No one spectating the Federal Convention during Philadelphia’s blistering summer of 1787 would have said that the first month’s proceedings had gone smoothly. Of course, the meetings were secret, so there were no spectators. But still the point remains. The first month had seen some progress, but also some serious hangups. The biggest sticking point, without a doubt, was the issue of representation in the legislature. Small states wanted essentially a “one state, one vote” structure, while larger states preferred representation to be based on population. Like most disagreements in life, the real issue was control.
Under the Articles of Confederation, each state had an equal voice and each state had the power of veto. This meant that small states, like Maryland or Delaware, could suppress legislation that affected the entire remaining population. And frankly, the small states liked it…they had serious power.
The plans being proposed (by larger states like Virginia) radically altered the existing imbalance of power to the other side of the scale. And the small states were vehemently opposed to it…and they made their feelings known. Plus there was the whole issue about what kind of people should comprise the Senate, which led to another set of arguments. Not too long ago we mentioned Luther Martin, the Marylander with a penchant for verbosity. His speech on June 20th, in some sense, lit a fire under opponents of the Virginia Plan (and pretty much any idea upsetting “small state” power established by the Articles), and for a while, things weren’t looking so good in Independence Hall.
On June 27th (and most of the 28th) Martin was at it again, quoting Locke, Priestly, Somers, and others as he rambled toward a conclusion that the convention had no business taking power away from the states. Madison scribbled in exasperation that Martin labored, “at great length…with much diffuseness, and considerable vehemence…”. New York delegate Robert Yates, who actually sided with Martin, said of Martin’s meanderings, “It was not possible to trace him through the whole, or to methodize his ideas into a systematic or argumentative arrangement.”
Once Luther Martin had finished his “dissertation”, Virginian James Madison got up and worked to refute all that Martin had contended, using his typical logic to attack Martin’s ideas point-by-point. But the small states were steadfast. It was at this point that elder statesman Benjamin Franklin, looking at the division and hearing the harsh rhetoric, suggested that each day’s proceedings open with prayer. Clearly assistance of a Divine nature was not unwelcome.
In his biography of James Madison, Ralph Ketchum writes that June 30, 1787 was the Federal Convention’s “rock bottom.” It was then that Gunning Bedford (shown above), a somewhat large man from the (small) state of Delaware spoke words most dangerous to the convention’s purpose. “I do not, gentlemen, trust you,” he shouted. The larger states wouldn’t dare kill the Confederation, he threatened, because the small states had another option. “…sooner than be ruined, there are foreign powers who will take us by the hand.” One can almost imagine the stifling silence that followed those words that flirted with the precipice of treason.
Rufus King, from the relatively small state of Massachusetts, rose and said, “I am concerned for what fell from the gentleman from Delaware – ‘Take a foreign power by the hand’! I am sorry he mentioned it, and hope he is able to excuse it to himself on the score of passion. Whatever may be my distress, I never will court a foreign power to assist in relieving myself from it.”
June 30th was a day of vitriol and acrimonious debate in Independence Hall. It’s a very good thing it was a Saturday, as Sunday (for most of the delegates) would provide time for solemn reflection and reconsideration in a local house of worship.
Recommended Reading: James Madison