Philadelphia -

As the convention entered its fifth week, many of its delegates must have had a growing frustration that little progress had been made. The Virginia Plan had been presented, debated, and amended… and in response, William Patterson and Alexander Hamilton each presented competing plans, drawn on entirely different principles. With those competing plans rejected, the debate on June 20 brought delegates back to the very issue that had been deferred at the start of the convention – the issue of representation in the new government.

The issue of whether the delegates were to alter the Articles of Confederation, or to establish a new national government, had been deferred – but it could not be deferred forever. Delegates Oliver Ellsworth and Nathanial Gorham (from Connecticut and Massachusetts, respectively) did their part to defer the issue, moving to alter the first resolution of the amended Virginia Plan, which called for a “national government,” to call instead for a more general “Government of the United States”. The second resolution of the amended Virginia Plan – which called for a national legislature consisting of two branches – was more contentious. John Lansing (NY) argued that a single legislature was all that was needed in a confederation. He concluded, bluntly, “the true question here was, whether the Convention would adhere to or depart from the foundation of the present Confederacy.”

Lansing then launched into a full-scale attack of the Virginia Plan. He charged that the Convention was exceeding its authority and overlooking the public will in trying to establish a national government in place of the Confederation. He believed that the large states were out to take advantage of smaller states. He thought the national veto against state laws was impractical. He doubted it was possible to establish any general government that would be fair to all. He thought the system was too new and complicated. He believed a government on this plan would not last, and feared the states would be absorbed by the national government.

Lansing’s complaint raised a whole range of responses, with some – notably the fiery Luther Martin, from Maryland – joining Lansing in a vigorous defense of the sovereignty of states. On the other side were Madison and James Wilson, who insisted that the state governments were far more likely to intrude on the national government’s powers than the other way around, and that the only way to defend the national government’s powers against the states was to create a government that represented the people directly, rather than representing the states alone. Roger Sherman and William Johnson (CT) were open to a compromise, willing to accept a bicameral legislature, with one branch representing the people, the other representing the states.

Benjamin Franklin

This compromise position won the day, but there would be other occasions for conflict over the details of this national legislature during the last week of June. Before the week was over, on Thursday, June 28, the weary Dr. Franklin requested that remarks he had written be read to the delegates. He complained about the “small progress we have made after four or five weeks,” and lamented that the delegates “seem to feel our own want of political wisdom.” Drawing from his experience with the Second Continental Congress on the brink of war with Great Britain, Franklin recalled that each day of that assembly’s meetings began with a prayer for divine protection. He wondered “how has it happened…, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings?” Even on this simple request from the revered Dr. Franklin, however, there was dispute. Hamilton did not want to signal to the public that there was disagreement amongst the delegates. Hugh Williamson from North Carolina observed that the Convention simply did not have the funds to bring in a clergyman. Debate continued until, Madison reports, “After several unsuccessful attempts for silently postponing the matter by adjourning, the adjournment was at length carried, without any vote on the motion.” Delegates agreed to disagree on this, and other matters, and retreated to their lodgings for the evening.

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For more detailed information on the Constitutional Convention, please visit Prof. Gordon Lloyd’s web companion to the Philadelphia Convention.

Posted in Countdown to the Constitution


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