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Source: Introduction to The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, ed. Max Farrand (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1911). Vol. 1.
INTRODUCTION BY MAX FARRAND
The official authorization of the Federal Convention was a resolution of the Congress of the Confederation, adopted February 21, 1787:
“Resolved, That in the opinion of Congress, it is expedient, that on the second Monday in May next, a convention of delegates, who shall have been appointed by the several states, be held at Philadelphia, . . .”
The second Monday in May, 1787, fell on the fourteenth, and on that day delegates from several of the states gathered in the “long room” of the State House in Philadelphia. It was not until the twenty-fifth, however, that a sufficient number of delegates appeared to constitute a representation of a majority of the states. On May 25, the Convention organized and remained in continuous session until September 17, with the execption of one adjournment of two days over the Fourth of July and another of ten days, from July 26 to August 6, to allow the Committee of Detail to prepare its report.
The sessions of the Convention were secret; before the final adjournment the secretary was directed to deposit “the Journals and other papers of the Convention in the hands of the President”, and in answer to an inquiry of Washington’s, the Convention resolved “that he retain the Journal and other papers subject to the order of Congress, if ever formed under the Constitution.” Accordingly the secretary, William Jackson, after destroying “all the loose scraps of paper”, which he evidently thought unimportant, formally delivered the papers to the president. Washington in turn deposited these papers with the Department of State in 1796, where they remained untouched until Congress by a joint resolution in 1818 ordered them to be printed. They are still in the keeping of the Bureau of Rolls and Library of that department.
President Monroe requested the Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, to take charge of the publication of the Journal. The task proved to be a difficult one. The papers were, according to Adams, “no better than the daily minutes from which the regular journal ought to have been, but never was, made out.” Adams reports that at his request William Jackson, the secretary of the Convention, called upon him and “looked over the papers, but he had no recollection of them which could remove the difficulties arising from their disorderly state, nor any papers to supply the deficiency of the missing papers.” With the expenditure of considerable time and labor, and with the exercise of no little ingenuity, Adams was finally able to collate the whole to his satisfaction. General Bloomfield supplied him with several important documents from the papers of David Brearley; Charles Pinckney sent him a copy of the plan he “believed” to be one he presented to the Convention; Madison furnished the means of completing the records of the last four days; and Adams felt that “with all these papers suitably arranged, a correct and tolerably clear view of the proceedings of the Convention may be presented”.
The results of his labor were printed at Boston in 1819 in an octavo volume of some 500 pages, entitled, Journal, Acts and Proceedings of the Convention, . . . which formed the Constitution of the United States. As Adams had nothing whatever to guide him in his work of compilation and editing, mistakes were inevitable, and not a few of these were important. In the present edition the secretary’s minutes are printed exactly as he left them, except that the scattered notes are brought together for each day. They are grouped under the heading of Journal. Where occasion requires, Adams’ edition is cited as Journal (in italics), while the secretary’s minutes are referred to as “the Journal”.
The secretary’s minutes consist of the formal journal of the Convention, the journal of the Committee of the Whole House and, partly on loose sheets and partly in a bound blank book, a table giving the detail of ayes and noes on the various questions. The detail of ayes and noes offers the greatest difficulty, for no dates are given and to about one tenth of the votes no questions are attached. The photograph of the first loose sheet of this table reveals the difficulties at a glance; the later pages are not as bad as the first, for the secretary evidently profited by experience, but uncertainty and confusion are by no means eliminated. For convenience of reference, in the present edition a number in square brackets is prefixed to each vote, and the editor has taken the liberty of dividing the detail of ayes and noes into what are, according to his best judgment, the sections for each day’s records. The sections are retained intact, and a summary of each vote in square brackets is appended to that question in the Journal to which, in the light of all the evidence, it seems to belong.
This method seems to promise the greatest usefulness combined with a presentation that permits of another interpretation if any one so desires. In the judgment of the editor, however, a word of warning seems necessary. With notes so carelessly kept, as were evidently those of the secretary, the Journal cannot be relied upon absolutely. The statement of questions is probably accurate in most cases, but the determination of those questions and in particular the votes upon them should be accepted somewhat tentatively.
When the seal of secrecy had been broken by the publication of the Journal, there was printed in Albany shortly afterward (1821): Secret Proceedings and Debates of the Convention Assembled at Philadelphia, in the year 1787, for the purpose of forming the Constitution of the United States of America. From Notes taken by the late Robert Yates, Esq. Chief Justice of New York, and copied by John Lansing, Jun, Esq. etc. J. C. Hamilton stated that Edmond C. Genet, former minister from France, was responsible for this publication. This is borne out by the fact that in 1808 Genet published A Letter to the Electors of President and Vice-President of the United States, which was an attack upon Madison, then a candidate for the presidency. The “Letter” consisted almost entirely of an abstract or extracts from the notes of Yates, mainly direct quotations, but cleverly pieced together in such a way as to represent Madison as the leader of the national party in the Federal Convention and working for the annihilation of the state governments.
As Yates and his colleague Lansing left the Convention early — because they felt that their instructions did not warrant them in countenancing, even by their presence, the action which the Convention was taking — Yates’s notes cease with the fifth of July. For the earlier days of the Convention the notes of proceedings are quite brief; and while the reports are somewhat fuller after the presentation of the New Jersey plan on June 15, it was evident that they did not give at all a complete picture of the proceedings, though they threw a great deal of light upon what had taken place and in particular upon the attitude of individuals in the debates.
A careful search has failed to reveal the existence of the original manuscript, so that in the present work the editor has been compelled to reprint the Secret Proceedings from the first edition. As they are next in importance they have been placed immediately after Madison’s notes in the records of each day.
It was well known that James Madison had taken full and careful notes of the proceedings in the Convention, and he had often been urged to publish them. He had, however, decided that a posthumous publication was advisable. Madison died in 1836. His manuscripts were purchased by Congress, and shortly afterwards, in 1840, under the editorship of H. D. Gilpin, The Papers of James Madison were published in three volumes. More than half of this work was given over to his notes of the debates in the Federal Convention, and at once all other records paled into insignificance.
In a preface to the Debates, written before his death, Madison had explained with what care the material was gathered and written up:
“I chose a seat in front of the presiding member, with the other members, on my right and left hand. In this favorable position for hearing all that passed I noted in terms legible and in abbreviations and marks intelligible to myself what was read from the Chair or spoken by the members; and losing not a moment unnecessarily between the adjournment and reassembling of the Convention I was enabled to write out my daily notes during the session or within a few finishing days after its close.”
Indeed Madison was evidently regarded by his fellow-delegates to the Convention as a semi-official reporter of their proceedings, for several of them took pains to see that he was supplied with copies of their speeches and motions. And from the day of their publication until the present, Madison’s notes of the Debates have remained the standard authority for the proceedings of the Convention.
Madison’s correspondence and the manuscript itself reveal the fact that Madison went over his notes after the publication of the Journal in 1819. He not only noted differences between his own record and that of the Journal, but also in many cases corrected his own notes from the Journal. In the wording of motions, this is not to be wondered at, for Madison, during the sessions of the Convention, in his haste to note what the speaker was saying could do no more than take down the substance of motions and resolutions, while these would be copied into the journal in full. Nor is it surprising, when we remember that Madison accepted the printed Journal as authoritative, to find him in not a few cases copying from it proceedings of which he had no record. But the importance of this fact is evident at once, for these items have been accepted upon the double record of the Journal and Madison, whereas they are in reality to be stated upon the authority of the Journal alone.
But Madison went even one step farther and actually changed his records of votes in the Convention in order to bring them into conformity with the Journal. This might involve the change of the vote of a single state, or of several states, or even reverse his record of the decision of the Convention. On what basis or for what reasons Madison felt justified in changing his records of votes is not to be ascertained conclusively. Sometimes it seems to have been done because the records of Journal and Yates were in accord in their disagreement with him; sometimes he probably saw that subsequent action in the Convention proved the record of Journal to be correct, and his own to be wrong; sometimes it was done because the vote of a state as recorded in Journal harmonized better with the sentiments of the delegates from that state as expressed in their speeches; and sometimes there is no apparent reason.
The matter might be merely of antiquarian interest, were it not for the fact that the printed Journal is itself unreliable, and that there are not a few cases in which Madison has made corrections from the Journal that are undoubtedly mistaken: Votes ascribed in the Journal to the wrong questions were used, in several cases, to change records that were probably correct as first made. Questions and votes were copied into his manuscript from the printed Journal without observing that these same questions and votes were recorded in other places, sometimes even on the same day; an examination of the original records shows that in most of these cases the questions were not to be found in the body of the Journal, but were incorporated into the text by John Quincy Adams; they are only to be found in the Detail of Ayes and Noes, and their relative position in the proceedings could only be inferred from the order in which the votes happened to be recorded.
It is not surprising, indeed, to find that Madison was thus misled by the mistakes in the printed Journal, for if his own records were correct, these would be the very points in which the discrepancies would occur. It is only necessary then to recognize Madison’s evident acceptance of the Journal as authoritative, to expect him to incorporate these mistakes in his Debates.
Another extensive set of corrections is to be found in the speeches made in debate. These are generally in the form of additions to Madison’s original record. Because of misquotations of his own remarks, Madison condemned Yates’s notes severely, as being a “very erroneous edition of the matter”. It is more than surprising, then, to discover that these additions were taken from Yates. Such proves to have been the case, however, and in over fifty instances. There were a number of speeches or remarks, including several of his own, that Madison failed to note in any form, but later thought worthy of inclusion. And there were also new ideas or shades of thought which Yates had noticed but which Madison failed to catch.
The fact of these changes being made does not rest merely upon the wording of the text and Madison’s statement in 1821 that he was intending to prepare his notes for posthumous publication. The manuscript shows that most of the changes thus made are easily recognizable. The ink which was used at the later date has faded quite differently from that of the original notes, so that most of the later revisions stand out from the page almost as clearly as if they had been written in red ink.
In the present edition such changes — except in trivial instances — are indicated by enclosing them within angle brackets 〈 〉, and in foot-notes the original readings are given, wherever they have any significance, and the editor expresses his opinion as to the probable source of the change, wherever it is possible to trace it.
In view of the fact that the Journal is so imperfect and not altogether reliable, and that Madison made so many changes in his manuscript, all other records of the Convention take on a new importance. Formerly they have been regarded only in so far as they might supplement our information; now it is seen that they may be of service also in determining what the action really was in doubtful cases.
Without question, the next most important notes to those which have been considered are the notes of Rufus King, that have not received the attention they deserve, because of the form in which they were first printed. The original notes are, in the main, memoranda taken at the time in the Convention on odds and ends of paper. Each sheet or scrap of paper is dated and most of them are endorsed with date and substance of the contents, so that in only one or two cases can there be any doubt as to the place and order of the notes.
It is altogether probable that Rufus King was induced by the printing of the Journal and Yates, Secret Proceedings, to prepare his notes for publication. At any rate, many years after the Convention was over, he attempted to put his notes into better form. In doing this work, although in most cases he did not venture to change the substance of his earlier records, he did drop out the dates in a number of instances; he sometimes omitted important items or notes, either unintentionally or because he could not understand them; and in a few cases, at least one or two of which are important, he modified his original notes. It was this revised copy that was printed (1894) as an appendix to volume I of the Life and Correspondence of Rufus King. The editor, Doctor Charles R. King, grandson of Rufus King, attempted to insert some of the omitted items, but as he evidently was not familiar with the other records of the Convention his well-meant efforts only added to the confusion. The original notes are reprinted in the present edition.
Within the last few years there have been brought to light the notes and memoranda of proceedings in the Convention found among the papers of some of the delegates. The greater part of this material has been printed in the American Historical Review, and in the present edition the texts as there printed have been used, although in most cases they have been compared with the original documents. The care shown in preparing these documents for publication, and the accuracy of printing these texts in the Review, have made necessary almost no changes, and those but minor ones.
Quite the best of these are the notes of James McHenry, of Maryland. McHenry started out with the evident intention of taking somewhat extensive notes, and he adds not a little to our information of Randolph’s speech in presenting the Virginia Resolutions on May 29. On account of his brother’s illness, he left Philadelphia on June 1, and remained away during June and July, but in August he returned to the Convention and to his note-taking with all the enthusiasm of the beginner. The records became more and more brief as time passed, but they are valuable because they are, for the latter part of the Convention’s work, almost the only material we have besides the Journal and Madison’s Debates.
The notes of William Pierce of Georgia, which were first printed in the Savannah Georgian in 1828, add somewhat to our information of the proceedings of the first few days of the sessions. The character sketches of his fellow-members in Convention, which accompany these notes, are not only interesting, but are also helpful in portraying the delegates as they appeared to a contemporary.
The notes of William Paterson, of New Jersey, were evidently taken solely for his own use. While they are of little help in studying the general proceedings of the Convention, they are of great assistance in following Paterson’s own line of reasoning, and in particular in studying the development of the resolutions Paterson presented on June 15, commonly called the New Jersey Plan. This is here given in its various stages of construction.
Alexander Hamilton’s notes were found among the Hamilton Papers in the Library of Congress. They are little more than brief memoranda and, like those of Paterson, are of importance not so much in determining what others thought or said as in tracing the development of the writer’s own reasoning.
The plan of government which Pinckney presented to the Convention on May 29 is not among the papers of the Convention, nor has any copy of it ever been found. Among the Wilson manuscripts in the library of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, however, are an outline of the plan and extracts from the same. These documents confirm and supplement another method of working, and make it possible to present a fairly complete restoration of the original text.
A few notes and memoranda relating to the Federal Convention were found among the papers of George Mason, and were printed in 1892 by Miss K. M. Rowland in her Life of George Mason. They are not of much importance, except in so far as they throw a little further light upon Mason’s position in the Convention.
Committee of Detail
For the first two months of its sessions the Convention had devoted itself mainly to the discussion of general principles, modifying and developing the resolutions Randolph had presented on behalf of the Virginia delegation. Late in July, the conclusions that had been reached were turned over to a committee of five, known as the Committee of Detail, of which Rutledge was chairman and Wilson an important member. On July 26, the Convention adjourned for ten days to permit this committee to prepare a draft of a constitution. Among the Wilson papers in the Library of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania are various documents revealing the work of the Committee of Detail in different stages of its progress. These documents, taken with an important document found among the Mason papers, present clearly the work of the committee in preparing the draft of the constitution presented to the Convention on August 6.
In the present edition, all of these documents are brought together and placed in the Records between July 26 and August 6.
The draft of August 6 was printed for the use of the delegates and was the subject of their discussions for over a month. The proceedings were then referred to a committee of five, known as the Committee of Style and Revision, of which William Samuel Johnson was chairman and Gouverneur Morris the most important member. The Committee of Style made its report on September 12, which was also printed for the delegates’ use.
Several copies of the drafts of August 6 and September 12, belonging to various delegates, are extant, and most of them have emendations and marginal notes indicating the action taken upon particular clauses and sections, and sometimes revealing the writer’s attitude or preference.
These documents are hardly worthy of being reprinted, for the marginal notes are in general only confirmatory of other records, but where the comments give any additional information of proceedings in the Convention, they have been embodied in foot-notes.
It is possible, indeed probable, that other records of the Convention will be brought to light. Charles Pinckney stated explicitly that he had taken careful notes of the proceedings; William Jackson, secretary of the Convention, kept minutes of the debates; in a communication to the Massachusetts convention, Elbridge Gerry “subjoined a state of facts, founded on documents”; Gouverneur Morris referred to “some gentlemen” writing up their notes between sessions; and James Wilson in the Pennsylvania convention on December 4, 1787, stated that within a week he had “spoken with a gentleman, who had not only his memory, but full notes that he had taken in that body”. Whatever may be the accuracy or the value of these various statements, at least they indicate that there once existed material of which we have no present knowledge, but which may at any time be found. It is not probable, however, that any such new material would modify to any great extent our conceptions of the Convention’s work, and it has, therefore, seemed worth while to gather in the present edition the existing records of the Federal Convention.
Although the sessions of the Convention were secret, and it was understood that the delegates would regard the proceedings as confidential, when the question of the adoption of the Constitution was before the country, and in later years when the interpretation of the Constitution was discussed, many of the delegates referred to and explained the action or the intention of the Convention upon particular subjects. Such statements are to be found in the private correspondence of the delegates, in contributions to the press, in public orations, in the debates in state legislatures and conventions, and in the debates in Congress. The farther away from the Convention one gets, the less reliable these reports become, owing to the deforming influence of memory. But taken as a whole, this supplementary material throws not a little light upon the work of the Convention, and in particular upon the parts taken by individual delegates, and upon opinions and personalities.
In the present edition, all of this supplementary material that could be found has been collected and reprinted in Appendix A; but a few words of explanation are necessary. In the first place, this collection could not be made exhaustive without covering practically all of the material, printed and unprinted, on American history since 1787; the editor has accordingly confined his efforts to the more obvious and accessible sources. In the second place, a distinction has been made between notes taken as a part of, or in connection with, the work of the Convention, and information supplied to others; accordingly, letters written while the Convention was in session, and such items as Charles Pinckney’s Observations and Luther Martin’s Genuine Information have been classed as supplementary material. In the next place, the editor has tried to discriminate carefully between statements of proceedings in the Convention and theoretical interpretations of clauses in the Constitution; only the former are included. And finally, to render this material serviceable, in foot-notes to the main text of the Records, references have been made to this supplementary material wherever it seems to throw any light on the proceedings.
In the present edition, the original manuscripts have been reprinted exactly, except that in abbreviations superior letters have not been used, and in the few cases where it occurs the tilde has been resolved into the corresponding “m” or “n”. In the case of Yates’s Secret Proceedings, Mason’s notes, and the supplementary material in Appendix A, the most reliable printed texts have been followed. Footnotes in the originals are marked by “*” and “†” while the editor’s notes are numbered consecutively for each day. Because Madison’s records have proven to be the best and most reliable source of information, the editor’s notes and references have been attached, in most cases, to Madison’s Debates.