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PLAN FOR A NATIONAL GOVERNMENT
S the delegates chosen to the convention began
coming together in Philadelphia in May, it was apparent that the crisis had produced an assembly of capable men; many of them had already won distinction; most of them had had experience in political affairs. They represented on the whole the conservative elements of the nation, who were dismayed by the appearance of discord and lawlessness, and who appreciated the national danger. They were more than practical politicians; they were men of education as well as of experience; about half of them had had college education; many of them were learned in law and history.
Washington and Franklin, the most famous members, were without the advantages of university training; but they had the wisdom which is not gleaned from books or absorbed from teachersrare judgment, wide knowledge of men, profound insight into human motives, remarkable sanity, and a capacity for generous appreciation of the sentiments of their fellows. Franklin did not play a
very conspicuous part in the convention, but his kindly humor and his national spirit were of value. Washington had hoped that he would be excused from attending; his friends persuaded him to come, however, and no one better realized the gravity of the movement-he saw the best men of the country chosen as delegates; the convention was the end for which earnest men had long been toiling; if it failed, what hope of reformation or the saving of national credit and reputation? “My wish is,” he wrote, “that the convention may adopt no temporizing expedients, but probe the defects of the constitution to the bottom, and provide a radical cure, whether they are agreed to or not.' He did not take an active part in the debates of the convention; there is no evidence of his having spoken more than once; but by sheer weight of character he did what much volubility and streams of sonorous language could not have accomplished.
Of the more active members of the convention Madison deserves chief consideration. We have already seen how anxious he was to better the federal government; he had been waging continuous warfare against the paper-money men and the forces of disorganization within his state. He prepared carefully for the work of the convention: he bought and read books; he studied the confederacies of the ancient world and the combinations of modern states; he noted carefully the characteristics of each and dwelt on the ideas that were pertinent to American problems. He saw that the Amphictyonic Council could employ the "whole force of Greece against such as refused to execute its decrees." In the Lycian League he found that “the number of votes allotted to each member was proportioned to its pecuniary contributions.” 1 Before the convention met he draughted an indictment of the vices of the political system of the United States. The first and most significant of the faults of the Confederation was the failure of the states to comply with the constitutional requisitions. This he declared to be exemplified in every confederacy and fatal to the objects of the American Union. The other vices he enumerated serve to show how clearly Madison saw the situation and what he deemed the task of the convention: encroachments by the states on the federal authority; violations of the law of nations and of treaties; trespasses of the states on one another's rights; want of concert in matters of common interest; absence of a guaranty for state constitutions and laws against domestic violence; no sanction to the laws and no coercive powers in the central government; ratification of the Articles by the legislatures and not by the people; multiplicity, mutability, and injustice of state laws. “A sanction,” he declared, “is essential to the idea of law, as coercion is to that of Government For want of real power
1 Washington, Writings (Ford's ed.), XI., 134.
the Confederation had been a failure; the confidence which the framers of the Articles had shown in the good faith of the state legislatures only did honor to the “enthusiastic virtue of the compilers” of the instrument.
By such careful methods of study and by accurate thinking Madison had fitted himself to take a leading part in the convention's work. Quiet and unobtrusive, his knowledge gave him an advantage over more eloquent members. “In the management of every great question,” wrote a delegate from Georgia, "he evidently took the lead in the Convention. . . . From a spirit of industry and application which he possesses in a most eminent degree, he always comes forward the best informed Man of any point in debate.''
The Pennsylvania delegation included several men of unusual talent. Robert Morris took no share in the public discussions, but he had done much and learned much in the days of trouble, and he appreciated the need of real government. Gouverneur Morris, one of the enthusiastic, daring young men of the day, was a brilliant and effective debater and a speaker of unusual power; alert, dogmatic, caustic, and positive, he occasionally repelled rather than convinced his opponents; but he toiled for a national system and was filled with real patriotic spirit. The felicitous wording of the Constitution in its final forma
1 Pierce's notes, in Amer. Hist. Review, III., 331. * Letter of Madison in Sparks, Gouverneur Morris, I., 284.
is due to Morris's command of simple and forcible English. From Pennsylvania came also James Wilson, a Scotchman by birth, educated at a university in North Britain, learned in the law, a student of history and political theory. No one saw more clearly the central point of the great problem before the convention; no one labored more steadily, or was able, casting all details aside, to grasp more firmly the most essential and significant principles. He shared with Madison the honor of leadership during the first half of the convention's work, planning and toiling and speaking for the recognition of national life in the establishment of a national government.
New York sent two men of mediocre attainments, Lansing and Yates, who feared for the safety of state ascendancy. The third member of the delegation was Alexander Hamilton.
He had for years been working for a stronger central government, and he understood the situation well, but he was embarrassed by his colleagues, who could always cast the vote of the state against his wishes; and he was now so insistent upon authority, so out of patience with feeble government, that for the moment at least his ideas were extreme and inapplicable. He was young, enthusiastic, self-satisfied, and clearheaded, and rather “a convincing Speaker" than “a blazing Orator.” 1 From Connecticut came three men of the first
1 Pierce's notes, in Amer. Hist. Review, III., 327.