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Day-by-Day Summary of the Massachusetts Ratifying Convention

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Introduction | Massachusetts Ratifying Convention | Massachusetts Amendment Proposals

Wednesday, January 9
Saturday, January 12, 1788

  • The appointment of convention committees and officers.
  • Discussion of contested elections.
  • Decision to locate the convention “in the representatives’ chamber.”[The delegates complained that the State House facilities were overcrowded. On January 17, the convention moved to the Long Lane Congregational Church.]

Monday, January 14, 1788

  • The delegates agreed to discuss each paragraph of the proposed Constitution before “any vote is taken expressive of the sense of the Convention, upon the whole or any part thereof.” (Before proceeding with a section-by-section consideration, the Convention agreed to invite Elbridge Gerry to attend from time to time to answer questions “respecting the passing of the Constitution.”)
  • Article I, Section 1: a “short conversation” on bicameralism took place.
  • Article I, Section 2
    • A “lengthy debate” took place on the electoral provisions of the House of Representatives. At times, however, the delegates wandered from the specific clause under consideration.
    • Mr. Sedgwick argued that two-year elections were consistent with liberty. But Dr. Taylor opposed biennial elections in favor of annual elections as well as rotation and recall. Mr. Sprague and Mr. Dawson approved of the section as it stood. Mr. White, however, opposed biennial elections in favor of more frequent elections.

Tuesday, January 15, 1788

  • Article I, Section 2, continued
    • The delegates resumed their consideration of this section with the understanding that pertinent digressions into other parts of the Constitution were acceptable.
    • Mr. Strong supported the section. Two-year terms, he said, was “a general concession” between those who wanted three years and those who wished to retain the custom of annual elections. Mr. Ames also supported biennial elections not as a mere compromise measure, but as “an essential security to liberty.” He stated the liberty principle thus: “the term of election must be so long, that the representative may understand the interests of the people, and yet so limited, that his fidelity may be secured upon their approbation.” A two-year term satisfies the liberty principle. Mr. Bowdoin supported two-year terms for federal representatives as distinct from state representatives. General Heath, Mr. Gore, Mr. King, Mr. Gorham, and Judge Dana. agreed. (Mr. Gerry accepted the invitation to attend the deliberations.)

Wednesday, January 16, 1788

  • Article I, Section 4——the time, place, and manner clause——was the focus of attention.
    • Mr. Strong supported this section on behalf of the preservation of the union: “there must be a general power to regulate general elections” in case certain states become negligent in sending representatives to the general government. Mr. Bishop, Col. Jones, and the Rev. Mr. Perley (who wished that Elbridge Gerry. was in the room) feared it gave an “unlimited” power to Congress and thus opened the door to abuse. Mr. Cabot supported the section on behalf of the equal representation of the people: it ensured that the House——representing the people of America——would be able to check the Senate——representing the various states. Mr. Parsons, Mr. J.C. Jones, and Dr. Jarvis agreed with Cabot.

Thursday, January 17, 1788

  • Article I, Section 4——the time, place, and manner clause—received further attention.
    • Mr. Turner opposed the clause: “I do not wish to give Congress a power which they can abuse…. I think it is a genuine power for Congress to perpetuate themselves.” Rev. Mr. West supported the section: it is not enough to say it is possible that Congress will abuse the power; the real test is it probable that Congress will do so? “May we not rationally conclude, that the persons we shall choose to administer it will be, in general, good men?” Gen. Thompson was surprised to hear a clergyman brush aside the obvious fallibility of human nature!
  • Article I, Section 2 occupied the attention of the delegates in the afternoon session.
    • The delegates returned to this section in order to debate the wisdom of not having “some qualification of property in a representative.” Mr. King noted that the qualification was proposed in the Philadelphia Convention but was contested by the delegates from Massachusetts. He found that property was not an adequate index of abilities.
    • They then turned to a discussion of “the three-fifths of all other persons clause.” Mr. King noted there has been “much misconception of this section. It is a principle of this Constitution, that representation and taxation should go hand in hand” Who are the three-fifths of other persons? “These persons are the slaves. By this rule are representation and taxation to be apportioned. And it was adopted, because it was the language of all America.”

Friday, January 18, 1788

  • Article I, Section 2 on taxation and representation continued.
    • Mr. Dawes was the only person to speak during the morning session. He “was very sorry to hear so many objections raised,” and reminded the delegates that the three-fifths clause pertained “only to the rule of apportioning taxes.” If delegates wanted to talk about the issue of “natural justice,” then they should look to Article I, Section 9 which permits Congress to prohibit the slave trade after 1808 and permits each state “to prohibit the introduction of slaves into its own territories. What could the Convention do more?” He concluded “we may say, that, though slavery is not smitten by an apoplexy, yet it has received a mortal wound, and will die of a consumption.”
    • Judge Dana., Messrs. King, Gore, Parsons., Widgery, Fuller, and Jones discussed the merits of providing Congress with the power of direct taxation. The session ended with a vote on Mr. Fuller’s motion to ask Gerry. for his opinion on what he saw as unequal treatment of Georgia and Massachusetts in terms of taxation and representation. According to the recorder: “a long and desultory debate ensued on the manner in which the answer should be given: it was at last voted that Mr. G reduce his answer to writing.”

Saturday, January 19, 1788

  • Article I, Section 2 was still on the table. But Mr. Singletary and Gen. Brooks began with a digression on whether or not sufficient attention had been paid to securing representatives of good character and then keeping them good when in office. Mr. Gerry‘s response was then read: “Georgia had increased in its numbers by emigration; and… would be soon entitled to the proportion assigned her.”
  • Article I, Section 3.
    • Mr. Ames supported the six-year terms for Senators as well as their election by state legislatures. The latter, in particular, is important for the preservation of the federal features of the republic and thus an obstacle to the consolidation of the states.
    • In the afternoon session, Col. Jones and Dr. Taylor opposed the six-year terms for Senators as too long: they “will forget their duty to their constituents.” Mr. King, however, supported the six-year Senate terms: “their duration is not too long for a right discharge of their duty.” Mr. Strong said that the construction of the Senate was difficult and that Mr. Gerry was a member of the committee that recommended six years.
    • Mr. Gerry rose, and informed the president that he was then preparing a letter on the subject in debate; and would set the matter in its true light; and which he wished to communicate. This occasioned considerable conversation, which lasted until the Convention adjourned.”

Monday, January 21, 1788

  • Article I, Section 4
    • Mr. Ames considered the time, place, and manner clause to be sufficiently discussed and clearly warranted. Judge Dana. initially thought this section to be dangerous. But, “I have altered my opinion.” Mr. Cooley and Dr. Taylor thought this section dangerous to liberty. Mr. King thought the section proper.[Toward the end of the morning session, much consternation was caused by the publication in the January 21, 1788 issue of the Boston Gazette of a piece by the Antifederalist author Centinel who warned that delegates who opposed ratification were being bribed by wealthy out-of-state supporters of the Constitution. This Boston-based Centinel is not to be confused with the better known Centinel from Pennsylvania who wrote some of the most coherent and influential Antifederalist essays.]
  • Article I, Section 5 and Section 6 concerning the keeping of journals and payment of representatives occupied the attention of the delegates during the early portions of the afternoon session.
  • Article I, Section 8 “containing the powers of Congress” received the most attention during the afternoon session.
    • Mr. King announced that “this is a very important clause” because it gives the power of the purse——the authority to lay and collect taxes——to Congress. Mr. Dawes supported the interstate and international commerce clause. Mr. Singletary opposed the section: “no more power could be given to a despot, than to give up the purse-strings of the people.” Gen. Thompson “abhors” the section and urges an adjournment “to see what our sister states will do.” Maj. Kingsley opposed the section because the Constitution had abandoned annual elections, rotation in office, and the power to recall.

Tuesday, January 22, 1788

  • Article I, Section 8 occupied the attention of the delegates throughout the day.
    • Judge Sumner supported the section: “why should we alarm ourselves with imaginary evils?” Mr. Gore also supported the section: the power to lay and collect taxes is “indispensably necessary to our peace and dignity.” Mr. Phillips, Mr. Gorham, Mr. Bowdoin, and Mr. Jones supported the section. On the other hand, Dr. Willard quoted “ancient history” to demonstrate how power corrupted the best of men and Mr. Randall and Mr. Symmes “feared a consolidation” and an abuse of delegated power.
    • A “long letter from the Hon. Mr. Gerry” was read and a “commotion” occurred on the floor.

Wednesday, January 23, 1788

  • Article I, Section 8 occupied the attention of the delegates for the entire day.
    • Mr. Pierce feared that Congress would use the power of direct taxation in time of peace as well as war. He was also concerned that the six-year term in the Senate was too long. Col. Thompson denied that the philosophy undergirding the Constitution is that “all power is retained which is not given,” thus the argument that there is no need for a Bill of Rights is a dangerous one.
    • Col. Varnum denied that a Bill of Rights was needed: Congress could only exercise expressed powers. Similarly, Mr. Choate denied that there would be a consolidation of the union. According to Mr. Bowdoin, in a speech covering eight pages of Elliot’s Debates, investing “great power in Congress… is a most cogent reason for accepting the Constitution.” Remember the inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation. Moreover, there are sufficient checks and precautions to restrain the abuse of power. Finally, “with regard to rights, the whole Constitution is a declaration of rights.” He invited the delegates to adopt the Constitution and thus add the Massachusetts pillar to “the temple of American liberty.”
    • Mr. Parsons, in a speech covering six pages of Elliot’s Debates, concluded the morning session with an overall defense of the structural and power components of Article I. In the afternoon session, a motion by Mr. Nason to replace a paragraph by paragraph consideration of the Constitution with an “at large” framework “met with warm opposition.”

Thursday, January 24, 1788

  • Nason reintroduced his motion to consider the whole rather than the parts on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis. Its defeat “created a momentary agitation in the Convention, which, however, after a short conversation, subsided.”
  • Article I, Section 8 occupied the attention of the delegates for the rest of the day.
    • Mr. Sedgwick supported the section: “every possible provision against an abuse of power was made.” Mr. Dawes supported the raising and supporting of standing armies by Congress.
    • The afternoon session began with a discussion of the ten-mile square clause. The conversation degenerated.
    • According to the Recorder: “several other gentlemen spoke, in a desultory conversation, on various parts of the Constitution; in which several articles from the constitution of this state, and the Confederation, were read; many questions asked the honorable gentlemen who framed the Constitution, to which answers apparently satisfactory were given.”

Friday, January 25, 1788

  • Article I, Section 8 officially occupied the attention of the delegates during the morning session, and the early part of the afternoon session, but the conversation digressed, from time to time, into the meaning of the Revolution and to other clauses of the Constitution.
    • Mr. Singletary objected to the powers of Congress; the danger of the power to tax reminded him of the abuses under the former British Leviathan government. Mr. Smith supported the section as part of his defense of the Constitution as a bulwark against anarchy. “Some gentlemen think,” he said, “that our liberty and property are not safe in the hands of moneyed men, and men of learning. I am not of that mind.”
    • During the first part of the afternoon session, Mr. Widgery remarked: “Enough has, I think, been said on the 8th section.”
  • Article I, Section 9 was considered during the last part of the afternoon session.
    • The delegates focused on the 1808 slave trade clause. The debate was between those who thought the Philadelphia Convention had provided for the continuation of the slave trade for another twenty years and those who considered “the step taken in this article towards the abolition of slavery was one of the beauties of the Constitution.”

Saturday, January 26, 1788

  • Article I, Section 9
    • “Both sides deprecated the slave trade in the most pointed terms.” Mr. Adams “rejoiced that a door was now to be opened for the annihilation of this odious, abhorrent practice, in a certain time.”
    • Mr. Adams defended the power to suspend writ of habeas corpus, but only “in cases of rebellion or invasion.”

Monday, January 28 and Tuesday, January 29, 1788

  • Article II and Article III
    • According to the Recorder, every section “was objected to by those who were opposed to the Constitution; and the objections were obviated by gentlemen in favor of it. We do not think it essential to go into a minute detail of the conversation; as, in the speeches on the grand question, the field is again gone over. We can only say that, with the utmost attention, every objection, however trifling, was answered, and that the unremitted endeavors of gentlemen who advocated the Constitution, to convince those who were in error, were not without effect. The main objections to the judiciary power are contained in the following speech delivered on Wednesday.”

Wednesday, January 30, 1788

  • Article III
    • Mr. Holmes argued that the Constitution failed to protect the right to a fair trial by jury and other rights of the accused from a Congress inclined to act like the Spanish Inquisition. Mr. Gore responded: “it had been the uniform conduct of those in opposition to the proposed form of government, to determine, in every case where it was possible that the administrators thereof could do wrong, that they would do so, although it were demonstrable that such a wrong would be against their own honor and interest, and productive of no advantage to themselves.”
    • Mr. Dawes “did not see that the right of trial by jury was taken away by the article.” He then asked one of the most important and frequently raised questions of the ratification struggle: “Why is not the Constitution as explicit in securing the right of trial in civil as in criminal cases? The answer is, because it was out of the power of the Convention.”
    • The remarks of Gen. Heath are illuminating. He had “lost several important opportunities,” to be illuminated by the discussions due to “indisposition and absence.” But it was the slave trade clause that deeply concerned him. “Two questions naturally arise: [1] If we ratify the Constitution, do we do anything by our act to hold the blacks in slavery? Or [2] shall we become the partakers of other men’s sins. I think neither of them—the federal Convention went as far as they could.”
  • Article V
    • Mr. King praised the amendment process: “produce an instance, in any other national constitution, where the people had so fair an opportunity to correct any abuse which might take place in the future administration of the government under it.” Dr. Jarvis concurs and adds: “it is clearly more difficult for twelve states to agree to another convention, than for nine to unite in favor of amendments, so it is certainly better to receive the present Constitution, in the hope of it being amended, than it would be to reject it altogether, with, perhaps, the vain expectation of obtaining another more agreeable than the present.”

Thursday, January 31, 1788

  • Article VI
    • The Recorder frames the question under consideration thus: Is the no religious qualifications for office test “a departure from the principles of our forefathers?” Does it underscore an inattention to the possible corruption of morals? Or should it be applauded for its liberality as opposed to the impropriety “of the requisition of a test, as practiced in Great Britain and elsewhere?”
    • Rev. Shute supported the restriction on religious tests: “In this great and extensive empire, there is, and will be, a great variety of sentiments in religion.” Col. Jones, however, believed “that the rulers ought to believe in God or Christ.”
  • Article VII
  • The Recorder declares “the conversation on the Constitution, being ended, Mr. Parsons moved, that this Convention do assent to, and ratify, this Constitution”.
  • Before “the grand question being put,” Gen. William Heath from Roxbury floats the draft idea of what we shall call “The Massachusetts Compromise”: ratify now, and amend later. “Every exertion should be made,” he said, to secure unanimity within the convention and across the land. Concerning the opponents, “is there not a way in which their minds may be relieved from embarrassment? I think there is.” He suggests 1) the delegates ratify of the Constitution and 2) “instruct our first members in Congress to exert their endeavors to have such checks and guards provided as appear to be necessary in some of the paragraphs of the Constitution,” and 3) request “the concurrence” of sister states.
  • President Hancock said he would introduce a motion in the afternoon session that attempted to “remove the objections of some gentlemen.”
  • In the afternoon session, Hancock said that he had frequent conversations with those who opposed the Constitution and arrived at a proposition aimed “to remove the doubts and quiet the apprehensions of gentlemen.” He proposed that:
    • As it is the opinion of this Convention, that certain amendments and alterations in the said Constitution would remove the fears and quiet the apprehensions of many of the good people of the commonwealth, and more effectually guard against an undue administration of the federal government, the Convention do therefore recommend that the following alterations and provisions be introduced into the said Constitution:
      • First. That it be explicitly declared, that all powers not expressly delegated by the aforesaid Constitution are reserved to the several states, to be by them exercised.
      • Secondly. That there shall be one representative to every thirty thousand persons, according to the census mentioned in the Constitution, until the whole number of representatives amounts to two hundred.
      • Thirdly. That Congress do not exercise the powers vested in them by the 4th section of the 1st article, but in cases where a state shall neglect or refuse to make the regulations therein mentioned, or shall make regulations subversive of the rights of the people to a free and equal representation in Congress, agreeably to the Constitution.
      • Fourthly. That Congress do not lay direct taxes, but when the moneys arising from the impost and excise are insufficient for the public exigencies, nor then, until Congress shall have first made a requisition upon the states, to assess, levy, and pay their respective proportion of such requisitions, agreeably to the census fixed in the said Constitution, in such way and manner as the legislatures of the states shall think best, and, in such case, if any state shall neglect or refuse to pay its proportion, pursuant to such requisition, then Congress may assess and levy such state’s proportion, together with interest thereon, at the rate of six per cent. per annum, from the time of payment prescribed in such requisitions.
      • Fifthly. That Congress erect no company with exclusive advantages of commerce.
      • Sixthly. That no person shall be tried for any crime, by which he may incur an infamous punishment, or loss of life, until he be first indicted by a grand jury, except in such cases as may arise in the government and regulation of the land and naval forces.
      • Seventhly. The Supreme Judicial Federal Court shall have no jurisdiction of causes between citizens of different states, unless the matter in dispute, whether it concern the realty or personality, be of the value of three thousand dollars at the least; nor shall the federal judicial powers extend to any action between citizens of different states, where the matter in dispute, whether it concern the realty or personality, is not of the value of fifteen hundred dollars at the least.
      • Eighthly. In civil actions between citizens of different states, every issue of fact, arising in actions at common law, shall be tried by a jury, if the parties, or either of them, request it.
      • Ninthly. Congress shall at no time consent that any person holding an office of trust or profit, under the United States, shall accept of a title of nobility, or any other title or office, from any king, prince, or foreign state.
  • Mr. Adams: “A proposal of this sort, coming from Massachusetts, from its importance, will have its weight” in having “a salutary effect throughout the Union. It is of the greatest importance that America should still be united in sentiment.” Adams moved, and it was seconded, to consider recommended amendments in contrast to no amendments at all or conditional amendments. He was disturbed by the dissent in Pennsylvania and hoped that the measure would “have great weight in other states, where Conventions have not yet met.”

Friday, February 1, 1788

  • Hancock’s Recommended Amendments still under consideration.
    • Mr. Bowdoin expressed “his hearty approbation of the amendments.” He then launched on a reflective commentary that takes up five pages of Elliot’s Debates, on the necessity of union based on the works of Montesquieu.
    • Conversation regarding the propriety of amendments and whether they should be recommended or conditional continued.
    • Mr. Adams supports the amendment proposal. The First, Adams says, “appears to my mind, to be a summary of a bill of rights, which gentlemen are anxious to obtain. It removes a doubt which many have entertained respecting the matter, and gives assurance that, if any law made by the federal government shall be extended beyond the power granted by the proposed Constitution, and inconsistent with the constitution of this state, it will be an error, and adjudged by the courts of law to be void.”
    • Mr. Nason opposed the proposed amendments because he opposed the Constitution itself. The “we the people” clause in the Preamble of the Constitution goes “to an annihilation of the state governments, and to a perfect consolidation of the whole Union.” He proceeded, over the next four pages of Elliot’s Debates, to list the familiar list of Antifederalist objections found in the pamphlet literature.
    • Judge Sumner supported the amendments. Mr. Widgery thought them impossible to enforce.
    • Judge Dana, in the afternoon session, “advocated the proposition submitted by his excellency, the president.”
    • According to the Recorder: “Several gentlemen said a few words each, on the proposition of amendments, which it was acceded to, by gentlemen opposed to the Constitution, was good, but that it was not probable it would be interwoven in the Constitution. Gentlemen on the other side said there was a great probability that it would, from its nature, be also recommended by the several conventions which have not yet convened.”

Saturday, February 2, 1788

  • Hancock’s Recommended Amendments still under consideration.
    • Mr. Strong supported the amendments; it was “his firm belief that, if it was recommended by the Convention, it would be inserted in the Constitution.”
    • Several delegates expressed their opinion on amendments.
    • A committee, consisting of two from each county, was created to consider the amendments.

Monday, February 4, 1788

  • Hancock’s Recommended Amendments still under consideration.
    • Mr. Thatcher, in a speech on the powers of government that covers six pages in Elliot’s Debates, supported the Constitution. “A continent, wide and extended, may be happy or wretched, according to our judgment.”
    • Major Lusk wondered about the authority of the convention to propose amendments and, anyway, he doubted that “the insertion of amendments” would occur in the First Congress. He took the opportunity to criticize 1) Article I, Section 9 for not going far enough to alleviate slavery and 2) the no religious test clause of Article VI. “Popery and the Inquisition may be established in America.”
    • Rev. Mr. Backus supported the lack of a religious test as a way of avoiding the establishment of any religion. As for the slave trade clause, it is an improvement over the Articles that made no provision whatsoever and now a door has been opened.
    • Dr. Jarvis believed the convention derived the authority to propose amendments from the people themselves, whose “aggregate sense, on this point, can only be determined by the voices of the majority of this Convention.” Moreover, amendments were possible and likely to be accepted in the first Congress and this way of proceeding does not impact the five states that have already adopted the Constitution. “The remaining seven states will have our example before them; and there is a high probability that they… will take our conduct as a precedent.”

Tuesday, February 5, 1788

  • Mr. Ames, in a speech that covered five pages of Elliot’s Debates, noted that “the nature of the debate is totally shifted, and the inquiry is now not what the Constitution is, but what degree of probability there is that the amendments will hereafter be incorporated into it.” It is said that the Convention has “no right to propose amendments. This is the fullest representation of the people ever known, and if we may not declare their opinion, and upon a point for which we have been elected, how shall it ever be known?” He supports ratification with recommended amendments over against rejection of the plan or acceptance subject to conditional amendments.
  • Mr. Barrell, a “plain husbandman,” believed that the Constitution bestowed on Congress “more extensive powers than ever Great Britain exercised over us.” He requested an adjournment that he might consult with his constituents. [This request was denied in the afternoon session.]
  • “Gentlemen spoke in a desultory conversation on the amendments.”

Wednesday, February 6, 1788

  • Mr. Stillman, in a speech that covers seven pages of Elliot’s Debates, called for ratification for the sake of the Union. He cites Edmund Randolph‘s October 10, 1787 letter to the Virginia House of Delegates: despite his objections, “if, after our best efforts for amendments, they cannot be obtained, I scruple not to declare—that I will, as an individual citizen, accept the Constitution.”
  • Mr. Turner introduced the afternoon session. “A constitution preferable to the Confederation must be obtained, and obtained soon, or we shall be an undone people.” He adds that “without the prevalence of Christian piety and morals, the best republican constitution can never save us from slavery and ruin.”
  • Mr. Symmes, given the possibility of subsequent amendment: “I recall my former opposition, such as it was, to the Constitution.”
  • John Hancock, President of the Convention, gave closing remarks: “the question before you is such as no nation on earth, without the limits of America, has ever had the privilege of deciding upon.”
  • The Ratification of the Constitution with the provided amendments is read. Yeas, 187. Nays, 168
  • After the vote, Mr. White, Mr. Widgery, Mr. Whitney, Mr. Cooley, and Dr. Taylor—all had voted to oppose ratification—declared their support for the new Constitution.

Thursday, February 7, 1788

  • Major Nason, Mr. Randal, and Major Swain—all had voted to oppose ratification—declared their support for the new Constitution.