The Gerry Committee Report

1. Students of the American Founding are usually introduced to the partly national, partly federal nature of the Constitution through reading Federalist 39. In that essay, it is not completely clear where Madison (writing as Publius) stands on the five tests of federalism and nationalism to which he subjects the Constitution. At the Convention, Madison argues that the partly national, partly federal solution is unprincipled; what is his argument? Who at the Constitutional Convention understood the partly national, partly federal solution to rise to the level of principle, albeit a newly discovered principle? What kind of compromise is a 5–4–1 vote with three absent?
2. Reflect on the “dynamics” of the Convention between May 28 and the Report of the Gerry Committee. Who has “won,” and who has “lost” – or has everyone actually won by the time we get to July 16? (The Virginia Plan (1787); Introducing a Fateful Compromise (1787); The New Jersey Plan (1787); The Hamilton Plan (1787); Partly National, Partly Federal (1787); The Three-Fifths Clause Revisited (1787)).


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On July 2, there was a tie vote, 5-5-,1 on the motion of Connecticut delegate Oliver Ellsworth giving each State one vote in the second branch and proportional representation in the first branch.

It was time to compromise and move forward or admit deadlock and go home. The vote was 10-1 to commit to a committee of one member from each state. Only Pennsylvania voted “no.” Madison, firmly committed to proportional representation in both houses and skeptical that a committee would resolve the dispute, could not persuade his home state to vote “no.”

Despite the intransigence of Madison and the decided opinions of certain others, the overall mood of the Convention had shifted. Some of the former advocates for proportional representation were now willing to refer the problem to committee. Each state delegation selected its committee member. The composition of the committee tilted toward the federal principle of equal state representation in the second branch. Six were supporters of it in at least the second branch throughout June: Elbridge Gerry, who was chosen from Massachusetts over Rufus King and Nathaniel Gorham; Oliver Ellsworth, who would represent Connecticut; Robert Yates, who was chosen from New York; William Patterson, representing New Jersey; and Gunning Bedford, Jr., representing Delaware. Others on the committee had not yet declared a particular stance. The independent-minded Luther Martin was chosen over Daniel of St. Thomas Jennifer to represent Maryland, and Abraham Baldwin was chosen over William Houstoun for Georgia. The self-deprecating William Davie was chosen to represent North Carolina and the ever prudent Benjamin Franklin was chosen over Governor Morris and James Wilson to represent Pennsylvania. John Rutledge was elected from South Carolina. And George Mason, rather than Madison or John Blair or Edmund Randolph, was elected to represent Virginia.

On July 5, the Gerry Committee presented its report, which offered a compromise: if the second branch of the legislature had representation by states, the other would be given sole authority to originate all bills “raising or appropriating money.” This provision also became a subject of debate.

—Gordon Lloyd

Source: Gordon Lloyd, ed., Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 by James Madison, a Member (Ashland, Ohio: Ashbrook Center, 2014), 177-190.

July 2

In Convention, — On the question for allowing each State one vote in the second branch, as moved by Mr. ELLSWORTH, it was lost, by an equal division of votes, — Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, aye — 5; Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, no — 5; Georgia, divided (Mr. Baldwin aye, Mr. Houston, no),

Mr. PINCKNEY[1] thought an equality of votes in the second branch inadmissible. At the same time he was extremely anxious that something should be done, considering this as the last appeal to a regular experiment. Congress have failed in almost every effort for an amendment of the Federal system. Nothing has prevented a dissolution of it, but the appointment of this Convention; and he could not express his alarms for the consequence of such an event. He read his motion to form the States into classes, with an apportionment of Senators among them.

General PINCKNEY[2] was willing the motion might be considered. He did not entirely approve it. . . . Some compromise seemed to be necessary, the States being exactly divided on the question for an equality of votes in the second branch. He proposed that a Committee consisting of a member from each State should be appointed to devise and report some compromise.

Mr. L. MARTIN had no objection to a commitment, but no modifications whatever could reconcile the smaller States to the least diminution of their equal sovereignty.

Mr. SHERMAN.[3] We are now at a full stop; and nobody, he supposed, meant that we should break up without doing something. A committee he thought most likely to hit on some expedient.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS[4] thought a Committee advisable, as the Convention had been equally divided. He had a stronger reason also. The mode of appointing the second branch tended, he was sure, to defeat the object of it. What is this object? To check the precipitation, changeableness, and excesses, of the first branch. . . . Every man of observation had seen in the democratic branches of the State Legislatures, precipitation — in Congress, changeableness — in every department, excesses against personal liberty, private property, and personal safety. What qualities are necessary to constitute a check in this case? Abilities and virtue are equally necessary in both branches. Something more, then, is now wanted. In the first place, the checking branch must have a personal interest in checking the other branch. One interest must be opposed to another interest. Vices, as they exist, must be turned against each other. . . .

Doctor WILLIAMSON.[5] If we do not concede on both sides, our business must soon be at an end. He approved of the commitment, supposing that, as the Committee would be a smaller body, a compromise would be pursued with more coolness.

Mr. WILSON[6] objected to the Committee, because it would decide according to that very rule of voting[7] which was opposed on one side. Experience in Congress had also proved the inutility of Committees consisting of members from each State.

Mr. LANSING[8] would not oppose the commitment, though expecting little advantage from it.

Mr. MADISON opposed the commitment. He had rarely seen any other effect than delay from such committees in Congress. Any scheme of compromise that could be proposed in the Committee might as easily be proposed in the House; and the report of the Committee, where it contained merely the opinion of the Committee, would neither shorten the discussion, nor influence the decision of the House.

Mr. GERRY[9] was for the commitment. Something must be done, or we shall disappoint not only America, but the whole world. He suggested a consideration of the state we should be thrown into by the failure of the Union. We should be without an umpire to decide controversies, and must be at the mercy of events. What, too, is to become of our treaties — what of our foreign debts — what of our domestic? We must make concessions on both sides. Without these, the Constitutions of the several States would never have been formed.

On the question for committing, generally, — Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, aye — 9; New Jersey, Delaware, no — 2.

On the question for committing it “to a member from each state,” — Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, aye — 10; Pennsylvania, no — 1.

The Committee, elected by ballot, were, Mr. GERRY, Mr. ELLSWORTH, Mr. YATES, Mr. PATTERSON, Dr. FRANKLIN, Mr. BEDFORD, Mr. MARTIN, Mr. MASON, Mr. DAVIE, Mr. RUTLEDGE, Mr. BALDWIN.

That time might be given to the Committee, and to such as choose to attend to the celebrations on the anniversary of Independence, the Convention adjourned till Thursday.

July 5

In Convention, — Mr. GERRY delivered in, from the Committee appointed on Monday last, the following Report:

“The Committee to whom was referred the eighth Resolution of the Report from the Committee of the Whole House, and so much of the seventh as has not been decided on, submit the following Report:

“That the subsequent propositions be recommended to the Convention on condition that both shall be generally adopted.

“1. That in the first branch of the Legislature each of the States now in the Union shall be allowed one member for every forty thousand inhabitants, of the description reported in the seventh Resolution of the Committee of the Whole House: that each State not containing that number shall be allowed one member: that all bills for raising or appropriating money, and for fixing the salaries of the officers of the Government of the United States, shall originate in the first branch of the Legislature, and shall not be altered or amended by the second branch; and that no money shall be drawn from the public Treasury but in pursuance of appropriations to be originated in the first branch.

“2. That in the second branch, each State shall have an equal vote.”

Mr. GORHAM[10] observed, that, as the report consisted of propositions mutually conditional, he wished to hear some explanations touching the grounds on which the conditions were estimated.

Mr. GERRY[11]. The Committee were of different opinions, as well as the Deputations from which the Committee were taken; and agreed to the Report merely in order that some ground of accommodation might be proposed. Those opposed to the equality of votes have only assented conditionally; and if the other side do not generally agree, will not be under any obligation to support the Report.

Mr. WILSON thought the Committee had exceeded their powers.

Mr. MARTIN was for taking the question on the whole Report.

Mr. WILSON was for a division of the question; otherwise it would be a leap in the dark.

Mr. MADISON could not regard the privilege of originating money bills as any concession on the side of the small States. Experience proved that it had no effect. If seven States in the upper branch wished a bill to be originated, they might surely find some member from some of the same States in the lower branch, who would originate it. The restriction as to amendments was of as little consequence. Amendments could be handed privately by the Senate to members in the other House. Bills could be negatived, that they might be sent up in the desired shape. If the Senate should yield to the obstinacy of the first branch, the use of that body, as a check, would be lost. If the first branch should yield to that of the Senate, the privilege would be nugatory. Experience had also shown, both in Great Britain, and the States having a similar regulation, that it was a source of frequent and obstinate altercations. These considerations had produced a rejection of a like motion on a former occasion, when judged by its own merits. It could not, therefore, be deemed any concession on the present, and left in force all the objections which had prevailed against allowing each State an equal voice. He conceived that the Convention was reduced to the alternative of either departing from justice in order to conciliate the smaller States, and the minority of the people of the United States, or of displeasing these, by justly gratifying the larger States and the majority of the people. He could not himself hesitate as to the option he ought to make. The Convention, with justice and a majority of the people on their side, had nothing to fear. With injustice and the minority on their side, they had every thing to fear. It was in vain to purchase concord in the Convention on terms which would perpetuate discord among their constituents. . . . Harmony in the Convention was, no doubt, much to be desired. Satisfaction to all the States, in the first instance, still more so. But if the principal States comprehending a majority of the people of the United States, should concur in a just and judicious plan, he had the firmest hopes that all the other States would by degrees accede to it.

Mr. BUTLER[12] said he could not let down his idea of the people of America so far as to believe they would, from mere respect to the Convention, adopt a plan evidently unjust. He did not consider the privilege concerning money bills as of any consequence. He urged, that the second branch ought to represent the States according to their property.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS thought the form as well as the matter of the Report objectionable. It seemed, in the first place, to render amendment impracticable. In the next place, it seemed to involve a pledge to agree to the second part, if the first should be agreed to. He conceived the whole aspect of it to be wrong. He came here as a Representative of America; he flattered himself he came here in some degree as a Representative of the whole human race; for the whole human race will be affected by the proceedings of this Convention. He wished gentlemen to extend their views beyond the present moment of time; beyond the narrow limits of place from which they derive their political origin. If he were to believe some things which he had heard, he should suppose that we were assembled to truck and bargain for our particular States. He cannot descend to think that any gentlemen are really actuated by these views. We must look forward to the effects of what we do. These alone ought to guide us. Much has been said of the sentiments of the people. They were unknown. They could not be known. All that we can infer is, that, if the plan we recommend be reasonable and right, all who have reasonable minds and sound intentions will embrace it, notwithstanding what had been said by some gentlemen. . . .

But returning to the Report, he could not think it in any respect calculated for the public good. As the second branch is now constituted, there will be constant disputes and appeals to the States, which will undermine the General Government, and control and annihilate the first branch. . . . He wished our ideas to be enlarged to the true interest of man, instead of being circumscribed within the narrow compass of a particular spot. And, after all, how little can be the motive yielded by selfishness for such a policy? Who can say, whether he himself, much less whether his children, will the next year be an inhabitant of this or that State?

Mr. BEDFORD. . . . The condition of the United States requires that something should be immediately done. It will be better that a defective plan should be adopted, than that none should be recommended. He saw no reason why defects might not be supplied by meetings ten, fifteen or twenty years hence.

Mr. ELLSWORTH said, he had not attended the proceedings of the Committee,[13] but was ready to accede to the compromise they had reported. Some compromise was necessary; and he saw none more convenient or reasonable.

Mr. WILLIAMSON hoped that the expressions of individuals would not be taken for the sense of their colleagues, much less of their States, which was not and could not be known. He hoped, also, that the meaning of those expressions would not be misconstrued or exaggerated. He did not conceive that (Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS) meant that the sword ought to be drawn against the smaller States. He only pointed out the probable consequences of anarchy in the United States. A similar exposition ought to be given of the expressions of (Mr. GORHAM). He was ready to hear the Report discussed; but thought the propositions contained in it the most objectionable of any he had yet heard.

Mr. PATTERSON said that he had, when the report was agreed to in the Committee, reserved to himself the right of freely discussing it. He acknowledged that the warmth complained of was improper; but he thought the sword and the gallows little calculated to produce conviction. He complained of the manner in which Mr. MADISON and Mr. G. MORRIS had treated the small States.

Mr. GERRY. Though he had assented to the Report in the Committee, he had very material objections to it. We were, however, in a peculiar situation. We were neither the same nation, nor different nations. We ought not, therefore, to pursue the one or the other of these ideas too closely. If no compromise should take place, what will be the consequence? A secession he foresaw would take place; for some gentlemen seemed decided on it. Two different plans will be proposed, and the result no man could foresee. If we do not come to some agreement among ourselves, some foreign sword will probably do the work for us.

Mr. MASON. The Report was meant not as specific propositions to be adopted, but merely as a general ground of accommodation. There must be some accommodation on this point, or we shall make little further progress in the work. Accommodation was the object of the House in the appointment of the Committee, and of the Committee in the Report they had made. . . .

The first proposition in the Report for fixing the representation in the first branch, “one member for every forty thousand inhabitants,” being taken up, —

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS objected to that scale of apportionment. He thought property ought to be taken into the estimate as well as the number of inhabitants. Life and liberty were generally said to be of more value than property. An accurate view of the matter would, nevertheless, prove that property was the main object of society. . . .

Mr. RUTLEDGE. The gentleman last up had spoken some of his sentiments precisely. Property was certainly the principal object of society. If numbers should be made the rule of representation, the Atlantic States would be subjected to the Western.[14] He moved that the first proposition in the Report be postponed, in order to take up the following, viz.[15]: “That the suffrages of the several States be regulated and proportioned according to the sums to be paid towards the general revenue by the inhabitants of each State respectively: that an apportionment of suffrages, according to the ratio aforesaid shall be made and regulated at the end of — years from the first meeting of the Legislature of the United States, and at the end of every — years; but that for the present, and until the period above mentioned, the suffrages shall be for New Hampshire — , for Massachusetts — , &c.”

Col. MASON said, the case of new States was not unnoticed in the Committee: but it was thought, and he was himself decidedly of opinion, that if they made a part of the Union, they ought to be subject to no unfavorable discriminations. Obvious considerations required it.

Mr. RANDOLPH concurred with Mr. MASON.

On the question on Mr. RUTLEDGE’S motion, — South Carolina, aye — 1; Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, no — 9; Georgia, not on the floor.

  1. 1. Charles Pinckney of South Carolina
  2. 2. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina, an elder second cousin of Charles Pinckney
  3. 3. Roger Sherman of Connecticut
  4. 4. Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania
  5. 5. Hugh Williamson of North Carolina
  6. 6. James Wilson of Pennsylvania
  7. 7. by states
  8. 8. John Lansing, Jr. of New York
  9. 9. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts
  10. 10. Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts
  11. 11. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts
  12. 12. Pierce Butler of South Carolina
  13. 13. According to a footnote Madison made to his notes on the debates of July 5, Roger Sherman attended the Gerry committee meetings in the place of Ellsworth, who “was kept away by indisposition,” that is, a slight illness.
  14. 14. The Western States that Rutledge is probably referring to are the states to be carved out of the Northwest Territories ceded earlier primarily by Virginia. The Northwest Ordinance had been debated in the existing Confederation Congress during the 1780s and the debate was about to come to an end. The existing Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance a few days after July 5, 1787. Rutledge did not explain why he thought states arising in the then sparsely occupied western territory would subject the existing states to their will.
  15. 15. Abbreviation of the Latin videlicet: that is, namely
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