The 1787 Constitutional Convention – Avoiding Aristocracies

August 14, 1787 (Click to read Madison’s notes on the day)


A lot of debate today with little action. The delegates decided that the legislators should be paid from the National Treasury and debated over their fears of creating an aristocracy.

Influences on the Delegates

The delegates worried a lot about creating a system which would be exploited by men wanting power and wealth. Sherman summed up by saying:

The Constitution should lay as few temptations as possible in the way of those in power. Men of abilities will increase as the country grows more populous, and as the means of education are more diffused.

James Wilson was fond of referring to the positives in his own state of Pennsylvania.

 Mr. WILSON could not approve of the section as it stood, and could not give up his judgment to any supposed objections that might arise among the people. He considered himself as acting and responsible for the welfare of millions not immediately represented in this House. He had also asked himself the serious question, what he should say to his constituents, in case they should call upon him to tell them why he sacrificed his own judgment in a case where they authorized him to exercise it? Were he to own to them that he sacrificed it in order to flatter their prejudices, he should dread the retort, — did you suppose the people of Pennsylvania had not good sense enough to receive a good government? Under this impression, he should certainly follow his own judgment, which disapproved of the section. He would remark, in addition to the objections urged against it, that as one branch of the Legislature was to be appointed by the Legislatures of the States, the other by the people of the States; as both are to be paid by the States, and to be appointable to state offices; nothing seemed to be wanting to prostrate the National Legislature, but to render its members ineligible to national offices, and by that means take away its power of attracting those talents which were necessary to give weight to the Government, and to render it useful to the people. He was far from thinking the ambition which aspired to offices of dignity and trust an ignoble or culpable one. He was sure it was not politic to regard it in that light, or to withhold from it the prospect of those rewards which might engage it in the career of public service. He observed that the State of Pennsylvania, which had gone as far as any State into the policy of fettering power, had not rendered the members of the Legislature ineligible to offices of government.

The experience of the states was critical in the formation of the Constitution.

 Mr. MADISON. If the House of Representatives is to be chosen biennially, and the Senate to be constantly dependent on the Legislatures, which are chosen annually, he could not see any chance for that stability in the General Government, the want of which was a principal evil in the State Governments. His fear was, that the organization of the Government supposing the Senate to be really independent for six years, would not effect our purpose. It was nothing more than a combination of the peculiarities of two of the State Governments, which separately had been found insufficient. The Senate was formed on the model of that of Maryland. The revisionary check, on that of New York. What the effect of a union of these provisions might be, could not be foreseen. The enlargement of the sphere of the Government was indeed a circumstance which he thought would be favorable, as he had on several occasions, undertaken to show. He was, however, for fixing at least two extremes not to be exceeded by the National Legislature in the payment of themselves.

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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