The Convention adjourned from July 26th to August 6th to allow the Committee of Detail – composed of John Rutledge of South Carolina, Edmund Randolph of Virginia, Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts, Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, and James Wilson of Pennsylvania – to prepare a rough draft of a constitution, based on the series of resolutions the delegates had debated, amended, and debated again. When the Convention re-convened, the Committee of Detail presented its report, made up of twenty-three articles. The Convention spent the remainder of August reviewing and further revising these articles.

We the People of…

Delegates quickly agreed to accept the Committee of Detail’s preamble and Articles I and II, affirming the new government would be called the Unites States of America and consist of Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches. This agreement masked the critical issue that the Convention had debated throughout – was this to be a union of states or of people? The Committee of Detail’s constitution began, “We the people of the States (emphasis added) of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New-York, New-Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North-Carolina, South-Carolina, and Georgia, do ordain, declare, and establish the following Constitution for the Government of Ourselves and our Posterity.” The Convention would not end with that language in the preamble.

Representation: Who, What, and How Many?

Discussion of the Committee of Detail report continued to include the structure and powers of the legislative branch. Some of the key questions included: Who can elect representatives? How many representatives will there be? What will be their qualifications?

Delegates debated whether to allow non-land owners to the right to vote for House members, or reserve the franchise to property owners. Gouverneur Morris wanted to restrict voting to those with property, considering them more educated and better able to choose wise leaders. “The ignorant and dependant,” Morris stated, “can be… little trusted with the public interest.” Colonel Mason countered arguments of this kind, saying all citizens should have equal voting rights and privileges.  Doctor Franklin sided with Colonel Mason believing that restricting the right to vote to land owners would cause contention among the people. In the end Morris’s proposal to restrict the franchise to property owners was defeated soundly (7-1-1).

Just as the Convention rejected a plan to restrict voting to property owners, they also rejected a proposal to restrict elective office to property owners. South Carolina’s Charles Pinckney moved that “the President of the U.S., the Judges, and members of the Legislature should be required to swear that they were respectively possessed of a cleared unencumbered Estate” – in an amount to be agreed upon by members of the Convention. This proposal went nowhere. Benjamin Franklin expressed his “dislike of every thing that tended to debase the spirit of the common people,” and observed  that “some of the greatest rogues he was ever acquainted with, were the richest rogues.” Madison reports that Pinckney’s motion “was rejected by so general a no, that the States were not called.”

The Convention did have a sentiment in favor of strong citizenship requirements for legislators. The Committee of Detail’s report required members of the House be U.S. citizens for three years prior to election, and members of the Senate for four years. Some, including George Mason and Morris, agreed that a lengthy citizenship requirement would protect the legislature from foreign intrigue. Others, including Madison and Franklin, pointed to the number of foreign friends who had helped the states during the war for independence. Delegates sided with Mason and Morris, agreeing to requirements that members of the House be citizens for seven years and members of the Senate for nine years prior to election.

On the question of how many representatives would make up the national legislature, Article IV of the Committee of Detail Report stated that the House of Representatives would initially consist of sixty-five members, and that in the future, members of the House would be added “at the rate of one for every forty thousand.” Madison, expecting the Union to grow rapidly, thought that rate would quickly lead the House to grow too large. Others thought that time would make this issue irrelevant. Mr. Nathaniel Gorham from Massachusetts asked, “Can it be supposed that this vast country including the Western territory will 150 years hence remain one nation? Mr. Oliver Ellsworth observed that “If the government should continue so long, alterations may be made in the Constitution” through the amendment process. Delegates agreed to add the language “not exceeding” to the one representative for 40,000 citizen ratio, making that a ceiling and not a floor. Controversy over this provision would re-emerge before the end of the Convention, however.

The Specter of Slavery

Likewise, controversy would emerge about slavery. Consideration of the apportionment of representatives raised the question of whether slaves would be included within that ratio. Morris rose on August 8 and gave a withering criticism of the institution. Moving to specify that this ratio would include only “free” inhabitants, Morris called slavery “a nefarious institution,” and “the curse of heaven”. Comparing free with slave states, Morris noted, on the one hand, “a rich and noble cultivation [which] marks the prosperity and happiness of the people,” and on the other “the misery and poverty which overspread the barren wastes of Virginia, Maryland, and the other states having slaves.” Morris’s motion was defeated 10-1, but the issue of how slavery would be addressed by the new union was by no means resolved.

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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