Authors: James MacGregor Burns
Madison failed to organize the whole delegation. Patrick Henry had been elected to it and had declined, for the reason, Madison conjectured, that he would feel freer to oppose the new charter if he disliked it. George Mason, another delegate, was less politically ambitious than Henry, but Madison suspected him of anti-Federalist tendencies.
Madison had spent many a long evening in New York refining his own views, jotting them down in his small, even handwriting. It was easy for him to list the faults of the Confederation—weakness, instability, and inability to control the factious, rambunctious states—and he did so in a three-thousand-word essay bluntly entitled “Vices of the Political System of the U. States.” But what would take the Confederation’s place? By the time Madison left Manhattan early in May and took the open boat that ferried him over to Paulus Hook, he had fashioned a plan that would provide the central strategy for the delegates who would assemble in Philadelphia.
The journey itself provided Madison with occasions for reflection. As his boat plowed slowly across the mouth of the Hudson he could see packets and schooners bearing products—Madeira and rum, perhaps, or machinery and ironware—that would be taxed as imports from abroad not by the Confederation but by New York State. Traveling across the pleasant New Jersey countryside in his towering, deep-bellied stagecoach, the “American Flyer,” he could reflect that in New Jersey too the farmers and debtors had compelled the state legislature to issue paper money. Pulling up at the Nassau Tavern in Princeton the first evening of the trip, he must have recalled earlier days when he and the other students, crowded around the stages to hear the latest news from New York and Philadelphia. He might have recalled too his first reading in Aristotle and Polybius, Locke and Montesquieu. Out of the writings of such men, out of his own and his comrades’ political experiences, Madison had forged his theories of government.
Fundamental to these theories was an assumption that men inevitably tended toward conflict and struggle. The latent causes of faction, he had concluded, were sown in the nature of man. “All civilized societies,” he had
written in New York that spring, “are divided into different interests and factions, as they happen to be creditors or debtors—rich or poor—husbandmen, merchants or manufacturers—members of different religious sects—followers of different political leaders—inhabitants of different districts—owners of different kinds of property, &c &c.” Even where there was no actual basis for conflict, frivolous and fanciful differences could excite passionate hatreds.
How protect liberty and order against these factions? Especially under a republican government, where the majority of the people was supposed to rule, how thwart a majority united by some passion or interest from crushing minority or individual rights? Faith? Doctrine could lead to dogma and then to oppression. Enlightened self-interest? Leaders with vision would not always be at the helm. Public opinion? The average man—even the average legislator—pursued local interests. Did a Rhode Island assemblyman, Madison asked, care what France or even Massachusetts thought of his paper money?
How then control selfish factions, oppressive local majorities, popular follies and passions? Madison’s answer went straight to the heart of the grand strategy of the men who would come to be known as Federalists. The solution was not to try to remove the causes of faction, for a free society would always produce differences among men and a good republican must respect those differences. The solution was to dilute the power and passion of local factions by enlarging the sphere of government into a nation of many regions, interests, and opinions. Like a careful cook, Madison would blend indigestible lumps and fiery spices in the blander waters of a large pot.
It was this plan to “enlarge the sphere” that Madison brought to Philadelphia in his luggage as the “Flyer” rattled over the pebble stones of Chestnut Street and pulled up at the Indian Queen Tavern.
The eager Madison was the first delegate to show up; no one else arrived for ten days. He had time to settle into rooms in Mary House’s celebrated lodgings at Fifth and Market, to talk tobacco prices with the local merchant who handled the crop from Madison’s fields at Montpelier, to pay a visit to Benjamin Franklin, and to work on final details of the plan that Governor Randolph would present to the convention. The delegates straggled in over the next few weeks, most of them after long and hard journeys.
General Charles C. Pinckney brought his young bride with him from
Charleston; both of them had been miserably seasick as their packet beat its way up the coast to Delaware Bay. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts also brought his young wife, along with their infant child, despite Yankee doubts about the pestilent fevers of southern cities like Philadelphia; shortly, he sent them off to stay with in-laws in New York City. William Samuel Johnson of Connecticut had traveled mainly overland, south on the post road along the Connecticut River, through the populous area around Hartford, and then down the much-traveled Boston Post Road along the coastline into Manhattan, whence he probably followed the same route as Madison into Philadelphia. Johnson had stopped in Hartford long enough to collect two hundred pounds from the state treasury for his expenses, and in New York to receive news that he had been chosen president of the newly reorganized Columbia College. Delegates from New Hampshire did not arrive for eight weeks because, it was rumored, the state was too poor to pay their expenses. Delegates from Rhode Island did not arrive at all, because the legislators of Little Rhody were as suspicious of the convention delegates as the delegates were contemptuous of them and their cheap-money ways.
On May 13 there was a great commotion outside Mrs. House’s lodging house: General Washington had arrived, escorted by the City Light Dragons and hailed by the pealing of the Liberty Bell, the booming of artillery, the flashing of sabers, and the huzzahs of a great throng. Mrs. House had tidied up her best rooms for the general, only to see the financier Robert Morris carry him off to his fine brick mansion, leaving her to hope that she could fill the rooms with Baptists, Cincinnati, or abolitionists, who were also then conventioneering in the nation’s first city.
Washington had to wait twelve fretful days before a quorum was present, but Madison helped fill the time with caucus meetings of the Virginia delegates at the Indian Queen—to form, as Mason put it, “a proper correspondence of sentiments.”
The Virginians got off to a good start when the assembly finally convened on May 25, a rainy Friday. Washington was unanimously elected president of the convention on the nomination of Morris and with the backing of Franklin, Washington’s only rival for world fame—a nice expression of unity at the start. Madison secured a seat up front, where he took a leading role in debate and, at the same time, kept the best and fullest record of the proceedings. He soon impressed the delegates with his lucid, low-voiced exposition of constitutional and political problems; he blended together, a Georgia delegate noted, “the profound politician with the scholar.” The prudent delegates devoted two days to laying out rules and
procedures, the most important of which was absolute secrecy about the debates. During these days they had an opportunity to begin taking the measure of their associates.
What manner of men were these? The “bar of history” has rendered changing verdicts during two centuries of hindsight. For a hundred years or more the Framers were virtually deified, or seen at least as Olympians rising above petty self-interest and local prejudice to produce what Prime Minister William Gladstone would call, on the occasion of the Constitution’s centennial, “the most remarkable work known to me in modern times to have been produced by the human intellect, at a single stroke (so to speak), in its application to political affairs.” Then, in the iconoclastic Progressive era of the early twentieth century, the heroes were pulled off their pedestals and found to be crass conservatives who wanted to curb agrarian radicals and debtors, men of property who calculated that their holdings of land and securities and slaves would be safer under a national government judiciously removed from direct control by the masses. Interpretation followed interpretation. Marxists saw the Framers as products of class background and interest. Political theorists viewed them as ideologues responding to the dominant values of the time. Recently, political “realists” have analyzed them as state politicos maneuvering in the convention for regional advantage. Others have regarded them as nationalists and continentalists, still others as bold engineers engaged in a grand experiment. Two centuries later, the jury of history has rendered no final verdict from among these various theories.
How did the men of Philadelphia view themselves? To see them as they appeared to one another in that hot chamber in the Pennsylvania State House is to raise them from immortality to mortality. All of them were unabashedly and even proudly
men to some degree, or they would not have been chosen by their state legislatures. Most of them were ambitious. Clinton Rossiter estimated that as a group they had had more political experience than any gathering of the leaders of a newly independent nation at any time in history. They were mainly youngish, averaging in their early forties. Almost all were wealthy, or at least comfortably off. Most were from established families. They had the correct formal education: nine were products of (now) Princeton, four each of William and Mary and Yale, three each of Harvard and (now) Columbia.
At least a dozen were planters or farmers on a big scale; another dozen, lawyers; still another dozen, state officeholders; and some were all three of these. Most had married women of social standing. Over a third owned slaves. They were almost all at least nominally religious, ranging from
robust Christians to the tolerantly ecumenical or broadly secular. Most were war veterans, or at least had known military life.
The poor, the back-country people, the agrarian debtors, the uneducated, the non-voters, and of course women, Indians, and blacks were inconspicuously unrepresented.
So this was a convention of the well-bred, the well-fed, the well-read, and the well-wed. But the men of Philadelphia were neither solely defined nor wholly confined by these identities. Transcending these interests and occupations and affiliations was their sense of a compelling goal, a strategy to achieve that goal, and a host of notions about how to make that strategy work. The delegates did not see themselves as merely landowners or merchants or lawyers. They conceived of themselves as engaged in a grand “experiment”—a word they often used—the outcome of which would shape their nation’s destiny, and hence their own and their posterity’s, for decades to come. They saw themselves—in a word they would never have used—as pragmatists, as men thinking their way through a thicket of problems, in pursuit of that goal.
That goal was liberty—liberty with order, liberty with safety and security, liberty of conscience, liberty of property, liberty with a measure of equality, but above all, liberty. They defined this term in many different ways, they had varying expectations of it, they differed over its relationship to other values, and later these differences would help spawn a series of tragedies. But conflict over this supreme goal did not deter the delegates at the time. Rather, liberty served as a unifying symbol and goal around which practical men could rally. Reading the convention debates, some historians have remarked on the absence of ideological conflict. The Framers did not need to argue over ideology; they had their ideology of liberty, with all its kindling power and glowing, confusing, contradictory implications for the future.
And even as the delegates gathered, further news from Massachusetts caused them to fear all the more for the future of liberty. Beaten on the field of battle in the winter, the rebels in the spring had turned to the state elections despite an act disqualifying former Regulators from voting for a year. The “malcontents” helped defeat Governor Bowdoin for re-election and replaced him with the more populistic John Hancock. “Shaysites” picked up seats in the state senate in April and the lower house in May. Madison warned that the election crisis would bring “wicked measures” from the Massachusetts legislature. To some, the spring news was worse than the winter’s: it was easy to castigate men who took up arms, but what about men who took up
If the Framers by and large were agreed on the goal of liberty and the nature of the threat to it, the strategy of protecting and augmenting it posed a potentially more divisive challenge. Almost all the Framers shared Madison’s crucial premise that liberty and order and property could not be safeguarded by relying on education or religion or the basic goodness of man; liberty must be protected and expanded through the careful building of
Almost all agreed that liberty and order were in danger from popular movements or legislative majorities in the states and hence that the new institutions necessary to protect liberty, and the order and stability without which liberty could not survive, must be
in scope and power. But all agreed too that the new national government would be a government elected by, representative of, and responsible to, the
—it would be, in short, a
And here was the rub. If the people were ultimately to control, what would stop radical and “leveling” popular majorities from taking over the new national government as they had threatened to do in certain states? What would stop the “scum,” as conservatives like Benjamin Rush liked to call the malcontents, from rising to the top of the national stew as well as the local? It was in confronting this problem—how to solve, on a national basis, republican ills with republican remedies, as Madison put it—that the genius of the Framers was most sorely tested.
The Virginians’ answer to this problem lay at the heart of the plan that Governor Randolph presented to the delegates on the first day of real business, May 29. Randolph, gaining the initiative that Madison hoped for, put the “Virginia Plan,” as it came to be called, first on the agenda and thus made it the point of departure for the deliberations. Randolph’s audience anticipated his proposals that the Articles of Confederation be “corrected & enlarged,” that the new national legislature consist of two chambers; that a national executive be chosen by the legislature; that a national judiciary be established. But many were disturbed when Randolph proposed that the new Congress be empowered “to negative all laws passed by the several States, contravening in the opinion of the National Legislature the articles of Union,” and if necessary use military force to back up that negative.