Elliot’s Debates: Volume 1

James Madison to Mr. Sparks, on G. Morris’s Course in the Federal Convention

Dated, Montpellier, April 8, 1831.

Dear Sir: I have duly received your letter of March 30th. In answer to your inquiries “respecting the part acted by Gouverneur Morris in the Federal Convention of 1787, and the political doctrines maintained by him,” it may be justly said that he was an able, an eloquent, and an active member, and shared largely in the discussions succeeding the 1st of July, previous to which, with the exception of a few of the early days, he was absent.

Whether he accorded precisely with the “political doctrines of Hamilton,” I cannot say. He certainly did not “incline to the democratic side,” and was very frank in avowing his opinions, when most at variance with those prevailing in the Convention. He did not propose any outline of a constitution, as was done by Hamilton; but contended for certain articles (a Senate for life particularly) which he held essential to the stability and energy of a government capable of protecting the rights of property against the spirit of democracy. He wished to make the weight of wealth balance that of numbers, which he pronounced to be the only effectual security to each, against the encroachments of the other.

The finish given to the style and arrangement of the Constitution fairly belongs to the pen of Mr. Morris; the task having, probably, been handed over to him by the chairman of the committee, himself a highly respectable member, and with the ready concurrence of the others. A better choice could not have been made, as the performance of the task proved. It is true that the state of the materials, consisting of a reported draft in detail, and subsequent resolutions accurately penned, and falling easily into their proper places, was a good preparation for the symmetry and phraseology of the instrument; but there was sufficient room for the talents and taste stamped by the author on the face of it. The alterations made by the committee are not recollected. They were not such as to impair the merit of the composition. Those, verbal and others, made in the Convention, may be gathered from the Journal, and will be found also to leave that merit altogether unimpaired.

The anecdote you mention may not be without a foundation, but not in the extent supposed. It is certain that the return of Mr. Morris to the Convention was at a critical stage of its proceedings. The knot, felt as the Gordian one, was, the question between the larger and the smaller states, on the rule of voting in the senatorial branch of the legislature; the latter claiming, the former opposing, the rule of equality. Great zeal and pertinacity had been shown on both sides, and an equal division of votes on the question had been reiterated and prolonged, till it had become not only distressing, but seriously alarming. It was during that period of gloom that Dr. Franklin made the proposition for a religious service in the Convention, an account of which was so erroneously given, with every semblance of authenticity, through the National Intelligencer, several years ago. The crisis was not over, when Mr. Morris is said to have had an interview and conversation with General Washington and Mr. Robert Morris, such as may well have occurred. But it appears that, on the day of his re-entering the Convention, a proposition had been made from another quarter to refer the knotty question to a committee, with a view to some compromise, the indications being manifest that sundry members from the larger states were relaxing in their opposition, and that some ground of compromise was contemplated, such as finally took place, and as may be seen in the printed Journal. Mr. Morris was in the deputation from the large state of Pennsylvania, and combated the compromise throughout. The tradition is, however, correct, that, on the day of his resuming his seat, he entered with anxious feelings into the debate, and in one of his speeches painted the consequences of an abortive result to the Convention, in all the deep colors suited to the occasion. But it is not believed that any material influence on the turn which things took could be ascribed to his efforts; for, besides the mingling with them some of his most disrelished ideas, the topics of his eloquent appeals to the members had been exhausted during his absence, and their minds were too much made up to be susceptible of new impressions.

It is but due to Mr. Morris to remark, that to the brilliancy of his genius he added—what is too rare—a candid surrender of his opinions when the lights of discussion satisfied him that they had been too hastily formed; and a readiness to aid in making the best of measures in which he had been overruled.

In making this communication, I have more confidence in the discretion with which it will be used, than in its fulfilment of your anticipations. I hope it will, at least, be accepted as a proof of my respect for your object, and of the sincerity with which I tender to you a reassurance of my cordial esteem and good wishes.

JAMES MADISON.

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Contents

General Overview

In 1787 and 1788, following the Constitutional Convention, a great debate took place throughout America over the Constitution that had been proposed.

In-Doors Debate

View in-depth studies of the Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York state ratifying conventions.

The Federal Pillars

View drawings of the federal pillars rising published by the Massachusetts Centinel during the ratification debate.

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The Stages of Ratification: An Interactive Timeline

View the six stages of the ratification of the Constitution with links to many other features on this site.

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Interactive Ratification Map

View interactive maps showing the breakdown of Federalist-Antifederalist strength at the state level during the Ratification debate.

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