The 1787 Constitutional Convention – Despite Call to Prayer and Compromise, Some Delegates Want to Quit

a570af34_optJuly 16, 1787 (click the link to read Madison’s notes)


Today, Elbridge Gerry’s committee reported with a very close vote in the affirmative. The delegates agreed to the following motion:

In Convention, — On the question for agreeing to the whole Report, as amended, and including the equality of votes in the second branch, it passed in the affirmative, — Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, (Mr. SPAIGHT no) aye — 5; Pennsylvania, Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, no — 4; Massachusetts, divided (Mr. GERRYMr. STRONG, aye; Mr. KINGMr. GORHAM, no).

The whole thus passed is in the words following, viz.

Resolvedthat in the original formation of the Legislature of the United States, the first branch thereof shall consist of sixty-five members, of which number New Hampshire shall send, 3; Massachusetts, 8; Rhode Island, 1; Connecticut 5; New York, 6; New Jersey, 4; Pennsylvania, 8; Delaware, 1; Maryland, 6; Virginia, 10; North Carolina, 5; South Carolina, 5; Georgia, 3. But as the present situation of the States may probably alter in the number of their inhabitants, the Legislature of the United States shall be authorized, from time to time, to apportion the number of Representatives, and in case any of the States shall hereafter be divided, or enlarged by addition of territory, or any two or more States united, or any new States created within the limits of the United States, the Legislature of the United States shall possess authority to regulate the number of Representatives in any of the foregoing cases, upon the principle of their number of inhabitants, according to the provisions hereafter mentioned: provided always, that representation ought to be proportioned according to direct taxation. And in order to ascertain the alteration in the direct taxation, which may be required from time to time by the changes in the relative circumstances of the States —

Resolvedthat a census be taken within six years from the first meeting of the Legislature of the United States, and once within the term of every ten years afterwards, of all the inhabitants of the United States, in the manner and according to the ratio recommended by Congress in their Resolution of the eighteenth day of April, 1783; and that the Legislature of the United States shall proportion the direct taxation accordingly.

Resolvedthat all bills for raising or appropriating money, and for fixing the salaries of officers of the Government of the United States, shall originate in the first branch of the Legislature of the United States; and shall not be altered or amended in the second branch; and that no money shall be drawn from the public Treasury, but in pursuance of appropriations to be originated in the first branch.

Resolved, that in the second branch of the Legislature of the United States, each State shall have an equal vote.”

Influences on the Delegates

Today, the delegates passed the Gerry report and then argued a bit about the close vote. Tensions were so high that when Edmund Randolph suggested adjournment for the large states to discuss their options, William Patterson of New Jersey hoped he meant the delegates should adjourn and go home.

Mr. PATTERSON thought with Mr. RANDOLPH, that it was high time for the Convention to adjourn; that the rule of secrecy ought to be rescinded; and that our constituents should be consulted. No conciliation could be admissible on the part of the smaller States, on any other ground than that of an equality of votes in the second branch. If Mr. RANDOLPH would reduce to form his motion for an adjournment sine die, he would second it with all his heart.

Although the rest of the delegates disagreed with Patterson, it seems obvious from Madison’s notes that the frustration was great at this point. The 5-4 vote was a passing margin but without a feeling of consensus. Randolph did not seem to accept that vote as final.

Ben Franklin’s Call to Prayer Didn’t Resolve Disputes

Some Christian nationalist writers have proposed that the delegates came together with compromise after Ben Franklin’s call to prayer prior to the July 4 recess. A recent expression of that narrative is in Eric Metaxas’ book, If You Can Keep It (see this piece for a critical review of that book). Here is how Metaxas described the convention before the Franklin call to prayer.

But toward the end of the convention, after endless battles and little progress, things looked hopeless. The disagreements and arguments had mounted to an impossible height, so the eldest delegate, Benjamin Franklin, gave a speech to the assembly, imploring them to turn to God to break the impasse. Franklin and Jefferson were the least overtly religious of the founders, so the idea that Franklin should be the one to beseech the assembly to turn to God in prayer for an answer to their problems is evidence of their desperation, and it is startling. Here is his remarkable speech: (Metaxas, Eric (2016-06-14). If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (pp. 203-204). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

Metaxas then reproduced Franklin’s speech. You can read the entire speech and my analysis of it here. In summary, Franklin made a motion for the delegates to open each session with prayer. Although the motion was seconded, it was never voted on and prayers were not offered at the Convention. Franklin later said only three or four delegates thought it necessary to offer prayers.
Metaxas doesn’t let that fact stop him from suggesting to his readers that the call to prayer led to a spirit of compromise and conciliation. Just after reprinting Franklin’s speech, Metaxas wrote:

As we know, in the end all impasses were broken, compromises on all issues struck, and solutions found. There was what all felt to be a truly remarkable— almost odd— willingness for each side to set aside its concerns for the good of the whole. The spirit of selflessness and compromise that came over this body of opinionated, brilliant, and principled men was in the end sufficient for them to ratify the great document called the Constitution. Metaxas, Eric (2016-06-14). If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (p. 206). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Eventually, the Constitution was ratified but to attribute it to Franklin’s call isn’t warranted by Madison’s account. If anything, the delegates became more polarized after Franklin’s speech as today’s session illustrates.

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)
To follow on social media, click the following links:
Facebook (blog posts and news)
Facebook (Getting Jefferson Right – history news)