Letter to Jonathan D. Steele

William Steele

September 1825

My dear Son: -

I some time ago repeated to you an historical anecdote, in which you felt so much interested that you extorted from me a promise, that I would at some moment of leisure commit it to paper for you. I am now seated for that purpose, and shall relate it as nearly as I can recollect, in the words of General Jonathan Dayton, one of the members of the General Convention, who framed the Constitution, and afterwards Speaker of the House of Representatives, in the Congress of the United States.

I was (said General Dayton) a delegate from New Jersey, in the General Convention which assembled in Philadelphia for the purpose of digesting a constitution for the United States, and I believe I was the youngest member of that body. The great and good Washington was chosen our president, and Dr. Franklin, among other great men, was a delegate from Pennsylvania. A disposition was soon discovered in some members to display themselves in oratorical flourishes; but the good sense and discretion of the majority put down all such attempts. We had convened to deliberate upon, and if possible effect, a great national object — to search for political wisdom and truth; these we meant to pursue with simplicity, and to avoid everything which would have a tendency to divert our attention, or perplex our scheme.

A great variety of projects were proposed, all republican in their general outlines, but differing in their details. It was, therefore, determined that certain elementary principles should at first be established, in each branch of the intended constitution, and afterwards the details should be debated and filled up.

There was little or no difficulty in determining upon the elementary principles — such as, for instance, that the government should be a republican-representative government — that it should be divided into three branches, that is, legislative, executive, and judicial, &c. But when the organization of the respective branches of the legislature came under consideration, it was easy to be perceived that the eastern and southern states had distinct interests, which it was difficult to reconcile; and that the larger states were disposed to form a constitution, in which the smaller states would be mere appendages and satellites to the larger ones. On the first of these subjects, much animated and somewhat angry debate had taken place, when the ratio of representation in the lower house of Congress was before us — the southern states claiming for themselves the whole number of their black population, while the eastern states were for confining the elective franchise to freemen only, without respect to color.

As the different parties adhered pertinaciously to their different positions, it was feared that this would prove an insurmountable obstacle; — but as the members were already generally satisfied that no constitution could be formed, which would meet the views and subserve the interests of each individual state, it was evident that it must be a matter of compromise and mutual concession. Under these impressions, and with these views, it was agreed at length that each state should be entitled to one delegate in the House of Representatives for every 30,000 of its inhabitants — in which number should be included three fifths of the whole number of their slaves.

When the details of the House of Representatives were disposed of, a more knotty point presented itself in the organization of the Senate. The larger states contended that the same ratio, as to states, should be common to both branches of the legislature; or, in other words, that each state should be entitled to a representation in the Senate, (whatever might be the number fixed on,) in proportion to its population, as in the House of Representatives. The smaller states, on the other hand, contended that the House of Representatives might be considered as the guardian of the liberties of the people, and therefore ought to bear a just proportion to their numbers; but that the Senate represented the sovereignty of the States, and that as each state, whether great or small, was equally an independent and sovereign state, it ought, in this branch of the legislature, to have equal weight and authority; without this, they said, there could be no security for their equal rights — and they would, by such a distribution of power, be merged and lost in the larger states.

This reasoning, however plain and powerful, had but little influence on the minds of delegates from the larger states — and as they formed a large majority of the Convention, the question, after passing through the forms of debate, was decided that ’each state should be represented in the Senate in proportion to its population.’

When the Convention had adjourned over to the next day, the delegates of the four smallest states, i.e., Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Delaware, convened to consult what course was to be pursued in the important crisis at which we had arrived. After serious investigation, it was solemnly determined to ask for a reconsideration the next morning; and if it was not granted, or if, when granted, that offensive feature of the Constitution could not be expunged, and the smaller states put upon an equal footing with the largest, we would secede from the Convention, and, returning to our constituents, inform them that no compact could be formed with the large states, but one which would sacrifice our sovereignty and independence.

I was deputed to be the organ through which this communication should be made — I know not why, unless it be that young men are generally chosen to perform rash actions. Accordingly, when the Convention had assembled, and as soon as the minutes of the last sitting were read, I arose and stated the view we had taken of the organization of the Senate — our desire to obtain a reconsideration and suitable modification of that article; and, in failure thereof, our determination to secede from the Convention, and return to our constituents.

This disclosure, it may readily be supposed, produced an immediate and great excitement in every part of the house! Several members were immediately on the floor to express their surprise, or indignation! They represented that the question had received a full and fair investigation, and had been definitively settled by a very large majority. That it was altogether unparliamentary and unreasonable, for one of the minority to propose a reconsideration, at the moment their act had become a matter of record, and without pretending that any new light could be thrown on the subject. That if such a precedent should be established, it would in future be impossible to say when any one point was definitively settled; as a small minority might at any moment, again and again, move and obtain a reconsideration. They therefore hoped the Convention would express its decided disapprobation by passing silently to the business before them.

There was much warm and some acrimonious feeling exhibited by a number of the speeches — a rupture appeared almost inevitable, and the bosom of Washington seemed to labor with the most anxious solicitude for its issue. Happily for the United States, the Convention contained some individuals possessed of talents and virtues of the highest order, whose hearts were deeply interested in the establishment of a new and efficient form of government; and whose penetrating minds had already deplored the evils which would spring up in our newly established republic, should the present attempt to consolidate it prove abortive. Among those personages, the most prominent was Dr. Franklin. He was esteemed the Mentor of our body. To a mind naturally strong and capacious, enriched by much reading and the experience of many years, he added a manner of communicating his thoughts peculiarly his own — in which simplicity, beauty, and strength were equally conspicuous. As soon as the angry orators, who preceded him had left him an opening, the doctor rose, evidently impressed with the weight of the subject before them, and the difficulty of managing it successfully.

“We have arrived, Mr. President,” said he, “at a very momentous and interesting crisis in our deliberations. Hitherto our views have been as harmonious, and our progress as great, as could reasonably have been expected. But now an unlooked for and formidable obstacle is thrown in our way, which threatens to arrest our course, and, if not skilfully removed, to render all our fond hopes of a constitution abortive. The ground which has been taken by the delegates of the four smallest states, was as unexpected by me, and as repugnant to my feelings, as it can be to any other member of this Convention. After what I thought a full and impartial investigation of the subject, I recorded my vote in the affirmative side of the question, and I have not yet heard anything which induces me to change my opinion. But I will not, therefore, conclude that it is impossible for me to be wrong! I will not say that those gentlemen who differ from me are under a delusion — much less will I charge them with an intention of needlessly embarrassing our deliberations. It is possible some change in our late proceedings ought to take place upon principles of political justice; or that, all things considered, the majority may see cause to recede from some of their just pretensions, as a matter of prudence and expediency. For my own part, there is nothing I so much dread, as a failure to devise and establish some efficient and equal form of government for our infant republic. The present effort has been made under the happiest auspices, and has promised the most favorable results; but should this effort prove vain, it will be long ere another can be made with any prospect of success. Our strength and our prosperity will depend on our unity; and the secession of even four of the smallest states, interspersed as they are, would, in my mind, paralyze and render useless, any plan which the majority could devise. I should therefore be grieved, Mr. President, to see matters brought to the test, which has been, perhaps too rashly threatened on the one hand, and which some of my honored colleagues have treated too lightly on the other. I am convinced that it is a subject which should be approached with caution, treated with tenderness, and decided on with candor and liberality.

“It is, however, to be feared that the members of this Convention are not in a temper, at this moment, to approach the subject in which we differ, in this spirit. I would, therefore, propose, Mr. President, that, without proceeding further in this business at this time, the Convention shall adjourn for three days, in order to let the present ferment pass off, and to afford time for a more full, free, and dispassionate investigation of the subject; and I would earnestly recommend to the members of this Convention, that they spend the time of this recess, not in associating with their own party, and devising new arguments to fortify themselves in their old opinions, but that they mix with members of opposite sentiments, lend a patient ear to their reasonings, and candidly allow them all the weight to which they may be entitled; and when we assemble again, I hope it will be with a determination to form a constitution, if not such an one as we can individually, and in all respects, approve, yet the best, which, under existing circumstances, can be obtained.” (Here the countenance of Washington brightened, and a cheering ray seemed to break in upon the gloom which had recently covered our political horizon.) The doctor continued: “Before I sit down, Mr. President, I will suggest another matter; and I am really surprised that it has not been proposed by some other member at an earlier period of our deliberations. I will suggest, Mr. President, the propriety of nominating and appointing, before we separate, a chaplain to this Convention, whose duty it shall be uniformly to assemble with us, and introduce the business of each day by an address to the Creator of the universe, and the Governor of all nations, beseeching Him to preside in our council, enlighten our minds with a portion of heavenly wisdom, influence our hearts with a love of truth and justice, and crown our labors with complete and abundant success!”

The doctor sat down, and never (said Gen. D.) did I behold a countenance at once so dignified and delighted as was that of Washington, at the close of this address! Nor were the members of the Convention, generally less affected. The words of the venerable Franklin fell upon our ears with a weight and authority, even greater than we may suppose an oracle to have had in a Roman senate! A silent admiration superseded, for a moment, the expression of that assent and approbation which was strongly marked on almost every countenance; I say almost, for one man was found in the Convention, Mr. H–, from –, who rose and said, with regard to the first motion of the honorable gentleman, for an adjournment, he would yield his assent; but he protested against the second motion, for the appointment of a chaplain. He then commenced a high-strained eulogium on the assemblage of wisdom, talent, and experience, which the Convention embraced; declared the high sense he entertained of the honor which his constituents had conferred upon him, in making him a member of that respectable body; said he was confidently of opinion that they were competent to transact the business which had been entrusted to their care — that they were equal to every exigence which might occur; and concluded by saying, that therefore he did not see the necessity of calling in foreign aid!

Washington fixed his eye upon the speaker, with a mixture of surprise and indignation, while he uttered this impertinent and impious speech, and then looked around to ascertain in what manner it affected others. They did not leave him a moment to doubt; no one deigned to reply, or take the smallest notice of the speaker, but the motion for appointing a chaplain was instantly seconded and carried; whether under the silent disapprobation of Mr. H–, or his solitary negative, I do not recollect. The motion for an adjournment was then put and carried unanimously, and the Convention adjourned accordingly.

The three days of recess were spent in the manner advised by Doctor Franklin; the opposite parties mixed with each other, and a free and frank interchange of sentiments took place. On the fourth day we assembled again, and if great additional light had not been thrown on the subject, every unfriendly feeling had been expelled; and a spirit of conciliation had been cultivated, which promised, at least, a calm and dispassionate reconsideration of the subject.

As soon as the chaplain had closed his prayer, and the minutes of the last sitting were read, all eyes were turned to the doctor. He rose, and in a few words stated, that during the recess he had listened attentively to all the arguments pro and con, which had been urged by both sides of the house; that he had himself said much, and thought more on the subject; he saw difficulties and objections, which might be urged by individual states, against every scheme which had been proposed; and he was now, more than ever, convinced that the constitution which they were about to form, in order to be just and equal, must be formed on the basis of compromise and mutual concession. With such views and feelings, he would now move a reconsideration of the vote last taken on the organization of the Senate. The motion was seconded, the vote carried, the former vote rescinded, and by a successive motion and resolution, the Senate was organized on the present plan.

Thus, my dear son, I have detailed, as far as my memory serves me, the information which I received personally from General Dayton. It has been done from a recollection of ten years, and I may have differed much from General Dayton in his phraseology, but I am confident I have faithfully stated the facts. I have related this anecdote at different times to gentlemen of information, to all of whom it was entirely new. Some of them requested me to furnish them a written copy, but I deemed that improper without the permission of General Dayton; and I intended, the first opportunity I should have, to make the same request of him — but the hand of death has removed him.

In committing this anecdote to paper, I have been actuated not only by a wish to gratify you, but by a desire to perpetuate the facts, if, as I fear, they are not elsewhere recorded. As they relate to a very important feature in our republican institutions, and to some of the most celebrated individuals who achieved our independence and framed our national government, they will, I am persuaded, be interesting to every lover of this happy country.

I am, very affectionately, Your father,

Wm. Steele.

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