A Senate of the States: June 29th – June 30th, 1787

While we take for granted today that the Framers breezily agreed to a compound republic of the people and the states, the issue still was unresolved five weeks into the convention! Tempers flew as arguments ranged on the one hand, from forming a national, democratic republic which did away with the states, and on the other, to keeping the existing Articles of Confederation.

In late June, delegates far more resembled steely political negotiators than a band of brothers. What kept them going through the long summer was fear of the future if they did not come up with an adequate governing form.

The convention was a hopeless endeavor if delegates couldn’t agree on the foundation of government, those on one side considering the states as districts of people composing one political society, and those on the other considering them as so many political societies. Dr. William Samuel Johnson (CN) advised compromise. The fact is that the states do exist as political societies, and a government must reflect their political capacity, as well as for the individuals composing them. Recognize the states as states in the new plan. As such, they have the right of self-defense, yet the people must have their house in congress as well.

Without a bold stroke amendment which encouraged state participation, the confederation faced certain dissolution. As opposed to 1860 – 1861, and the California secessionist movement today, the states in 1787 could de facto secede from the confederation through a simple legislative decision to stop attending congress.

Without the common attachment of a well-attended congress, what did the future hold? Informed speculation ran wild. Nathaniel Gorham (MA) predicted a consolidation of Delaware with Pennsylvania, just as New Haven Plantation joined Connecticut (1664), and Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth and Maine united into Massachusetts in 1692.

New Jersey’s situation called for utmost caution. Being without foreign commerce, New York and Pennsylvania ruthlessly taxed New Jersey’s consumption, which in turn was likely to push her into the arms of a foreign power. If individual states enter foreign alliances, then expect peace and stability to vanish as the squabbles and wars of Europe once again visit our shores. Out of necessity, other states will either rearm, or, if they are too poor to do so, they will form alliances among themselves or European kingdoms. Even if no state surprisingly did not align itself with a foreign power, James Madison predicted the need of each to defend themselves from fellow states. Expect their previously republican governments to become vigorous and hostile to internal liberties. While standing armies are always designed for external defense, they inevitably turn inward on the people.

Were the states necessary to freedom, or were they so detrimental that the logical answer was a national, representative, democratic republic without state participation at all? Small-state delegate Judge George Read (DE) surprisingly supported a far more national and less federal plan. He viewed state parochialism as an insurmountable problem and preferred a national government without states per the Hamilton sketch, which resembled the English monarchal form grafted to republicanism.

The tone of the convention worsened this day to the point that a typically unflappable and outwardly unemotional James Madison snapped at the small states’ intransigence. They knew, he accused, of the rightfulness of proportional representation in both houses of the proposed congress. Their insistence on equality of state suffrage in the senate was wrong, and as recent history proved, represented a mortal blow to stable, effective government. Indeed, during the late war, said Rufus King, Delaware “opposed and defeated an embargo agreed to by twelve states; and continued to supply the enemy with provisions.” Small states should ponder the confederation’s pending dissolution and agree to proportional representation in the senate.

Alexander Hamilton (NY) observed that suffrage is different in various political societies. In some states, there is universal freeborn suffrage. In others there are property requirements. States are composed of individuals. Which have rights, the persons or the artificial beings composed of them? Hamilton: “It has been said that if the smaller states renounce their equality, they renounce at the same time their liberty. The truth is it is a contest for power, not for liberty.”

June 30. Despite the threats, no state delegation abandoned the convention, which resumed the motion to limit each state to one vote in the senate.

As the leading large-state democrat, and in a rebuke to the small-state threat of dissolution, James Wilson (PA) expressed perplexity at the motion. After so many shared dangers, comity and final victory in the revolution, it would be a shame to fail to come to an agreement. Still, he would not change his mind as to proportional representation in the Senate. If the small states wished to go, if a minority refused to join the majority, so be it. Why should the unalienable rights of man fade in favor of the artificial constructs of mere states? Why were they forming a government, for men or imaginary things called states? A government based on equal state suffrage must fail. It meant dissolution and failure in petty rivalries.

Bad government is either too weak or too strong. One does too little, the other too much, i.e. failure through weakness or destruction through oppression. Convention delegates met to correct the former without succumbing to the latter. If the states are given parity once again in the senate, history predicts a country doomed to weak, ineffective government.

Benjamin Franklin (PA) once again attempted to cool things off. First, he framed the large/small state controversy. The small states feared proportional representation endangered their liberty, while the large states feared a system of parity endangered their money. He asked each side to compromise and suggested an equal number of two or more senators per state. Small states retained equality. To protect the wealth of the large states, Franklin proposed to limit suffrage in money matters proportioned to the sums each state contributed to the national treasury.

Despite Franklin’s conciliatory attempt, the delegates did not play together very well.

Rufus King (MA) was ready to abandon the convention. Parity in the senate was another confederation congress certain to stymie national legislation for petty, local reasons. Since the small states refused to budge, the convention was finished. He did not see how equal state suffrage secured our individual rights, and referred to state sovereignty as a “phantom.” Like so many others, he saw the convention as their last opportunity to secure liberty and happiness. How could the small states reject a blessing of government based on the legitimate representation of the people over Utopian ideals and attachments? “Vicious,” he described the plan of equal suffrage and would not support it.

Gunning Bedford (DE) did not see middle ground between consolidation into a single national government and confederation. The votes of the delegates reflected the avarice of mankind; the large states sought to dominate. They thought they had right on their side. He summed up the relative power positions of some of the states; what they were then and what they hoped to be. The so-called rotten boroughs protected the rights of their people. From an inequality of votes, expect an inequality of power. Count on it. The convention must design a system the people will ratify.

Bedford asked for one more opportunity to enhance congressional powers under the Articles of Confederation. The states will approve an impost and enhanced tax collection powers. There was no chance, in his opinion, for ratification of the Constitution. He threatened the large states, saying the small would ally with a foreign power if the large states dissolved the confederation. Avoid dissolution; enhance the powers of the existing congress.

According to Robert Yates (NY), and in violation of parliamentary protocol, Bedford turned away from the chair, George Washington, then looked directly at large state delegates when he said, “I do not, gentlemen, trust you.”

With emotions at fever pitch, the convention adjourned once again without a vote on the explosive question of parity, of equality of state suffrage in the senate.

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

Leave a Reply