Today in the Constitutional Convention

We’re trying something new at The Constitutionalist: Over the summer, we’ll revisit what happened in the Constitutional Convention on the corresponding date. Today, July 7, was a short session, a Saturday, with a heated question on the table: the equality of states in the Senate. Two days before, the Convention had taken up the report of the “Gerry Committee,” which was impaneled to consider the Connecticut Compromise. The Committee endorsed it. On July 5, Madison had been steamed:

He conceived that the Convention was reduced to the alternative of either departing from justice in order to conciliate the smaller States, and the minority of the people of the U. S. or of displeasing these by justly gratifying the larger States and the majority of the people. He could not himself hesitate as to the option he ought to make. The Convention with justice & the majority of the people on their side, had nothing to fear. With injustice and the minority on their side they had every thing to fear. It was in vain to purchase concord in the Convention on terms which would perpetuate discord among their Constituents.

On July 7, Gouverneur Morris, whose influence at the Convention gets less attention than it deserves, pushed the point further, with characteristic flair. The supposed interest of the states was a phantasm, he said. Equal representation in the Senate would serve no discernible purpose: “What is to be the check in the Senate? none; unless it be to keep the majority of the people from injuring particular States. But particular States ought to be injured for the sake of a majority of the people, in case their conduct should deserve it.”

At the time of independence, Morris asserted, the smaller states had taken advantage of the emergency to extort equal representation from the large states. But there was no such emergency now:

Standing now on that ground, [the small states] demand under the new system greater rights as men, than their fellow Citizens of the large States. The proper answer to them is that the same necessity of which they formerly took advantage, does not now exist, and that the large States are at liberty now to consider what is right, rather than what may be expedient. … Good God, Sir, is it possible they can so delude themselves. What if all the Charters & Constitutions of the States were thrown into the fire, and all their demagogues into the ocean. What would it be to the happiness of America.

Morris’ dismissal of the states as corporate bodies cuts to the heart of the belief–which Madison and James Wilson, among others, shared–that the states had no interests that required representation. There was certainly, Madison had said a few days before, no interest common to the small states qua small states. Instead, Madison presciently predicted that the real divide in America, arising from enslavement, would be between north and south, not large states and small. That represented a danger to the Madisonian system: Because this most foundational dispute was rooted in geography, it was fixed along lines that could not ultimately be bargained away.

They are hardly comparable to enslavement, but might we be flirting with geographic divisions again today? In one sense, Madison and Morris were right: There is no enduring interest separating large and small states simply on the basis of size. There are small states like Delaware that are reliably blue and large ones like Texas that vote consistently red. The absence of a fixed conflict between large and small states may help explain why the echoes of the “discord” Madison predicted are relatively faint.

But it is also precisely why geographical sorting along partisan lines–the result of an easy mobility the Framers could not have anticipated–is so concerning. Instead of a concrete interest like enslavement, this sorting might reproduce geographical divisions based on sharp differences in political culture.

The Convention adjourned without resolving the issue, turning its attention the following Monday to another matter the Gerry Committee, perhaps exceeding its jurisdiction, had also taken up: the ratio of representation in the lower House.

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