All Commentary
Wednesday, November 1, 1972

The Founding of the American Republic: 16. Making the Constitution

Dr. Carson recently joined the faculty of Hillsdale College in Michigan as Chairman of the Department of History. He is a noted lecturer and author, his latest book entitled Throttling the Railroads.

I feel it a duty to express my profound and solemn conviction… that there never was an assembly of men charged with a great and arduous trust, who were more pure in their motives or more exclusively or anxiously devoted to the object committed to them to… best secure the permanent liberty and happiness of their country.

— James Madison

It is too probable that no plan we propose will be adopted. Perhaps another dreadful conflict is to be sustained. If to please the people, we offer what we ourselves disapprove, how can we afterwards defend our work? Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair. The event is in the hand of God.

— George Washington

Even though this was an era studded with felicitously worded documents and momentous pronouncements, all of these pale beside the Constitution of 1787 — the United States Constitution. It stands alone among them in the impact it has had, in its imitability, and in the role it has had in the lives of generations that were then yet to come.

All this is quite remarkable. Certainly, Congress envisioned no such document when it sent out a call for a convention. Nor could most of those who assembled in convention see how, at the outset, they could overcome the difficulties in the way of drawing a satisfactory constitution. Even were a masterpiece produced, it appeared most likely that it would be rejected by the states. Few have ever remarked it, yet it may well be that the most amazing thing of all is that the Constitution was not the work of a single man, or even of two or three, but of a convention. It is a commonplace that committees produce little of value; but here, by a group larger than most committees, the exception was made to happen.

Some have described what happened as more than remarkable; it has even been called a miracle. George Washington wrote to Lafayette that it was “little short of a miracle that the delegates from so many different States (which States you know are different from each other), in their manners, circumstances and prejudices, should unite in forming a system of National Government, so little liable to well-founded objections.”¹ Miss Catherine Drinker Bowen’s recently published book on the convention is called Miracle at Philadelphia. Whatever it was, or should be called, all who are open to an examination of the evidence will admit that it was an extraordinary event.

Off to a Slow Start

Even so, the convention did not get underway any more auspiciously than did most other assemblages in that age; it was called for May 14, but there was not a quorum to do business until May 25. It was no easy matter to assemble men from over the length and breadth of the United States; delegates from Georgia, say, had a formidable distance to travel, and even an early start did not necessarily lead to a prompt arrival. In any case, promptness was better calculated in weeks than in hours.

The Virginia delegation was the first appointed by a legislature, and its members began to arrive in Philadelphia before other out-of-staters. It was an impressive delegation, including among its members some of that state’s leading citizens; George Washington, Edmund Randolph, George Mason, and James Madison. (George Wythe, one of the best legal minds in America, put in an appearance but left shortly to attend his dying wife.) Most of the Pennsylvania delegates did not have to make a journey to get to Philadelphia, so that they were available from the beginning. It was an impressive delegation, for it included Benjamin Franklin, Robert Morris (who, if he was there, remained silent during the debates), Gouverneur Morris, and James Wilson.

The New England states were not only the slowest in appointing delegates but also theirs were among the last to arrive. Rhode Island rejected the invitation to appoint delegates. (The absence of Rhode Islanders was not considered a handicap during the convention, for that state’s behavior was so universally deplored that men did not gladly seek the counsel of her citizens.) The New Hampshire delegates were exceedingly late; two of the four appointed finally arrived on July 23. (They could not come earlier because the state had not provided for their expenses.) New York appointed three delegates — Alexander Hamilton, Robert Yates, and John Lansing —, rather reluctantly, we gather, for Yates and Lansing withdrew after a short period of attendance and Hamilton was absent for an extended period. Over all, twelve states had 55 delegates in attendance at one time or another. From most indications, the greatest concern for a stronger general government was among the delegates from the states located from New Jersey southward.

The leadership in the convention came mainly from four states, and in this order: Virginia, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and South Carolina. Two other state delegations played some considerable role: New Jersey and Massachusetts. Delegates from other states were generally less conspicuous during the debates, though Luther Martin of Maryland and George Read of Delaware would have led if they could have attracted followers.

Qualifications of Delegates

The delegates were as well qualified as could have been assembled in America, qualified both by experience and training. Among them were thirty-nine who had served at one time or another in Congress, eight who had signed the Declaration of Independence, eight who had helped draw state constitutions, one, John Dickinson, who is credited with the first draft of the Articles of Confederation, seven who had been chief executives of their states, and twenty-one who had fought in the war. Thirty-three were lawyers, and ten of these had served as judges. About half of them were college graduates, more from Princeton than from any other institution.2

Both youth and advanced age were represented at the convention. The youngest delegate was Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey at twenty-six; the oldest, Benjamin Franklin, who was, as he said, in his eighty-second year. The average age was in the low forties. Some of the leaders, however, were rather young: Charles Pinckney of South Carolina was only 29, Gouverneur Morris 35, and James Madison 36. They were counterbalanced by men of middling years and extensive experience, for example; John Dickinson 54, Roger Sherman 66, and John Langdon 67.

George Washington Called

George Washington almost did not come, even though his presence at the convention was essential — for it was generally agreed that he was America’s first personage. When he was informed of his election, he asked that someone else be appointed in his stead. He gave two reasons why he should be excused: one that now appears trivial, that he had already declined an invitation to attend the convention of the Society of the Cincinnati which would be meeting in Philadelphia at about the same time; the other, however, was good enough reason in any age, for he was suffering so from rheumatism that he could turn in bed only with the greatest difficulty, and men do not gladly leave the comforts of home when they are ill. Friends so earnestly urged him to attend, however, that he changed his mind.

Washington arrived at Philadelphia before the convention was scheduled to begin. It had long since become difficult for him to go anywhere quietly, and there was good reason to publicize this trip. He was met at Chester by a troop of horse which escorted him into Philadelphia where cannon were fired and bells rung.3 The fact that Washington had arrived gave notice that the convention was important and that laggards should make haste to get there. When the convention was organized, Washington was elected, unanimously (as when was he not?), to preside, an office which he took so seriously that he attended each session, though it was the most oppressively hot summer in the memory of Philadelphians. If Washington could endure it, others could and did. He was a man of stern visage, impressive physique, and high seriousness; with him in the chair, the convention could hardly be anything but what it was, a deliberative body which pursued its business in an absence of frivolity and without stooping to personalities. Though Washington did not participate in the debates until the closing days when he made a brief speech, there was no doubt where he stood on the Constitution. He signed it gladly, and took care to let men about the country know that he approved of it. The men in the convention were aware that when they looked toward the chair, they were gazing at the man who would almost certainly be the first President of the United States. This emboldened those who wanted a strong President to make the office powerful, for they were confident that Washington would not abuse such powers. Gouverneur Morris wrote to Washington a few weeks after the convention to describe the importance of his role:

I have observed that your name to the new Constitution has been of infinite service. Indeed, I am convinced that if you had not attended the Convention, and the same paper had been handed out to the world, it would have met with a cooler reception, with fewer and weaker advocates, and with more and more strenuous opponents.4

Franklin’s Role

Benjamin Franklin was the other most prominent American; his hold on the affections of his countrymen was not so great as that of Washington, but his international fame was such that any gathering which had the benefit of his counsels gained in reputation. Though he was getting old — in fact, was old —, his mind was still clear, his vast fund of experience still at his command, and his accomplishments as a raconteur still led men to seek his company. He was not only aged but also infirm. He had to be carried in a sedan chair to the sessions, and he wrote out any but the briefest of remarks so that they could be read to the convention by his fellow Pennsylvanian, James Wilson. Franklin contributed most to the convention by avuncular admonitions to the delegates to compromise, to compose their differences, and to put aside so much of their personal desires as might be necessary to accomplish the object at hand. When the convention appeared to be so near to breaking up over the question of equal or proportional representation, Doctor Franklin said: “When a broad table is to be made, and edges of planks do not fit, the artist takes a little from both, and makes a good joint. In like manner here both sides must part with some of their demands, in order that they may join in some accommodating proposition. “5 At another point, he proposed that the sessions be opened with prayer, for he seemed to think that the influence of religion might link them together in their efforts to arrive at a new system. At the close of the convention, Franklin made an eloquent plea to get those who were holding out to sign what they had helped to make. In a speech, read by James Wilson, Franklin said, among other things:

I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others….

On the whole, Sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.6

His advanced age may have increased the influence of his spirit of accommodation, but he had been adept at the arts of politics and diplomacy long before the contentions of young men tired him.

Though the convention was not a large body, a few men did most of the speaking and a great deal of the other work of hammering out the Constitution. The leaders included: Madison, Mason and Randolph of Virginia, Gouverneur Morris and Wilson of Pennsylvania, Charles Pinckney and Rutledge of South Carolina, Ellsworth and Sherman of Connecticut, King and Gerry of Massachusetts, and, perhaps, Paterson of New Jersey. According to one tabulation, Gouverneur Morris spoke on 173 different occasions; Wilson, 168; Madison, 161; Sherman, 138; Mason, 136; and Gerry, 119.7

James Madison

James Madison has frequently been described as the Father of the Constitution. Certainly, he was one of its principal architects. He was not impressive to look at; judging by his appearance it would have been easy to have mistaken him for a clerk. He was quite short and thin, “Little Jemmy,” they called him, “no bigger than a half cake of soap.” Nor was he an orator; he spoke in such a low voice that those keeping journals often missed a part of what he said. He made up for these shortcomings, however, with intellectual acuity, sharp insight, and tenacity in the pursuit of his object. Moreover, he had prepared himself for the task of making a new constitution. Much of his time in the months before the convention had been spent in reading, and mastering, the literature on government. A plea to Jefferson in Paris had brought a plethora of books to augment the supply at home. The Virginia Plan, from which the Constitution emerged, was presented on the floor by Governor Randolph, but Madison had undoubtedly done much of the work on it. He might be said to have mothered the Constitution, too, because he devoted himself to it exclusively during the months of the convention. His recollection was that he not only attended every session but that he was never absent for more than a few minutes, and he was certain that he could not have missed a single speech of any duration. He kept copious notes of the speeches, and they are judged to be the most reliable record of what was said. This was a marathon undertaking itself, but he also spoke frequently, and at length, with a masterful show of erudition.

Gouverneur Morris

Gouverneur Morris was, however, the most dazzling speaker in the convention, an orator whose learning and close reasoning gave an irresistible thrust to his forensic skill. He had been maimed both in arm and leg, stumped about on a wooden leg, but it is difficult to think of him as a cripple, for he was reputed to be quite a lady’s man and known for being a bon vivant. Madison and Morris were men who knew what they wanted, who pressed the convention step by step in their direction, who took care to see that what they had won by their reasoning was not lost in the maneuvers over detail, but who yielded gracefully when they were outvoted.

There must have been many moments of high drama during the convention, but I think the most eloquent speech fell from Gouverneur Morris. The occasion was the discussion of the counting of slaves for purposes of representation. “He never would concur in upholding domestic slavery,” Morris said. “It was a nefarious institution. It was the curse of heaven on the States where it prevailed…. Proceed southwardly and every step you take through the great region of slaves presents a desert increasing, with the increasing proportion of these wretched beings…. The admission of slaves into the Representation when fairly examined comes to this: that the inhabitant of Georgia and South Carolina who goes to the Coast of Africa, and in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity tears away his fellow creatures from their dearest connections and damns them to the most cruel bondages, shall have more votes in a Government instituted for the protection of the rights of mankind, than the Citizen of Pennsylvania or New Jersey who views with a laudable horror so nefarious a practice…. And what is the proposed compensation of the Northern States for a sacrifice of every principle of right, of every impulse of humanity…? He would sooner submit himself to a tax for paying for all the negroes in the United States, than saddle posterity with such a Constitution.”8 It is generally believed, too, that Morris did much of the work of the committee on style which transformed the disparate elements which had survived the debates into the congruous whole we know as the Constitution —spare, brief, and potent with phrases that have since been etched into American consciousness by court decision and other action or inaction.

Giants Among Men

Impressions tumble over one another of the men during the sessions of the convention: of George Washington presiding from his high-backed chair, leaning forward to try to discern the order of the proposals from amidst the welter of motions made from the floor, forbearing to speak on the issues because it would not be proper; of James Madison, scribbling away at his notes, taking the floor to make a point, retiring to his quarters at the end of the day to flesh out his notes and review what had been done; of the proud and passionate Edmund Randolph, a young politician already in mid-career, presenting the Virginia Plan to the convention, vacillating on issues as the Constitution took shape, unwilling at last to sign the handiwork of the convention which had been shaped from his proposals; of James Wilson, tenaciously pressing for a national government, rising yet once again to speak for giving the people a more direct role in the government; of George Read, difficult to listen to but determined to be heard, single-mindedly arguing for a more powerful executive; of craggy Roger Sherman, whose face would stop a clock but whose arguments moved the convention toward the accomplishment of its task; of Charles Pinckney, young, brash, but sufficiently brilliant in debate to command the attention of the others; of George Mason, early and late a defender of the rights of man, working with an obvious good will to shape the Constitution, but at last unwilling to sign it; of John Dickinson, theoretician of resistance in youth, coming to fame with his daring employment of reason, now grown older declaiming: “Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us.”9; and of Jonathan Dayton, the youngest man there, rising to second what had not clearly been a motion by Gouverneur Morris on the evils of slavery and saying: “He did it… that his sentiments on the subject might appear whatever might be the fate of the amendment.”¹º

Among the Missing

Though the convention was composed of as impressive an assemblage of men as could have been got together at any time, there were some prominent Americans not there. John Adams was out of the country, doing his best to represent the Congress before the royal court in London. Adams had lately published a book which surveyed the constitutional arrangements of various countries, a book whose influence might have been greater if its author had been present at the convention. Thomas Jefferson was in Paris as Minister to France. Any gathering without him was missing one of the American luminaries. Several of the firebrands of the Revolution were missing, if not missed, for they were better known for heat than light. Among them were: Samuel Adams who was not chosen, Richard Henry Lee and Patrick Henry who did not choose to attend, and Thomas Paine who was in Europe trying to promote a project for steel bridges in the interlude between revolutions. Probably if some of these men had been there they would have given such vociferous support to the idea of including a bill of rights that it would have been done, thus removing what turned out to be the major objection to the Constitution.

Rules of Order

The convention was organized so as to proceed about its business without interference from outsiders or without inhibiting full discussion. The sessions were held behind closed doors; no record of what was said or being considered there was to be released without the approval of the convention. There were no galleries to be played to, no press to be placated. Strict rules governing the behavior of members were adopted. For example:

Every member rising to speak, shall address the President; and whilst he shall be speaking, none shall pass between them, or hold discourse with another, or read a book, pamphlet or paper….

A member shall not speak oftener than twice, without special leave, upon the same question; and not the second time, before every other, who had been silent, shall have been heard, if he wish to speak.”

The convention operated on the rule that no decision on any particular of the constitution should be considered final. This enabled the convention to adjust the parts to one another as alterations were made.

The convention was remarkable both for its orderliness and for the absence of rancor among the members. On the one or two occasions when tempers flared, the strong feeling quickly subsided. There did appear to be some impatience in the last few days with going over ground already covered. Even so, an effort was made in the last days to make changes that might satisfy the few holdouts from signing. It is necessary to read but briefly into Madison’s notes to get the feeling that these men were taking very seriously what they were doing, that though their task was urgent everything must be considered with great care. Above all, many were determined to stick with the undertaking until something had been completed to present to the public.

Doubts and Differences

It was well that they were, for their object lay on the other side of a thicket of uncertainties, doubts, and differences. Even what they were supposed to do at the convention was in doubt. The resolution adopted by Congress calling the convention declared that it was to be for the “sole purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.” It was clear enough what Congress had said, but these men were gathered to represent their states and were supposed to act under their instructions, if any. The instructions differed enough one from the other that a good case could be made that the convention could do what its members thought best. Most of those gathered agreed with the idea that their task was to construct a plan for a new system of government, or accepted it without cavil. The few who did not could leave, and some did.

It was only with some difficulty that they agreed on how they would vote. Delegates from several states were bent on having representation in the new government based on population or wealth, as the Virginia Plan provided. They would have the best chance of getting this into a constitution if the states had votes in the convention proportionate to their populations. There was no likelihood, however, that the smaller states might agree to this, so the convention votes were by states, each state having one vote regardless of how many delegates there were, just as in the case of the Congress. If a state’s delegation was tied in a vote, that state’s vote would not be counted. A majority of the states present and voting was sufficient to any decision.

States’ Rights

Sentiment had been building for some time that, if there was to be an effective union of the states, the general government must have the power to use force on individuals. This, as many saw it, was the only way to “render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union…,”12 as the declaration drawn at the Annapolis Convention the year before had described the need. A man named Stephen Higginson had written to General Knox earlier in 1787 describing precisely what needed to be done: “The Union must not only have the right to make laws and requisitions, but it must have the power of compelling obedience thereto….”13 Washington had written to Madison in March: “I confess… that my opinion of public virtue is so far changed, that I have my doubts whether any system, without the means of coercion in the sovereign will enforce due obedience to the ordinances of a General Government; without which every thing else fails…. But what kind of coercion, you may ask. This indeed will require thought….”14 Washington wrote to John Jay in the following vein: “I do not conceive we can exist long as a nation without having lodged somewhere a power which will pervade the whole Union in an energetic a manner, as the authority of the State Governments extends over the several States….”15

There was no way, however, of contriving a general government which could compel obedience without encroaching on the powers of the states. Indeed, any attempt to work out such a plan had major obstacles in the way. Both theory and history militated against divided sovereignty. Theory said it could not be done; history afforded no clear-cut examples of its having been successfully done. If sovereignty could not be divided, if a general government was to have coercive power, then the general government would have to be sovereign and the states become but districts in a nation. There were men at the convention who saw it this way and were ready to grasp the nettle.

Firm Determination to Preserve State Sovereignty

But such a plan had little hope of ratification, if any. Madison described some of the difficulty in a letter to Edmund Pendleton before the convention:… The necessity of gaining the concurrence of the Convention in some system that will answer the purpose, the subsequent approbation of Congress, and the final sanction of the States, presents a series of chances which would inspire despair in any case where the alternative was less formidable.16

But if Madison had not known beforehand that the states would be jealous of their powers and prerogatives, he would have found out soon enough in the convention. George Mason, his fellow Virginian, expressed his determination to preserve the vitality of the states in calm but measured words: “He took this occasion to repeat, that notwithstanding his solicitude to establish a national Government, he never would agree to abolish the State Governments or render them absolutely insignificant. They were as necessary as the General Government and he would be equally careful to preserve them.”17 Luther Martin of Maryland said that he agreed with Mason “as to the importance of the State Governments. He would support them at the expense of the General Government which was instituted for the purpose of that support…. [T]hey are afraid of granting powers unnecessarily, lest they should defeat the original end of the Union; lest the powers should prove dangerous to the sovereignties of the particular State which the Union was meant to support; and expose the lesser to being swallowed up by the larger.”18 Doctor Johnson in contrasting the Virginia and New Jersey Plans (the Virginia Plan calling for representation to be apportioned according to wealth and/or population while the New Jersey Plan called for representation by states), brought some of the difficulties out in the open. He noted that James Wilson and James Madison, advocates of the Virginia Plan, did not propose to destroy the states. “They wished,” he said, “to leave the States in possession of a considerable, though a subordinate jurisdiction. They had not yet however shown how this could consist with, or be secured against the general sovereignty and jurisdiction, which they proposed to give to the national Government.”19

A Unique Situation

Some held that they were departing from experience even to try to contrive a government which depended upon divided sovereignty. Others argued that the American situation was unique, that history afforded no clear model for it, and that they must innovate. Charles Pinckney summed up the peculiar situation of America in vigorous exposition:

The people of this country are not only very different from the inhabitants of any State we are acquainted with in the modern world; but I assert that their situation is distinct from either the people of Greece or Rome, or of any State we are acquainted with among the ancients….

Our true situation appears to me to be this—a new extensive Country containing within itself the materials for forming a Government capable of extending to its citizens all the blessings of civil and religious liberty—capable of making them happy at home….20

Reason is the sword of the young; experience the shield of age. Some of the young men at the convention were for casting a new system, but others wanted no such heady innovation. In any case, the states must be preserved.

Some of the proponents of an energetic general government declared that there was little danger to the states to be expected from it. They appealed to the history of confederacies to show that time and again it was the states who had intruded upon and broken up the general government. Others appealed to a broader experience to show that where power was confided in any government it tended to crush all opposing power.

A Government Worth Serving

The general government must have sufficient power and prestige to attract able and dedicated men into its service. The energy of government proceeds from the men in it, as John Francis Mercer of Maryland argued. “It is a great mistake to suppose that the paper we are to propose will govern the United States. It is the men whom it will bring into the Government and interest in maintaining it that is to govern them.”2‘ Americans of that time were familiar with something that their descendants know little about: of government with so little of power and prestige that able men would not deign to serve in it. A seat in the Congress was hardly coveted by the first citizens, and state governments found it difficult to attract men of ambition and integrity. Some men in the convention were loath to provide much reward for serving in the general government, on the ground that men would be attracted for reasons of personal gain rather than service. Alexander Hamilton answered the argument this way: “We must take man as we find him, and if we expect him to serve the public must interest his passions in doing so.”22 The idea was vigorously pushed in the convention of limiting the length of time a man might serve in the general government as well as making those who left office ineligible for appointive office for a time. James Wilson argued against this idea; he “animadverted on the impropriety of stigmatizing with the name of venality the laudable ambition of rising into the honorable offices of the Government….”23 James Madison said: “The objects to be aimed at were to fill all offices with the fittest characters, and to draw the wisest and most worthy citizens into the Legislative service.”24 He doubted that this could be done by hedging them around with ineligibilities and disqualifications.

Checks and Balances

Once grant the points that sufficient power be authorized to attract strong men into government and impart energy to it and to give the general government power to act directly upon individuals, however, all were agreed that checks must be introduced on this power. Gouverneur Morris thought the following principles must be introduced:

… Abilities and virtue, are equally necessary in both branches. Something more then is now wanted. 1. The checking branch must have a personal interest in checking the other branch, one interest must be opposed to another interest. Vices as they exist must be turned against each other…. 3. It should be independent.25

James Madison declared that if it “be essential to the preservation of liberty that the Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary powers be separate, it is essential to a maintenance of the separation, that they should be independent of each other.”26

Separation of Powers

Yet, to accomplish this was a most difficult task. In the British system there were different classes to be represented, each class providing an independent base for its representatives. In America, there was no such actual division of the population. In Britain, the monarchy and the secular members of the House of Lords held hereditary positions, adding another dimension to their independence. But Americans neither had nor wanted hereditary officials. Hence, the problem: functions might be separated from one another readily, but how could those in the different branches have different sources of their power? Some were for having the executive chosen by Congress. But others pointed out that, if this were the case, he would be dependent on that body. Judges might be appointed by the Senate, but if that body might also remove them from office where was their independence? Probably, more time was spent on the question of how the executive should be chosen than any other, though it did not excite the emotions the way the matter of whether representation in Congress should be based on population or by states did.

Above all, there was the question of how those who were to govern could be made sufficiently independent of their electors to make wise decisions without posing fatal dangers to the liberties of the people. Undoubtedly, if the government was to be republican it must be based on voters from among the people. Nor, as some men never tired of saying, was it to be doubted that those whose rights were involved were the best protectors of them or that the ballot box was the place to do it. Some thought that frequent elections would be the best means of protecting the people. Roger Sherman observed that “Government is instituted for those who live under it. It ought therefore to be so constituted as not to be dangerous to their liberties. The more permanency it has the worse if it be a bad Government.. Frequent elections are necessary to preserve the good behavior of rulers.”27 Others questioned this principle, for they noted that a too close dependence of the government on the people resulted not in wise and stable government but in the pandering of politicians to the temporary and changing opinions of the populace. Madison had said just prior to Sherman’s remarks that the objective of the constitution was “first to protect the people against their rulers; secondly to protect the people against the transient impressions into which they themselves might be led….” A “reflection… becoming a people… would be that they themselves. … were liable to err… from fickleness and passion.”28 Alexander Hamilton pointed out that lately “the Government had entirely given way to the people, and had in fact suspended many of its ordinary functions in order to prevent those turbulent scenes which had appeared elsewhere.”29

Principles Not Compromised

Perhaps, enough of the difficulties have been recounted to illustrate the fact that the Founders were wrestling with real practical and intellectual problems at the convention. Some twentieth century historians have attempted to interpret their differences in terms of class interests and other factors. It is not necessary to do this in order to account for the debates; it also drags in matters extraneous to the subjects at issue. Moreover, such an account does not explain the compromises that were eventually made; if men were moved only by narrow interests they would have been expected to cling to their views rather than compromise.

Compromise they did, however, in many matters that initially divided them. Indeed, some historians have gone so far as to describe the Constitution as a “bundle of compromises.” The phrase has sometimes been used derogatorily to imply that on issue after issue men had yielded up their principles to the expediency of accommodating a welter of interests. Yet, a compromise need not be a yielding of a principle; it may well be the result of sacrificing narrow interest to the general well being. So it was, quite often, at the convention at Philadelphia; men advanced narrow and limited views in the debates but arrived at great principles through compromise. The stately, but simple, rhythms of the Constitution as it came from the committee on style captured principle after principle in its verbiage, meshed them together into a symphonic whole, and provided the plan for the government of an empire for liberty. That it could be done appeared most unlikely at the outset. That it had been done was not so clear at the time. That it was done seems now a miracle. It is, therefore, appropriate to examine these principles.

Next: Principles of the Constitution.



1 Quoted in Charles Warren, The Making of the Constitution (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1937), p. 737.

2 Ibid., pp. 55-56.

3 Ibid., pp. 99-100.

4 Ibid., p. 730.

5 James Madison, Notes of the Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, Adrienne Koch, intro. (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1966), p. 227.

6 Ibid., pp. 653-54.

7 Warren, op. cit., p. 125.

8 Madison, Notes, pp. 411-12. The present writer has taken the liberty of modernizing the spelling and using complete words rather than the abbreviations as they appear in the original.

9 Ibid., p. 447.

¹º Ibid., p. 412.

11 Ibid., pp. 25-26.

12 Jack P. Greene, ed., Colonies to Nation (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967), p. 511.

13 Quoted in Warren, op. cit., p. 38.

14 Ibid.,

15 Ibid., pp. 17-18.

16 Ibid., p. 50.

17 Madison, Notes, p. 159.

18 Ibid., p. 159.

19 Ibid., p. 163.

20 Ibid., p. 185.

21 Ibid., p. 455.

22 Ibid., p. 175.

23 Ibid., p. 177.

24 Ibid., p. 178.

25 Ibid., p. 233.

26 Ibid., p. 311.

27 Ibid., p. 195.

28 Ibid., pp. 193-94.

29 Ibid., p. 196.  

  • Clarence Carson (1926-2003) was a historian who taught at Eaton College, Grove City College, and Hillsdale College. His primary publication venue was the Foundation for Economic Education. Among his many works is the six-volume A Basic History of the United States.