In the recent electoral campaigns in America, and in the discussions occurring after the recent shootings, there has been much talk about what the Founding Fathers would have wanted. The implied premise was that the Founding Fathers were an homogenous group of men with a common consensus on what they believed and wanted for America. James Madison‘s notes of the Constitutional Convention indicates otherwise.
The proceedings of the Constitutional Convention were secret at the time, but Madison kept comprehensive notes. Others took notes too, but his notes are the most complete.
Madison bequeathed these notes to his wife, the government bought them for $30,000 in 1837, and three years later they were published in The Papers of James Madison Purchased by Order of Congress, edited by Henry D. Gilpin.
In 1908, these notes were reprinted in the two volumes of The Journal of the Debates in the Convention Which Framed The Constitution of the United States May-September, 1787, edited by Gaillard Hunt. Volume one covered the convention through July 18th, and volume two covered the rest of the convention. This work included not only Madison’s notes but also those of Robert Yates (delegate from New York), Rufus King (delegate from Massachusetts), and William Pierce (delegate from Georgia).
Pierce’s notes included sketches of the delegates, including the following:
Mr. Madison is a character who has long been in public life; and what is very remarkable every Person seems to acknowledge his greatness. He blends together the profound politician, with the Scholar. In the management of every great question he evidently took the lead in the Convention, and tho’ he cannot be called an Orator, he is a most agreeable, eloquent, and convincing Speaker. From a spirit of industry and application which he possesses in a most eminent degree, he always comes forward the best informed Man of any point in debate. The affairs of the United States, he perhaps, has the most correct knowledge of, of any Man in the Union. He has been twice a Member of Congress, and was always thought one of the ablest Members that ever sat in that Council. Mr. Maddison is about 37 years of age, a Gentleman of great modesty,—with a remarkable sweet temper. He is easy and unreserved among his acquaintance, and has a most agreeable style of conversation.
Mr. Yates is said to be an able Judge. He is a Man of great legal abilities, but not distinguished as an Orator. Some of his Enemies say he is an anti-federal Man, but I discovered no such disposition in him. He is about 45 years old, and enjoys a great share of health.
Mr King is a Man much distinguished for his eloquence and great parliamentary talents. He was educated in Massachusetts, and is said to have good classical as well as legal knowledge. He has served for three years in the Congress of the United States with great and deserved applause, and is at this time high in the confidence and approbation of his Country-men. This Gentleman is about thirty three years of age, about five feet ten inches high, well formed, an handsome face, with a strong expressive Eye, and a sweet high toned voice. In his public speaking there is something peculiarly strong and rich in his expression, clear, and convincing in his arguments, rapid and irresistible at times in his eloquence but he is not always equal. His action is natural, swimming, and graceful, but there is a rudeness of manner sometimes accompanying it. But take him tout en semble, he may with propriety be ranked among the luminaries of the present Age.
Dr. Franklin is well known to be the greatest phylosopher of the present age;—all the operations of nature he seems to understand,—the very heavens obey him, and the Clouds yield up their Lightning to be imprisoned in his rod. But what claim he has to the politician, posterity must determine. It is certain that he does not shine much in public Council,—he is no Speaker, nor does he seem to let politics engage his attention. He is, however, a most extraordinary Man, and he tells a story in a style more engaging than anything I ever heard. Let his Biographer finish his character. He is 82 years old, and possesses an activity of mind equal to a youth of 25 years of age.
What is most striking about reading these two volumes is the radical differences in thought among basically good men.
One major difference was what the delegates feared to be the biggest danger of abuse. Some thought that danger lay in the Executive, others the Legislature.
Some thought the Executive power should be lodged in three men because if the power was lodged in a single person, that person would be an elective king. Others thought that the Executive power should be lodged in a single person.
Some thought the Executive should serve one set term and be ineligible for reelection, and others thought the executive should serve “during good behavior”.
Some thought the Executive should be elected by the Legislature. Others thought the Executive should be elected through state conventions.
Dr. Franklin proposed that the Executive should receive no salary, stipend fee or reward whatsoever for services.
Some thought that the final power rested in the people through their state legislatures. Others thought the states should be eliminated and replaced by districts answerable to the Legislature.
Some thought that only people who owned land should be qualified to serve in the Legislature. Others thought that this qualification was a scheme of the landed against the monied interests, “whose aids may be essential in particular emergencies to the public safety.”
There was major controversy between having the Legislature based primarily upon population (which favoured the large states) and upon equal power for each state (which favoured the small states). There was even controversy about whether or not the power of the current Atlantic states should be protected from Western states that would be added later. George Clymer thought “the encouragement of the Western Country was suicide on the old States.”
This controversy between large states and small paled in comparison to the controversy on the issue of slavery. That difference almost scuttled the convention.
Gouverneur Morris called domestic slavery “a nefarious institution,” “the curse of heaven on the States where it prevailed.”
Charles Pinkney warned that if the Committee should fail to insert some security to the Southern States against an emancipation of slaves he would have to vote against the plan.
In a way, the issue of slavery could have been a deal breaker. The Southern states did not get security that slaves would never be emancipated, but they did get enough political power (e.g., slaves being partly counted in determining the number of representatives) that they prevented emancipation for almost eighty years.
Some of these differences among our Founding Fathers were minor but many were major, and they all debunk the myth that they were an homogenous group of men with a common consensus on what they believed and wanted for America.