On August 13th, they took up a debate about whether to require four years or seven years of citizenship before someone was eligible to serve in the House of Representatives. Ultimately, they settle on seven years and the Constitution still requires seven years of citizenship before being eligible. But their debate on this question is interesting for what it reveals about the founders’ varying conception of citizenship. Elbridge Gerry voices what we might call the “nativist” worry: “Persons having foreign attachments will be sent among us & insinuated into our councils, in order to be made instruments for their purposes.” … Continue reading August 13: Can Foreigners Become Citizens and Govern?
Having made the controversial argument the day before that the national vote ought to be restricted to freeholders, Morris makes an argument much more friendly to our ears on the next day. Up until this point, the Convention had mostly danced around the controversial question of slavery. The South would only enter the Union if slavery were secure; the North wanted the South to enter the Union and so it was willing to compromise on the question of slavery. On this day, it seems Morris couldn’t hold it in anymore: “He never would concur in upholding domestic slavery. It was … Continue reading August 8th: Morris Redeems Himself
After having paused for about a month while the Committee of Detail composed a draft of the Constitution itself, the Representatives returned on August 6th to consider this draft. August 6th consisted of little more than reading the draft. On August 7th, they took up a more robust debate about the details of the new Constitution. Among other things debated that day, the question of who would have the right to vote in national elections arose. Gouverneur Morris, whose instincts had always seemed ahead of his time, made the controversial and seemingly outdated suggestion to “restrain the right of suffrage … Continue reading August 7th: The “Freeholder” Debate
The Convention spent a considerable amount of time going around in circles regarding how to elect the President. For the most part, there was agreement that they ought not be chosen by the Legislature. So the question then became who was to choose presidents if not the legislature. Since this would be a national office, could the people as a nation choose them directly? It is often said that the Convention settled on the Electoral College partially because they wanted a filtering mechanism such that presidents would be chosen by those with more judgment and experience than the mass of … Continue reading July 25-26: Who Should Elect the President?
Having discussed the great strength of the President during the previous day, the Convention now turned to the crucial control on that strength: impeachment. The form of the Constitution not just here but throughout the structure always ties power to responsibility. The President can be vigorous because the President is subject both to reelection and to impeachment. All-too-often when our political culture discusses the Constitution too much emphasis is placed on the checks. In placing such emphasis on these checks, we assume the essential purpose of the Constitution was to limit governmental power. But the Presidency is the example par-excellence … Continue reading July 20: Impeachment
I apologize for posting this a day late. Unlike those in the Constitutional Convention, I think summer vacations are essential! After having completed the debate on representation discussed in our previous posts, they began another difficult debate about the strength of the executive. Whereas the debate about representation mostly centered on questions of interest, rather than those of principle, the debate about executive power was much more theoretical. Governeur Morris demonstrated once again his mastery in this Convention by beginning the debate with a vigorous case for a vigorous executive. At this point, a strong executive was tremendously controversial. As … Continue reading July 19: Executive Strength, Independence, and Re-eligibility
The July 14th debate illustrates well the disagreement about whether this federal government would be a union of the States or a Union of the states. It’s hard for us now to recover fully this dispute because, after the Civil War, it became clear to everyone except the state of Texas that the national government was supreme in sovereignty to the state governments. The state governments persisted and have never been treated simply as functionaries of the national government, but there was no longer a question of ultimate supremacy. By contrast, prior to the Civil War, almost all documents say … Continue reading July 14: How Federal Would the Federal Government be?
It’s hard to tell on the basis of Madison’s Notes alone but one gets the sense from the text that tensions had grown high between the North and the South on this day. The Southern representatives continue to insist on a principle of representation that counts “both the white and the black people.” Insofar as “the black people” were essentially all slaves, this meant the Southern states were demanding a principle of full “representation” for their non-voting slaves; they were demanding that their votes count for more than their Northern compatriots. William Davies from North Carolina gives what one can … Continue reading July 12 in the Constitutional Convention: The South Throws Down the Gauntlet
In light of the subsequent history of the Union, July 10 is important insofar as it continues to indicate the key fault line that will divide the Union through the Civil War and even beyond. Much of the debate about representation in the legislature up to this point had concentrated on the apparent friction between the large and small states. The small states were worried that the large states would dominate the national government at their expense. Rufus King argues on this day, however, that this isn’t the true source of the tension. He say that he “was fully convinced … Continue reading July 10 in the Constitutional Convention: The North/South Divide
As though he too, were also studying the Constitutional Convention’s debates as my colleague, Greg Weiner, did today, Noah Millman has an interesting article in the New York Times calling for America to break up its biggest states. Given that this is the very same day, July 7th, that the Constitutional Convention took up in earnest the question of state representation, Millman’s article is especially interesting. Millman is trying to find a way to represent the political diversity within the large states that is not currently represented. For instance, in the state of New York, neither New York City, nor … Continue reading The Dilemma of State Representation