“I do not see the danger of the states being devoured by the national government. On the contrary, I wish to keep them from devouring the national government” – James Wilson (PA)
In this and the next squib I’ll examine the Convention debates with an eye out for proposals and ideas that strike us today as less than supportive of republican, limited government. We’ll find, probably in Part V, that Alexander Hamilton’s June 18th sketch of another framework of government was not as radical in comparison as his modern detractors believe.
Noteworthy in the first couple weeks of the Federal Convention is a focus rarely seen today. Perhaps it’s because delegates debated in remarkable secrecy and were free to change their positions without fear of bad press. In their efforts to frame some sort of republic, we’ll notice surprising admiration for certain aspects of limited monarchies. The still respectable House of Lords was soon the model for an ideal Senate. James Madison’s notes portray lively exchanges in which delegates reconciled parochialism with dedication to avoiding the fate of past republics.
Imagine if all history knew of James Madison was his Virginia Plan of government. The man who immersed himself in study of republics and had a decade or so of experience in Congress and Virginia government, proposed to neuter state sovereignty.
In it, and like the British Crown, Congress had veto authority over state laws. To further solidify national power and to correct a tax collection deficiency in the Articles of Confederation (Articles), the Virginia Plan expected the executive department to send troops if necessary to collect delinquent funds and enforce the laws of the United States.1 How this was to work in practice wasn’t clear, but one thing is certain; delegates to the Philadelphia convention were determined to design a government adequate in power and authority to achieve the just ends of government as proclaimed in the Articles.2
June 1st. In view of King George’s recent abuses, Madison feared a single executive could wind up an elected monarch. Instead, he favored a council, similar to the English king’s Privy Council, whose advice could be ignored only at the peril of the chief executive.
Virginia Governor Randolph strenuously opposed the fetus of a monarchy, a single executive. The design of the executive branch tormented the delegates like no other. Government under the Articles proved the unsuitability of Committees to execute laws. Perhaps the Romans got it right in their several hundred-year republic: two chief executives, one to keep an eye on the other, chosen by the legislative for annual terms.
June 2nd At times, Madison took better notes than at others. I am thankful he kept careful details of the speech by John Dickinson of Delaware. Dickinson illustrated the wisdom the delegates brought to the convention as he discussed monarchies v. republics, separation of powers, the inherent stability of a legislature divided into two, and distinct state governments.
He considered limited monarchy as one of the best governments in the world. It was not certain that the same blessings were derivable from any other form. What was certain was that equal blessings had never yet been derived from any of the republican forms. Ancient republics fared poorly because they were badly constituted. The convention had the opportunity and duty to avoid similar mistakes.
Despite his initial opposition to Independence, by 1787 Dickinson was among the strongest advocates for a National Government. In an act that perhaps more than any other promoted the future prosperity of the US, Dickinson and Judge George Read shepherded a bill through the Delaware Assembly that tied their hands and prevented Delaware’s delegates from considering anything other than equal State representation in Congress.
He had no idea of abolishing the State Governments as some gentlemen seemed inclined to do. The happiness of this Country in his opinion required considerable powers to be left in the hands of the states.
June 4th. In support of his Council of Revision, Madison spoke against Wilson and Hamilton’s proposal to make the executive veto, like that of the English King, absolute.
June 5th. Should the Judiciary and Executive have joint veto power over bills passed by Congress before they become law? Elbridge Gerry (MA) didn’t think so, because the judiciary may have subsequent duty to determine a law’s Constitutionality. To negate a bill outside of court involved the judiciary in political decisions.
Judges. James Wilson opposed the appointment of judges by the National Legislature. Experience showed the impropriety of such appointments by numerous bodies. Intrigue, partiality, and concealment were the necessary consequences. A principal reason for unity in the executive was that a single, responsible person might appoint officers. Wilson still had the monarchal view to vest the executive alone with judicial appointments.
June 6th. The Nature of Representation. This day illustrates the delegate’s experiences with popular state governance. The people had endured mutable laws, paper money, the imprisonment of returning Revolutionary War soldiers for debt, and localized uprisings. These recent events prompted delegates to question the proper depth of representation in their planned House of Representatives. The disorders they experienced occurred despite widespread male, adult suffrage unheard of in Great Britain. They discussed a range of preventions with the purpose of keeping state-level ailments out of the new national government.
Charles Pinckney (SC) moved “that the first branch of the national Legislature be elected by the State Legislatures, and not by the people,” contending that the people were less fit judges, and that the state legislatures were less likely to promote the adoption of the new Government, if they were to be excluded from all share in it.
Elbridge Gerry, whose home state of Massachusetts recently witnessed Shays Rebellion, didn’t respect the typical voter, who in his experience sent indigent, ignorant and base men to government. Still, he wasn’t willing to run to extremes and design a monarchy or aristocracy. It was necessary on the one hand that the people should appoint one branch of the Government in order to inspire them with the necessary confidence. His idea was that the people should nominate candidates in special districts, out of which the state legislatures should make the appointment.
Roger Sherman (CN) viewed elections by the people to the lower house as a surefire way to abolish state government.
To continue the state governments, Sherman thought it necessary to preserve harmony between the national and state governments. To this end, states should make elections to the new government. The right of participating in the national government would be sufficiently secured to the people by their election of the State Legislatures. In Sherman’s design the states would not send recallable delegates as they did under the Articles of Confederation; they instead send representatives known to the state legislatures as men of good character and judgement.
John Dickinson (DE) repeated his warm praise of the British Constitution. In the new senate, the convention ought to carry it through a refining process that assimilates it as near as possible to the English House of Lords.
George Read of Delaware was through with the states. A national government meant the eventual end of the states anyway, so why bother patching up the Articles? The Confederation was built on temporary principles; it cannot be amended. If delegates didn’t get a new plan right, it could mean ruin. The people at large are wrongly suspected of being averse to a general government. The aversion lies among interested men who possess their confidence.
Some two hundred and thirty years later we may have difficulty imagining the challenges facing these men. Without the glue of a war to bind the states in semi-friendship and mutual support, the Confederation was rapidly dissolving into irrelevance. No body of men was ever more aware of history’s democracies, republics, monarchies, confederations, aristocracies, oligarchies, tyrannies, and empires going back to antiquity.
In these first few days they juxtaposed their admiration of the old, stable British system with the young and unstable United States and offered ideas on government that shock us today. Still, their eye was always on the prize: a governing form that went beyond the purpose of the Articles, one that pursued not just friendship, and support among thirteen republics, but one that sought justice, prosperity, and liberty for themselves and posterity.
1. Having experienced British martial law in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Savannah, Madison’s resort to military enforcement of the law underscores the widespread frustration with recalcitrant states.
2. Article III: The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretense whatever.
Banning, L. (1995). The Sacred Fire of Liberty – James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
Madison, J. (1966). Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. Chicago: Ohio University Press.
Collier, C. C. (2007). Decision in Philadelphia The Constitutional Convention of 1787.
New York: Ballantine Books.
Rakove, J. N. (1996). Original Meanings – Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution. New York : Random House.
Rossiter, C. (1966). 1787 The Grand Convention. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.