Philadelphia, September 10 – 15, 1787
As the weather finally cools a bit and the Convention enters what will be the final week of deliberations, the main topics of discussion are the amendment process and the ratification process. On Monday, September 10, Elbridge Gerry raises a concern about the amendment process—he fears that the new constitution could be amended to “subvert the State Constitutions altogether.” James Madison’s response increases the voice of the states by requiring ratification of a constitutional amendment by three-fourths of the state legislatures or conventions in three-fourths of the states. John Rutledge of South Carolina is concerned that states opposing slavery could use the amendment process to reduce the institution’s protections. Therefore, the delegates add this clause to the amendment process: “Provided that no amendments which may be made prior to the year 1808, shall in any manner affect” the passages related to slavery.
The conversation turns to the ratification process for the new constitution. In order to establish the new national government, do they need the approval of Congress? Do they need all thirteen states to sign on? Will nine states be enough? Gerry is concerned that it is improper to change the government without the approval of the Confederation Congress. After all, the Convention holds its authority from Congress. Edmund Randolph of Virginia believes that an even more involved process is necessary for the new constitution to take effect. While he knows the delegates will probably vote down his proposal, he thinks the new government should only take effect after a three-step process: 1. Submit the draft constitution to Congress for its approval. 2. State conventions should be able to submit amendments to the draft constitution. 3. The 1787 draft constitution, along with the state-suggested amendments, should be submitted to a second general convention, which would then develop the final Constitution. Gerry agrees with Randolph’s plan. Madison’s notes record: “Mr. Gerry urged the indecency and pernicious tendency of dissolving in so slight a manner, the solemn obligations of the Articles of Confederation. If nine out of thirteen can dissolve the compact, six out of nine will be just as able to dissolve the new one hereafter.” Randolph is correct—his call for a second constitutional convention, although it wins the support of both Mason and Gerry, is rejected. James Wilson of Pennsylvania believes that making the assent of Congress, or requiring all 13 states to ratify, would be “insuperable obstacles.” The convention votes not to require Congress’s approval, but that upon ratification of any 9 states, the Constitution will take effect.
On Wednesday, September 12, the Committee of Style presents the plan, reading it aloud by paragraphs, and orders that printed copies of this almost-final draft be provided to the delegates. Accompanying the draft will be a letter from the President of the Convention, George Washington, to the President of the Congress, Arthur St. Clair of Pennsylvania. Excerpts of this letter are shown below:
We have now the honor to submit to the consideration of the United States in Congress assembled, that Constitution which has appeared to us the most advisable.
The friends of our country have long seen and desired, that the power of making war, peace, and treaties, that of levying money and regulating commerce, and the correspondent executive and judicial authorities should be fully and effectually vested in the general government of the Union…
It is obviously impracticable in the federal government of these states, to secure all rights of independent sovereignty to each, and yet provide for the interest and safety of all: individuals entering into society, must give up a share of liberty to preserve the rest. The magnitude of the sacrifice must depend as well on situation and circumstance, as on the object to be obtained. It is at all times difficult to draw with precision the line between those rights which must be surrendered, and those which may be reserved; and on the present occasion this difficulty was increased by a difference among the several states as to their situation, extent, habits, and particular interests.
In all our deliberations on this subject we kept steadily in our view, that which appears to us the greatest interest of every true American, the consolidation of our Union, in which is involved our prosperity, felicity, safety, perhaps our national existence…
For more detailed information on the Constitutional Convention, please visit Prof. Gordon Lloyd’s web companion to the Philadelphia Convention.