FORMATION AND ADOPTION OF THE FEDERAL CONSTITUTION — 1787
Though the close of the war of independence resulted in the establishment of a free nationality it nevertheless brought anxious solicitude to every patriot’s mind, and this state of apprehension and disquietude increased with each succeeding year. The state debts which had been incurred in anticipation of prosperous times, operated severely, after a while, on all classes in the community; to meet the payment of these debts, at maturity, was impossible, and every relief-act only added to the difficulty. This, and kindred troubles, financial and governmental, impressed the people with the gloomy conviction that the great work of independence, as contemplated in the revolutionary struggle, was only half done. It was felt that, above all things, a definite and organic form of government — reflecting the will of the people — should be fixed upon, to give energy to national power, and success to individual and public enterprise. So portentous a crisis as this formed another epoch for the display of the intellectual and political attainments of American statesmen, and the ordeal was one through which they passed with the highest honor, and with ever-enduring fame, at home and abroad. New men appeared on the stage of legislative council and action, and it was found that the quantity of talent and information necessary in the formation period of a new republic had greatly increased in the various states. But, in especial, the great minds that achieved the revolution beheld with deep concern their country impoverished and distracted at home, and of no consideration among the family of nations.
A change was now to be wrought, the grandeur of which would be acknowledged throughout all lands, and its importance reach forward to the setting of the sun of time. The same hall which had resounded with words of patriotic defiance that shook the throne of King George and proclaimed to an astonished world the Declaration of Independence, — that same hall in which congress had continued to sit during the greater part of the momentous period intervening, — in the state house at Philadelphia, was soon to witness the assembling of such a body of men as, in point of intellectual talent, personal integrity, and lofty purpose, had perhaps never before been brought together. The curious student of this page in modern history has sometimes plausibly but speciously attributed to mere chance — instead of to that Providence which rides in the affairs of men — this timely and grand event. Thus, General Washington, having contemplated with great interest a plan for uniting the Potomac and the Ohio rivers and by this means connecting the eastern and western waters, made a journey of six hundred and eighty miles on horseback, taking minute notes of everything which could be subservient to this project. His influence, and the real importance of the design, induced the legislatures of Virginia and Maryland to send commissioners to Alexandria to deliberate on the subject. They met in March, 1785, and having spent some time at Mount Vernon, determined to recommend another commission, which might establish a general tariff on imports. The Virginia legislature not only agreed, but invited the other states to send deputies to meet at Annapolis. In September, 1786, they had arrived from five only, and with too limited powers. A number of able statesmen, however, were thus assembled, who, feeling deeply the depressed and distracted state of the country, became sensible that something on a much greater scale was necessary to raise her to prosperity, and give her a due place among the nations. They therefore drew up a report and address to all the states, strongly representing the inefficiency of the present federal government, and earnestly urging them to send delegates to meet at Philadelphia in May, 1787. Congress responded to this proceeding in February, by the passage of resolutions recommending the proposed measure, — but of which, perhaps, they did not then contemplate all the momentous results.
On the day appointed for the meeting of the convention, May fourteenth, 1787, only a small number of the delegates had arrived in Philadelphia. The deliberations did not commence, therefore, until May twenty-fifth, when there were present twenty-nine members, representing nine states. Others soon after came in, until the whole number amounted to fifty-five. Never, perhaps, had any body of men combined for so great a purpose — to form a constitution which was to rule so numerous a people, and probably during so many generations. The members, consisting of the very ablest men in America, were not unworthy of, nor unequal to, so high a trust.
Towering above all these men of might, in his world-wide fame and in the genius of his personal ascendancy, was Washington, entrusted by the commonwealth of Virginia with the work of cementing together the sisterhood of states in one indissoluble bond of mutual interest, co-operation, and renown. And there was Rufus King, from Massachusetts, young in years, but mature in wisdom and brilliant in oratory; Langdon, from New Hampshire, strong in his understanding and readily mastering the most intricate details; Elbridge Gerry, of Massachusetts, exhibiting the utmost zeal and fidelity in the performance of his official duties; Caleb Strong, from the same state, plain in his appearance, but calm, firm, intelligent, and well-balanced; Ellsworth, from Connecticut, elegant in his manners, and distinguished for his energy of mind, clear reasoning powers, and effective eloquence; Sherman, his colleague, a statesman and jurist whose fame has extended far beyond the western world; Hamilton, from New York, spare and fragile in person, but keen, active, laborious, transcendent in his abilities and of unsullied integrity; Livingston, from New Jersey, of scholarly tastes, uncompromisingly republican in his politics, and fearless in the expression of his opinions; Franklin. from Pennsylvania, one of the profoundest philosophers in the world, and, though now rising of four score years, capable of grasping and throwing light upon the most recondite questions relating to the science of government; Robert Morris, from Pennsylvania, the great financier, of whom it has been said, and with much truth, that ‘the Americans owed, and still owe, as much acknowledgment to the financial operations of Robert Morris, as to the negotiations of Benjamin Franklin, or even to the arms of George Washington;’ Gouverneur Morris, from the same state, conspicuous for his accomplishments in learning, his fluent conversation, and sterling abilities in debate; Clymer, distinguished among the sons of Pennsylvania, as one of the first to raise a defiant voice against the arbitrary acts of the mother country; Mifflin, another delegate from the land of Penn, ardent almost beyond discretion, in zeal for his country’s rights and liberties; Dickinson, from New Jersey, a patriot, who, though the only member of the continental congress opposed to the Declaration of Independence, on the ground of its being premature, was nevertheless the only member of that body who immediately shouldered his musket and went forth to face the enemy; Wythe, from Virginia, wise, grave, deeply versed in the law, and undaunted in the defense of liberty for the people; Madison, also from Virginia, talented, thoughtful, penetrating, one of the brightest ornaments of his state and nation; Martin, from Maryland, a jurist of vast attainments and commanding powers; Davie, from North Carolina, of splendid physique, one of the master-minds of the country; Rutledge, from South Carolina, pronounced by Washington to be the finest orator in the continental congress; Pinckney, from the same state, a soldier and lawyer of unrivaled abilities; — and thus the record might go on, until it embraced all the names of this eminent assemblage of America’s noblest patriots and most illustrious historic characters, “all, all, honorable men.”
On proceeding with the organization of the convention, George Washington was nominated by Robert Morris to preside over its deliberations, and was unanimously elected. The standing rules were then adopted, one of these being that nothing spoken in the house be printed or otherwise published, or made known in any manner, without special permission. And in this connection, the following little episode, which has come to light, will doubtless be read as a refreshing reminiscence of the “secret” doings among those grave old worthies:
One of the members of the Georgia delegation was Mr. _______, a gentleman, the zeal of whose legislative mind and efforts sometimes quite ate up his attention to mere extraneous matters. Like all the rest of his associates in the assembly, he had been furnished with a schedule of the principal points of debate, or subjects of consideration, which were to be brought before the convention as constituting its business, and, in accordance with the parliamentary usage of secrecy, this programme of the convention’s duties and deliberations was with especial care to be kept from disclosure during the period of its sittings. It happened, however, that one of the delegates unfortunately lost his copy of this official schedule or orders of the day. General Mifflin, one of the delegates from Pennsylvania, by good chance discovered the stray document, and, explaining the circumstances to Washington, placed it in the latter’s hands, who, in silence and gravity, deposited it among his own papers. At the close of that day’s proceedings, and just previously to the convention’s rising, Washington, as presiding officer, called the attention of the assembly to the matter in question, in the following characteristic remarks:
“Gentlemen, I am sorry to find that some one member of this body has been so neglectful of the secrets of this convention, as to drop in the state house a copy of their proceedings — which, by accident, was picked up and delivered to me this morning. I must entreat gentlemen to be more careful, lest our transactions get into the newspapers, and disturb the public repose by premature speculations. I know not whose paper it is, but there it is (throwing it down on the table); let him who owns it take it.”
But to proceed with the historical sketch of this most august body of modern legislators.
They had been appointed merely with a view to the revision or improvement of the old articles of confederation, which still held them precariously together as a nation; yet they had not deliberated long, when they determined that the existing compact or system of government must be swept away. The question, however, as to what should be substituted in its place, was one of extreme difficulty. Mr. Randolph, of Virginia, opened the great discussion by a speech in which he laid bare the defects of the confederation, and then submitted a series of resolutions embodying the substance of a plan of government — the same, in character, as that contained in letters written by Mr. Madison to Mr. Jefferson, Mr. Randolph, and General Washington, a few months previous.
The plan in question proposed the formation of a general government, constituted as follows: The national legislature to consist of two branches — the members of the first branch to be elected by the people of the several states, and the members of the second branch to be elected by the first branch, out of a proper number nominated by the state legislatures; the national legislature to have a negative on all the state laws contravening the articles of union, and to have power to legislate in all cases where the states were incompetent; the right of suffrage in the legislature to be proportioned to the quota of contribution, or to the number of free inhabitants; a national executive to be chosen by the national legislature; a national judiciary, to consist of one or more supreme tribunals and inferior ones, the judges to be chosen by the national legislature; the executive, and a convenient number of the national judiciary, to compose a council of revision to examine every act of the national legislature before it should operate, and every act of a particular legislature before a negative thereon should be final; provision to be made for the admission of new states to the Union; a republican form of government to be administered in each state; provision to be made for amendments to the articles of union ; the legislative, executive, and judiciary powers, or officials, of the several states, to be bound by oath to support the articles of union.
A good degree of favor was shown to Mr. Randolph’s plan, but not sufficient to prevent other projects, conspicuous among these being one by Mr. Patterson, of New Jersey, and another by Alexander Hamilton, from being brought forward and urged by their respective friends, — all of these being republican in their general features, but differing in their details.
For some days, angry debates occurred which, but for the timely and healing wisdom of Dr. Franklin, the Mentor of the convention, would have ended in the breaking up of the body. As soon as there was an opening for him to speak, the doctor rose, and in a most impressive manner, said, among other things:
“It is to be feared that the members of this convention are not in a temper, at this moment, to approach the subject on which we differ, in a candid spirit. I would therefore propose, Mr. President, that, without proceeding further in this business at this time, the convention shall adjourn for three days, in order to let the present ferment pass off, and to afford time for a more full, free, and dispassionate investigation of the subject; and I would earnestly recommend to the members of this convention, that they spend the time of this recess, not in associating with their own party, and devising new arguments to fortify themselves in their old opinions, but that they mix with members of opposite sentiments, lend a patient ear to their reasoning?s, and candidly allow them all the weight to which they may be entitled; and when we assemble again, I hope it will be with a determination to form a constitution; if not such an one as we can individually, and in all respects, approve, yet the best which, under existing circumstances, can be obtained.” (Here the countenance of Washington brightened, and a cheering ray seemed to break in upon the gloom of the assembly.) The doctor continued:
“Before I sit down, Mr. President, I will suggest another matter; and I am really surprised that it has not been proposed by some other member, at an earlier period of our deliberations. I will suggest, Mr. President, the propriety of nominating and appointing, before we separate, a chaplain to this convention, whose duty it shall be uniformly to assemble with us, and introduce the business of each day by imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessing upon our deliberations.”
The doctor sat down, and never did a countenance appear at once so dignified and so delighted as that of Washington, at the close of this address. The motion for appointing a chaplain was instantly seconded and carried. The convention also chose a committee, by ballot, consisting of one from each state, to sit during the recess, and then adjourned for three days.
The three days were spent in the manner advised by Doctor Franklin. On re-assembling, the chaplain appeared and led the devotions of the assembly, and the minutes of the last sitting were read. All eyes were now turned to the venerable doctor. He rose, and in a few words stated, that during the recess he had listened attentively to all the arguments, pro and con, which had been urged by both sides of the house; that he had himself said much, and thought more, on the subject; he saw difficulties and objections, which might be urged by individual states, against every scheme which had been proposed; and he was now, more than ever, convinced that the constitution which they were about to form, in order to be just and equal, must be formed on the basis of compromise and mutual concession. With such views and feelings, he would now move a reconsideration of the vote last taken on the organization of the senate. The motion was seconded, the vote carried, the former vote rescinded, and by a successive motion and resolution, the senate was organized on the present plan.
On the seventeenth of September, the final debate closed, the last amendment was adopted, and the result of the convention’s labors was the formation of a constitution establishing a national government on the following prescribed principles: That the affairs of the people of the United States were thenceforth to be administered, not by a confederacy, or mere league of friendship between the sovereign states, but by a government, distributed into the three great departments — legislative, judicial, and executive; that the powers of government should be limited to concerns pertaining to the whole people, leaving the internal administration of each state, in time of peace, to its own constitution and laws, provided that they should be republican, and interfering with them as little as possible in case of war; that the legislative power of this government should be divided between the two assemblies, one representing directly the people of the separate states, and the other their legislatures; that the executive power of this government should be vested in one person chosen for four years, with certain qualifications of age and nativity, and invested with a qualified negative upon the enactment of the laws; and that the judicial power should consist of tribunals inferior and supreme, to be instituted and organized by congress, the judges removable only by impeachment.
Thus, finally amended, the constitution was signed by all the members present, except by Messrs. Randolph and Mason, of Virginia, and Gerry, of Massachusetts. The scene is described as one of historic solemnity, rising almost to the sublime. When Washington, whose turn came first, was about to sign the instrument ordained to be henceforth — if ratified by the several states — the palladium of his country’s national existence, and the formation of which he had watched over with such anxious solicitude, he rose from his seat, and holding the pen in his hand, after a short pause, pronounced these words:
“Should the states reject this excellent Constitution, the probability is that an opportunity will never again be offered to cancel another in peace — the next will be drawn in blood.”
And when, following the example of their illustrious leader, the other members of the convention appended their signatures, Doctor Franklin, with his eye fixed upon the presiding officer’s seat, in the rear of which was the picture of a halo or sun, made the characteristic remark:
“I have often and often, in the course of the session, and in the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that sun behind the president, without being able to tell whether it was rising or sinking; at length I have the happiness to know it is a rising and not a setting sun.”
The convention, however, which framed the constitution, was not clothed with legislative power, nor was the congress of the confederation competent to accept it or reject the new form of government. It was referred by them to the several states, represented by conventions of the people; and it was provided in the instrument itself, that it should become the supreme law of the land, when adopted by nine states. It was not till the summer of 1788 that the ratification of nine states was obtained, beginning with Delaware, some by large, and some by very small majorities. The violence of the opposition party was in some sections very great, resulting, in New York, in tumultuous riots. Of the thirteen original states, Rhode Island was the last to accept the constitution, which she did in May, 1790.
The year of suspense, while the American people were debating the great question whether to accept or reject the constitution offered them by Washington and his associate compatriots, was, on the announcement of the result, succeeded by a national jubilee.