The Debates in the
Federal Convention of 1787
MONDAY SEPr 17, 1787: 1
The engrossed Constitution being read,
DOCr. FRANKLIN rose with a
speech in his hand, which he had reduced to writing for his own conveniency,
2 and which Mr. Wilson read in the words
I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not
at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: For having
lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better
information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important
subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore
that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay
more respect to the judgment of others. Most men indeed as well as most sects in
Religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others
differ from them it is so far error. Steele a Protestant in a Dedication tells
the Pope, that the only difference between our Churches in their opinions of the
certainty of their doctrines is, the Church of Rome is infallible and the Church
of England is never in the wrong. But though many private persons think almost
as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so
naturally as a certain french lady, who in a dispute with her sister, said "I
don't know how it happens, Sister but I meet with no body but myself, that's
always in the right — Il n'y a que moi qui a toujours raison."
In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults,
if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and
there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well
administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered
for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done
before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic
Government, being incapable of any other. I doubt too whether any other
Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. For when
you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you
inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their
errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an
assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir,
to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it
will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our
councils are confounded like those of the Builders of Babel; and that our States
are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of
cutting one another's throats. Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because
I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best. The
opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good. I have never
whispered a syllable of them abroad. Within these walls they were born, and here
they shall die. If every one of us in returning to our Constituents were to
report the objections he has had to it, and endeavor to gain partizans in
support of them, we might prevent its being generally received, and thereby lose
all the salutary effects & great advantages resulting naturally in our favor
among foreign Nations as well as among ourselves, from our real or apparent
unanimity. Much of the strength & efficiency of any Government in procuring
and securing happiness to the people, depends, on opinion, on the general
opinion of the goodness of the Government, as well as well as of the wisdom and
integrity of its Governors. I hope therefore that for our own sakes as a part of
the people, and for the sake of posterity, we shall act heartily and unanimously
in recommending this Constitution (if approved by Congress & confirmed by
the Conventions) wherever our influence may extend, and turn our future thoughts
& endeavors to the means of having it well administred.
On the whole, Sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the
Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion
doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put
his name to this instrument. —
He then moved that the Constitution be signed by the members and offered the
following as a convenient form viz. "Done in Convention by the unanimous
consent of the States present the 17th. of Sepr. &c —
In Witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names."
This ambiguous form had been drawn up by Mr. G. M. in order to gain the
dissenting members, and put into the hands of Docr. Franklin that it might have
the better chance of success.
Mr. GORHAM said if it was not too late
he could wish, for the purpose of lessening objections to the Constitution, that
the clause declaring "the number of Representatives shall not exceed one
for every forty thousand" which had produced so much discussion, might be
yet reconsidered, in order to strike out 40,000 & insert "thirty
thousand." This would not he remarked establish that as an absolute rule,
but only give Congress a greater latitude which could not be thought
Mr. KING & Mr. CARROL seconded & supported the idea of Mr. Gorham.
When the PRESIDENT rose, for the purpose of putting
the question, he said that although his situation had hitherto restrained him
from offering his sentiments on questions depending in the House, and it might
be thought, ought now to impose silence on him, yet he could not forbear
expressing his wish that the alteration proposed might take place. It was much
to be desired that the objections to the plan recommended might be made as few
as possible. The smallness of the proportion of Representatives had been
considered by many members of the Convention an insufficient security for the
rights & interests of the people. He acknowledged that it had always
appeared to himself among the exceptionable parts of the plan, and late as the
present moment was for admitting amendments, he thought this of so much
consequence that it would give 3 much
satisfaction to see it adopted
No opposition was made to the proposition of Mr. Gorham and it was agreed to
On the question to agree to the Constitution enrolled in order to be signed.
It was agreed to all the States 6
Mr. RANDOLPH then rose and with an
allusion to the observations of Docr. Franklin apologized for his refusing to
sign the Constitution notwithstanding the vast majority & venerable names
that would give sanction to its wisdom and its worth. He said however that he
did not mean by this refusal to decide that he should oppose the Constitution
without doors. He meant only to keep himself free to be governed by his duty as
it should be prescribed by his future judgment. He refused to sign, because he
thought the object of the Convention would be frustrated by the alternative
which it presented to the people. Nine States will fail to ratify the plan and
confusion must ensue. With such a view of the subject he ought not, he could
not, by pledging himself to support the plan, restrain himself from taking such
steps as might appear to him most consistent with the public good.
Mr. GOVr. MORRIS
said that he too had objections, but considering the present plan as the best
that was to be attained, he should take it with all its faults. The majority had
determined in its favor and by that determination he should abide. The moment
this plan goes forth all other considerations will be laid aside, and the great
question will be, shall there be a national Government or not? and this must
take place or a general anarchy will be the alternative. He remarked that the
signing in the form proposed related only to the fact that the 7
States present were unanimous.
Mr. WILLIAMSON suggested that the
signing should be confined to the letter accompanying the Constitution to
Congress, which might perhaps do nearly as well, and would he found be
8 satisfactory to some members
*9 who disliked the Constitution. For
himself he did not think a better plan was to be expected and had no scruples
against putting his name to it.
Mr. HAMILTON expressed his anxiety that
every member should sign. A few characters of consequence, by opposing or even
refusing to sign the Constitution, might do infinite mischief by kindling the
latent sparks which
10 lurk under an enthusiasm in favor of
the Convention which may soon subside. No man's ideas were more remote from the
plan than his
11 were known to be; but is it possible
to deliberate between anarchy and Convulsion on one side, and the chance of good
to be expected from the plan on the other.
Mr. BLOUNT said he had declared that he
would not sign, so as to pledge himself in support of the plan, but he was
relieved by the form proposed and would without committing himself attest the
fact that the plan was the unanimous act of the States in Convention.
expressed his fears from what Mr. Randolph had said, that he thought himself
alluded to in the remarks offered this morning to the House. He declared that
when drawing up that paper he did not know that any particular member would
refuse to sign his name to the instrument, and hoped to be so understood. He
professed a high sense of obligation to Mr. Randolph for having brought forward
the plan in the first instance, and for the assistance he had given in its
progress, and hoped that he would yet lay aside his objections, and by
concurring with his brethren, prevent the great mischief which the refusal of
his name might produce.
Mr. RANDOLPH could not but regard the
signing in the proposed form, as the same with signing the Constitution. The
change of form therefore could make no difference with him. He repeated that in
refusing to sign the Constitution, he took a step which might be the most awful
of his life, but it was dictated by his conscience, and it was not possible for
him to hesitate, much less, to change. He repeated also his persuasion, that the
holding out this plan with a final alternative to the people, of accepting or
rejecting it in toto, would really produce the anarchy & civil convulsions
which were apprehended from the refusal of individuals to sign it.
Mr. GERRY described the painful feelings of his
situation, and the embarrassment 12 under
which he rose to offer any further observations on the subject wch. had been
finally decided. Whilst the plan was depending, he had treated it with all the
freedom he thought it deserved. He now felt himself bound as he was disposed to
treat it with the respect due to the Act of the Convention. He hoped he should
not violate that respect in declaring on this occasion his fears that a Civil
war may result from the present crisis of the U. S. In Massachussetts,
particularly he saw the danger of this calamitous event — In that State
there are two parties, one devoted to Democracy, the worst he thought of all
political evils, the other as violent in the opposite extreme. From the
collision of these in opposing and resisting the Constitution, confusion was
greatly to be feared. He had thought it necessary, for this & other reasons
that the plan should have been proposed in a more mediating shape, in order to
abate the heat and opposition of parties. As it has been passed by the
Convention, he was persuaded it would have a contrary effect. He could not
therefore by signing the Constitution pledge himself to abide by it at all
events. The proposed form made no difference with him. But if it were not
otherwise apparent, the refusals to sign should never be known from him.
Alluding to the remarks of Docr. Franklin, he could not he said but view them as
levelled at himself and the other gentlemen who meant not to sign;
Genl. PINKNEY. We are not likely to gain
many converts by the ambiguity of the proposed form of signing. He thought it
best to be candid and let the form speak the substance. If the meaning of the
signers be left in doubt, his purpose would not be answered. He should sign the
Constitution with a view to support it with all his influence, and wished to
pledge himself accordingly.
It is too soon to pledge ourselves before Congress and our Constituents shall
have approved the plan.
Mr. INGERSOL did not consider the
signing, either as a mere attestation of the fact, or as pledging the signers to
support the Constitution at all events; but as a recommendation, of what, all
things considered, was the most eligible.
On the motion of Docr. Franklin
N. H. ay. Mas. ay. Ct. ay. N. J. ay. Pa. ay. Del. ay. Md. ay. Va. ay. N. C.
ay. S. C. divd. *13 Geo. ay.
Mr. KING suggested that the Journals of
the Convention should be either destroyed, or deposited in the custody of the
President. He thought if suffered to be made public, a bad use would be made of
them by those who would wish to prevent the adoption of the Constitution.
Mr. WILSON prefered the second
expedient, he had at one time liked the first best; but as false suggestions may
be propagated it should not be made impossible to contradict them.
A question was then put on depositing the Journals and other papers of the
Convention in the hands of the President, on which,
N. H. ay. Mtts. ay. Ct. ay. N. J. ay. Pena. ay. Del. ay. Md. *18
no. Va. ay. N. C. ay. S. C. ay. Geo. ay. 19
The President having asked what the Convention meant should be done with the
Journals &c, whether copies were to be allowed to the members if applied
for. It was Resolved nem: con "that he retain the Journal and other papers,
subject to the order of the 22 Congress,
if ever formed under the Constitution.
The members then proceeded to sign the instrument. 23
24 Whilst the last members were
25 Doctr. FRANKLIN
looking towards the Presidents Chair, at the back of which a rising sun happened
to be painted, observed to a few members near him, that Painters had found it
difficult to distinguish in their art a rising from a setting sun. I have said
he, often and often in the course of the Session, and the vicisitudes of my
hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the President without
being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: But now at length I have
the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun
24 The Constitution being signed by
all the members except Mr. Randolph, Mr. Mason, and Mr. Gerry who declined
giving it the sanction of their names, the Convention dissolved itself by an
Adjournment sine die —
26 The few alterations and
corrections made in these debates which are not in my hand writing, were
dictated by me and made in my presence by John C. Payne.
1. The year "1787" is omitted in
2. The word "conveniency" is
changed in the transcript to "convenience."
3. The word "him" is here
inserted in the transcript.
*4. Transfer the remarks in brackets, to
the bottom margin.
5 [This was the only occasion on which the
President entered at all into the discussions of the Convention].
5. Madison's direction is omitted in the
6. The word "States" is
italicized in the transcript.
7. The transcript italicizes the word "the."
8. The words "be found" are
substituted in the transcript for "the found be."
*9. He alluded to Mr. Blount for one.
10. The word "which" is changed
in the transcript to "that."
11. The word "own" is here
inserted in the transcript.
12. The transcript uses the word "embarrassment"
in the plural.
*13. Genl. Pinkney & Mr Butler
disliked the equivocal form of the 14
signing, and on that account voted in the negative.
14. The word "the" is omitted
in the transcript.
15. In the transcript the vote reads: "New
Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware,
Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, aye — 10; South Carolina,
*16. To be transferred hither.
17. Madison's direction concerning his
note is omitted in the transcript.
*18. This negative of Maryland was
occasioned by the language of the instructions to the Deputies of that State,
which required them to report to the State, the proceedings of the
19. In the transcript the vote reads: "New
Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware,
Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, aye — 10; Maryland,
20 no — 1."
20. Transfer. 21
21. Madison's direction concerning his
note is omitted in the transcript.
22. The word "the" is omitted
in the transcript.
23. In place of the word "instrument,"
the transcript inserts the following words: "Constitution, as finally
amended, as follows." The Constitution is then inserted.
24. These two final paragraphs of
Madison's notes are transposed in the transcript to follow the signatures to the
25. The word "it" is omitted in
26. This statement and Madison's
signature are omitted in the transcript.