The Diverse Virginia Delegation
Madison’s Long, Hard Trip
James Madison left New York City Hall for Philadelphia on May 2, 1787, feeling anxious and overwhelmed at the task in front of him. He was finally on his way to the Philadelphia Convention (later known as the Constitutional Convention), a meeting of state representatives that he felt was long overdue.
He had been selected to act as one of the convention representatives from his home state of Virginia. He had done everything he could to prepare himself for the convention.
He had spent extensive time over the previous months studying in his library at Montpelier, his home in Virginia. He learned about the many different confederations and republican governments of the past. He learned about Dutch, Greek, and Swiss republics, what made them great along with their mistakes. He studied ancient, medieval, and modern writings on political science. He had learned about the creation, successes, and reasons for the ultimate failure of these governments.
Madison felt that the United States could learn from the mistakes of others and that the duty of the delegates was to use this information to fix their government. His overarching conclusion was that “confederations tended to fail for lack of power in the central government.”
In the process of his study, he used the writings of the political scientists and their opinions regarding former governments and applied what he learned to the existing United States government.
Madison knew, as did most everyone else, that the Articles of Confederation was the problem. The Articles was the governing document of the new nation. It gave government authority to a unicameral Congress (known as the Confederation Congress)while leaving the thirteen states the power to remain mostly sovereign. And the problem was: the new nation was failing.
This failure, Madison concluded, was largely due to the same reason other governments had ultimately failed — the central government lacked the necessary power to adequately govern numerous states. In the specific case of the United States, those states seemed determined to act more like individual sovereign powers than a union of states.
Now he had to convince the delegates from his own state and the twelve other states of the necessity of establishing a central national government with adequate power and authority to govern. The job would prove to be difficult and long. He would need to start with the other three delegates from Virginia.
The Confederation Congress had authorized the convention to improve the government under the Articles, knowing all too well that they needed more authority.
Madison understood that the call for the convention was “to devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union.” Although the instructions were not to eliminate the Articles, Madison’s intention was to do just that, to steer the convention toward establishing a new constitution.
Madison’s plan would properly remedy the shortcomings by increasing power and authority at the national level and by limiting the state powers. Madison hoped to paint a picture in the minds of the delegates that the limiting of state power was more of a demarcation of state powers rather than a process of truly lessening those powers.
Further complicating the limited power of the central government were problems with government at the state level. Madison believed that many of these issues originated with irresponsible state legislators. These legislators tended to pursue their own agendas rather than committing themselves to improving the common good, a goal which, as it appeared to Madison, seems to have gotten lost somewhere in the years since independence had been declared.
Throughout the long days of hard travel, Madison’s mind raced over the many points he wanted to discuss at the upcoming convention. He reviewed his notes in his mind and further organized his method of presentation. Upon reaching Philadelphia, he continued his study in hopes of being prepared enough to steer the debates to the proper remedies as he saw them.
The weather was cold and wet throughout the states in early May of 1787 and travel was slow and arduous. The convention was slated to begin on May 14, but only certain delegates from Virginia and Pennsylvania were present on that day, resulting in a delay.
The Virginia Delegation
Madison set up his lodgings at the “elegant” Indian Queen Tavern. Madison’s fellow delegates from Virginia had arrived and they began meeting “together two or three hours every day, in order to form a proper correspondence of sentiments.”
Virginia was the largest of the thirteen states. The men of Virginia were well-known and influential. It was imperative that they enter the convention unified.
Madison, George Washington, George Mason, and Governor Edmund Randolph made up the Virginia Delegation. Madison shared with them the goals he had established for the convention and the new constitution. He explained the reasoning behind every point.
Madison and Washington were unified in their feelings that a strong central government was key to a successful union, and they soon won over the objections of Randolph and Mason.
The Constitutional Convention
The weather was very hot and humid throughout the summer of 1787.
The Convention was long and difficult. Washington was elected president of the convention. Randolph presented Madison’s outline of a new constitution and how the new government would be outlined. This became known as the Virginia Plan. This became the basis for the debate for the next several months.
A new Constitution was ultimately written. Much of what was contained in Madison’s original plan remained in the Constitution. It outlined a federal government made up of three separate branches with distinct authority and responsibilities with a system of checks and balances which would prohibit any single branch, person, or group from taking advantage of the rights of other groups or minority groups.
When the Constitution was completed, Madison and Washington signed and served ably and nobly within the new United States government. George Mason and Edmund Randolph refused to sign the completed Constitution.
Mason was very involved throughout the convention and served on numerous committees advocating for a strong national government, but ultimately withdrew his support as the Constitution was nearing completion, feeling that the new Constitution did not adequately represent the interests of the people or the states and that the new government would eventually “produce a Monarchy, or a corrupt oppressive Aristocracy.” He never served within the new government and died in 1792, ten months after the Bill of Rights was adopted in December 1791.
Randolph was opposed to the final writing of the Constitution for one main reason. He felt the power given to Congress by the Constitution was “indefinite and dangerous.” Due to this, he moved that the convention add a provision wherein the state conventions could submit recommendations for Constitutional amendments followed by a second convention to review the proposed amendments.
Randolph followed this proposition with an ultimatum. “Should this proposition be disregarded, it would … be impossible for him to put his name” on the Constitution. But he followed this ultimatum with one caveat, if the convention voted his motion down, he would still allow himself the opportunity to decide later whether he would oppose or support the Constitution in his own state. Randolph’s motion was voted down unanimously, and Randolph refused to sign the Constitution.
Later, persuaded by James Madison, Randolph supported ratification and served in the new government with distinction as attorney general and secretary of state.
The Constitution lives on. It will continue to live on if we give it the respect it deserves.
Final thoughts from men who knew
“The Constitution is the guide which I will never abandon.” — George Washington
“The happy Union of these States is a wonder; their Constitution a miracle; their example the hope of Liberty throughout the world.” — James Madison
“We the people are the rightful masters of both Congress and the courts, not to overthrow the Constitution but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution.” — Abraham Lincoln
“To live under the American Constitution is the greatest political privilege that was ever accorded to the human race.” — Calvin Coolidge
Gutzman, Kevin, R.C. 2012. James Madison and the Making of America, New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Farrand, Max, ed. 1911. The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, Vol 3. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Mason, George. 1787. Objection to the constitution of Government Formed by the Convention. George Washington Papers. Library of Congress.