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As the delegates chosen to the convention began by coming together in Philadelphia in May, it was apparent that the crisis had produced an assembly of capable men; many of them had already won distinction; most of them had had experience in political affairs. They represented on the whole the conservative elements of the nation, who were dismayed by the appearance of discord and lawlessness, and who appreciated the national danger. They were more than practical politicians; they were men of education as well as of experience; about half of them had had a college education; many of them were learned in law and history.

Washington and Franklin, the most famous members, were without the advantages of university training; but they had the wisdom which is not gleaned from books or absorbed from teachers — rare judgment, wide knowledge of men, profound insight into human motives, remarkable sanity, and a capacity for generous appreciation of the sentiments of their fellows. Franklin did not play a very conspicuous part in the convention, but his kindly humor and his national spirit were of value. Washington had hoped that he would be excused from attending; his friends persuaded him to come, however, and no one better realized the gravity of the movement — he saw the best men of the country chosen as delegates; the convention was the end for which earnest men had long been toiling; if it failed, what hope of reformation or the saving of national credit and reputation? "My wish is," he wrote, "that the convention may adopt no temporizing expedients, but probe the defects of the constitution to the bottom, and provide a radical cure, whether they are agreed to or not." He did not take an active part in the debates of the convention; there is no evidence of his having spoken more than once; but by sheer weight of character, he did what much volubility and streams of sonorous language could not have accomplished.

Of the more active members of the convention, Madison deserves chief consideration. We have already seen how anxious he was to better the federal government; he had been waging continuous warfare against the paper-money men and the forces of disorganization within his state. He prepared carefully for the work of the convention: he bought and read books; he studied the confederacies of the ancient world and the combinations of modern states; he noted carefully the characteristics of each and dwelt on the ideas that were pertinent to American problems. He saw that the Amphictyonic Council could employ the "whole force of Greece against such as refused to execute its decrees." In the Lycian League, he found that "the number of votes allotted to each member was proportioned to its pecuniary contributions." Before the convention met he draughted an indictment of the vices of the political system of the United States.

The first and most significant of the faults of the Confederation was the failure of the states to comply with the constitutional requisitions. This he declared to be exemplified in every confederacy and fatal to the objects of the American Union. The other vices he enumerated serve to show how clearly Madison saw the situation and what he deemed the task of the convention: encroachments by the states on the federal authority; violations of the law of nations and of treaties; trespasses of the states on one another's rights; want of concert in matters of common interest; absence of a guaranty for state constitutions and laws against domestic violence; no sanction to the laws and no coercive powers in the central government; ratification of the Articles by the legislatures and not by the people; multiplicity, mutability, and injustice of state laws. "A sanction," he declared, "is essential to the idea of law, as coercion is to that of Government. For want of real power, the Confederation had been a failure; the confidence which the framers of the Articles had shown in the good faith of the state legislatures only did honor to the "enthusiastic virtue of the compilers" of the instrument.

By such careful methods of study and by accurate thinking Madison had fitted himself to take a leading part in the convention's work. Quiet and unobtrusive, his knowledge gave him an advantage over more eloquent members. "In the management of every great question," wrote a delegate from Georgia, "he evidently took the lead in the Convention. . . . From a spirit of industry and application which he possesses in a most eminent degree, he always comes forward the best informed Man of any point in debate."

The Pennsylvania delegation included several men of unusual talent. Robert Morris took no share in the public discussions, but he had done much and learned much in the days of trouble, and he appreciated the need of real government. Gouverneur Morris, one of the enthusiastic, daring young men of the day, was a brilliant and effective debater and a speaker of unusual power; alert, dogmatic, caustic, and positive, he occasionally repelled rather than convinced his opponents, but he toiled for a national system and was filled with real patriotic spirit. The felicitous wording of the Constitution in its final form is due to Morris's command of simple and forcible English. From Pennsylvania came also James Wilson, a Scotchman by birth, educated at a university in North Britain, learned in the law, and a student of history and political theory. No one saw more clearly the central point of the great problem before the convention; no one labored more steadily, or was able, casting all details aside, to grasp more firmly the most essential and significant principles. He shared with Madison the honor of leadership during the first half of the convention's work, planning and toiling, and speaking for the recognition of national life in the establishment of a national government.

New York sent two men of mediocre attainments, Lansing and Yates, who feared for the safety of state ascendancy. The third member of the delegation was Alexander Hamilton. He had for years been working for a stronger central government, and he understood the situation well, but he was embarrassed by his colleagues, who could always cast the vote of the state against his wishes; and he was now so insistent upon authority, so out of patience with feeble government, that for the moment at least his ideas were extreme and inapplicable. He was young, enthusiastic, self-satisfied, and clearheaded, and rather "a convincing Speaker" than "a blazing Orator."

From Connecticut came three men of the first rank, William Samuel Johnson, Oliver Ellsworth, and Roger Sherman. Johnson, just elected president of Columbia College, had been a member of Congress and had a broad view of the situation. Ellsworth was a lawyer of reputation and had at an early age been made a judge of the superior court of his state. Sherman had started life as a shoemaker, had entered into the political struggles of the Revolution, and had held many positions of trust and honor. His simple honesty, his sound sense, and his straightforward thinking made him a man on whom others relied. The two most prominent delegates from Massachusetts were Elbridge Gerry and Rufus King. Both had been members of Congress. Both were young men of talent. Gerry played a curious role in the convention and has not left a reputation for either just discrimination or wise judgment. King, an eloquent and polished speaker, a man of exceptional personal charm, had for some time been opposed to radical action in altering the Confederation; but he had come to see the danger of delay, and was now ready to act with Wilson and Madison as one of the most effective nationalists in the convention.

In the New Jersey delegation was William Paterson, a lawyer like many of the rest, a man of good ability and of undoubted rectitude of purpose. He was not, however, broad-minded, when compared with the best men about him, and he did not, as we now see, appreciate the magnitude of the problem or really know the condition of the country. From Delaware came John Dickinson, who had won an undying reputation as the "penman of the Revolution." One of the ablest lawyers and most scholarly men of his day, honest, right-minded, and earnest, he did not always have the faculty of looking at things simply or without misgivings and hesitations. The most conspicuous delegate from Maryland was Luther Martin, a learned lawyer, an implacable and irritating opponent, a prolix and wearisome speaker. The delegates from South Carolina, John Rutledge, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Charles Pinckney, and Pierce Butler, were men of strength. The youngest of them all, Charles Pinckney, then under thirty years of age, had already been a member of Congress and had taken a deep interest in the reformation of the Confederation. His experience in public affairs had taught him the need of a thorough change in the organization of the Union.

The second Monday in May was the day set for the convention, but when the time came only a few delegates had assembled. Rhode Island, in placid self-assurance, had not appointed any delegates and had no intention of doing so. New Hampshire did not appoint till June. In the beginning, therefore, the most that could be expected was representation from eleven states. These early days, when the delegates on the ground were waiting for a quorum, were not without their value. The more earnest advocates of strong government had a chance to talk over the situation. There was prevalent among the delegates that first assembled a desire for radical action. Some of them had clearly in mind a total alteration of the existing system — they proposed to establish "a great national council or parliament" consisting of two branches; to base this council on proportional representation of the states; to grant it full legislative authority; to bestow upon it unrestricted power of vetoing state laws; and to create an executive office and a judicial system. The Pennsylvania delegates proposed to Virginia that the large states should at the outset unite in refusing the small states an equal vote in the convention, "as unreasonable, and as enabling the small States to negative every good system of government." The Virginia representatives, fearing that such an effort would beget fatal altercations, did not favor the project, but proposed that the smaller states should be prevailed on in the course of the debates to yield their equality. This was the beginning of the large-state or national party of the convention.

On May 25 enough states were represented to allow the organization of the convention. Washington was unanimously chosen, president. It was determined that the discussions should be carried on in profound secrecy and that nothing spoken in the house should be printed or otherwise made public without permission. We are, therefore, dependent for our knowledge of those immortal debates in part on the formal journal; in part on the occasional letters that were sent by the delegates to their friends; in part on the hasty notes that were written down by Yates, King, and a few other delegates; but chiefly on the careful reports prepared by the methodical Madison. Knowing the importance of the assembly, Madison took a seat near the front, listened with attention to the speeches, and laboriously wrote down brief and luminous condensations of them.

The delegates from Virginia, doubtless again guided by Madison's indefatigable temper, met daily before the convention assembled, and drew up a plan of a constitution, which was introduced by Randolph on May 29. In an able speech, he spoke of the defects of the Confederation, the prospect of anarchy, and the remedy in the establishment of effective government which could defend itself against encroachment and be superior to the state constitutions. The Virginia resolutions deserve careful consideration because they were taken as the basis of the convention's work, and formed the foundation of the new Constitution.

They declared that the Articles of Confederation should be corrected and enlarged, and that to accomplish that object the right of suffrage in the national legislature should be proportioned either to the quotas of contribution or to the number of free inhabitants; that there should be a legislature of two branches, the members of the first branch to be chosen by the people of the several states and to be ineligible to office under either the United States or any state during their term of service. The members of the second branch were to be elected by those of the first, and were likewise to be ineligible to office under either the United States or any state. Each branch was to have the right to originate bills. The national legislature was to have all the powers vested in the Congress of the Confederation, and in addition other powers which the states were incompetent to exercise. A national executive was to be established, and a national judiciary with a limited jurisdiction including the right to try suits in which foreigners were interested, which concerned the national revenue, or which involved the "national peace and harmony," as well as all cases of impeachment. Provision was made for the admission of new states, for the guaranty of a republican government to the states, for amendment "of the Articles of Union." It was expressly provided also that the alterations proposed to the existing Confederation should be submitted to state constituent assemblies or conventions expressly chosen to consider them in the various states.

Evidently, the Virginia plan was not a mere "temporizing expedient." It contemplated the establishment of a national government and the formation of a real constitution. Apparently, the new government was to have powers of legislation and not merely of recommendation. There was, moreover, some provision for the maintenance of authority, a remedy offered for the old difficulty. The plan provided that the officials of every state should "be bound by oath to support the articles of Union"; that the national legislature should have the power to call forth the militia against any member "failing to fulfill its duty"; and that it should likewise be empowered to negative all laws contravening in its opinion the Articles of Union. Such was the remedy offered — the moral obligation of an oath, the force of neighboring states, and the veto in the hands of the central government. Something better than this must be discovered before the convention solved its most trying problem.

When Randolph had finished, Charles Pinckney introduced a plan of his own, confessing that it was based on the same principles as Randolph's. It also proposed a legislature of two branches, executive and judicial departments, and a negative on the acts of the states. This plan was not discussed in detail before the convention, but it had considerable influence in determining the contents of the Constitution. It should be noticed that the plan commonly printed in the Journal of the convention and in Madison's notes is not the real plan Pinckney presented; as it stands in the Journal it has deceived thousands of persons, who have been struck with the remarkable resemblance between the plan there printed and the finished Constitution, a resemblance accounted for by the fact that when the Journal was being printed, in 1818, Pinckney sent in as a copy of his plan, not his original propositions at all, but a paper which marked an advanced stage of the convention's work.

The fundamental proposition presented to the convention by the Virginia plan was next put forward sharply in a series of resolutions which were offered by Randolph on the suggestion of Gouverneur Morris: the eager young statesman from Pennsylvania could not wait for any gradual elaboration of a plan or principle of government. These resolutions showed clearly the intent of the leaders of the large-state party: (1) "that a union of the States merely federal will not accomplish the objects proposed by the articles of Confederation"; (2) "that no treaty or treaties among the whole or part of the States, as individual Sovereignties, would be sufficient";  "that a national Government ought to be established consisting of a supreme Legislative, Executive and Judiciary." Of these resolutions, the first two were passed by without much discussion. The third, which went to the gist of the question before the convention, was agreed to, New York being divided and Connecticut voting no.

Morris, in the course of the debate, explained the distinction between a federal and a national or supreme government, "the former being a mere compact resting on the good faith of the parties; the latter having a complete and compulsive operation." Mason declared the Confederation deficient in not providing for coercion and punishment against delinquent states but argued cogently that punishment could not in the nature of things be visited on states, and that consequently a government was needed that could directly operate on men and punish only those whose guilt required it. There was thus brought clearly before the convention the cardinal and central proposition of the Virginia members which the men of national enthusiasm in the convention were hastening to support — a government over men, a rejection of the old theory of states united in a perpetual league of inefficient friendship. By the adoption of this resolution the convention in reality set upon the work, not of patching up the old Confederation, but, by a peaceful revolution, of putting aside the old impotent system altogether.

In the resolution thus first adopted as the expression of the general intention of the convention, the word "national" was used, as in other resolutions of the Virginia plan. Later in the history of the convention, this word was stricken out wherever it appeared, and from this fact, it has been plausibly argued that the framers of the Constitution abandoned their intention of establishing a national government. The elision of the word had, in fact, no such significance, for the resolution to omit the word was unanimously adopted at a time (June 20) when the men desiring a national government were in control of the convention; the reason alleged for the omission was not that the purpose of establishing a national government was given up; the men chiefly desiring a national government were evidently not intent on the word if their object was accomplished; the word was used and the fact dwelt on in debate after the omission of the word from the resolutions. In short, the erasure is of no significance except for the fact that in years to come it gave some ground for argument and assertion.

When the proposition for the establishment of proportional representation came up, Madison explained that while there might have been a reason for "equality of suffrage when the Union was a federal one among sovereign States," there was no sense in continuing that method of representation when a national government was established. But this line of argument was not quite satisfactory to some of the delegates: Delaware had willingly enough voted for a national government, but when it came to voting for proportional representation, that was another matter; she did not intend to yield her equal share of political influence. The delegates from that state reminded the convention that they were restrained by their commission from assenting to any change in the rule of suffrage, and, if such a change were insisted on, might feel bound to leave and go home. Morris was not im willing to force a decision on the question in spite of Delaware's protest, but the question was at length postponed.

Thus began the controversy over proportional representation, the bitter controversy of the convention. It was not new. It had its roots in the envy and local jealousies that had for ten years and more been showing themselves as the bane of continental politics. When the question as to the manner of voting under the Articles of Confederation was under consideration, there had been the same difference of opinion, and the little states had maintained their right to an equal share in the suffrage. The landless states, like Maryland, New Jersey, and Delaware, had in the past feared the strength of their bigger neighbors, and this same unreasonable but natural fear, aided by a zeal for the maintenance of their political importance, constituted the greatest difficulty the convention had now to meet. Men that were not on principle averse to the establishment of a national government were decidedly opposed to a surrender of the political influence of their constituents.

For a time after the first appearance of this ominous question, all went smoothly. Men differed but differed amicably. It was quickly decided to have a legislature of two branches, but there were differences of opinion as to the method of electing the members to the legislature. Here evidence of a reaction against popular government disclosed themselves; the excesses of the mobs had startled the New Englanders. Sherman opposed the election by the people, declaring that they should have as little to do with government as possible, while Gerry maintained that the evils of the country flowed from an excess of democracy. "The people do not want virtue," he said, "but are the dupes of pretended patriots," Mason admitted that the country had been too democratic, but he thought there was danger of going to the other extreme; and he argued strongly for an election of the first branch of the legislature by the people. He was ably supported by Wilson and Madison. Wilson declared that he "was for raising the federal pyramid to a considerable altitude," and therefore "wished to give it as broad a basis as possible." In spite of these differences of opinion, a conclusion was soon reached in favor of popular election of the first branch. Although the question came up again for debate, on this point the convention had no serious troubles. But to reach a conclusion as to the method of electing the members of the second branch was evidently out of the question at that time, and the matter was postponed, to be discussed more than once again in the weeks that followed.