The Immediate Reaction to the New US Constitution

From the lecture series: America's Founding Fathers

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

When the Constitutional Convention ended in 1787, Gouty George Mason left Philadelphia in what James Madison called “an exceeding ill humor”. He had agreed to give a lift as far as Baltimore to Maryland delegate James McHenry, who, like Mason, had reservations about the Constitution but who, unlike Mason, had signed it anyway. Why hadn’t Mason signed the Constitution?

Letters on wooden cubes spelling out the word Constitution.
James Madison and George Mason had strongly expressed their displeasure with the new US Constitution in 1787. (Image: SergioVas/Shutterstock)

Just nine miles outside Baltimore, Mason’s carriage overturned. Both Mason and McHenry were injured. The injuries, however, did nothing to alter the 62-year-old Mason’s “fixed disposition to prevent the adoption of the plan if possible” by the state ratifying conventions. That “fixed disposition” to cause mischief to the Constitution did not belong to Mason alone.

Learn more about George Washington’s cover letter.

The States and the New Constitution

For the benefit of Thomas Jefferson in Paris, Madison writing from his post in the Confederation Congress in New York City, wrote out a brief estimate of the likelihood of ratification in each state. In the New England states, he estimated that New Hampshire, was “well pleased with it” and “its passage through Connecticut is likely to be very smooth and easy.” Likewise Massachusetts, or at least the eastern parts of it. “Boston is warm and almost unanimous in embracing it,” wrote Madison, but “the impression on the back country is not yet known.” In Rhode Island, however, “The paper money faction is hostile.”

In the mid-Atlantic states, in New York “there seems to be less agitation than anywhere, although New York governor George Clinton is supposed to be on the opposite side.” But “New Jersey takes the affirmative side,” as does Maryland. “Pennsylvania,” Madison said, “will be divided,” since “the City of Philadelphia, the Quakers, and most of the Germans, espouse the Constitution.” It was in “the Western Country” that “an unlucky ferment on the subject in their Assembly may render the event doubtful.”

In the southern states, Madison believed that since “the deputation from South Carolina” had been “unanimously zealous in favor of the Constitution, it was probable that that state will readily embrace it,” and “North Carolina will follow the example.” But Madison’s own Virginia was another matter, and since Virginia was the largest and most powerful state in the Union, a refusal to ratify there could undo whatever was accomplished by other states’ ratifications.

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

The Objections to the New Constitution

Writing on the reverse of the printed copy of the Constitution provided by the Committee of Style and probably while Mason was still sitting in the soon-to-be-adjourned convention, the ponderous Virginian began writing out what he shortly published in pamphlet form as the urtext of resistance to the Constitution, his “Objections to This Constitution of Government”.

The objections repeated much of what Mason had already said during the convention. The House of Representatives was too small, which meant that each representative would have to represent a district so large that he would never be able to understand, much less speak for, everyone in it. By the same token, in such large districts, the only names likely to gain any recognition and votes would be the wealthy and famous.

Painting of the signing of the new US Constitution.
While other delegates signed the Constitution on September 17, 1787, George Mason did not. (Image: Daderot/Public domain)

The vagueness of the commerce clause did not escape Mason’s eye either since that would allow the House of Representatives to “grant monopolies in trade and commerce, constitute new crimes, inflict unusual and severe punishments, and extend their powers as far as they shall think proper.” Not that it would matter because the Senate was too big, their power in the appointment of ambassadors and all public officers, in making treaties, and in their influence upon and connection with the supreme executive from these causes will destroy any balance in the government, and enable them to accomplish what usurpations they please upon the rights and liberties of the people.

Mason’s Reaction to the New System

The judicial branch was just as bad. It would “absorb and destroy the judiciaries of the several states; thereby “rendering law as tedious, intricate and expensive, and justice as unattainable, by a great part of the community, as in England, and enabling the rich to oppress and ruin the poor.” But the presidency was even worse in Mason’s mind. “The President of the United States” will become a tool to the Senate, and together, “by declaring all treaties supreme laws of the land, the Executive and the Senate have, in many cases, an exclusive power of legislation.”

Mason was particularly irked at the concessions made to slavery. “The general legislature is restrained from prohibiting the further importation of slaves for 20 odd years; though such importations render the United States weaker, more vulnerable, and less capable of defense.” But what troubled Mason the most was the absence of a bill of rights.

Learn more about Edmund Randolph’s plan.

George Washington’s Unhappiness

Mason understood that he was crossing George Washington by saying this, and on October 7, 1787, he wrote to Washington, enclosing a copy of the objections with the pacifying hope that “my objections are not numerous,” few enough that “a little moderation and temper in the latter end of the convention might have removed” them. Washington was not amused.

“It is highly probable,” he glumly confided in his old wartime colleague, Henry Knox, “that the refusal of our governor,” meaning Edmund Randolph, “and Colonel Mason to subscribe to the proceedings of the convention will have a bad effect in this state; for, as you well observe, they must not only assign reasons for the justification of their conduct, but it is highly probable that these reasons will appear in most terrific array, with a view to alarm the people.”

Common Questions about the Immediate Reaction to the New US Constitution

Q: Why was Virginia’s ratification of the new Constitution important in 1787?

Since Virginia was the largest and most powerful state in the Union, its refusal to ratify the new Constitution could undo whatever was accomplished by other states’ ratifications.

Q: When and to whom did George Mason write about his objections regarding the new Constitution?

On October 7, 1787, George Mason wrote a letter to George Washington specifying his objections to the new Constitution.

Q: What was George Mason and James Madison’s main objection about the House of Representatives in the new Constitution?

They felt that the House of Representatives was too small, which meant that each representative would have to represent a district so large that he would never be able to understand, much less speak for, everyone in it.

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