Convention began to change towards the end of June, and as the heat enveloped Philadelphia, the process began to break down and tempers ran high.[i]  On June 19, the Convention voted in favor of the propositions of the Virginia Plan over the New Jersey Plan.  The vote was 7-3-1, with New York, New Jersey, and Delaware voting against, and Maryland divided.  Despite this vote, the small-state delegates remained adamant about maintaining equal representation in Congress, similar to the existing Articles of Confederation. 

On June 20, John Lansing[ii] argued that the proposed system of the Virginia Plan was “too novel and complex,” and that it would never be ratified by the states.  Lansing proposed a motion to consider vesting the powers of Congress in one house.  George Mason,[iii] seemingly annoyed at the continued rehashing of these arguments, maintained that the establishment of a republican government with two houses in the legislature was well settled at this point.  Mason believed that if there was only one house, the people would be far more hesitant to extend its power, and it would remain weak like the current Congress under the Articles of Confederation.  The delegates voted down Lansing’s motion 6-4-1, with Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware voting for it, and Maryland divided.  This close vote, considering it had been over three weeks since the beginning of the debates on the Virginia Plan, is evidence of the continuing contention over the issue of the structure of the legislature. 

On June 21, following the decision from the previous day, the delegations voted 7-3-1, resolving, “that the Legislature ought to consist of two Branches,” with New York, New Jersey, and Delaware voting against, and Maryland divided.  The debate then turned to the issue of election of the legislature.  Charles Cotesworth Pinckney[iv] then moved, “that the 1st branch, instead of being elected by the people, should be elected in such a manner as the Legislature of each State should direct.”

James Wilson[v] argued that this would give too much power to the states and that popular election of the first branch of the legislature was the foundation of democratic government.  Mr. Pinckney’s motion for appointment by the state legislatures was voted down, and the Convention then immediately voted to have the first branch of the legislature elected by the people.  The vote was 9-1-1, with only New Jersey voting against, and Maryland again divided.

Over the course of the next few days the delegates continued to debate the issues surrounding the legislature, including representation.  On June 25, the delegates agreed that the second branch of the national legislature would be elected by the state legislatures, and voted unanimously to set a minimum age of 30 for senators.  Mr. Wilson opposed the election by state legislatures, and proposed a system of indirect election by special electors.  His amendment was not seconded or voted on, but it would re-enter the debate when discussing the election of the executive later on.

On June 27, the debate over representation in the branches of the legislature became heated.  Luther Martin [vi] gave an impassioned three-hour speech, in which he argued that a proper government was one based on the federal ideal of one state, one vote, as opposed to the proportional representation being proposed by the Virginia Plan.  Mr. Martin expressed that men were naturally predisposed to make decisions and cast votes in favor of their own States.  He argued that the

propositions on the table were a system of slavery for 10 States:  that as Virginia, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania have of the votes ten:  that they will have nothing to do, but to gain influence over one of the ten to make them compleat [sic] masters of the rest.

The next day, Mr. Martin finally concluded his speech by, “contending that the General Government ought to be formed for, the States, not individuals.”  Mr. Martin, much to the dismay of some delegates, went as far as to suggest the Union could break into partial confederacies, saying:

in case a dissolution of the Union should take place, the small States would have nothing to fear from [large state] power; that if in such a case the three great States should league themselves together, the other ten could do so too:  and that he would rather see partial Confederacies take place, than the plan on the table.

James Madison[vii] was eager to quell the fears of Mr. Martin and other small-state delegates.  Mr. Madison expressed the sentiment that there was no reason to suspect the “safety” of small states was being put in jeopardy by the proposed system of proportional representation.  He maintained that there were no common interests of Virginia, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania that would lead them to band together against smaller states, and in terms of “staple productions they were as dissimilar as any three other States in the Union.”  Mr. Madison also stressed the idea that, historically, powerful nations were more likely to rival and war with one another than they were to combine forces.

The two sides, small-states favoring equal representation, and large-states preferring proportional representation, were firmly entrenched at this point.  The failure to come to an agreement and dissolution of the Union was beginning to seem like a possibility.  This stagnation and hostility would soon turn a corner, thanks in large part to conciliatory remarks by Benjamin Franklin[viii] and the use of smaller committees.[ix]  Be sure to check the ConSource blog early next week for a post concerning these coming signs of compromise.


[i] Dana Lansky, Proceeding to A Constitution: A Multi-Party Negotiation Analysis of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, 5 Harv. Negot. L. Rev. 279, 315 (2000)

[ii] Delegate from New York who felt that the Convention was only authorized to revise the Articles of Confederation.  He refused to sign the Constitution and became a prominent Anti-Federalist.

[iii] Delegate from Virginia who contributed significantly to the discussions at the Convention, but refused to sign the Constitution and became an outspoken Anti-Federalist.  His strongest criticism of the Constitution was the lack of a bill of rights.

[iv] Delegate from South Carolina who advocated for slaves being counted when considering representation in the legislature and opposed the abolition of the slave trade.  He also thought that the election of representatives by popular election was impracticable.

[v] Delegate from Pennsylvania, who, along with James Madison, contributed much of the substance of the drafted constitution.  He was the most adamant proponent of popular elections for both the legislature and the executive.

[vi] Delegate representing Maryland who helped to formulate the New Jersey Plan, and opposed a government where large state would dominate smaller ones.  He left the Convention before its end and became and became a well-known Anti-Federalist.

[vii] Delegate from Virginia, Madison is known as the “architect of the Constitution.”  He structured the Virginia Plan, and took the most diligent notes at the Convention.

[viii] Delegate from Pennsylvania who was widely respected amongst the delegates for his wisdom.  Franklin consistently encouraged debates, and implored the delegates to look part their own self interests when casting votes.

[ix] Derek A. Webb, The Original Meaning of Civility: Democratic Deliberation at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention, 64 S.C. L. Rev. 183, 210-16 (2012)

Celebrate the 226th Anniversary of the Ratification of the U.S. Constitution!

On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the United States Constitution, thereby making the document the law of the land.

According to Article VII of the United States Constitution,

The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the Same.

It took 10 months for the first nine states to approve the Constitution. The first state to ratify was Delaware, on December 7, 1787, by a unanimous vote, 30 - 0.

After New Hampshire ratified the Constitution on June 21, 1788, there remained two key states – New York and Virginia – where the ratifying conventions were locked in contentious debate. If neither state ratified the Constitution, the new union would lose two of its largest, wealthiest states, and would become geographically fractured.

The Federalists, ultimately, prevailed and Virginia and New York narrowly approved the Constitution in June and July of 1788. In 1789, after a bill of rights was proposed in Congress, North Carolina ratified the Constitution. And, finally, in May of 1790, after facing the prospect of being treated as a foreign government, Rhode Island ratified the Constitution by the narrowest margin (two votes).

You can read many of the journal notes and newspaper reports from the state ratifying conventions in the ConSource digital library. Outside of the state ratifying conventions, there was a tremendous outpouring of pamphlets, newspapers, broadsides and letters in favor and against ratification of the Constitution. Many of these documents are also freely available in the ConSource digital library and can be found here and here.

We encourage you to join our team here at ConSource in reading these materials in honor of the 226th anniversary of the Ratification of the United States Constitution on June 21, 1788!

Please also consider supporting ConSource in our efforts to make our nation’s constitutional history freely available and clearly understandable by the American public by making a tax-deductible donation today!