Assessments of the Constitutional Convention

Legitimacy is a critical factor when assessing the Constitutional Convention of 1787. During the 1780s, many people viewed conventions as radical assemblies. This negative connotation was based upon the belief that such gatherings were seldom motivated by virtue. The Shaysites’ association with county conventions only multiplied suspicions about the motives of extralegal assemblies. Many fears subsided when the Confederation Congress sanctioned a general convention on 21 February 1787. George Washington’s and Benjamin Franklin’s election to the Constitutional Convention also mitigated people’s concern. As the Constitutional Convention began, Benjamin Rush, writing under the pseudonym “Harrington,” observed that no one could doubt “the safety and blessings of government we are to receive” since the Convention consisted of such an “illustrious body of patriots and heroes.” As the ratification debate evolved, Rush’s optimistic predictions fell short; criticisms of the Convention and its work expanded. (“Harrington” was printed in the Pennsylvania Gazette and the Pennsylvania Journal on 30 May 1787 and reprinted more than thirty times throughout the country.)

General Praise of the Constitutional Convention

General Criticism of the Constitutional Convention

The Rule of Secrecy

Soon after attaining a quorum in late May, Constitutional Convention delegates adopted parliamentary rules similar to those used by Congress. Among these was a rule of secrecy. Although this rule would become an important issue after the Convention adjourned, it was not particularly controversial while the Convention sat. The Confederation Congress, the state legislatures, and the British Parliament all regularly met in secret. Secrecy provided an environment conducive for full and honest discussions. An item appearing in the Pennsylvania Herald on 2 June 1787 expressed hope “that the privacy of their transactions will be an additional motive for dispatch, as the anxiety of the people must be necessarily increased, by every appearance of mystery in conducting this important business.” The Convention abrogated the rule of secrecy when it adjourned on 17 September 1787.

Antifederalists later denounced the rule of secrecy, casting a pall over the Convention and labeling it a cabal. “Centinel,” among the harshest critics of the Convention and the Constitution, supposed an “evil genius of darkness presided at its birth, it came forth under the veil of mystery, its true features being carefully concealed, and every deceptive art has been and is practising to have this spurious brat received as the genuine offspring of heaven-born liberty.” For additional information, see John Kaminski’s Secrecy and the Constitutional Convention.

Amity and Compromise at the Convention

From the outset of the ratification debate, Federalists were quick to accentuate the spirit of cooperation that prevailed at the Constitutional Convention. Convention President George Washington’s letter to the President of Congress of 17 September 1787 emphasized that the Convention’s work was “the result of a spirit of amity, and of that mutual deference and concession which the peculiarity of our political situation rendered indispensible.” “Centinel” XII countered by noting that “discord prevailed to such a degree, that the minority were upon the point of appealing to the public against the machinations of ambition.”

Unanimity of the Convention

Federalists argued that the public should support the Constitution because of the unanimity among Constitutional Convention delegates. Antifederalists countered that this claim was disingenuous since reports had circulated that, at times, the discussions in the Convention were contentious. Additionally, reports widely circulated that three delegates in attendance on 17 September 1787 had refused to sign the Constitution (see “The Non-Signers of the Constitution” below).

Delegates Violating their Instructions and the Resolution of Congress

The legitimacy of the Constitutional Convention was based upon the Confederation Congress’ resolution of 21 February 1787 and the appointment of delegates by state legislatures. The Convention was called for the “sole and express” purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation. On the second day of debates, delegates voted to abandon the Articles of Confederation. Subsequently, reports circulated that the Convention would propose a new constitution. When the Constitution was published, it was obvious that the delegates had violated both their instructions and the resolution of Congress, which made it easy for Antifederalists to attack the legitimacy of the Constitution. Federalists, however, maintained that (1) the Articles of Confederation were too defective to be amended, (2) delegates had a responsibility to do the best they could under the current set of circumstances, (3) giving the unicameral Confederation Congress additional powers would be dangerous, and (4) the Constitution was only a proposal that the American people could accept or reject.

The Non-Signers of the Constitution

Reports widely circulated that Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts and Edmund Randolph and George Mason of Virginia refused to sign the Constitution on 17 September 1787. Their refusal was grist for both sides in the ratification debate. Federalists disparaged them for their small-mindedness and for being unpatriotic, while Antifederalists praised them for their discernment and courage.