By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph. D., Gettysburg College
The Committee on Style was formed on September 8, 1787, under Gouverneur Morris to revise the style of and arrange the articles which had been agreed to by the House. On September 12, committee Chair William Samuel Johnson had the full text of the new document ready for distribution in the Constitutional Convention as a printed broadside. The convention sensed that the summit of the mountain was near. However, at this last hour, there were surprises.
Elbridge Gerry’s Defiance
Elbridge Gerry had an issue with one of the smaller provisions of the Committee of Detail, the one which delegated to Congress the power to ‘make war; to raise armies; to build and equip fleets’. He had already put himself on record in mid-August opposing standing armies in time of peace. Since the constitution, as written, put no limit on the size of the armies that Congress could recruit, Gerry could only imagine Congress using this phrase as an excuse for creating an enormous permanent army to terrify the people.
On September 5, Gerry complained that this power might be used to enslave any particular state. On the last day of debate, he once again was at work, querulously denying Congress’s authority to raise armies and money without limit. In a grand gesture of defiance, Gerry promised to withhold his name from the constitution.
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George Mason’s Surprising Demand
Gerry found a surprisingly sympathetic spirit in George Mason.
Mason was uneasy over the creation of a single national president and over the powers awarded to the Senate, and he was genuinely alarmed at the 20-year allowance granted to slave imports. By the time the Committee on Style submitted its draft of the constitution to the convention on September 12, Mason had convinced himself that the real threat was posed not by too feeble a government, but by a too powerful government, and at that point, he took the floor to ask that the Constitution be ‘prefaced with a Bill of Rights’.
This was not an empty promise, since Mason had himself drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776. Nor were bills of rights a novelty. The ancestor of all bills of rights in Anglo-American law is the Magna Carta of 1215, followed by the Petition of Right adopted by Parliament in 1628, Oliver Cromwell’s Instrument of Government in 1653, and the Parliamentary Bill of Rights in 1689. All of them have in common a determination to set limits around the power of government, and to spell out a number of basic civil privileges which cannot be compromised or tampered with. By itself, no one who had endured the storm of the American Revolution would have any resistance to a bill of rights.
Madison and Mason’s Motion
James Madison was incredulous at Mason’s motion. First, because the constitution was a document which did little else than set limits around the power of government, thus obviating any need for a bill of rights. Second, because the constitution in fact contained a number of specific protections for rights—the ban on religious tests, for instance, or on bills of attainder.
And third, because Mason, by insisting on the need for a bill of rights, was suggesting that the new Constitution was in fact endangering the rights all the previous bills of rights had been created to protect. That, Madison perceived as a subtle attempt at sabotage, especially when the constitution was submitted for ratification to the states’ conventions.
Learn more about the start of the Constitutional Convention.
The Alarming Dissent of Edmund Randolph
Like Mason, Edmund Randolph had grown more and more uneasy over the powers being ceded to the new national government. He had come to the convention with a set of republican propositions as the basis and outline of a reform of the Articles of Confederation. But these republican propositions, he said, had been widely, and in his opinion, irreconcilably departed from. His best hope was that the state ratifying conventions would instead offer amendments to the plan, and that these amendments should be incorporated into a second constitution, drafted by a second Constitutional Convention.
When this warning was ignored, Randolph repeated it on September 15, and added that: “Should this proposition be disregarded, it would be impossible for him to put his name to the instrument.” Mason joined him, glumly prophesying that the dangerous power and structure of the new national government would end either in monarchy or a tyrannical aristocracy, and Mason, too, called for a second Constitutional Convention. Gerry, of course, followed suit, listing eight separate objections which determined him to withhold his name from the constitution.
Learn more about Roger Sherman’s compromise.
The Signing of the Constitution
To Madison’s boundless relief, the convention now turned a deaf ear to all the complaints. The motion to provide for a second convention was unanimously voted down. On the question to agree to the constitution as amended, every state delegation voted aye.
The next day, September 16, was the day for Jacob Shallus, a revolutionary veteran and the assistant clerk of the Pennsylvania legislature, to prepare a formal, engrossed copy of the constitution, executed with goose quill pens and iron-based ink, and consuming four pages of parchment. The convention assembled for the official signing ceremony on Monday, September 17.
Before the delegates could be summoned to sign, a tottering Benjamin Franklin handed the written version of his speech to James Wilson to read aloud. “I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve. I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such.”
If he believed there were errors in the constitution, Franklin sacrificed those reservations to the public good, and he hoped all of his fellow delegates would do likewise, “in recommending this Constitution wherever our influence may extend, and turn our future thoughts and endeavors to the means of having it well administered.”
Common Questions about the Constitutional Convention’s Final Round of Deliberations
Elbridge Gerry had an issue with one of the smaller provisions of the Committee of Detail, the one which delegated to Congress the power to ‘make war; to raise armies; to build and equip fleets’.
Edmund Randolph had come to the convention with a set of republican propositions as the basis and outline of a reform of the Articles of Confederation. But these republican propositions, he said, had been widely, and in his opinion, irreconcilably departed from.
George Mason was uneasy over the creation of a single national president and over the powers awarded to the Senate, and he was genuinely alarmed at the 20-year allowance granted to slave imports.