The eleventh anniversary of independence saw the Convention at an impasse. The delegates could not agree on the question of how to structure a legislative body for the union – because all knew this decision raised the question of whether they should merely strengthen the confederation, or create a new national government in its place.
The July 3-4 adjournment for Independence Day gave many delegates a respite from wearying debate. For eleven members of the committee chaired by Massachusetts’s Elbridge Gerry, however, debate continued, as they met on July 3 to discuss a practical solution to the issues that the Convention was struggling to solve. On July 4, delegates congregated at Philadelphia’s Race Street Church to hear a speech commemorating independence. On July 5, the fireworks resumed.
The Gerry Committee Report
When the Convention resumed its business on Thursday morning, July 5, the Gerry Committee was prepared with a report. The Committee, which consisted of one delegate from each of the eleven states represented at the Convention, was asked to handle the sensitive issue of representation in a union that some still view as federal but others are trying to make national. Elbridge Gerry (who had signed the Declaration of Independence in this same city eleven years ago) rose to explain the report to the Convention. The report had three parts, which gave form to the view that had been developing of a union partly national and partly federal:
- The first branch of legislature will be elected by population (as the large states had called for) with states being apportioned one member for every 40,000 inhabitants.
- All bills that raise and appropriate money will originate in the First House and shall not be amended by the Second House
- In the second branch of the legislature each state will be represented equally.
Debate in the Assembly and in Committee
Gerry admitted to the Convention, after presenting the report, that it was a very thin compromise, and that Committee delegates “agreed to the Report merely in order that some ground of accommodation might be proposed”. None of the Committee members, he continued, was “under any obligation to support the Report”.
Nor were some of the Convention’s leading delegates inclined to support the Gerry Committee’s suggested compromise. Mr. Madison seems to have viewed the compromise as a crippling blow to the Virginia Plan, which had been designed to combat what Madison saw as the vices of the political system under the Articles of Confederation. He rose and in a long speech proclaimed his fear that “the Convention was reduced to the alternative of either departing from justice in order to conciliate the smaller States, and the minority of the people of the U. S.” on the one hand, or of “displeasing these by justly gratifying the larger States and the majority of the people” on the other.
He then made the issue personal, recalling a statement made by Mr. Bedford (of Delaware) prior to the adjournment for Independence Day. Bedford, chafing against the nationalists’ plan, had challenged, “We have been told with a dictatorial air that this is the last moment for a fair trial in favor of a good Government. It will be the last indeed if the propositions reported from the Committee go forth to the people.” Bedford seemingly taunted the large states, saying that they “dare not dissolve the Confederation. If they do the small ones will find some foreign ally of more honor and good faith, who will take them by the hand and do them justice.” Though Bedford qualified that “He did not mean by this to intimidate or alarm,” Madison responded to that comment as if it were a threat, stopping just short of calling Bedford a turncoat, and hinting that the large states might just challenge stubborn states like Delaware to choose between joining the union and courting some foreign ally. Madison lectured, “if the principal States comprehending a majority of the people of the U. S. should concur in a just & judicious plan, he had the firmest hopes, that all the other States would by degrees accede to it.”
Other nationalists joined Madison’s offensive against the compromise. James Wilson charged that the Committee exceeded its powers (a charge that seems ironic, given Wilson’s support of the Virginia Plan, which many thought exceeded the Convention’s mandate of simply revising the Articles of Confederation). Gouverneur Morris thundered against those who acted as if “we were assembled to truck and bargain for our particular States” and warned “This Country must be united. If persuasion does not unite it, the sword will.”
Perhaps sensing a concerted effort on the part of the nationalists to paint him as disloyal to the Confederation, Mr. Bedford, rose to state he had been misunderstood, and had no intention that Delaware or other small states should seek protection outside of the union. But others were not cowed by the bluster of the nationalists. Several delegates rose to offer support of the Gerry Committee’s report, or at least to a hearing of the report. None was more forceful in defense of giving the Gerry Committee report a hearing than George Mason. The surly Virginian was growing impatient, and cautioned quarrelsome colleagues that “the Report was meant not as specific propositions to be adopted; but merely as a general ground of accommodation.” But Mason was not about to finish there, proclaiming that “he would bury his bones in this City rather than expose his Country to the Consequences of a dissolution of the Convention without any thing being done.”
Mason’s stern words led directly to consideration of the provisions of the Gerry Committee’s report.
For more detailed information on the Constitutional Convention, please visit Prof. Gordon Lloyd’s web companion to the Philadelphia Convention.