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Introduction to the Constitutional Convention

Quill 2016 Edition

Cite as: Introduction to the Constitutional Convention, Quill Project at Pembroke College (Oxford, accessed 2024)



The Quill Platform models Parliamentary processes by offering a flexible set of building blocks for recording document-related events (the creation, amendment, or copying of documents or other amendments), decision-related events (accepting or rejecting proposals, votes to refer to other committees and so forth), procedure-related proposals and lastly events relating to people that allow for the membership of various committees to be tracked. The platform is not, however, tied to any specific Parliamentary process.

The Constitutional Convention operated in the following way: a framework set of proposals, or suggested document (such as the famous ‘Virginia Plan’) would be offered to the Convention. This would be referred to a sub-committee—in the case of the Virginia Plan, the whole Convention sitting as a subordinate committee. This committee would work through the document section by section and clause by clause, and produce a report for the Convention to consider. The Convention would then work through this report, again amending section by section and clause by clause. In this way, everything would have been considered at least twice.

In a world of paper, quill and ink, this process created a significant record-keeping challenge, which it would have been the task of the secretary to manage. As the Convention or subcommittees worked through the documents referred to them, he would have had to write out the new text on clean sheets of paper. No doubt these sheets of paper rapidly became untidy and even hard to follow, and perhaps it is for this reason that they were not entrusted to Washington for safe-keeping but were instead deliberately destroyed. He appears to have kept a separate set of tables of voting, or at least decisions on each topic, as part of the official journal.

The editors have therefore used the Quill model in the following way. A document referred to a committee for discussion is not further amended, but is instead imagined as a document from which text is copied as each new clause is taken up for debate. It remains in the display, as it would have remained for members of the Convention on the desk of the secretary, as the document from which they are working. Although generally working through clauses in order, the members of the Convention allowed themselves to consider parts of the text out of sequence, usually only doing so after a formal vote to alter the order of business. Instead of editing a committee report directly, then, a new document is created to track the decisions of the committee members as they agree to each new piece of text, mirroring digitally what must have been the procedure on paper. These working documents are indicated throughout the presentation of these debates with ‘[Resolutions]’ as part of the name of the document, to distinguish them from the static versions of the documents from which the committees were working. Treating the records in this way accords with the advice given by Thomas Jefferson in his later Manual of Parliamentary Practice.

One critical issue, which affects how the model is displayed on the screen, is to note that it appears to have been the practice of the Convention to take up each paragraph of a long document for debate, consider a series of amendments and then vote on whether or not to accept the paragraph as amended. These votes are recorded in our sources in some cases and not in others—whether because of careless record-keeping or because it was simply the obvious mood of the room at times that no further vote needed to be taken. For this reason, in the model presented here, ‘taking up’ part of a document is represented as a proposed amendment to the base text, with then the individual clauses and sentences presented as second-level amendments on this base amendment. This allows for the vote to accept or reject the whole text to be recorded. In places where it is missing, it is inferred by the editors and clearly marked as such. As well as corresponding with the clues in the records that survive as to the way the process seems to have worked, this makes clear the structure of decision-making and allows for the most useful visual representations of the Convention’s work.

Nevertheless, creating ‘data’ from the complex and sometimes contradictory sources produced by the Federal Convention of 1787 has presented a number of challenges. The Quill platform seeks to represent the Convention as a series of discrete events, where the sources offer a picture of sometimes cacophonous proceedings. The rules created in May 1787 to govern the proceedings of the Convention suggest great formality: while at some moments these rules are observed to almost comical effect, at other times this formality can be harder to discern as debates and votes become muddled. The editorial team came to refer to ‘good days’ and ‘bad days’, as they sorted through the material.

On a good day in Convention, the members of the Convention would take up a document such as the Virginia Plan or the Report of the Committee of Detail, proto-constitutions organized neatly into sections and subsections, each dealing with a particular topic. They would debate each item of text as suggested by its proposer; they would go through a process of proposing, debating, and voting on amendments to that text; and then they would agree to the text, or agree to part of it, or vote to strike it out.

This procedure was relatively simple to capture within the Quill platform. Each new section, or ‘article’, is an amendment on the base text, and each sub-clause of that article is an amendment on that amendment. On a good day, an article is taken up, each of its sub-clauses taken up, amended, and voted on, and the article as amended agreed to; the next article is taken up, and the process goes on until the entire document has been amended to the liking of the Convention.

Even good days would, however, offer challenges. The record frequently refers to items of text being ‘struck out’, which in fact indicates a slightly convoluted procedure. Even Thomas Jefferson, in his 1801 manual of parliamentary practice, seems incapable of describing the method pithily. According to our understanding, each Committee would read resolutions off an original document and transcribe the parts as agreed and amended onto a clean working document. Confusingly, however, they would often vote to ‘strike out’ parts of the original text which had not yet been agreed. This appears to mean that they would take up a piece of text for debate and agree to reject it. We have represented this by proposing the piece of text as an amendment to the working document, then adding a motion to strike it out (including a decision to reject the amendment), which is then agreed (the vote to strike out).

Jefferson’s manual also addresses the complex question of dividing a motion. Often, a piece of the original text would be taken up, or a delegate would propose a new clause, but a question would be put on only a part of that clause – perhaps controversial wording would be left out, so as not to cause the entire clause to be rejected outright. Sometimes the Journal indicated a procedure by which each clause of a resolution was voted on individually, even if all of them were then agreed to unopposed. In this case, we might drop the entire amendment and propose a ‘working’ version to which the clauses would be added one by one as they were agreed. Alternatively, we would reduce the amendment to the clause in question by removing the rest of the text through an editorial amendment and vote, and then add the remaining text back in, if the committee decided to take a question on that part.

Even the most ordinary of days might also call for the addition of ‘editorial’ events---that is to say decisions that were not explicitly described in the sources but that must be inferred to make logical sense of the proceedings and to allow the computer to generate its reconstruction of the text. The Journal and Madison together laid out for us a fairly clear procedure controlling the amendment of texts and the running of committee sessions: sometimes, however, these procedures seemed so obvious to them that they did not record every step of the process. As a trivial example, it soon became clear to us that at the end of each session, a motion was put to adjourn, and a vote was taken on that motion. Usually, however, all that is recorded is, ‘The House adjourned.’ For this reason, a large majority of our motions and votes on adjournment are editorial, but there is sufficient evidence that votes were taken on motions to adjourn throughout the Convention that we feel confident in showing them in our timeline even where they are not recorded. Editorial intervention was also sometimes required to complete the process of amendment. For instance, it appears that the delegates, having voted on all of the sub-clauses of an article, would regard the article as adopted without formally voting on it: here, an editorial vote would be inserted to adopt the article into the text. The most convoluted of editorial procedures deals with the phenomenon of the delegates voting on a clause already adopted into the working document. In this case, an editorial motion and vote striking out the text would have to be put in, followed by a motion to put the text back in, which would then either be affirmed or ‘negatived’. Even here, we believe our model corresponds closely to the thinking of the delegates themselves. We show them considering a longer piece of text, and then abandoning the attempt to vote on the whole and considering it in smaller stages.

Difficulties in entering the data could largely be blamed on the limitations of the sources, including considerable discrepancies between different accounts regarding the ordering of events within a given committee session. While Madison, it appears, dutifully recorded events in the order in which they happened, Secretary William Jackson had a tendency to record only a selection of motions in the official journal, while jotting down a long stream of voting results. His major task, of course, was to keep track of the text on the desk in front of him rather than a concern with the creation of a record for posterity, and there is no indication of any contemporary frustration with his ability to do the former. In the formal records, he sometimes noted the questions to which these votes were attached, but only when he was feeling charitable. This list, much of the time, must have been help to him in the moment, and he saw little need to clarify it further—especially when it was not even clear at the time that the records of the Convention would be kept or destroyed when business was concluded.

Madison’s ordering of events usually appeared to us more reliable as we tried to reconcile the sources. The Journal was usually the best source of the exact wording of amendments, where Madison would often only record a heavily abbreviated sketch; then again, the Journal sometimes recorded motions as they were finally voted on, while Madison included the process of debate and amendment of new proposals which produced the final question.

While we have attempted to follow one or other of the sources as a guide to the ordering of events, some in a few committee timelines we have had to exercise a considerable latitude due to the difficulty in deciding the order of events. However, where we have adjudicated between sources in the construction of timelines, we have noted our choice and reasoning either in the descriptions or in the editors’ commentary attached to the relevant events.

The other significant difficulty with the sources was their use of language. The reader will quickly become acquainted with James Madison’s favourite Latin phrase, nemine contradicente: meaning ‘with no-one speaking against’, it is used to describe a unanimous vote (e.g., ‘The motion was agreed to nem. con.’). Madison also occasionally uses do. do., an abbreviation for ‘ditto’. As soon becomes clear to any reader of eighteenth-century sources, spelling and grammar could be irregular and indeed erratic. The editors have done their best to ensure that all spelling and grammatical mistakes are original to the sources.

In entering the data, it rapidly became clear that certain words held different meanings in 1787, and that the framers could be quite sloppy in their use of language. The word ‘clause’ could cause extreme confusion for the documentary editor: while the records usually used it in its grammatical sense, to refer to part of a sentence, it was sometimes used to refer to an entire section of text. The editors have done their best to distinguish between the two uses.

Eighteenth-century decorum also inflected the meaning of the word ‘postpone’. Usually, the postponement of a clause would mean, as expected, that it was put aside for the moment and taken up again later. But sometimes a question would come worded thus: ‘It was moved and seconded to postpone the consideration of clause X in order to take up the following’ – ‘the following’ being a substitute for clause X, often with a different or contradictory policy line. In other words, ‘postpone in order to consider’ seems to have been used as a polite alternative to ‘strike out and replace with’. Such ‘postponements’ have therefore been represented as substitutions of new text.

Another source of potential confusion was the word ‘reconsider’. Where this is literally meant, the platform does indeed have the ability to reconsider votes: a motion previously rejected can be adopted or vice versa, and the texts reconstructed will be adjusted accordingly. Sometimes, however, the word was used to mean simply ‘take up, debate and amend again’. Many ‘reconsiderations’ are simply modelled as amendments, therefore. It was also apparently acceptable to use the words ‘elect’ and ‘appoint’ interchangeably.

Each of Farrand’s sources has its own character, its own uses, and its own challenges. The structure of the Quill platform has put the Official Journal front and centre as the foundation of our reconstruction of the events of the Convention. Secretary William Jackson’s curt and dry minutes sometimes seem to have little to offer the narrative historian: his Convention includes no colourful characters and no speeches; he provides no political context for his endless list of proposals and votes, such that the Convention, seen through his record, can appear as a sequence of pedantic textual alterations and procedural squabbles. Nonetheless, while dull to read, this perspective is not necessarily unwelcome: the romantic image of the Convention as an arena for philosophical gladiators, battling through the medium of passionate speeches, may be tempered by Jackson’s record of procedure and pedantry, which clearly took up much of the delegates’ time.

Perhaps most importantly, the Journal provides a clear-cut skeleton of events from which to reconstruct the Convention. Where the diarists blur and summarize hours of work in their attempt concisely to record the issues discussed, in Jackson’s Journal, documentary amendments, votes, and procedural motions are all recorded as discrete events, offering an ideal basis for digitization.

The platform offers the historian access to an underused element of the Journal record: the Detail of Ayes and Noes, or vote counts. Jackson does not, of course, make life easy for the unfortunate who hopes to reconstruct a coherent timeline of events: while Madison records motions and debates in great detail, Jackson often falls back on recording only the vote count, with a scribbled note as to the topic under discussion, or no note at all, merely the numbers of ayes and noes. Farrand painstakingly identifies which votes, in light of the best evidence available, belong to which questions, but even that most dedicated of editors sometimes throws up his hands in despair at the impossibility of reconciling the dateless lists of vote counts with the questions recorded. Comparison with Madison’s Notes is often fruitless, as he tended to amend his own record of votes to align it with the Journal’s.

Nonetheless, the tabulated voting record provides reams of data, underused by historians, no doubt due to the extreme difficulty of deciphering the record, that can now be plotted and visualized, opening up important research questions in new ways: which states voted together on which questions; which issues and seemingly minor changes aroused opposition from which quarters.

The other major source used here to reconstruct the events of the Convention was Madison’s Notes. All items marked as later interpolations by Farrand have been included in the text. There is a certain amount of controversy over exactly when and why interpolations were made but it is beyond the scope of this project to address it here. Making the text readable and accessible was one of the key aims of the project. Our 2016 reconstruction of the Convention has been based on the Farrand 1911 texts, and we have deviated from that principle only with reluctance and in few places, clearly marked.

Moreover, our emphasis on the Journal record as the foundational source for the reconstruction of events is part of an attempt to shift the focus of interpretation away from those who were vocal in debate, and whose speeches Madison's record has made easy to understand for more than one-hundred and seventy years, towards those who acted more quietly. Robert Yates wrote in his diary on July 3rd 1787, of one of the rare occasions on which he spoke up in debate: ‘As I had not openly explained my sentiments on any former occasion on this question, but constantly in giving my vote, showed my attachment to the national government on federal principles, I took this occasion to explain my motives’. The delegate from New York illustrates powerfully, here, that showing quiet support for certain measures through seconding them or voting for them was the principal contribution of many of the delegates present, a contribution that is still under-acknowledged. The reconstruction presented here makes these more silent contributions easier to understand and explore, and makes the Constitution easier to understand as a corporate effort. The controversy over the exact content of speeches and choice of vocabulary to be found in Madison has relatively little bearing on our core reconstruction of the formal process of negotiation. We recommend that readers interested in the detail of the nature of Madison's record consult the recent work by Mary Bilder, in conjunction with the links to the manuscript material that we have made available throughout our timeline.

This is not to underplay the power of Madison’s account, which played an important role, in conjunction with the Journal, in the reconstruction of the events of the Convention. While it must be recognized that he amended his account liberally with changes and insertions taken from the Journal and other Convention diarists, his record must also be credited as the only one that achieves personality while avoiding parochialism: McHenry’s most detailed insights pertain to the internal machinations of the Maryland delegation, while Yates records only the way New York votes on a given question.

During the last few days of the Convention, in mid-September, the Journal record dried to a trickle: at this point, we were left to rely on Madison almost totally. His Notes include almost all of the motions proposed in a given session, sometimes outdoing the Journal in attention to detail. While the Journal tidies up the timeline, placing each motion with its corresponding vote, Madison’s account provides a reflection of the sometimes disjointed nature of proceedings, especially in times of controversy. He also meticulously provides the names of actors – speakers and, perhaps most significantly for our purposes, those who propose motions.

In general, we have attempted to use the source which originally recorded a given event, not a source which copied the account from elsewhere; and we have attempted to provide the most comprehensive and comprehensible account of each event, often using the sources in conjunction to achieve this.

In spite of the sometimes confusing nature of the proceedings, the delegates to the Convention clearly handled parliamentary procedure with great confidence. Very little time was spent discussing or laying down the rules of debate. Though Jefferson’s manual post-dates the Convention by some 14 years, it is evident from early on in the negotiations that the delegates had a process in mind for the production of these new articles. Documents were taken up by one committee, debated, amended, and referred on to a new committee to undergo the same process again. Questions of legal and literary expertise were referred to committees of specialists, such as the Committee of Detail and the Committee of Style. These groups of five had licence to make quick yet sometimes sweeping changes to documents as agreed in Convention. Contentious questions – that is, almost everything to do with the management of the institution of slavery – were referred to committees of eleven, including a member from each state delegation in attendance, who had the peace and quiet necessary to come up with answers on such issues as representation in the legislature and states’ rights on commercial taxation.

Perhaps reassuringly, in following the procedure above, we have not found it necessary to make any substantial edits or interpolations to the text of the documents themselves. The history of the final text of the Constitution can be completely accounted for, from beginning to end, and although the platform does have the ability to present places where the text is uncertain because of conflicts in the manuscripts, there were no discrepancies substantive enough to warrant it for the 2016 presentation of the records. Such variations as there are relate to extremely minor points of capitalization and spelling. The reconstruction offered here would not have been possible from any one of the surviving sources, but taken together and used systematically and rigorously, we believe they capture the complete work of the Convention’s formal business for all of the committees where Madison and Jackson were present. For other, smaller committees, we have been able to show the specific text that was given to them to consider and the report that they returned. These areas of darkness, however, are much smaller than might be assumed, and the process of producing this edition has generally reassured, rather than challenged, our confidence in the extant records.

N. P. Cole & Grace Mallon

Pembroke College, Oxford, October 2016

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