August 31: Ratification and Republicanism

Gouverneur Morris suffered a rare defeat, and on a key issue, on August 31. The topic was the mode of ratification for the proposed Constitution, which by then was taking reasonably clear shape as the Convention neared the end of its work. Morris, attempting to expedite ratification, suggested relaxing the draft’s requirement for popular conventions, instead allowing states to ratify as they saw fit. Madison’s response underscores his underlying republicanism. If state legislatures were allowed to drive the consideration of the Constitution, they would manipulate the process to preserve their own power. Then he struck at the heart of the … Continue reading August 31: Ratification and Republicanism

August 23: Seeds of the Second Amendment

A seemingly mundane August 23 debate over who should govern state militias helps to illuminate the purpose of what later became the Second Amendment. The proposition on the table was to empower the national government to “make laws for organizing, arming & disciplining the Militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the U. S. reserving to the States respectively, the appointment of the officers, and authority of training the militia according to the discipline prescribed-“ Elbridge Gerry immediately objected that enabling the national government to “arm” militias “would be regarded as an instrument of … Continue reading August 23: Seeds of the Second Amendment

August 13: Can Foreigners Become Citizens and Govern?

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?

August 9, 10 and 11: Republican Nationalism

Today is catchup day: reflections on the debates of August 9, 10 and 11. On August 9, the delegates discussed an issue with contemporary resonance: immigration. The question was how long senators should have to have been citizens before serving. The proposition on the table was four years. Gouverneur Morris, fearing foreign agents as senators—or at least foreign intrigues to influence the Senate—moved to extend it to 14 years. That sparked firm responses from Madison, Franklin and Wilson. Madison felt the restriction involved “a tincture of illiberality” that might affect all immigrants, not just senators. If the Constitution succeeded, “men who … Continue reading August 9, 10 and 11: Republican Nationalism

July 25-26: Who Should Elect the President?

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?

July 25: Who Wrote the Virginia Plan?

On July 25, as the Convention moved gradually toward an Electoral College as the mode of choosing Presidents, Madison took a stand against appointment by Congress:  Election by the legislature was, he said, liable to insuperable objections. Besides the general influence of that mode on the independence of the Executive, 1. the election of the Chief Magistrate would agitate & divide the legislature so much that the public interest would materially suffer by it. Public bodies are always apt to be thrown into contentions, but into more violent ones by such occasions than by any others. 2. the candidate would intrigue with … Continue reading July 25: Who Wrote the Virginia Plan?

July 23 and 24: ‘The Authority of the People’

July 23 and 24 featured different debates with an overlapping theme: the extent and, perhaps more important, the nature of popular sovereignty. The question on July 23 was whether the proposed Constitution should be submitted to state legislatures or popular conventions for approval. Some of that dispute revolved around whether the state legislatures, which would lose power if the Constitution was adopted, had a conflict of interest. But Virginia’s George Mason cut to the heart of the matter: Col. Mason considered a reference of the plan to the authority of the people as one of the most important and essential … Continue reading July 23 and 24: ‘The Authority of the People’

July 21: The Council of Revision

July 21 witnessed an abortive attempt to revive the Council of Revision, which would have empowered a panel of Supreme Court justices and the President to veto Congressional bills. Curiously, James Wilson and James Madison—the Convention’s and, later, The Federalist’s foremost advocates of the separation of powers—were also champions of the Council of Revision. Both said on July 21 that it would involve judges in vetoing laws on both Constitutional and policy grounds. Wilson argued that judicial review after bills became law was insufficient: Laws may be unjust, may be unwise, may be dangerous, may be destructive; and yet may … Continue reading July 21: The Council of Revision

July 20: Impeachment

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