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Posts Tagged ‘Federal Convention’

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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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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Throughout the three-plus months of the Constitutional Convention, the delegates disagreed about a bunch of stuff.  It had started almost immediately with a debate over semantics.  Was the government national or federal?  Both words were nuanced depending on which ears heard them, and the delegates argued for (and against) each.  And that was the very beginning.  The delegates argued over slavery.  They argued over the number of executives (can you imagine two Presidents?!?).  They debated checks and balances.  They debated the judiciary.  And at the end, when the Constitution had been written and submitted for approval, it was back to semantics and language.

But one of the things on which nearly all the delegates agreed was the issue of democracy.  And they were mostly against it.

What?!?

Yep.  Much like innovation (which we discussed last year when talking about the Convention), well, I’ll let Catherine Bowen explain.  She writes, “…to members of the Federal Convention the word democracy carried another meaning than it does today.  Democracy signified anarchy; demos was not the people but the mob.  When Paterson of New Jersey said ‘the democratic spirit beats high,’ it was meant in derogation, not in praise.  Again and again we meet these phrases:  if aristocracy was ‘baleful’ and ‘baneful,’ unchecked democracy was equally to be shunned.”

But the delegates knew from whence they came, and unchecked aristocracy led to, if I may call it such, “tyranny of the few.”  The just-ended War of Independence had been fought over this issue.  Virginia’s George Mason, a wealthy landowner much like his neighbor George Washington, spoke for many when he said, “We ought to attend to the rights of every class of the people . . . provide no less carefully for the . . . happiensess of the lowest than of the highest orders of citizens.”

There had to be balance.

So I suppose that it only made sense to the delegates that there be a divided legislature, on the order of their British counterparts.  And on May 31, 1787, they made it official.  The Committee of the Whole voted in favor of Edmund Randolph’s Resolve 3:  “That the national legislature ought to consist of two branches.”

Of the existing state legislatures, only Pennsylvania and Georgia had one-chambered legislatures.  And the greatly-respected Dr. Benjamin Franklin (representing Pennsylvania at the Convention) was a staunch advocate of a one-chamber house (he would be so until the day he died).  So when the votes were tallied, James Madison noted that the measure passed “without debate or dissent, except that of Pennsylvania, given probably out of complaisance of Docr. Franklin.”

Of course, there would still be a bundle of debate concerning terms of service, checks on the legislative branch, and most importantly, the issue of representation.  But one of the foundational elements of our system was settled on this day…the bi-cameral legislature.

Recommended Reading: Miracle at Philadelphia

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I don’t know about you, but when I come to the end of a project, I like that last day to be a relaxed one.  Maybe I tie up a loose end here or there.  Tweak a piece of code or a PowerPoint slide.  Some final edits on a document for the big presentation.  Maybe a little bit of last-minute word-smithing on the manuscript before it heads to publication.  But that’s about it.

I don’t want to be running around in a franctic panic, trying to take care of a dozen unfinished tendrils while simultaneously being hit with four or five “could-you-just-add-this” requests with three voice-mail messages informing me of problems sit in the phone queue.  That’s not my idea of a good time.

But in some sense, that second scenario is what faced the delegates to the Constitutional Convention.  September 15, 1787 was the Convention’s final working day.  The Pennsylvania legislature, which normally met in the room they were using, had already been in session for nearly two weeks and had graciously moved upstairs to give this body time to complete its work.

The Committee of Style and Arrangement, which had formed on the 8th, had finished its work five days later, presenting to the delegates a finished Constitution.  And from that point, debate had begun over wording, phrasing, style, and structure.  There were small changes suggested and accepted.  There were major changes suggested (like a Bill of Rights) and rejected.  And in between, there was dissension against and support for issues small and not-so-small.

And the 15th, rather than a wind-down, saw the flurry of activity continue.  It began with Maryland’s Daniel Carroll, who suggested that an address introducing the Constitution be prepared for the people, as that was a fairly common practice in that day.  After some debate, it was decided (in the interests of time) to have the standing Congress draft such a document.

There was argument (yet again!) over representation, as some delegates didn’t believe their state had quite enough representatives for their respective populations.  And once one state made such a demand, others were bound to follow.  It quickly threatened to rage out of control.

There was a continuation of old issues.  Mason again said that the Senate had way too much power.  Edmund Randolph (who had proposed the Virginia Plan) increasingly showed dissent for the government in its final form.  George Mason agreed and then offered up the proposal that, on this last day of business, stopped everyone in their seats.

He suggested a Second Constitutional Convention.

George Mason…who had come to Philadelphia swearing he’d be buried here rather than leave before a workable solution was found.  And it was more than a proposal, the man was insisting on it.

South Carolina’s Charles Pinckney stood to respond.  James Madison records that “Pinckney descanted on the consequences of calling forth the deliberations and amendments of the different states on the subject of government at large.  Nothing but confusion and contrariety could sping from the experiment.  The states will never agree in their plans – and the deputies to a second Convention coming together under the discordant impressions of their constituents, will never agree.”

In other words, it was now or never.  Nearly every member had some minor (or major) disagreement with the finished product.  But it would always be that way…no Constitution would be perfect, regardless of how much time was given to its construction.

There was much trepidation when the Second Convention came to a vote.  All states voted no.

Madison records the final acts as follows:

“On the question to agree to the Constitution as amended.  All the States aye.  The Constitution was then ordered to be engrossed.  And the House adjourned.”

There would be Monday’s signing, but the Convention was over.  The U.S. Constitution was completed.  It had been an exceptional three months.  The ratification process was about to begin.

Recommended Reading: Miracle at Philadelphia

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There has been some significant debate recently over the idea of “American Exceptionalism”.  Some argue that it’s reality, while others say it’s a bunch of hooey.  What is it?  Well, I’m probably the wrong guy to be defining obtuse nine-syllable phrases, but here goes my best attempt.  American Exceptionalism is the idea that the United States is a special country (something of a one-of-a-kind nation), due to the nature of its founding, its rather unique form of government, and the success it has achieved.

Needless to say, some people argue from a different perspective.  They contend that American Exceptionalism is, in the best case, extreme jingoism…a self-exalted view that arrogantly puts America on a higher plane than other countries.  In the worst case, opponents of the concept say that this attitude is what permitted the scourge of slavery until the 1860s, allowed gross mistreatment of numerous Native American tribes, and continues to foster American imperialism around the world.

I happen to think that many things about the creation of this country were exceptional, and its likely that Today’s History Lesson has covered several of them.  And I think our topic for today may fit the mold as well.

On September 8, 1787, the Committee of Style and Arrangement was formed.  Hmm…not that exceptional?  I disagree.

If you look back over the last four months, you’ll find we’ve shared a handful of articles focused on the Constitutional Convention.  And what you’ll discover is that, far from being in agreement on anything, a great many of the delegates fought tooth-and-nail to prevent the creation of a new government.  Men like Luther Martin, Gunning Bedford, and John Lansing argued vociferously against changing the status quo…against that pesky concept of innovation.

In her book Miracle at Philadelphia, Catherine Bowen writes that, “In spite of disagreement, indecision, threats of withdrawal and articles not settled, the Convention was ready to put the Constitution into final form and present it to the country.”  Was the Constitution being ram-rodded through?  Absolutely not!!  Hundreds of years ago, Sir Francis Bacon said, “Let the losers have their words.”  And those who were against the various articles (and against the whole proceeding in general) more than had their say.  It’s part of what made (and what continues to make) the Constitution so powerful.

The Committee of Style was tasked with collecting all the documentation and putting it into a cohesive, easily-read document.  Five men comprised the committee, and their names read much like a Founding Fathers All-Star team.

James Madison, who would spend the rest of his life defending what the Committee created, and is known as the Father of the Constitution.

William Samuel Johnson, a quiet strength from the South who hadn’t missed a single day of the proceedings.

Gouverneur Morris, who spoke more during the Convention than anyone else, but also had the fortitude to publicly admit when he was wrong.  It was his hand that penned our Constitution.

Alexander Hamilton.  Bowen writes, “…his speech of June eighteenth had not been forgotten, with its monarchical slant; yet delegates knew his grasp of the situation, knew also that his pen was quick and eloquent;  nobody could say better what he wanted to say about the constitution of governments.”  He, along with Madison, would spill an enormous amount of ink defending what was about to be created.

And finally, Rufus King.  He had arrived in Philadelphia full of doubt, believing that the Congress under the Confederacy should take up changing the Confederacy.  But over the course of the Convention, he became a staunch supporter…and converts are always strong believers.

These men penned a letter (also written by Morris) to accompany the final document, and its words are timeless, too.  “It is obviously impractical in the foederal government of these States, to secure all rights of independent sovereignty to each, and yet provide for the interest and safety of all.  Individuals entering into society, must give up a share of liberty to preserve the rest.  The magnitude of the sacrifice must depend as well on siuation and circumstance, as on the object to be obtained.  It is at all times difficult to draw with precision the line between those rights which must be surrendered, and those which may be reserved…”

Exceptional?  I think so.  Bowen summarizes in agreement with me.  “The wonder is that twelve states got through months of discussion without disbanding, and that the Committee of Style could now go on with their task unhampered.”

And for five days, these five men would work.  They condensed, they word-smithed, and they debated amongst themselves over language and detail.  And in the end…well, let’s cover that when the time is right.  But I’ll give you a hint…it begins with three remarkable (dare I say “exceptional”?) words…“We the people…”

Recommended Reading: Miracle at Philadelphia

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