The 1787 Constitutional Convention – Political Philosophers on Parade

a570af34_optJune 27, 1787 (click the link to read Madison’s notes)


There were no votes on substantial issues today. The “highlight” was a speech of “over three hours” by Luther Martin on the need for each state to have an equal vote in the national government. The backdrop for this assertion was the continual tension between large and small states. The smaller state delegates were worried that the larger states would have the upper hand in the new republic.

Influences on the Delegates

Martin’s speech was condensed to the essence by Madison. In so doing, Madison recorded the influences on Martin’s thinking.

In order to prove that individuals in a state of nature are equally free and independent, he read passages from Locke, Vattel, Lord Somers, Priestly. To prove that the case is the same with states, till they surrender their equal sovereignty, he read other passages in Locke and Vattel, and also Rutherford. That the States, being equal, cannot treat or confederate so as to give up an equality of votes, without giving up their liberty. That the propositions on the table were a system of slavery for ten States. That as Virginia, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, have forty-two ninetieths of the votes, they can do as they please, without a miraculous union of the other ten. That they will have nothing to do but to gain over one of the ten, to make them complete masters of the rest; that they can then appoint an Executive, and Judiciary, and Legislature for them, as they please.

All of these philosophers were known to the delegates and they were all influenced by a rational Christianity which called into question supernatural claims in Scripture. For instance, Priestley declared the trinity and doctrine of the atonement to be blasphemous (see page 54, Joseph Priestley, Socrates and Jesus Compared. (Philadelphia: J. Byrne, 1803). According to Locke scholar Greg Forster, Locke “fought hard for the position that people could be saved in Jesus while denying the Incarnation, the Trinity and the Atonement.” For the most part, these political philosophers were enlightenment Christians who were outside or on the edges of orthodoxy. If one wanted to take these influences as evidence of a Christian foundation for the U.S., the next step would be to acknowledge their brand of Christianity (for the most part) bears little resemblance to evangelicalism of today. Thus far, there is no evidence that biblical principles are foundational to “every clause” Constitution as David Barton claimed.
In any case, Martin’s view was only partly represented in the final Constitutional product. As we know, all states have the same number of members in the Senate, but the House of Representatives apportions members according to the population of the state.

1787 Constitutional Convention Series

To read my series examining the proceedings of the Constitution Convention, click here.  In this series, I am writing about any obvious influences on the development of the Constitution which were mentioned by the delegates to the Convention. Specifically, I am testing David Barton’s claim that “every clause” of the Constitution is based on biblical principles. Thus far, I have found nothing supporting the claim. However, stay tuned, the series will run until mid-September.
Constitutional Convention Series (click the link)
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