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Archive for the ‘The Confederation (1783-1789)’ Category

Well, eleven days I wrote about the Constitutional Convention.  Specifically, we were introduced to the Committee of Detail.  Their job was to take all the proceeding of the previous sixty days of work and, over eleven days, condense it into some semblance of order.  As I mentioned before, this wasn’t in any way a finished product.  It was what we call at our office a “strawman” document…a starting point from which to refine issues.

The Convention delegates took a much-needed eleven-day vacation.  They wrote letters home, caught up on the latest news in Philadelphia, took in a play, did some reading, or just relaxed.  All the delegates, that is, except the five members of the Committee, who worked really hard to put things together.

Edmund Randolph desired “a fundamental constitution.”  He wanted it kept simple and free from the kinds of language and provisions that simply bogged down the document with inflexibility with which the future couldn’t deal.  The Constitution should contain general principles and propositions, believing “the construction of a constitution of necessity differs from that of law.

The Committee of Detail did not, as far as I can tell, come up with the famous Preamble.  That would fall to the Committee of Style down the road.  But they offer up some general guidelines.  We again turn to Virginia’s Randolph, who believed such text should state “that the present foederal government is insufficient to the general happiness, that the conviction of this fact gave birth to this convention, and that the only effectual means which they can devise for curing this insufficiency is the establishment of a supreme legislative, executive and judiciary…“.

The document was divided into articles and sections and printed.  On August 6, 1787, the delegates returned and received their “strawman” copy.  Some were surprised and even shocked at what the document contained, though not because (like our recent healthcare legislation) no one knew what it contained.  Quite the contrary, there were no unknowns here.  It’s just that, after months of debate, it was still a little bit unnerving to see all laid out in plain text.  After receiving the draft, the session for the day ended, but the convention was far from over.

Each article, section, and clause was still open for debate and, if necessary, a vote.  And for the next five weeks, that debate would continue.  The delegates to the Constitutional Convention knew that much had been accomplished.  And each one knew there was a long way to go.

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WordPress has added this nifty new feature to our suite of tools.  It’s a world map, and it allows me to see the countries from where all of you come to visit.  This morning, I see there are folks from the United States, and Poland, and some other places.  It’s kind of cool to see the various countries and continents represented.

I don’t know where you are specifically, but where I am, it’s been downright hot.  We topped out at 106°F yesterday (which is a staggering number for central Iowa), and it’s been over 100° for what seems like a month.  I look outside the window, and the yards stare back with deep-fried goodness.  Fortunately, our break has arrived.  Storms rolled through last night, bringing our first real rainfall in a month, and this morning the winds had a northern component to them.  It’s still really humid, but it actually feels cool!

The summer of 1787 was pretty hot as well.  Early-American Philadelphia roasted in a hot, humid, hazy sunshine that made a good many people sick, a lot more people very short-tempered, and everyone wish someone would just invent shorts and t-shirts already.

For the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, it was time for a break as well, and not just from the temperatures, which had conveniently moderated a bit ten days prior.  Two months of debate, two months of disagreement, and two months of discussion were all beginning to wear them down.  But a tremendous amount of progress had been made in that two months.  The basic shape of the new government had been worked, including that most sticky of issues:  how a bicameral legislature would be represented.

It was time to start collecting the various parts, what the delegates called “resolves” (and twenty-three had been passed to this point), along with other proposals and amendments, into some kind of order.  George Washington, who would have rather been riding the countryside, following the rivers and thinking about a canal system, penned in his diary that they needed to “draw into method and form the several matters which had been agreed to by the Convention as a Constitution for the United States.

So on July 26, 1787, the Convention created the Committee of Detail.  The job of this committee was not to create a finished product, but simply to get things organized.  Then the delegates could look over their work, have some more debate, and make corrections and further changes.  The Committee was Detail was made up of five members, including Virginia’s Edmund Randolph (who, as we know, ultimately did not sign the finished product), James Wilson from Pennsylvania, Nathaniel Gorham from Massachusetts, Connecticut’s Oliver Ellsworth, and John Rutledge from South Carolina.  They were given eleven days (until August 6) to knock together a “Report”.

And the rest of the delegates to an eleven-day sabbatical.  The delegates themselves didn’t talk about the proceedings in “mixed” company, fearing the spread of rumor and outright falsehoods.  But many wrote letters home to family and friends, since flying or driving home was, in 1787, out of the question.  There was much “wagging of tongues” around Philly, as bystanders and newspapers speculated on what might be taking place.

General Washington went trout fishing.

Recommended Reading:  Decision in Philadelphia – Another account of the Convention I’m reading right now, and it’s pretty good.

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The signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783 may have officially signaled the end of America’s fight for freedom with Britain, but in the Colonies, there were still battles being fought.  Those that had backed the cause of freedom took a very dim view of the Tories (or Loyalists), whose allegiances remained more strongly with Britain.  And now that the war was concluded, there was throughout America a wave of anti-British, anti-Tory sentiment – a sort of pent-up backlash against those that supported the losing side.

This was especially true in New York City.  The Big Apple – which, while a sizable city in the 1780s, was still a very Small Apple by today’s standards – had probably been the most “Tory-ized” city in the Colonies.  The city’s citizens were, in general, strongly loyal to the British when fighting broke out, and it was very quickly captured by the British.  As we know, a good portion of the city was burned at that time, though no one knows with certainty which side was responsible for striking the match.

Colonists that stood for independence from Britain felt compelled to flee the city, leaving behind homes, property, and possessions, which were subsequently confiscated by the British military.  New York City remained a British / Loyalist stronghold throughout the war.  It was also something of a prison camp, as ships moored in the East River served as jails for captured American soldiers.  Conditions in these prison boats were appalling.  Disease, malnutrition, and general mistreatment aboard these ships led to the deaths of more than eleven thousand Patriots.

When hostilities ended with Britain, they began anew when New York Patriots returned to their city.  Many found their homes badly damaged or destroyed and their possessions plundered.  Bones of dead Patriots littered the shores of the East River (and would continue to do so for years).  And since the British military was gone, most of the fallout landed on those Loyalist citizens remaining.

Persecution broke out against the Loyalists as their opponents vented their rage in a search for vengeance.  Some were killed, more were tarred and feathered, and all were affected by various laws that were passed against them.

There were some who argued for moderation.  Much could be said about how a victorious people treated its vanquished enemy.  Many countries around the world had very good relations with British subjects, and might take a dim view on their mistreatment, which could affect future diplomacy and trade.

But for now, anger won out.  The New York legislature passed laws allowing the seizure of Tory estates.  There were laws that allowed returning homeowners to sue their Tory occupiers for any damages.  Legislation robbed Tories of the ability to work, stuck them with heavy taxes, and took away many of their basic rights.  While some of these laws may have made some sense, many were passed simply as acts of retribution…or worse, authored by those who found a way to gain financially at Tory expense.

And on May 12, 1784, the legislature passed a law that rescinded the voting rights of all Tories for two years.  Many returning New Yorkers rejoiced at the measure, but others (besides the Loyalists) were horrified.  They pointed to the Treaty of Paris itself, which called for both sides to “forget all past misunderstandings and differences.”  But even more specific, one of the main points of the Treaty was as follows:  “The Congress of the Confederation will “earnestly recommend” to state legislatures to recognize the rightful owners of all confiscated lands “provide for the restitution of all estates, rights, and properties, which have been confiscated belonging to real British subjects [Loyalists].”  Voting restrictions were a direct violation of the Treaty.

But still the legislation had passed.  The war may have been over, but the fighting certainly was not.

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George Clymer was a member of the Pennsylvania legislature.  He had also been a member of the Constitutional Convention.  That gathering, which spanned the summer months of 1787, had seen argument, contention, and discord give way to eventual consensus.  A Constitution had been ratified in mid-September, but as the month neared its end, the time had come for the states to get involved.

On the 28th (just a couple weeks after Mifflin unveiled the new document), George stood up in the state body and proposed that a convention for ratification be agreed upon.  While there was hearty approval from those favoring the Constitution, there was plenty of dissent.  The more hesitant noted that legislative session was due to end the following day (a Saturday), and new business (especially something as important as the Constitution) was probably better left tabled for the next session.  In addition, elections were just a month away, so it was preferred to let the new body take up the debate about a special convention.

Those in Clymer’s camp knew the situation.  They believed they had the votes to pass Clymer’s resolve now.  But with the session ending and elections coming, there was adequate time for the “anti-federalists” to make enough noise to scare people.  Maybe the elections would cause a wave of anti-federalists to be voted in, and a convention would be buried under the weight of opposition.

After some debate, the issue was put off until late Friday afternoon.  But when everyone reconvened at 4:00pm, some people were missing from the room.  Nineteen anti-federalists were no-shows, which meant the body didn’t have the quorum necessary to conduct any business…such as, shall we say…vote on a state convention for the purpose of debating the Constitution.  What a coincidence!

This caused no small uproar in the city of Philadelphia.  Taverns that evening were full of strong ale and strong opinion.  People took to the streets, some with strong feelings one way or the other, and others with no real knowledge of what was being argued about at all.  And the federalists?…those in favor of the Constitution?…they just wanted to know where the nineteen missing men were holed up.  The sergeant-at-arms went looking and found them sequestered in a home owned by “Mr. Boyd” on 6th Street.

Do I really need to tell you what was about to happen?  18th century politics were a little bit different than they are today.  Oh yeah, we have groups of delegates that will, in opposition to a bill or some piece of legislation, purposely vacate their chairs so that a quorum cannot be reached…it still happens from time to time.  But we don’t very often see the response that the citizens of Philadelphia witnessed on September 29, 1787.

That Saturday morning, a group of men broke down the door of Mr. Boyd’s house, ran in, and absconded with two legislators.  They were dragged, kicking and screaming, back to Independence Hall, and placed in their chairs.  A quorum had been reached and, very quickly, the question of a constitutional convention was put to a vote.  Not surprisingly, it passed 45-to-2.

Pennsylvania, ready or not, was going to debate and decide what to do about the Constitution.  The date was set for November 30th.

Recommended Reading:  Ratification:  The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 – This one is not yet in my collection…it should be.  It should also be in yours.

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Well, with ratification came reading, and with reading came the inevitable reaction.  I suppose that a statement like that, in light of all the times I’ve blathered on about the Constitutional Convention, isn’t all that surprising.  But let’s speak to it for a minute this evening.

On a September Monday in 1787, the Constitution was ratified by the delegates meeting on the first floor of Independence Hall in Philadelphia.  On a September Tuesday (the next day), which happened to be September 18, 1787, Thomas Mifflin got to make the climb to the second floor.  It was there that the Pennsylvania legislature had been meeting for the last couple of weeks.  The first floor was normally their domain, but they had graciously allowed the Convention delegates to use the space.  And with all the rumor swirling around about a new Constitution and a change in government structure, it’s pretty easy to imagine a bunch of legislators quietly listening with ears pressed against the floor, trying to catch snatches of what was being said one floor below.

One can almost see the “lookout”, standing outside the door, making sure no one is coming.  And when Mifflin’s shoes are heard on the steps, the lookout quickly and quietly runs back to the room and half whispers, “Somebody’s on the way!”…at which point everyone jumps back to their spots and makes things look like normal business.  I’m sure it didn’t happen that way, but it paints a humorous, children-in-the-classroom type of behavior with which we’re all familiar.

Anyways, Thomas Mifflin entered the room, Constitution in hand, and read it to those assembled.  It was the first public disclosure of the document.  If you’ve never read the Constitution, you might fear that the delegates were in for a many-hours-long discourse.  But of course, we’ve all read our nation’s most important document, so we know that, assuming no interruptions, Mifflin likely completed his work in less than two hours.  And once he was done, Pennsylvania’s governing body knew they were in for some dramatic changes.  Pennsylvania’s constitution (in place for nearly a dozen years) called for a one-chambered legislature, yearly elections, and a leader chosen by the legislature.  All this talk of electors and a bicameral legislature and checks and balances was a lot to process at one time.

And let’s be honest, even Pennsylvania’s own constitution was the subject of fighting among the citizens…there had much inkshed and some bloodshed over it.  There were factions and fights, division and disruption aplenty.  Now, to top it off, here was Mifflin telling them their national government was radically changing.  There was something new about which to fight!!

Those against ratification would go to great lengths to prevent it, and those for ratification would go to greater lengths to get it.  We’ll be back in 1787’s version of the Pennsylvania statehouse before too long, because it’s going to get a bit goofy…

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Fridays around our office tend to be relaxed affairs.  We wear jeans and tennis shoes and white socks.  Well, those of us that don’t take the day off, which is sometimes about 50% of staff.  We take it easy…maybe a slightly longer lunch period, an extra 15 minutes of Angry Birds, some extra snacks, that second soda we normally deny ourselves.  Believe me, we still work, but it’s definitely a wee bit lighter duty than the other four days of the week.

For the delegates at the Constitutional Convention, the final Friday of their gathering was anything but relaxed.  Of course, I’m referring to September 14, 1787, which was a Friday.  The Committee of Style and Arrangement, tasked with taking the various agreed-upon articles and molding them into a cohesive document, had taken the better part of five days to do its work.  But they got through it and presented their final draft of the Constitution to the delegate body…that was the 12th, a Wednesday.

And then the debate over language and syntax began.  There was word-smithing and a general tightening up of the Constitution’s language.  But there were also some bigger ideas that received some “last-minute” consideration.  This Friday saw some of those.

Benjamin Franklin offered up that Congress should be given the power to build canals.  It seems a bit strange to us that Franklin would ask for something so specific to be added, but if we think ahead to all of the canals that were created in the 1800s, we realize that the old doctor had a bit of foresight.  But concerns over monopolies and a fear that some states would use the canal system as an excuse to establish a bank – and we know that Aaron Burr used a similar tactic to do just that a few years later – killed the idea pretty quickly.

There was a debate over Section 8 of Article 1, which dealt with piracy, but that, too, remained unchanged.

And Section 9, Article 1 also got floor time.  This piece of the Constitution addressed the regularity with which Congress should publish a record of its public expenditures.  As written, it was to be done annually.  But some wondered if that a little too specific.  Maybe more than one report a year would be necessary, while in other years, none would be required.  As we know, in today’s world of trillion-dollar debts and exorbitant waste, once a year isn’t nearly enough.  At end of the discussion, the delegates settled on the phrase, “shall be published from time to time.”

And that was that.  As we know, Saturday would also be a day of work, as the final changes and discussions were ironed out and the Convention came to an end.  Monday, September 17th, would see the Constitution ratified.

Recommended Reading: Miracle at Philadelphia

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Alexander Hamilton is a fascinating study in contrasts, and I hope that over the last couple of years, the numerous scribbles I’ve put together on the man would give you that feeling as well.  Hamilton was a man who was born into some of the worst conditions of his time, but achieved greatness.  A man who loved General Washington, but nit-picked with him (and even quit his staff job) over relatively trivial matters.  A man who adored his wife almost to distraction – he would write, “My Angel!  I told you truly that I love you too much.  I struggle with an excess which I cannot but deem a weakness and endeavor to bring myself back to reason and duty…” – and yet entangled himself in at least one costly affair…and maybe others.

Today we visit another such contrast, displayed at the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787.

The Convention’s first few weeks could be called (in the most general sense) a brainstorming session.  There was Edmund Randolph’s presentation of the Virginia Plan in late May, which was a radical departure from the existing Articles of Confederation.  Had you been fortunate enough to be sitting in the assembly on June 15th, not only would you have been enormously uncomfortable in the stifling heat and humidity, you would have heard New Jersey’s William Patterson offer up the “New Jersey Plan”, which should get some keyboard-time in the future.

Then there was a day off (the 16th), the day of worship (Sunday the 17th) and “Alexander Hamilton” day on June 18, 1787.

It was then that this 32-year-old visionary stood up and offered his ideas.  For six hours he offered them up and, in doing so, inadvertantly drove a stake into the ground that would follow (and often haunt) him for the remainder of his short life.  As we know, the proceedings of the Convention were supposed to be sealed until all of its attendees were dead, but Hamilton’s speech was leaked to the public.

In some sense, it’s a minor miracle that Hamilton was even a delegate to the Convention.  While he certainly deserved to be there, it was a case of “who you know, not what you know.”  Alexander represented New York, which was governed by George Clinton.  Clinton loathed Hamilton’s political views, was a supporter of strong states’ rights, and detested any power given to a central government.  So he tried to load the New York delegation with men of his ilk…men like Robert Yates and John Lansing (who we’ve seen before on these pages).  But Hamilton had a strong ally who happened to also be his father-in-law.  Philip Schuyler was an incredibly wealthy man, and owned the allegiances of numerous powerful landowners in New York.  He had lost the governor’s election to Clinton ten years prior, so Schuyler was politically connected as well.  He made sure a voice opposing Clinton’s (one Alexander Hamilton) was present at the convention.

Anyways, I digress a bit, though I think it’s valuable to have a bit of context.

Hamilton’s “sketch” (as he called it) called for an executive (called a “governor”) elected for life (assuming good behavior and subject to recall), an upper house with Senators elected for life, a lower house elected by the people for 3-year terms, and an elected-for-life judiciary.  State governors would be appointed by the national government.  The lower house would be the originator of all laws, while the executive held the veto power.

Now some of these things look pretty familiar to us.  The three-pronged executive, judicial, and legislative branches are what we have now, as is the bicameral legislature.  The same holds with the judiciary – our Supreme Court justices are appointed for life.  But for delegates just 5 years removed from a fight for independence, the “for life” provisos for the executive and upper house looked way too much like a British monarchy.

In his defense, Alexander Hamilton had put together a cohesive system with solid checks and balances (that I haven’t detailed).  In fact, John Quincy Adams, reading Madison’s notes on Hamilton’s speech a half century later, remarked that it was, in theory, a better constitution than that which was adopted.  But our 6th President also hit on the gold when he added that Hamilton’s ideas were “energetic, and approaching the British Constitution far closer, and such as the public opinion of that day never would have tolerated.”

Alexander Hamilton’s speech was probably opposed by 90% of his hearers that day, though no one spoke up in protest.  Maybe the delegates believed that if no one discussed it, it never really happened.

I know less of Hamilton than many, and less of history than most.  But I think that in this “idea” phase of the Convention, Hamilton’s ideas (while certainly on the disagreeable fringe of where the delegates wanted to go) were viable.  Put ideas on the table, let the discussion build, and create a consensus of how a new government should work.  But instead, this speech became the “wild outlier”, the statistical aberration that, when maliciously leaked to the public, dogged Hamilton to the end of his days.

In his biography of Hamilton, Ron Chernow describes this six hours of Hamilton’s life as “brilliant, courageous, and, in retrospect, completely daft.”  In her book covering the convention, Catherine Bowen writes, “Alexander Hamilton at the Federal Convention cuts a disappointing figure…”

I think his speech presents another of those contrasts.  Hamilton, the man who staunchly defended the Constitution in its final form.  The Founder who tirelessly penned 50+ essays explaining why the system adopted was so good for the country.  The New Yorker who almost single-handedly brought about ratification in his home state (where the opposition owned the political machine).  In contrast, the man whose idea of “government in the United States” as presented at the Constitutional Convention went completely off the reservation.

Recommended Reading: James Madison – Yeah, go figure. Just one paragraph on Hamilton’s speech, but just about the best synopsis.

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