By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph. D., Gettysburg College
The Committee on Postponed Parts was the fourth committee the Constitutional Convention had created after the Grand Committee in June, 1787, on representation, John Rutledge’s Committee of Detail, and the committee on slavery. In all, there were 11 members on this committee and they had to deliberate upon 12 of the Committee of Detail’s 23 articles, which had failed to generate a consensus thus far. Let us see what happened next.
David Brearley: The Chairman of the New Committee
At first, this committee’s prospects did not look encouraging, largely because the convention handed the chairmanship to William Paterson’s friend, David Brearley. A lawyer, like so many others in the convention, Brearley was born in Spring Grove, New Jersey, went to Princeton but did not graduate, and threw himself wholeheartedly into the revolutionary cause. He served as a lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army, following Washington through all of the army’s campaigns from Long Island in 1776 to Valley Forge in the winter of 1777–78. The next year, he was named chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, and attached himself politically to William Paterson, the architect of that one state-one vote New Jersey Plan.
He owned neither land nor investments, and was not the man to carry the New Jersey Plan forward on his own. Despite having the colorless David Brearley in charge, in many respects the Committee on Postponed Parts turned out to be the most effective committee the Convention created.
This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Principal Business of Brearley’s Committee
The committee’s main aim was to reconcile the competing demands about the shape of the new national president, and they did so in unusually direct ways.
First of all, the committee toyed once more with the idea of having the new Congress elect the president, just as the old Confederation Congress had done. That was dismissed energetically by John Dickinson, who reminded the Committee on Postponed Parts that the “powers which we have agreed to vest in the President were so many and great” that the office would lack all legitimacy unless it could be filled by popular vote.
As Dickinson recalled, Madison then took out a pen and paper, and sketched out a mode of electing the president, which turned out to be James Wilson’s original proposal for a college of electors of the president chosen by those of the people in each state, who shall have the qualifications requisite.
This would dampen the objections made by George Mason to direct election by the common rabble and yet still preserving the idea that the president should entirely owe his elevation to the will of the people directly declared through their organs the electors, so that the president would have a broad and solid base for him to stand upon.
Learn more about George Washington’s doubts about the American experiment.
The Provisions of the Committee on Postponed Parts
The Committee on Postponed Parts also ironed out the thorny issues of the qualifications for office, the term of office, and the foreign and domestic powers the president should exercise. A president must be a natural born citizen, will hold his office during the term of four years, shall have power to make treaties, and, with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint ambassadors and other public ministers, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States.
The committee also added provisions in other places which required the states to grant full faith and credit to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state, granted to Congress the power to raise and support armies. The Committee called for the creation of a federal district not exceeding 10 miles square to become the seat of the government of the United States, and to secure copyright protection to authors and inventors in order to promote the progress of science and useful arts.
The Committee on Postponed Parts made its report over several days, from September 1–5, and after a flurry of proposed amendments, Roger Sherman navigated the Committee’s report piece by piece to approval by September 8, 1787.
Learn more about John Rutledge’s Committee of Detail.
The Committee on Style
And, as if to make it clear that the convention wanted no more shilly-shallying around, a fifth and last committee, the Committee on Style, was formed on the eighth, comprising Madison; Gouverneur Morris; Alexander Hamilton, who had only just returned to Philadelphia three days before; Rufus King; and William Samuel Johnson of Connecticut to revise the style of and arrange the articles which had been agreed to by the House.
Strictly speaking, the sole task of the Committee on Style was that of wordsmithing every report, every amendment which had been agreed to in the Convention into a single, smoothly flowing document. But neither Madison nor Morris could quite let go of one last opportunity to set the direction of the Constitution pointing in the ways they had always favored. Morris, in particular, had the itch as well as the talent to make words work. He showed that on the very threshold of the Constitution by writing the states out of the Committee of Detail’s preamble entirely.
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The preamble now read, as Madison and Morris had both wanted it to be, as the action of the American people as a whole, and for the broadest and most generous purposes imaginable.
Common Questions about New Committees of the Constitutional Convention
The sole task of the Committee on Style was that of wordsmithing every report, every amendment which had been agreed to in the convention into a single, smoothly flowing document.
The Committee on Postponed Parts also ironed out the thorny issues of the qualifications for office, the term of office, and the foreign and domestic powers the president should exercise.
William Paterson thought that the Constitutional Convention was full of disputation and noisy as the wind, which is why he quit the Convention in disgust in July, 1787.