Philadelphia –

Well over a month into the convention, the delegates are still at odds over how to settle the question of representation in the new government. All believed that the answer to this question would determine whether the states would continue as distinct political societies, or whether the new national government would form one political society.

The notion of a national government had gained enough support that the delegations accepted a national legislature that would represent citizens, not states. For some, like Luther Martin, the Convention’s movement to this point appeared to have made an old world disappear. He “remarked that the language of the states being sovereign and independent, was once familiar and understood; though it seemed now so strange and obscure.” Others, like Madison, feared that the continuing attachment of some delegates to the sovereignty of the states would lead the states to perpetual war against one another.

Oliver Ellsworth, of Connecticut, however, “did not despair. He still trusted that some good plan of government would be devised and adopted.” Declaring that “we were partly national; partly federal,” Ellsworth pushed the need for compromise. He proposed that if the lower house of the national legislature is elected on the “national principle,” the upper house should be elected on the “federal principle”. Madison reports, “He trusted that on this middle ground a compromise would take place. He did not see that it could on any other. And if no compromise should take place, our meeting would not only be in vain but worse than in vain.”

The following day saw even more division among the delegates. Madison and James Wilson argued against this compromise, challenging that it would allow a minority to overrule a majority. Madison even went so far in defense of proportional representation as to propose that one house draw its representatives on the basis of all free inhabitants, and the other on the basis of free inhabitants plus slaves. Some defenders of state sovereignty actually called for the Convention to inform the governor of New Hampshire to send its delegates (who were not present) to help defend the interests of small states.

Help for the resolution came from an unexpected place. North Carolina delegate William Davie – who had yet to speak up during the Convention’s proceedings – agreed with Ellsworth, stating, “We were partly federal, partly national in our Union, and he did not see why the Govt. might (not) in some respects operate on the states, in others on the people.” James Wilson warmed to the idea, then Dr. Franklin offered warm words in support of compromise, then Madison indicated he might be open. There were dissenters on both sides, but at the end of the week, Saturday June 30, the makings of a compromise were there.

Davie’s support for Ellsworth’s compromise helped bring the issue to a vote. On July 2nd the resolution was defeated in a 5-5-1 tie. Roger Sherman, seeing the delegations equally divided, complained, “We are now at a full stop.” But he challenged his fellow delegates not to give up, and suggested giving this complicated question over to a committee to solve. The delegations agreed, and appointed one delegate from each of the eleven states represented in the Convention. Led the Elbridge Gerry, the Committee would spend the next several days debating the fate of state representation in the new government. With that, the Convention adjourned, leaving the delegates a chance to escape debate and celebrate the eleventh anniversary of independence on July 4.

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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