Debates on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution

Author: Martin Luther  | Date: 1861

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A Dissentient’s Narrative (1787)


THE members of the Convention from the states came there under different powers; the greatest number, I believe, under powers nearly the same as those of the delegates of this state. Some came to the Convention under the former appointment, authorizing the meeting of delegates merely to regulate trade. Those of Delaware were expressly instructed to agree to no system which should take away from the states that equality of suffrage secured by the original Articles of Confederation. Before I arrived, a number of rules had been adopted to regulate the proceedings of the Convention, by one of which, seven states might proceed to business, and consequently four states, the majority of that number, might eventually have agreed upon a system which was to affect the whole Union. By another, the doors were to be shut, and the whole proceedings were to be kept secret; and so far did this rule extend, that we were thereby prevented from corresponding with gentlemen in the different states upon the subjects under our discussion—a circumstance, sir, which I confess I greatly regretted. . . . So extremely solicitous were they that their proceedings should not transpire, that the members were prohibited even from taking copies of resolutions, on which the Convention were deliberating, or extracts of any kind from the Journals, without formally moving for, and obtaining permission, by a vote of the Convention for that purpose.

You have heard [,] sir, the resolutions which were brought forward by the honorable member from Virginia. . . .

The object of Virginia and other large states, to increase their power and influence over the others, did not escape observation. The subject, however, was discussed with great coolness in the committee of the whole house, (for the Convention had resolved itself into a committee of the whole, to deliberate upon the propositions delivered in by the honorable member from Virginia.) . . . The propositions originally submitted to the Convention having been debated, and undergone a variety of alterations in the course of our proceedings, the committee of the whole house, by a small majority, agreed to a report . . .

These propositions, sir, were acceded to by a majority of the members of the committee—a system by which the large states were to have not only an inequality of suffrage in the first branch, but also the same inequality in the second branch, or Senate. . . . Having this inequality in each branch of the legislature, it must be evident, sir, that they would make what laws they pleased, however injurious or disagreeable to the other states, and that they would always prevent the other states from making any laws, however necessary and proper, if not agreeable to the views of those three states. They were not only, sir, by this system, to have such an undue superiority in making laws and regulations for the Union, but to have the same superiority in the appointment of the President, the judges, and all other officers of government.

Hence these three states would, in reality, have the appointment of the President, judges, and all other officers. . . . This President, so appointed by the three large states, and so unduly under their influence, was to have a negative upon every law that should be passed, which, if negatived by him, was not to take effect unless assented to by two thirds of each branch of the legislature—a provision which deprived ten states of even the faintest shadow of liberty . . .

When, contrary to our hopes, it was found that a majority of the members of the Convention had, in the committee, agreed to the system I have laid before you, we then thought it necessary to bring forward the propositions which such of us who had disapproved the plan before had prepared. The members who prepared these resolutions were principally of the Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland delegations. . . .

These propositions were referred to a committee of the whole house. . . .

The result of the reference of these last propositions to a committee, was a speedy and hasty determination to reject them. I doubt not, sir, to those who consider them with attention, so sudden a rejection will appear surprising; but it may be proper to inform you, that, on our meeting in Convention, it was soon found there were among us three parties of very different sentiments and views: —

One party, whose object and wish it was to abolish and annihilate all state governments, and to bring forward one general government over this extensive continent, of a monarchical nature, under certain restrictions and limitations. Those who openly avowed this sentiment were, it is true, but few; yet it is equally true, sir, that there was a considerable number who did not openly avow it, who were, by myself and many others of the Convention, considered as being in reality favorers of that sentiment, and, acting upon those principles, covertly endeavoring to carry into effect what they well knew openly and avowedly could not be accomplished. The second party was not for the abolition of the state governments, nor for the introduction of a monarchical government under any form; but they wished to establish such a system as could give their own states undue power and influence . . .

A third party was what I considered truly federal and republican. This party was nearly equal in number with the other two, and was composed of the delegations from Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and in part from Maryland; also of some individuals from other representations. This party, sir, were for proceeding upon terms of federal equality; they were for taking our present federal system as the basis of their proceedings, and, as far as experience had shown us that there were defects, to remedy those defects; as far as experience had shown that other powers were necessary to the federal government, to give those powers. They considered this the object for which they were sent by their states, and what their states expected from them. They urged that if, after doing this, experience should show that there still were defects in the system, (as no doubt there would be,) the same good sense that induced this Convention to be called, would cause the states, when they found it necessary, to call another; and if that convention should act with the same moderation, the members of it would proceed to correct such errors and defects as experience should have brought to light—that, by proceeding in this train, we should have a prospect at length of obtaining as perfect a system of federal government as the nature of things would admit.

On the other hand, if we, contrary to the purpose for which we were intrusted, considering ourselves as master-builders, too proud to amend our original government, should demolish it entirely, and erect a new system of our own, a short time might show the new system as defective as the old, perhaps more so. Should a convention be found necessary again, if the members thereof, acting upon the same principles, instead of amending and correcting its defects, should demolish that entirely, and bring forward a third system, that also might soon be found no better than either of the former; and thus we might always remain young in government, and always suffering the inconveniences of an incorrect, imperfect system.

But, sir, the favorers of monarchy, and those who wished the total abolition of state governments,—well knowing that a government founded on truly federal principles, the bases of which were the thirteen state governments preserved in full forge and energy, would be destructive of their views; and knowing they were too weak in numbers openly to bring forward their system; conscious, also, that the people of America would reject it if proposed to them,—joined their interest with that party who wished a system giving particular states the power and influence over the others, procuring, in return, mutual sacrifices from them, in giving the government great and undefined powers as to its legislative and executive; well knowing that, by departing from a federal system, they paved the way for their favorite object—the destruction of the state governments, and the introduction of monarchy. . . . From these different sentiments, and from this combination of interest, I apprehend, sir, proceeded the fate of what was called the Jersey resolutions, and the report made by the committee of the whole house.

The Jersey propositions being thus rejected, the Convention took up those reported by the committee, and proceeded to debate them by paragraphs. It was now that they who disapproved the report found it necessary to make a warm and decided opposition, which took place upon the discussion of the seventh resolution, which related to the inequality of representation in the first branch. . . .

. . . When driven from the pretence that the equality of suffrage had been originally agreed to on principles of expediency and necessity, the representatives of the large states persisted in a declaration, that they would never agree to admit the smaller states to an equality of suffrage. In answer to this, they were informed, and informed in terms the most strong and energetic that could possibly be used, that we never

would agree to a system giving them the undue influence and superiority they proposed . . .

At length, sir, after every argument had been exhausted by the advocates of equality of representation, the question was called, when a majority decided in favor of the inequality . . . Next day, the question came on with respect to the inequality of representation in the second branch; but little debate took place; the subject had been exhausted on the former question. On the votes being taken . . . the Convention being equally divided,—five states for the measure, five against, and one divided,—there was a total stand; and we did not seem very likely to proceed any farther. At length, it was proposed that a select committee should be balloted for, composed of a member from each state, which committee should endeavor to devise some mode of reconciliation or compromise. I had the honor to be on that committee. We met, and discussed the subject of difference. The one side insisted on the inequality of suffrage in both branches; the other side, equality in both. . . .

. . . However, the majority of the select committee at length agreed to a series of propositions by way of compromise,—part of which related to the representation in the first branch, nearly as the system is now published, and part of them to the second branch, securing in that equal representation,—and reported them as a compromise upon the express terms that they were wholly to be adopted or wholly to be rejected. . . . This report of the select committee was, after long dissension, adopted by a majority of the Convention, and the system was proceeded in accordingly. I believe near a fortnight—perhaps more—was spent in the discussion of this business, during which we were on the verge of dissolution, scarce held together by the strength of a hair, though the public papers were announcing our extreme unanimity. . . .

Agreeably to the Articles of Confederation, entered into in the most solemn manner, and for the observance of which the states pledged themselves to each other . . . no alterations are to be made in those Articles, unless, after they are approved by Congress, they are agreed to, and ratified, by the legislature of every state; but by the resolve of the Convention, this Constitution is not to be ratified by the legislature of the respective states, but is to be submitted to conventions chosen by the people, and, if ratified by them, is to be binding.

Jonathan Elliot, editor, (Philadelphia, etc., 1861), I, 345–387 passim.


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Chicago: Martin Luther, "A Dissentient’s Narrative (1787)," Debates on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, ed. Jonathan Elliot in American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. Albert Bushnell Hart (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1902), 229–232. Original Sources, accessed August 17, 2019,

MLA: Luther, Martin. "A Dissentient’s Narrative (1787)." Debates on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, edited by Jonathan Elliot, Vol. I, in American History Told by Contemporaries, edited by Albert Bushnell Hart, Vol. 3, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1902, pp. 229–232. Original Sources. 17 Aug. 2019.

Harvard: Luther, M, 'A Dissentient’s Narrative (1787)' in Debates on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, ed. . cited in 1902, American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. , The Macmillan Company, New York, pp.229–232. Original Sources, retrieved 17 August 2019, from