Today’s installment concludes The Constitutional Convention of the United States,
the name of our combined selection from Andrew W. Young and Joseph Story. The concluding installment, by Joseph Story from Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, was published in 1833. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
If you have journeyed through all of the installments of this series, just one more to go and you will have completed eight thousand words from great works of history. Congratulations!
Previously in The Constitutional Convention of the United States.
At the time and place appointed the representatives of twelve States assembled. Rhode Island alone declined to appoint any on this momentous occasion. After very protracted deliberations, the convention finally adopted the plan of the present Constitution on September 17, 1787; and by a contemporaneous resolution, directed it to be “laid before the United States in Congress assembled,” and declared their opinion “that it should afterward be submitted to a convention of delegates chosen in each State by the people thereof, under a recommendation of its legislature for their assent and ratification”; and that each convention assenting to and ratifying the same should give notice thereof to Congress. The convention, by a further resolution, declared their opinion that as soon as nine States had ratified the Constitution, Congress should fix a day on which electors should be appointed by the States which should have ratified the same, and a day on which the electors should assemble and vote for the President, and the time and place of commencing proceedings under the Constitution; and that after such publication the electors should be appointed, and the Senators and Representatives elected. The same resolution contained further recommendations for the purpose of carrying the Constitution into effect.
The convention, at the same time, addressed a letter to Congress, expounding their reasons for their acts, from which the following extract cannot but be interesting: “It is obviously impracticable [says the address] in the federal government of these States, to secure all rights of independent sovereignty to each, and yet provide for the interest and safety of all. Individuals entering into society must give up a share of liberty to preserve the rest. The magnitude of the sacrifice must depend as well on situation and circumstance as on the object to be obtained. It is at all times difficult to draw with precision the line between those rights which must be surrendered and those which may be reserved; and on the present occasion this difficulty was increased by a difference among the several States as to their situation, extent, habits, and particular interests. In all our deliberations on this subject we kept steadily in our view that, which appears to us the greatest interest of every true American, the consolidation of our Union, in which is involved our prosperity, felicity, safety, perhaps our national existence. This important consideration, seriously and deeply impressed on our minds, led each State in the convention to be less rigid on points of inferior magnitude than might have been otherwise expected. And thus the Constitution which we now present is the result of the spirit of amity, and of that mutual deference and concession, which the peculiarity of our political situation rendered indispensable.”
Congress, having received the report of the convention on September 28, 1787, unanimously resolved “that the said report, with the resolutions and letter accompanying the same, be transmitted to the several legislatures in order to be submitted to a convention of delegates chosen in each State by the people thereof in conformity to the resolves of the convention, made and provided in that case.”
Conventions in the various States which had been represented in the general convention were accordingly called by their respective legislatures; and the Constitution having been ratified by eleven out of the twelve States, Congress, on September 13, 1788, passed a resolution appointing the first Wednesday in January following for the choice of electors of President; the first Wednesday of February following for the assembling of the electors to vote for a President; and the first Wednesday of March following, at the then seat of Congress (New York) the time and place for commencing proceedings under the Constitution. Electors were accordingly appointed in the several States, who met and gave their votes for a President; and the other elections for Senators and Representatives having been duly made, on Wednesday, March 4, 1789, Congress assembled under the new Constitution and commenced proceedings under it.
A quorum of both Houses, however, did not assemble until April 6th, when, the votes for President being counted, it was found that George Washington was unanimously elected President, and John Adams was elected Vice-President.
On April 30th President Washington was sworn into office, and the government then went into full operation in all its departments.
North Carolina had not, as yet, ratified the Constitution. The first convention called in that State, in August, 1788, refused to ratify it without some previous amendments and a declaration of rights. In a second convention, however, called in November, 1789, this State adopted the Constitution. The State of Rhode Island had declined to call a convention; but finally, by a convention held in May, 1790, its assent was obtained; and thus all the thirteen original States became parties to the new government.
Thus was achieved another and still more glorious triumph in the cause of national liberty than even that which separated us from the mother-country. By it we fondly trust that our republican institutions will grow up, and be nurtured into more mature strength and vigor; our independence be secured against foreign usurpation and aggression; our domestic blessings be widely diffused, and generally felt; and our nation, as a people, be perpetuated, as our own truest glory and support, and as a proud example of a wise and beneficent government, entitled to the respect, if not to the admiration, of mankind.
Let it not, however, be supposed that a Constitution, which is now looked upon with such general favor and affection by the people, had no difficulties to encounter at its birth. The history of those times is full of melancholy instruction on this subject, at once to admonish us of past dangers, and to awaken us to a lively sense of the necessity of future vigilance. The Constitution was adopted unanimously by Georgia, New Jersey, and Delaware. It was supported by large majorities in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maryland, and South Carolina. It was carried in the other States by small majorities; and especially in Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia by little more than a preponderating vote. Indeed, it is believed that in each of these States, at the first assembling of the conventions, there was a decided majority opposed to the Constitution. The ability of the debates, the impending evils, and the absolute necessity of the case seem to have reconciled some persons to the adoption of it, whose opinions had been strenuously the other way.
“In our endeavors,” said Washington, “to establish a new general government, the contest, nationally considered, seems not to have been so much for glory as for existence. It was for a long time doubtful whether we were to survive, as an independent republic, or decline from our federal dignity into insignificant and withered fragments of empire.”
This ends our selections on Constitutional Convention by two of the most important authorities of this topic:
- The American Statesman by Andrew W. Young published in 1860.
- Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States by Joseph Story published in 1833.
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