How to Build a Nation in 15 Weeks
Summary: Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Harry Sandick along with Jon Hatch and colleagues at Patterson Belknap revisit the hottest topics from each week in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, tracking their current place in our legal and political landscape.
The delegates debate the addition of new states to the union. Connecticut sticks up for Vermont, Wilson freaks out, and Martin gets in some good zingers. The delegates decide how many states should be required for ratification after some complex proposals. Morris suggests speed, Gerry urges unanimity, Mason makes threats, and Randolph self-destructs. The Committee on Postponed Parts is formed. The Patterson team weighs in on the use of committees and how to name them.
The delegates return to the pardon power. Sherman proposes federalizing state militias. Dickinson tries to expand judicial impeachment. Pinckney protects religious liberty. Randolph loses his cool. The delegates debate supermajority requirements for laws regulating commerce after some Southern delegates walk away from their promises. The Patterson team discusses the seeds of the Civil War built into the Constitution’s treatment of slavery.
Luther Martin rails against slavery, and Georgia and South Carolina rail back. An awful compromise is reached based on some unexpected alliances. Mason advocates for sumptuary laws, but the other delegates decide that the law of necessity is enough. The delegates consider the financial crisis of their time, but let the issue pass by. The Patterson team considers a medley of timely provisions like the foreign emoluments clause and the pardon power.
Pinckney proposes incorporating individual rights, but the delegates don’t have much interest. Treason is narrowly defined by the Convention. The delegates debate ex post facto laws, and Wilson assumes a bit too much. The delegates revisit the issue of slavery, and discussions get tense. The Patterson team discusses the delegates’ departures from the English experience in the name of constitutional rights.
The delegates worry about insurrection, but dispute when the national government can step in. Gerry tries to limit the size of standing armies. Washington gets sarcastic. The Convention gives Congress the exclusive power to “declare” war, but gives the President considerable flexibility. The Patterson team discusses how the power to declare war has become blurred over time, and learns the difference between a letter of marque and a letter of reprisal.
The delegates narrowly decide against relaxing citizenship requirements. The Convention debates the Senate’s ability to alter spending bills. Dickinson urges experience as the only guide, as “reason may mislead us,” Madison notes some ambiguities, and Randolph and Rutledge worry about marketing. The delegates close the door on general and broad powers, but open the window to necessary and proper ones. George Read tries to exorcise paper money.
In this bonus episode, we had the pleasure of speaking with Professor Mary Bilder, the author of Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention, a detailed study of Madison’s Notes of the Constitutional Convention. We discussed the nature of legislative diaries like Madison’s Notes, Madison’s drafting process and subsequent revisions to the Notes, his relationship with Thomas Jefferson, and how all of this informs our current reading of the Notes.
Morris tries to save the country from aristocracy through aristocracy. Pinckney takes things too far on behalf of the 1%. Conflicting principles and pragmatic concerns prevent the adoption of property restrictions. The delegates debate citizenship requirements, disregarding the feelings of the foreign-born delegates. The Patterson team weighs in on foreign aid in the Revolution and the economic interpretation of the Constitution.
The delegates gradually return from recess, though New Jersey takes its time crossing the river. The Committee of Detail takes some liberties in drafting. The draft constitution is distributed, and Maryland receives it poorly. Madison fears too many congressmen. The delegates conclude there should be a permanent seat of government, but not where. The Patterson team considers some of the less prominent provisions of the draft constitution.
The delegates brainstorm ever-wilder methods for selecting the executive, but end up back where they started. Franklin argues that leaving public office is a promotion, and gets sassed by Morris. Mason proposes property qualifications for elected officials, but Madison stands up for … slightly broader property qualifications. The Convention adjourns for ten days to allow the Committee of Detail to write everything down, Washington goes fishing, and Madison frets.
New Hampshire finally shows up, without a per diem. The delegates debate the process for ratification and whether state legislatures can be trusted to do anything right. Nathaniel Gorham asks what will happen if Rhode Island won’t play along. Everyone tries to figure out how to select the executive and things get creative. The Patterson team considers the merits of election by lottery and whether the delegates can tell when someone is joking.
The delegates revisit the Executive Power. The Judicial Branch finally comes up again and the delegates debate how to pick judges. Nathaniel Gorham proposes that the Executive pick judges with the Senate’s “advice and consent,” though nobody really knows what this means. The Council of Revision makes another appearance but the delegates want judges to stay in their lane. Chief Justice Jay writes to Washington, and civility reigns, except when it doesn’t.
The delegates finally compromise on representation when the large states throw in the towel. Roger Sherman tries to protect state police powers. The delegates reject a veto of state legislation but unanimously support making federal laws supreme. The Patterson team discusses whether the Connecticut compromise still makes sense and the evolution of the federal supremacy and the preemption doctrine. The Treaty Power gets an in-depth look.
Debate continues on whether and how to account for enslaved people in determining representation in the legislature. The North-South divide widens. The delegates tie representation to taxation and approve the 3/5th's ratio for both. The delegates try to semantically conceal their compromise, but fool no one. The Northwest Ordinance is passed in Congress, with suspicious timing. The team weighs in on the legacy of the 3/5th's clause and the delegates’ failure to reckon with the immorality of slav
The delegates debate how to apportion representation in the lower house. The Morris Committee proposes an allocation based on guesswork. The King Committee proposes an alternative based on counting three-fifths of enslaved people. The delegates debate whether and how to factor enslaved people into representation, but no one speaks for the unrepresented. Potential western states complicate matters. The census is proposed.