The 1787 Constitutional Convention – No Religious Test Proposed, Treason Debated

August 20, 1787 (click to read Madison’s notes)


South Carolina’s Charles Pinckney introduced a bill of rights. These came from the proposal he introduced on the first day of business. A presidential cabinet was discussed as well as more powers for Congress.  Treason and how to define it was also discussed.

Influences on the Delegates

Of special note for this blog series is this proposal by Pinckney:

No religious test or qualification shall ever be annexed to any oath of office, under the authority of the United States.

This and many other proposals were referred to the Committee of Detail without debate.
Treason and how to define it was a focus with Madison raising British definitions as a touchstone. Even though some believe the Bible may have been inspirational for the requirement to have two witnesses, there is no indication from this debate of that influence. Instead, the delegates spoke much about English law.  Treason was defined in Article VII, Section 2 as ordered in the August 6, 1787 report from the Committee of Detail:

Sect. 2. Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against the United States, or any of them; and in adhering to the enemies of the United States, or any of them. The Legislature of the United States shall have power to declare the punishment of treason. No person shall be convicted of treason, unless on the testimony of two witnesses. No attainder of treason shall work corruption of blood, nor forfeiture, except during the life of the person attained.

Several delegates liked the idea to take the same language as the British statute which originally came from common law.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS and Mr. RANDOLPH wished to substitute the words of the British statute, and moved to postpone Article 7, Section 2, in order to consider the following substitute: “Whereas it is essential to the preservation of liberty to define precisely and exclusively what shall constitute the crime of treason, it is therefore ordained, declared, and established, that if a man do levy war against the United States within their territories, or be adherent to the enemies of the United States within the said territories, giving them aid and comfort within their territories or elsewhere, and thereof be provably attainted of open deed, by the people of his condition, he shall be adjudged guilty of treason.”

Eventually, the words “aid and comfort” requiring two witnesses were added.  Giving aid and comfort to the enemy was part of the definition of high treason in British law.

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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