Edmund Randolph and the Constitutional Convention of 1787

From the Lecture Series: America's Founding Fathers

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph. D., Gettysburg College

Edmund Randolph had all the accomplishments of a scholar and a statesman, and he supported them with a force of eloquence and reasoning that did him great honor. In order to resolve the impending crisis, he represented Virginia in the Constitutional Convention.

A red stamp showing the Independence Hall.
The Pennsylvania legislature had put at the convention’s disposal the old assembly room of the Pennsylvania State House, now called the Independence Hall. (Image: Bureau of Engraving and Printing/Public domain)

Randolph Becomes Virginia Governor

Edmund Randolph was convinced that the inability of the Confederation to fund itself would sooner or later ensure that “the foundations of our independence will be laid in injustice and dishonor, and that the advantages of the Revolution, dependent upon the federal compact, will be of short duration.”

Randolph would soon be in a position to do something about it. On January 21, 1786, he was appointed by the Virginia Assembly to head the Virginia delegation to the Annapolis Conference, and the following November, he was elected governor of Virginia.

A portrait of George Washington.
George Washington supported Edmund Randolph’s elevation. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

George Washington was delighted at his old staffer’s elevation to the governor’s mansion:

Our affairs seem to be drawing to an awful crisis; it is necessary therefore that the abilities of every man should be drawn into action in a public line to rescue them if possible from impending ruin. And—Washington continued—since no one seems more fully impressed with the necessity of adopting such measures than yourself, so none is better qualified to be entrusted with the reins of government.

Articles of Confederation

In December, Randolph was one of the five Virginians dispatched to Philadelphia. Like James Madison, Randolph had already been thinking ahead toward the likeliest results of the convention. Although, as he told Madison in March of 1787, he feared that resistance to any substantial change from dynamos like Patrick Henry would mean that the alterations should be grafted on the Articles of Confederation, the proposals he eventually wrote out were anything but mere Band-Aids.

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Randolph and a New Form of Government

Randolph had had enough of a confederation where the states behaved as though they were independent powers. There must be, he said, a new:

Compact in which the people themselves are the sole parties, and which they alone can abrogate; delineating the degree to which they have parted with legislative, executive, and judicial power, as well as describing how far each of the simple forms of government is to be pursued in acts of legislation.

Any new form of government, Randolph suggested, should have the following:

A photograph of Edmund Randolph.
Edmund Randolph suggested important changes to the Articles of Confederation. (Image: U.S. Department of State/Public domain)

A Preamble briefly to declare that the present federal government is insufficient to the general happiness; that the conviction of  this fact gave birth to this Convention; and that the only effectual mode which they can devise for curing this inefficiency is the  establishment of a supreme legislative, executive, and judiciary.

Second: a new form of government should make the ‘declaration that the supreme legislative, executive, and judiciary shall be established’ and that ‘these departments shall be distinct and independent of each other.’ Third: this supreme legislative body ‘shall consist of two branches: a House of Delegates; and a Senate’.

 Learn more about George Washington’s doubts about the American experiment.

The Ratification of the Reform

At the end, Randolph added what turned out to be a highly perceptive requirement: “The ratification of the reform is to be made by a special  convention in each state—to be chosen for the express purpose of considering and approving, or repealing it in toto.”

Whatever came out of the convention, Randolph wanted to take no chances that a jealous Confederation Congress or truculent state legislatures would strangle it in its cradle. The new frame of government would go before the special conventions in each of the states, outflanking both the Confederation Congress and the state legislatures, and it would have to be taken as a single piece, not picked to death by special interests.

A Quorum of Seven States

This was all music to Madison’s ears, and when the last member of the Virginia delegation, George Mason, arrived on May 17, the entire delegation began caucusing with the Pennsylvania delegation on the direction they wanted the convention to take once a quorum of seven state delegations was in hand.

It took five more days—till May 25—before the necessary minimum of seven state delegations were ready to assemble. “The expectations and hopes of all the Union centre in this Convention,” George Mason wrote to his son. “God grant that we may be able to concert effectual means of preserving our country from the evils which threaten us.”

Learn more about the Constitutional Convention.

Independence Hall

The Pennsylvania legislature had put at the convention’s disposal the old assembly room of the Pennsylvania State House—what is now known as the Independence Hall—on Chestnut Street, between Fifth and Sixth  Streets, in Philadelphia. It was the same room, significantly, in which the Declaration of Independence had been adopted almost 11 years before.

In addition to the Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina delegations, four of North Carolina’s delegates were now on hand. Two of New York’s three delegates had arrived, including Alexander Hamilton, along with three of New Jersey’s, two of Delaware’s, and only one of Massachusetts’s four delegates.

Connecticut’s delegates were on their way, as were Georgia’s, although two of the three Georgia delegates would not arrive until June 11. Rhode Island had stubbornly folded its arms and refused to participate.

Of the 55 men who had been designated to represent their states at the convention, only 33 would attend all the sessions of the convention until its close with any consistency. The oldest of them, at 81, was Benjamin Franklin, but the single largest age bloc were men like Madison, Hamilton, and Randolph, in their thirties. However, no matter what their age, they all were eager to make a mark and resolve the impending crisis that lay before the confederation.

Common Questions about Edmund Randolph and the Constitutional Convention of 1787

Q: What was Edmund Randolph’s advice to James Madison about his proposal?

Edmund Randolph‘s advice to James Madison about his proposal was that the alterations should be grafted on the Articles of Confederation lest the proposals he eventually wrote out would be nothing but mere Band-Aids.

Q: What would, according to Edmund Randolph, cure the inefficiency of the federal government?

According to Edmund Randolph, the only way of curing the inefficiency of the federal government was to establish a supreme legislative, executive, and judiciary.

Q: Who did Edmund Randolph suggest would ratify the reform?

Edmund Randolph suggested that the ratification of the reform was to be made by a special  convention in each state—to be chosen for the express purpose of considering and approving, or repealing it in toto.

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