University of Wisconsin–Madison

Assessment of the Constitutional Convention

The literature devoted to the Constitutional Convention is vast. Assessments of it are broad and varied. Perhaps the most important was Charles A. Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution. Written in 1913 in the midst of the Progressive Era, Beard painted a less than flattering picture of the proceedings suggesting that the Convention was a gathering of self-serving, wealthy men who stood to gain financially from the new Constitution. Nearly all of the historiography for the next fifty years centered on Beard’s assessments, reinforcing, modifying or rejecting his suggestions. By the mid-20th century, alternative interpretations emerged. In her popular treatment, Catherine Drinker Bowen emphasized a consensus theory and concluded that the achievements at Philadelphia were nothing short of miraculous. This approach held sway until 1967 when Bernard Bailyn asserted that the Founding Period should be interpreted within a framework of classical republicanism.

When assessing the Constitutional Convention of 1787, an initial consideration is its legitimacy. During the 1780s, conventions were viewed as dangerous, radical assemblies. This negative connotation was based upon the belief that such gatherings were seldom motivated by virtue. Furthermore, the Articles of Confederation had prohibited such meetings. The Shaysites in Massachusetts were also associated with county conventions. Consequently, suspicions about the motives of any extralegal assemblies were ever present. However, many fears subsided when the Confederation Congress sanctioned the Convention on 21 February 1787 and when George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were elected as delegates. As the Convention began, Benjamin Rush, writing under the pseudonym “Harrington,” observed that since the Convention consisted of such an “illustrious body of patriots and heroes,” no one could “doubt of the safety and blessings of government we are to receive from their hands.” As the ratification debate evolved, Rush’s optimistic predictions fell short as 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, the 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, 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 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 (pdf).

Amity and Compromise at the Convention

From the very beginning of the ratification debate, Federalists were quick to accentuate the spirit of cooperation that prevailed at the Convention. Convention President George Washington’s letter to the President of Congress of 17 September 1787 emphasized that their work was “the result of a spirit of amity, and of that mutual deference and concession which the peculiarity of our political situation rendered indispensable.” 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 the Convention delegates. Antifederalists countered by noting that this claim was disingenuous since reports had circulated demonstrating that, at times, the discussions were contentious. Additionally, it was widely reported that three delegates in attendance on 17 September 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 Federal Convention was based upon the Confederation Congress’ resolution of 21 February 1787 and the appointment of delegates by their state legislatures. In both cases, the Convention was called for the “sole and express” purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation. On the second day of debates, the 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. Consequently, it was easy for Antifederalists to attack the legitimacy of the Constitution. Federalists, however, maintained that (1) the Articles of Confederation were too defective to be simply 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

It was widely reported 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 as being small-minded and unpatriotic, while Antifederalists praised them for their discernment and courage.