violence at the birth of the constitution -- 5/3/21

Today's selection -- from The Golden Voyage: The Life and Times of William Bingham, 1752-1804 by Robert C. Alberts. After the Constitution was drafted in 1787, there was disagreement between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists at the convention as to how, or even whether, to present it to the states for ratification. The proceedings became violent when Anti-Federalists were tracked down and physically dragged to the meeting to constitute a quorum:

"Congress began its debate and discussion. Richard Henry Lee and a colleague moved that the Constitution be submitted to the states, but that it be sent with the warning that the Convention had acted unconstitutionally under the Articles of the Confederation. The mo­tion was not carried. Another member moved that the Constitution be sent to the states with a reprimand to the Convention for exceed­ing its authority. That too was voted down. Bingham and Edward Carrington of Virginia went to the opposite extreme and entered a motion that the Congress not only send the Constitution to the states, but that they do so with the clear recommendation that they act speedily to adopt, ratify and confirm it. Their motion was not passed.

"On Friday, September 28, after skirmishes and consultations last­ing eight days, the members reached a compromise. They would send the Constitution to the states with a bland, brief and utterly noncommittal resolution. Bingham and the other zealous advocates came to support this measure so that the precious words 'Resolved Unanimously' might accompany the Constitution on its journey to the state capitals. Bingham apparently determined on Wednesday or Thursday that an agreement was reached and that approval would shortly be voted. He sent off one of his express riders with this news to his colleagues in Philadelphia.

"On Friday morning, with every Federalist member in his seat, George Clymer rose to speak in the Pennsylvania Assembly. He opened the question of providing for a convention of delegates to con­sider the forthcoming federal constitution. The unsuspecting anti­-Federalists, all of them from the interior and western counties, were galvanized into action, and a very long debate ensued. Robert Whitehill of Carlisle protested that Mr. Clymer was out of order. Congress had not even sent them the Constitution, he said, nor any request to consider it. No such motion could be made without notice given beforehand. The motion could not even be voted on until it had passed three readings. The matter should be postponed until the Assembly could have time to consider such an important subject. In all of this he was quite correct, but Thomas Fitzsimmons rose to de­clare blandly that the measure was too important to delay. Whitehill replied that its importance was the very reason it should be treated with deliberation.

"Daniel Clymer, cousin of George, declaimed: 'As this subject is before us, let us not hesitate, but eagerly embrace the glorious oppor­tunity of being foremost in its adoption. Let us not hesitate, because it is damping the ardor with which it should be pursued. Sir, it is throwing cold water on the flame that warms the breast of every friend of liberty.'

"The anti-Federalists were shouted down with cries of 'Question! Question!' The question was put and carried by a vote of 43 to 19. On Whitehill's motion, the session was adjourned until four o'clock that afternoon, at which time, he said, the date, place and method of choosing the delegates to consider the Constitution would be voted on. There was much laughter and self-congratulation at the Federal­ist luncheon tables on how smoothly and cleverly everything had been carried off.

"When the session resumed at four o'clock, not one minority mem­ber was in the chamber, which meant that the Assembly was two votes short of the forty-six required for a quorum, and that no business could be conducted. The Federalists, indignant at this breach of trust, sent the sergeant at arms to round up at least two of the absent members. He returned with the information that he had found them at Major Adam Boyd's boardinghouse on Sixth Street, but 'I told the gentlemen that the Speaker and the House had sent for them, and says they, "There is no House."'

"Mr. Speaker: 'Did you let them know they were desired to at­tend?'

"Sergeant: 'Yes, Sir, but they told me they could not attend this af­ternoon, for they had not made up their minds, yet.'

"The Federalists, outwitted, baffled and angry, debated on what to do next. They searched the books and found no law that compelled an absent member to attend, the only penalty being loss of one-third of a day's pay if he was absent. The Assembly recessed until nine-­thirty the following morning, which was the day set for adjournment.

"The affair was discussed in the taverns until midnight, with liberal abuse for the nineteen recalcitrant members and much conjecture on what the minority would do when the Assembly reconvened.

"Sometime during the early morning, Bingham's messenger came spurring into town with the news that Congress had acted on the Constitution. By riding all night and changing horses at prearranged intervals along the way, he had managed to reach Philadelphia just twelve hours after the signing of the resolution in New York.

"When the Speaker took the chair next morning and called the roll, no minority members were present and again no quorum could be declared. George Clymer rose and presented to the chair a packet of documents he had received that morning from New York. It was, he said, a resolution of the Congress, passed unanimously, requesting the legislature of each state to put the proposed Constitution to a vote of a popularly elected convention. It had been signed yesterday, and Mr. Bingham had forwarded it to him by express rider, 'having chosen this mode in preference to the ordinary conveyance by post.'

"Fortified with this new evidence of regularity, the Speaker again sent the sergeant, accompanied by the assistant clerk, to find the members and request their attendance. They returned to report that they had seen some of the members on the streets, but that these had 'mended their pace' and escaped. They had confronted James Mc­Calmont of Franklin County and Jacob Miley of Dauphin County at Major Boyd's and shown them the resolution of Congress, but both refused to come to the chamber. The anti-Federalist leaders were be­hind locked doors, preparing an address to their constituents in which they set forth their objections to the proposed Constitution.

"In the meantime, word had spread around the city that the anti­-Federalist members had 'absconded' from their duties. A crowd of men gathered, and as time passed they grew impatient. They marched off in search of any two absent members. At Major Boyd's, they broke down the doors, pulled McCalmont and Miley from the house, and dragged them, protesting and struggling, through the streets to the State House. There the two men, their clothes dirtied and torn, were thrust into the Assembly chamber and pinioned in their seats. The clerk wrote in his minutes, in what must be consid­ered something of an understatement: 'The Speaker left the chair, and in a few minutes Mr. James McCalmont and Mr. Jacob Miley entered the House. The Speaker resumed the chair, and the roll was called.'"



Robert C. Alberts


The Golden Voyage: The Life and Times of William Bingham, 1752-1804


Houghton Mifflin Company


Copyright 1969 by Robert C. Alberts


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