By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College
The Constitutional Convention of 1787 had adopted 23 resolutions, based on the original Randolph Plan and subsequently debated, teased, reworked, reconsidered, and sometimes left unfinished. Since Edmund Randolph had submitted the original plan, it only made sense for him to take the principal hand in pulling the results together in a coherent format.
Edmund Randolph took as his guide two markers: first, to insert essential principle only into the text; and to use simple and precise language. Working from a copy of the resolutions prepared by James Wilson, Edmund Randolph then set out the legislative, judiciary, and executive in their order, followed by miscellaneous subjects as they occur.
This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The legislature was proposed to consist of a House of Delegates and a Senate, and its responsibilities would be “to raise money by taxation, unlimited as to sum, and to establish rules for collection.” Voting for the lower house would be regulated by the rules prevailing in the particular states, rather than spelled out nationally by the legislature.
It would regulate commerce both foreign and domestic, but lay no tax on exports, or pass a navigation act regulating foreign trade. And it would be limited by a strict enumeration of powers, as opposed to a general grant of powers. This was an important distinction, since enumerated powers would limit the legislature to only those powers specified, while a general grant of authority would have given the legislature a freer rein to claim or even to invent new powers.
This legislature, according to Randolph’s list, would:
make war, raise armies and equip fleets, provide courts to try offences against the law of nations, define piracy, appoint judges, adjust territorial disputes between states, coin money and emit paper bills of credit, regulate naturalization of new citizens, and subdue a rebellion in any particular state.
The Judiciary and the Executive
Randolph had by this point reconciled himself to the idea that the executive, or “Governor of the united People and States of the Americas” would be a single person, but it would be someone elected by Congress, with a veto on Congress’s legislation and a term of seven years.
The judiciary would consist of one supreme tribunal whose members would be appointed by the senate.
Learn more about the shape of the new national executive.
James Wilson took over from Randolph at this point and inserted into the document that Randolph had been composing a preamble. Curiously, Randolph had balked at putting a preamble at the head of this document. He did not want to compose a philosophical rationale for the American republic designating the ends of government and human politics, because that had already been done by Thomas Jefferson eleven years earlier.
But Wilson demurred. He wanted the preamble to state the basic authority by which the convention was acting, and that came to the surface when he proposed the following as a preamble:
We the people of the States 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.
As Wilson reworked matters, the states were given their due, but the primary authority in the preamble would always be that of “We the people.”
The House of Representatives and Congress
Wilson also changed the title of the lower house from delegates to House of Representatives, and he was originally inclined to insert a requirement that only freeholders—only the owners of property—be allowed to vote. However, in his final rewrite, the freehold requirement was dropped, and Wilson acquiesced in Randolph’s formula for letting the states decide who did and didn’t qualify as a voter.
Like Randolph again, Wilson proposed a very specific list of enumerated powers for this new National Congress, and it is quite a list. A few of them included:
The Right and Power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises; to regulate Naturalization and Commerce; to coin Money; to regulate the Alloy and Value of Coins; to fix the Standard of Weights and Measures; to establish Post-Offices; to borrow Money, and emit Bills on the Credit of the United States; to appoint a Treasurer by Ballot; to calling forth the Aid of the Militia in order to execute the Laws of the Union, enforce Treaties; suppress Insurrections, and repel Invasions; and to make all Laws that shall be necessary and proper—necessary and proper—for carrying into Execution all other Powers vested, by this Constitution, in the Government of the United States.
The President and the Supreme Court
Wilson was even more specific about the executive, substituting the title president for governor, in whom a broad executive authority of the United States shall be vested, and adding Randolph’s requirement that this be “a single person elected by Ballot by the Legislature.”
The president was to “attend to the Execution of the Laws of the United States, be Commander in Chief of the Land Forces of the United States and Admiral of their Navy,” and have a veto over congressional legislation, which could only be overridden by a two-thirds vote of the “House in which it shall have originated.”
Wilson also substituted a new title for Randolph’s supreme tribunal, which now became a Supreme Court, and he extended Randolph’s ban on a navigation act to forbid any “Tax or Duty on Articles exported from any State; nor on the Emigration or Importation of such Persons as the several States shall think proper to admit; nor shall such Emigration or Importation be prohibited.”
It was a rather puzzling and innocuous sounding proposition, but one which would soon come back to haunt the committee.
Learn more about the prime mover of the United States Constitution.
What John Rutledge contributed to the committee’s work is something more a matter of surmise than when we look at what Wilson and Randolph did.
We can only trace Rutledge’s handiwork in marginalia that he scrawled on Randolph’s proposals. But he must have ruled from the chair pretty vigorously, because in its 11 days of work, Rutledge’s Committee of Detail took the 1,300 words which composed the resolutions handed to them by the convention and produced an expansive document of 23 Articles, with subsections, and 3,800 words.
Common Questions about Edmund Randolph’s Resolutions: Polishing the Fine Print
Edmund Randolph took as his guide two markers: first, to insert essential principle only into the text; and to use simple and precise language.
Edmund Randolph did not want it because he did not want to compose a philosophical rationale for the American republic designating the ends of government and human politics, as that had already been done by Thomas Jefferson eleven years earlier.
According to Edmund Randolph, the judiciary would consist of one supreme tribunal whose members would be appointed by the senate.