George Washington and the Virginia Delegation
Major Themes at the Constitutional Convention
What role did Washington play within the Virginia delegation?
Washington’s presiding role over the convention as a whole is often said to have been decisive in ensuring the convention’s success. I would argue that Washington’s participation in the Virginia delegation was equally important. Washington worked to keep the Virginia delegation unified. Late in the Convention, when the delegation split over whether to endorse certain key compromises, Washington spoke privately with the dissenting delegates. When his private persuasions failed, Washington cast deciding votes in favor of compromise. We can see Washington’s pivotal role when we consider the following series of events:
How did the Virginia delegation shape the debate at the Constitutional Convention?
- As the first state to select delegates to the Grand Convention and the state that took the lead in encouraging other states to do the same, Virginia arrived in Philadelphia before any other delegation. They proceeded to wait ten days for a quorum of seven states to be achieved, during this time finalizing the “Virginia Plan,” which Randolph presented to the Convention on May 29. Although one of Virginia’s delegates—Wythe—left in early June, the remaining delegates—Washington, Blair, Madison, Mason, McClurg, and Randolph—remained united in their approach to the Convention process until mid-July.
What was Washington’s role in the Virginia delegation’s debates regarding the Connecticut Compromise?
- With the passage of the Connecticut Compromise on July 16, and the creation of the Committee of Detail at the end of July, Dr. McClurg returned to his medical practice in Virginia. By then strains were developing in the delegation. Virginia voted no on the Connecticut Compromise that was adopted by the Convention; but it was the alliance of Madison, Blair, and McClurg that carried the no vote. Mason voted yes; he was part of the Compromise Committee, and certainly by the next day, Randolph came to agree with Mason that it was best to forge ahead.
- The Connecticut Compromise had three parts: a) equal representation for people in the House, b) equal representation for the states in the Senate and c) money bills to be introduced only in the House, without the possibility of amendment by the Senate. This third component was critical in persuading Mason and Randolph to deviate from the Virginia Plan.
- The Virginia delegation’s unity unraveled further in August. They divided on August 8 and 9 when Madison attempted to remove the third feature of the Compromise. Mason said that to “strike out this section was to unhinge the compromise of which it made a part.” Randolph said that the removal would lead to “endangering the success of the plan.” Yet most of the state delegations were ready to drop the third feature of the Connecticut Compromise; they voted 7 yes, 4 no to strike it. The Virginia delegation—now down to five members—voted to strike. The internal Virginia vote must have been 3–2. That could only have happened if Washington sided with Madison and Blair over against Mason and Randolph.
- Randolph refused to accept defeat. On August 11, he persuaded the Convention to reconsider the August 8 vote to strike, and the issue was debated thoroughly on August 13. While Mason and Randolph saw principle to be at sake, Madison said nothing of principle was at stake, and Dickinson observed that “experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us.”
- On August 13, a vote was taken as to the “exclusive originating of money bills in the House of Representatives.” Madison gives the vote tally, detailing the vote within the Virginia delegation, which now reversed its position—due to Washington’s change of position. Madison adds a footnote explaining Washington’s reasons:
New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Virginia, (Mr. BLAIR and Mr. MADISON, no; Mr. RANDOLPH, Colonel MASON, and General WASHINGTON,* aye;) North Carolina, aye, — 4; Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, South Carolina, Georgia, no, — 7. [The motion failed, 7 to 4].
*He disapproved and till now voted against the exclusive privilege [of originating and amending money bills in the House, but] he gave up his judgment, he said, because it was not of very material weight with him, and was made an essential point with others, who, if disappointed, might be less cordial in other points of real weight.
I would call this vote switch by Washington the action of a prudent leader. At this point in the Convention process, he hoped to keep Randolph and Mason on board and willing to sign the final document, so long as no fundamental principle had been violated. But Randolph and Mason held out for more.
What was Washington’s role in the Virginia delegation’s debates regarding ratification?
On August 31, September 5, 8, and 10, the delegates, especially the Virginia delegates, divided over ratification procedures. Should ratification be by state legislatures or state conventions, and if by conventions, how many should say “yes” for ratification? What would be the role of these conventions? Could they propose amendments? What about the role of the existing Congress? Could it make alterations? Should there be a Second Grand Convention where all these things would be pulled together?
- Randolph and Mason wanted maximum flexibility; otherwise, they would refuse to sign. On September 10, Randolph gave 12 reasons why he couldn’t sign, including the “smallness of the number of the Representative branch.” He stated his objections could only be overcome by following a long ratification route through the Congress, the states, and back to a second convention. Mason urged the delegates to see what they could do to accommodate Randolph, but on September 12 he issued 16 reasons why he, too, couldn’t sign the Constitution.
- Mason and Randolph repeated their objections on September 15. Randolph, seconded by Mason, moved that if the delegates agreed “with the expedient of another Convention as proposed, he could sign.” Madison reports: “On the question, on the proposition of Mr. Randolph, all the States answered, no.” Virginia could only have voted no if Washington now sided with Madison and Blair over against Mason and Randolph.
- The last three lines of Madison’s Notes on the 15th are worth citation: “On the question to agree to the Constitution, as amended, all the States, aye. The Constitution was then ordered to be engrossed, and the House adjourned.” The state delegations had reached a final consensus.
In the vote on the ratification procedure, Washington showed himself willing to sacrifice the support of Randolph and Mason in order to preserve the state delegations’ hard-won agreement that their work was finished. Had Washington not voted against Randolph and Mason, Virginia could not have voted “aye.” Even so, on the last day, September 17, Washington reached out privately to Randolph. Also, during the short final debate of the convention, Washington rose for the first time to state his own opinion. He supported a motion by Gorham of Massachusetts that the delegates increase the size of the representative branch. The delegates agreed, but it was not enough to get Randolph and Mason to sign.