Reality television and the Constitutional Convention have more in common than you might think. We know from scanning primetime that every good reality show has at least one unruly character. But could this also be true during one of our Nation’s most formative narratives?
Meet Luther Martin, one of Maryland’s delegates who unabashedly fills the role of your favorite reality TV show’s loud antagonist during the Constitutional Convention.
He was mad. He was mean. He was ornery.
In fact, word around town was that he was even a drunk.
After graduating at the top of his class from the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), he moved to Maryland and began studying the law until he was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1771. Martin arrived at the Convention on June 9th as a staunch supporter of American independence from Great Britain.
From the beginning of the convention, however, Martin made clear his opposition to the creation of a government where the large states would dominate the small states. This, he argued, would lead to unequal representation in Congress. He unswervingly sided with the small states, lending his support to the New Jersey plan and voting against the Virginia Plan.
On June 27th, he delivered a crotchety criticism of the Virginia Plan’s proposal for proportionate representation in both houses of the legislature. Martin supported the case for equal numbers of delegates in at least one house of government. This would ensure that small states could maintain their integrity regardless of how many more citizens’ one state had over another. He made this known during his tenure on the committee formed to seek a compromise on representation.
Many of his fellow delegates viewed Martin as trying to obstruct the proceedings of the Convention. In many ways, they were right. He often spouted-off uncomfortable sentiments that made everyone uneasy and concerned the Convention would be completely derailed. Jealous of federal power, Martin clung to tradition and fought his hardest to maintain the Articles of Confederation.
Convinced that the new government would have too much power over state governments, Martin and another Maryland delegate, John Francis Mercer, walked out of the convention decrying the demise of individual rights. Later that year, Martin gave a speech to the Maryland House of Delegates where he beset the Convention for straying from their clear instruction to meet “for the sole and express purpose of revising” the Articles of Confederation.
Martin personally believed this was essentially launching a coup d’état and, though George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were supporters of the new system of government, said we should not, “suffer our eyes to be so far dazzled by the splendor of names, as to run blindfolded into what may be our destruction.”
There may not have been any punches thrown or shouting matches caught on camera, but there was definitely drama during the Convention. Battles of will, strong-headedness, and major disagreements – one which even led to people walking out – epitomized Martin’s role during the Convention.
As we look back on these historical events from modernity, we must remember that Martin was indeed a delegate fighting relentlessly for the welfare of the country (not just particular states) and not a reality television star bickering about their plans for Friday night.
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For more detailed information on the Constitutional Convention, please visit Prof. Gordon Lloyd’s web companion to the Philadelphia Convention.
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