The Committee of Detail’s Working Draft of the Constitution

From the Lecture Series: America's Founding Fathers

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

The Committee of Detail printed copies of their draft constitution, with wide margins for notes, and had them ready to distribute when the Convention reassembled on August 6, 1787. John Rutledge, as the committee’s chair, introduced the document and then began the process of seeing it pass. How did the delegates of the Convention react to the draft constitution?

George Washington presiding at the Convention of 1787.
During the Constitutional Convention, the Committee of Detail produced a draft constitution. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The Committee of Detail took a long step toward producing a working draft of a constitution that contained a number of features not included in the resolutions, but which are now seen as cornerstones of American constitutionalism.

The draft of the Constitution now included features such as: the limitation of the powers given to Congress by explicitly enumerating them; a similar list of powers prohibited to the states; and the basic wording for several of the key terms, ideas, and clauses which eventually found their way into the final version—the term president, the necessary and proper clause, even the clear commitment to a single executive, the president; all of that comes out of the work of the Committee of Detail.

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

Oliver Ellsworth’s Objection

No wonder, in years to come, Oliver Ellsworth would object when a newspaper claimed that General Washington deserved the credit for the founding of the American government.

Nonsense, commented Ellsworth, the “present Constitution of the United States was drawn by himself and five others, viz. General Alexander Hamilton, Gorham of Massachusetts, deceased, James Wilson of Pennsylvania, Rutledge of South Carolina and Madison of Virginia.”

Introducing the Draft of the Constitution

Merely introducing the draft of the Constitution consumed an entire session. Discussion began on the seventh, and Rutledge, Wilson, Ellsworth, and Gorham were lined up and ready to act as the document’s guardians. The preamble and the first two articles sailed through the Convention without a single dissent.

Some heavy going began on the third article, describing the two houses of the legislature, the Congress. But Gorham, Wilson, and Randolph shouldered aside everything but the most minor amendments.

Learn more about the new national executive.

The Heated Debate for Article Four

The first subsection of Article Four of the Constitution brought the most heated debate, since its provisions for electing members of the House of Representatives left the qualifications for voting to be determined by the states.

Gouverneur Morris at once objected that this would let down the bar to every Tom, Dick, and Harry to vote if their states permitted it. And he was not entirely wrong to see where this would lead. Already, voting rights restrictions had fallen in many of the states.

Voting Rights

Under Pennsylvania’s constitution, “free men having a sufficient evident common interest with and attachment to the community” could vote, and as a result 87 percent of the adult white male population voted. New York had freehold restrictions on voting, but New York law interpreted long-term leases as the equivalent of freeholds, so, in New York, 70 percent of the heads of households could vote.

In North Carolina, New Hampshire, and Georgia, payment of a poll tax sufficed to grant voting rights, and as a result, up to 90 percent of the adult white males could vote.

Qualification for Voting Rights 

But Gouverneur Morris’s objection had more to it than just, as we might think at first, social snobbery. In the first place, Morris objected to what amounted to a concession to the states to determine who could vote. “The clause as it stands,” he said, “makes the qualifications of the National Legislature depend on the will of the States,” which he thought was not proper.

But Morris was also motivated by a fear that failing to limit voting rights to freeholders would be not the way to prevent aristocracy, but the fastest method to ensure it.

A portrait of Oliver Ellsworth.
Oliver Ellsworth defended the section on voting as it was written in the draft of the Constitution. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Safeguarding Public Interest

“Give votes to the people who have no property and they will sell them to the rich who will be able to buy them. The time is not distant when this Country will abound with mechanics and manufacturers.” He argued that when that time arrives, the people who work for the manufacturers will also be the people who receive their bread from their employers.

He felt that they will not be immune to bribery, pressure, or threat. “The ignorant and the dependent,” warned Morris, “can be little trusted with the public interest.”

But Ellsworth, Rutledge, and Wilson leapt to the defense of the section on voting as it was written, and Morris’s motion tumbled down to defeat.

Learn more about the dissonance between liberty and slavery.

Rufus King and the Question of Slavery

After that, the balance of Article Four was approved in swift fashion until the Convention hit the fourth subsection, where the Committee of Detail had set the “number of representatives at the rate of one for every forty thousand.”

The section, in fact, had only just been introduced when Rufus King of Massachusetts threw a lighted bomb into the debate by asking “What influence the vote just passed was meant to have on the admission of slaves into the rule of Representation?”

Slavery had returned, unheralded, as the ghost at the constitutional banquet.

Common Questions about the Committee of Detail’s Working Draft of the Constitution

Q: When draft of the Constitution was tabled, which article brought the most heated debate?

When draft of the Constitution was tabled, the first subsection of Article Four brought the most heated debate. It pertained to the voting rights for electing members of the House of Representatives.

Q: What were Gouverneur Morris’s objection regarding Article Four of the Constitution?

Gouverneur Morris’s objection was that the clause, as it stands he said, “makes the qualifications of the National Legislature depend on the will of the States,” which he thought was not proper.

Q: Who all supported the first subsection of Article Four of the Constitution?

The first subsection of Article Four of the Constitution was supported by Oliver Ellsworth, John Rutledge, and James Wilson. They leapt to the defense of the section on voting and accepted it as it was written.

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