A Senate of the States: June 27th – June 28th 1787

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In fits and starts, often one step forward and two steps back, the convention slowly shaped the pieces to its constitutional jigsaw puzzle. Incredibly, as a few delegates seemingly wished to flip the table over and scatter the pieces, enough of the remaining delegates stood fast to grind out our beloved Constitution.

On June 27th, rather than address the question of congressional powers in Resolution 6, the convention mired once again in the nature of representation, Resolutions 7 & 8.

#7. Resolved that the right of suffrage in the first branch of the national Legislature ought not to be according to the rule established in the Articles of Confederation: but according to some equitable ratio of representation- namely, in proportion to the whole number of white and other free citizens and inhabitants of every age, sex, and condition including those bound to servitude for a term of years, and three fifths of all other persons not comprehended in the foregoing description, except Indians, not paying taxes in each State.

#8. Resolved that the right of suffrage in the second branch of the National Legislature ought to be according to the rule established for the first.

On the question of an equitable ratio in the House of Representatives:

From Madison’s notes, Luther Martin (MD), the State Attorney General, gave a well-prepared and powerful three-hour speech attacking the path of the convention. However, according to Robert Yates (NY), Luther’s arguments were diffuse, “and in many instances desultory; it was not possible to trace him through the whole, or to methodize his ideas into a systematic or argumentative arrangement.”

A reading of the tea leaves over the past few days indicated a weakening of the large state bloc against equal state suffrage in the senate, while the small states had long indicated their willingness to accept proportional representation in the house. So, when it appeared the convention was close to agreeing on proportional representation in the house and parity of the states in the senate, it got a day of bombastic Luther Martin instead. In Martin’s view the purpose of the general government was to preserve state governments; it shouldn’t act on individuals. Martin stirred up emotions and his delay almost sank the convention as he revisited republican v. federal government and the convention’s authority to do what it was doing.

June 28th. Luther Martin (MD) continued his divisive rant which exploited the large v. small state divide. Despite the convention’s rejection of the federal form, Martin, and John Lansing (NY) motioned to retain the existing congress and do away with the House of Representatives. One month into the convention and delegates had not yet agreed to the shape of the Constitution’s Article I, the fundamental power, the legislative power in a republic.

Blistering debate ensued, as repetitive arguments pro and con raged over whether federal or republican government best suited the present and future nation. James Madison, who was ready to let the small states leave, asked why, if the small states had reason to fear the large states, had not the large states already taken advantage of them? James Wilson (PA), the convention’s strongest proponent of democracy, sneered at the small state demand for parity in the senate, when he compared them to England’s rotten borough of Old Sarum.

At this critical juncture, history may credit a very old, feeble, and respected Benjamin Franklin with saving the convention. When tempers flashed their hottest, his logic, humor, and understanding of human nature dampened the passions of all. He reminded them of the worst days of the Revolution when God answered their daily prayers.

What of their present situation? After nearly four weeks of groping in the dark, and not finding the political wisdom to extricate the nation from its difficulties, Franklin asked if they had forgotten their powerful Friend? Is it possible they no longer need His assistance? Nonsense. Franklin said he had lived a long life, and the longer he lived, “the more convincing proofs (he saw) of this truth – that God governs in the affairs of men.” Franklin:

We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that “except the Lord build the House they labor in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and bye word down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human wisdom and leave it to chance, war, and conquest.

He motioned to start each session with prayer, but was defeated, not because members opposed prayer, but because the Convention lacked funds to pay for a preacher. What a sorry and embarrassing situation under the Articles of Confederation.

General Reference: Madison, J. (1966). Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. Chicago: Ohio University Press.