2 autograph notebooks signed in text ("John Lansing Jun"; "Lansing"), written in Philadelphia, 2 June–10 July 1787, being John Lansing's notes taken at the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention during his attendance thereat, neatly written with few corrections and emendations and likely expanded in the evenings from rough notes taken during the sessions in the manner later described by Pennsylvania delegate Gouverneur Morris ("Some gentlemen, I was told, passed their evenings in transcribing speeches from shorthand minutes of the day").
Notebook 1. 71 pages (7 1/4 x 4 3/8 in.; 184 x 111 mm) written recto and verso on 36 leaves (watermarked j d & b), gathered in 2s (and mostly interleaved with dusty-pink blotting leaves), sewn through the central fold into stiff buff wrappers, with autograph title on front cover ("Proceedings of Convention. No. 1"), comprising entries from 25 May through 16 June, as well as transcriptions of the Report of the Committee of the Whole and the Virginia Plan as amended by the Committee of the Whole (the entries prior to 2 June are based on Lansing's study of the notes of delegate Robert Yates). Covers worn, inner hinges reinforced with cloth tape.
Notebook 2. 84 pages (4 x 6 3/8 in.; 101 x 162 mm) written recto and verso on 43 leaves (unwatermarked), gathered in 4s and bound, with 45 blank leaves, in contemporary sheep, with autograph title on front free endpaper ("Proceedings of Convention No. 2"), comprising entries from 18 June through 9 July, as well as transcriptions of Alexander Hamilton's Plan ("Colonel Hamilton's System") and the text of Elbridge Gerry's committee report of 5 July 1787, together with a three-page listing of delegates to the Convention arranged by state (only 53 names are listed, since the New Hampshire delegations did not arrive until after Lansing had left Philadelphia). Extremities rubbed, repair to head and foot of spine.
The two notebooks housed in a half blue morocco slipcase gilt, with a chemise fitted with recessed compartments.
A unique and independent witness to the proceedings and debates of the Constitution Convention of 1787.
One of a handful of surviving contemporary records of the Grand Federal Convention, providing an effective corroborative source for James Madison's notes and the official Journal of the Convention.
I. The Articles of Confederation and the Annapolis Convention
The first written constitution of the United States was the Articles of Confederation, drafted by a committee of the second Continental Congress in June 1776 and approved by the full Congress in November 1777. Although the Articles were not formally ratified until 1 March 1781, they were the basis of the system of government for the thirteen states throughout the Revolutionary War. Indeed, Congress had drafted the Articles and submitted them for ratification in order to yoke the individual states into a "confederacy for securing the freedom, sovereignty, and independence of the United States."
Once independence had been achieved, however, the Articles of Confederation proved ineffective and insufficient for a national compact. The Articles granted the Federal government the ability to wage war, to negotiate treaties and other international diplomatic alliances, and to resolve questions regarding the allocation of western territories. All rights and powers not specifically ceded to the federal government were retained by the thirteen states, which operated largely as independent and sovereign bodies.
At the behest of the Virginia legislature, the states were invited to a convention at Annapolis, Maryland, in September 1786 to discuss and repair the shortcomings of the Articles, which had left the nascent nation without a chief executive, a tax base, a judicial system, or the ability to regulate trade and commerce among the states. Delegates from only five states attended what is now known as the Annapolis Convention, but which was officially called the Meeting of Commissioners to Remedy Defects of the Federal Government: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, in addition to Virginia (four other states had appointed delegates who were not able to reach Annapolis by the proscribed date).
With such a modest representation, the twelve commissioners were unable to suggest any specific alterations to the Articles, but they hoped to stir the larger Congress to action. And on 21 February 1787, the Confederation Congress—concurring with a report submitted by John Dickinson from the Annapolis Convention that the inefficiencies of the federal government threatened the stability of the nation—resolved "that in the opinion of Congress it is expedient that on the second Monday in May next a convention of delegates who shall have been appointed by the several states be held at Philadelphia for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation and reporting to Congress and the several legislatures such alterations and provisions therein as shall when agreed to in Congress and confirmed by the states render the federal constitution adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the Union."
The New York legislature was one of twelve state assemblies that sent delegates to the Constitutional Convention—only Rhode Island refused to participate. (It could be argued that only eleven assemblies actually sent their delegations since New Hampshire refused to authorize travelling expenses for John Langdon and Nicholas Gilman. Langdon finally paid the costs out of his own pocket, but he and his colleague did not reach Philadelphia until 23 July). The New York assembly carefully parroted the language of the congressional resolve in its 6 March 1787 instructions to its representatives. John Lansing, Alexander Hamilton (who had also attended the Annapolis Convention), and Robert Yates were sent to Philadelphia "for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation. ..."
II. John Lansing
John Lansing was born in Albany in 1754 to a wealthy family on the fringes of New York aristocracy. He was closely affiliated with Robert Yates, with whom he studied law. Lansing was admitted to the bar in 1775, but suspended his practice in order to serve for two years as aide-de-camp to General Philip Schuyler. After further legal study with James Duane, Lansing returned to his Albany law office and frequently argued cases before the state supreme court.
Likely cultivated by Yates, his senior by sixteen years, Lansing developed an interest in politics. Between 1771 and 1790, Yates had risen from Albany alderman to chief justice of the New York Supreme Court, serving along the way as a member of the Committee of Public Safety, New York's provincial congresses, and the committee that drafted the state's first constitution. Lansing, who, like Yates, was allied with the Clintons, had an even longer and more varied public career. In 1780, he served the first of his six terms in the New York Assembly, twice being elected Speaker; in 1785 and 1786, he was a member of the Congress under the Articles of Confederation; in 1786, he was chosen mayor of Albany; in 1790, he was appointed to the state supreme court, and in 1798, he succeeded his mentor Yates as Chief Justice; in 1801, he was made Chancellor of New York State. He continued in this office until 1814, when he was constitutionally retired by age.
During his final decade in appointed office, Lansing began to break away from the Clintonian faction of the state's Republican party, and in 1804 he was nominated for the gubernatorial race, even gaining the support of Alexander Hamilton, his Federalist nemesis from the Constitutional Convention. Lansing declined to run, later claiming that Governor George Clinton had attempted to coerce him to "a particular course of conduct," namely appointing De Witt Clinton to be his successor as Chancellor.
When he was forced to leave the bench, Lansing returned to the practice of law. He never gave up his interest in politics and ran—unsuccessfully—for the state assembly as late as 1824; that same year Lansing served as a presidential elector pledged to Democratic-Republican candidate William Harris Crawford. He devoted time as well to the management of his extensive land holdings—nearly 40,000 acres—some of which he had acquired decades before as confiscated Loyalist property. Although Lansing had not attended college himself, he became involved with both Columbia College and the State University of New York and was named a regent of the latter.
Lansing remained remarkably active until his mysterious and still-unsolved death in December 1829. In Manhattan for some meetings at Columbia, Lansing walked one evening from his hotel to the dock at Cortlandt Street to post some letters on an Albany-bound boat. He never returned. It is likely that the 75-year-old Lansing fell off the dock and was drowned, but Thurlow Weed claimed to have been given proof, which he never shared, that Lansing was murdered. For what it is worth, Lansing's descendants believed his death to be accidental.
III. Primary Documents from the Constitutional Convention
As vigorous as Lansing might have been in his sixties and seventies, he is remembered today because of his activities during his thirties, when he was a moderate anti-federalist delegate at both the Constitutional Convention and the New York State Ratifying Convention in Poughkeepsie. James Madison's heavily revised and edited notes of the delegates' debates thoroughly dominated the history and study of the "Grand Federal Convention" for more than century after their publication in 1840, so it is doubly fortuitous that Lansing's own notebooks were rediscovered by his descendants early in the twentieth century and published in 1939. Lansing's notes not only provide details about the side of the debate that Madison wished to marginalize, but they are also more candid and spontaneous, often identifying by name speakers whom Madison had cloaked in anonymity.
Primary sources—notes of debates, drafts of speeches, proposed resolutions and plans—for the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention are famously scarce. Indeed, the rules of the Convention, adopted 29 May 1787, stated "That no copy be taken of any entry on the journal during the sitting of the House without the leave of the House"; "That members only be permitted to inspect the journal"; and "That nothing spoken in the House be printed, or otherwise published, or communicated without leave." Nevertheless, Gouverneur Morris, who attended for Pennsylvania, recalled in a 22 December 1814 letter to Timothy Pickering that while he kept no notes of the daily events, other delegates had. "While I was in the Convention, my mind was too much occupied by the interests of our country to keep notes of what we had done. Some gentlemen, I was told, passed their evenings in transcribing speeches from shorthand minutes of the day."
Principal among the record-keeping gentlemen, as noted, was James Madison. Madison did take careful notes throughout the debates, but he supplemented these contemporary notes with later additions and revisions, including the texts of speeches and remarks supplied to him by other delegates. (Madison's manuscripts relating to the Constitutional Convention are in the Library of Congress.) After the publication of the official Journal of the Convention, Madison again emended his notes to bring them into conformity with the Journal, even when the latter was demonstrably inaccurate. In the preface to his magisterial compilation of Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, Max Farrand terms Madison's notes of the debates "the most important record of all," but acknowledges that the author's half century of revisions and changes "seriously impaired the value of his notes."
One of Lansing's New York colleagues, Robert Yates, was also a note-taker. Indeed, since Lansing did not reach the Pennsylvania State House until 2 June, 1787, his notebooks rely on Yates's journal for the first six days of the Convention. Yates died in 1801, and in 1821, his notes were published in Albany under the title Secret Proceedings and Debates of the Convention Assembled at Philadelphia, in the year 1787. This is a somewhat mysterious book, whose anonymous editor may have been Edmond-Charles Genêt, a former French ambassador to the United States and a political ally of George Clinton. Moreover, as acknowledged on the title-page, the book was not based on Yates's original notes but on a copy made at some point by John Lansing. Yates's manuscript has never been found and Lansing's copy is now lost as well. Despite the only record of Yates's notes being their 1821 publication—and despite their ending on 5 July, four days earlier than the final entry in Lansing's notebooks—Farrand considered his observations "next in importance" to Madison's notes. James H. Hutson, who edited the 1987 Supplement to Max Farrand's The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, is rather more skeptical about the integrity and accuracy of the published version of Yates's notes.
Rufus King of Massachusetts maintained an idiosyncratic record of the Convention, written as memorandum "on odds and ends of paper" (Farrand), now preserved at the New-York Historical Society. Notes and memorandum regarding the Constitutional Convention survive among the papers of a handful of other delegates. The most significant of these are the notes of Pierce Butler of South Carolina, now in the Gilder Lehrman Collection. Butler's notes include eight pages of brief daily records in two separate notebooks (covering 30 May-16 July and 16 June-5 July 1787). Butler's entries follow the method described by Gouverneur Morris as typical of the Convention's note-takers, being consolidated and edited from the rough notes that he took on the floor of the State House. Butler also made a wide range of contemporary transcriptions of plans, propositions, and resolutions brought before the Convention.
Useful observations are found as well in the manuscripts of others, principally James McHenry of Maryland, but also John Dickinson (Delaware; manuscripts now in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania), William Pierce (Georgia), William Paterson (New Jersey; Library of Congress), Alexander Hamilton (New York; Library of Congress), and George Mason (Virginia; Library of Congress). James Wilson of Pennsylvania left no independent notes, but he did preserve an outline and summary of the "Charles Pinckney Plan" (now in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania).
In addition to committee reports and printed drafts of the proposed constitution annotated by delegates, the other principal contemporary record of the Convention is its official Journal. The secretary of the Convention, William Jackson, performed in a rather desultory manner, however, and when Secretary of State John Quincy Adams was tasked with preparing the Journal for publication in 1818, he found a chaotic and sometimes incomplete mass of papers, "no better than the daily minutes from which the regular journal ought to have been, but never was, made out." Jackson's record, painstakingly revised and supplemented by Adams, was published in 1819 as the Journal, Acts and Proceedings of the Convention ... which formed the Constitution of the United States. In either printed or manuscript form, Farrand warns, "the Journal cannot be relied upon absolutely."
"In view of the fact that the Journal is so imperfect and not altogether reliable, and that Madison made so many changes in his manuscript, all other records of the Convention take on a new importance." So wrote Max Farrand in the 1937 revised edition of his great work. By then, the existence of John Lansing's Convention notebooks was known, as was the fact that they were to be edited and published by Prof. Joseph Reese Strayer of Princeton. So perhaps it was frustration that caused Farrand to offer a muted assessment of these manuscripts, which he admittedly had not seen: "John Lansing, Jr., of New York, kept notes of the proceedings during his attendance at the Federal Convention. They ... will undoubtedly add some information regarding the proceedings and in particular the attitudes of individuals during the first weeks of the Convention."
Lansing's notes are rich source of new and corroborative information about the constitutional debates. In numerous instances, his manuscript is the unique witness to a vote, an argument, a proposal, or the identity of a speaker. Including the few days of his absence, for which he transcribes the entries from the notes of Robert Yates, Lansing provides records for thirty-five sessions of the Convention, more than anyone other than Madison.
Through direct and indirect quotation, he preserves the words of twenty-nine other delegates, representing all eleven states that participated during his attendance: Georgia (Abraham Baldwin, William Pierce), South Carolina (John Rutledge, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Charles Pinckney, Pierce Butler), North Carolina (Hugh Williamson, William Richardson Davie), Virginia (George Mason, Edmund Randolph, James Madison), Maryland (Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer, Luther Martin), Delaware (John Dickinson, George Read, Gunning Bedford), Pennsylvania (Benjamin Franklin, James Wilson, Gouverneur Morris), New Jersey (David Brearly, William Paterson, Jonathan Dayton), New York (Alexander Hamilton), Connecticut (Roger Sherman, William Samuel Johnson, Oliver Ellsworth), and Massachusetts (Nathaniel Gorham, Elbridge Gerry, Rufus King).
These comments of the delegates, ranging from conciliatory to acerbic, provide an unfiltered view of the debates on the floor of the State House. While it may simply be a reflection of the make-up of the Convention, it could also be a measure of Lansing's evenhandedness that twenty-one of the delegates whom he quotes eventually signed the Constitution. It should be noted, however, that two of the commissioners whose remarks Lansing recorded most extensively were fierce anti-Federalists, Luther Martin and George Mason.
In addition to recording the daily speeches and debates, Lansing also transcribed in his notebooks three of the most significant preliminary documents of the Constitutional Convention: the Report of the Committee of the Whole; the Virginia Plan, with amendments made by the Committee of the Whole; and Alexander Hamilton's Plan ("Colonel Hamilton's System"). He also includes as an appendix the text of Elbridge Gerry's committee report of 5 July 1787.
IV. John Lansing's Notes from the Constitutional Convention
Alexander Hamilton and Robert Yates attended the very first session of Convention, 25 May 1787, together with twenty-seven delegates from eight other states. Lansing did not reach Philadelphia until 2 June; other delegates arrived even later. Some were periodically absent from the proceedings throughout the summer, and many, including Lansing and Yates, quit the convention well before 17 September, when the new Constitution was agreed to and sent to the states for ratification. In all, fifty-five delegates attended at least a portion of the Convention and well over a quarter of them declined to sign the charter. Alexander Hamilton, once again standing apart from his state colleagues, was one of thirty-nine who did sign.
Lansing and Yates were not strictly uniform in their opposition. Yates was committed to maintaining New York's independence within a loose confederation of the states. Lansing was a less ardent anti-nationalist, but he refused to exceed the charge given to the Convention as a whole and to the New York delegates in particular: "revising the Articles of Confederation." Scrapping the Articles for an entirely new covenant was simply not in his purview. Neither did the two colleagues act in perfect concert during the Convention; on at least five occasions they voted against each other on various resolutions and proposals.
Lansing and Yates left the Constitutional Convention after the session of 10 July. Lansing's notes are mostly concerned therefore with the vital question of representation and the fierce contention between large and small states that it excited. The Articles of Confederation granted each member an equal vote; Delaware and Rhode Island spoke with voices as loud as Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. But the seventh resolution of the Report of the Committee of the Whole stated that the right of suffrage in both branches of the of the proposed national legislature "ought not to be according to the Rule established in the Articles of Confederation, but according to some equitable Ratio of Representation namely in proportion of the whole Number of white and other free Citizens and Inhabitants of every Age, Sex and Condition including those bound to Servitude for a Term of Years and three fifths of all other Persons not comprehended in the foregoing Description ..." (Lansing's transcription). Lansing, while sympathetic to the plight of the smaller states, records both sides of this issue.
William Pierce of Georgia wrote brief character sketches of the delegates to the Federal Convention, but his description of Lansing reads as though it was influenced by a zealous enemy of Governor Clinton: "Mr. Lansing is a practicing Attorney at Albany, and Mayor of that Corporation. He has a hisitation in his speech, that will prevent his being an Orator of any eminence;—his legal knowledge I am told is not extensive, nor his education a good one. He is however a Man of good sense, plain in his manners, and sincere in his friendships."
Far from being a "hisitant" orator, Lansing took part in many debates and was one of the principal speakers in favor of the New Jersey Plan, which essentially offered amendments to the Articles of Confederation. On 19 June, the New Jersey Amendments were rejected by the Convention in favor of the Virginia Plan, as amended by the Committee of the Whole. These Amended Virginia Resolutions simply discarded the Articles and called for the establishment of a strong central government. The passion of the arguments on both sides of the power struggle between those pursuing a national identity and those favoring the retention of state sovereignty is dynamically revealed in Lansing's notebooks.
The first six days of the Convention are covered in Lansing's notebooks, as previously noted, by transcriptions from the notes of Robert Yates. These days were largely devoted to organizing the Convention and establishing the rules of conduct for the delegates. On the first day of meeting, 25 May, Lansing reiterates Yates's record that "A Motion by R. Morris that General Washington take the Chair unanimously agreed to." It was thought appropriate that Washington's nomination come from the Pennsylvania delegation since the only possible rival to Washington for the office was thought to be Benjamin Franklin. In accepting the appointment, Washington, with his typical overwrought modesty, "declared that as he never had been in a similar Situation he felt himself embarrassed—that he hoped his Errors as they were unintentional would be excused."
Lansing's own notes begin with the session of 2 June, and the reports immediately take on an immediacy and vigor lacking in the transcriptions from Yates. Lansing relies heavily on direct quotation, succinctly capturing the content and color of the questions being discussed. On 2 June, the debate focused on the executive branch of the proposed new government, including the number of persons who ought to fill that office. Edmund Randolph urged that the "Sentiments of the People ought to be consulted—they will not bear the Semblance of Monarchy—he preferred three Divisions of the States and one Executive to be taken from each ... If a single Executive persons remote from him neglected—Local Views would be attributed to him, frequently well founded—often without Reason—this would excite Disatisfaction—he was therefore for an Executive of three." Pierce Butler, on the other hand, warned that "Delays, Divisions, and Dissentions arise from an Executive consisting of many."
At the next session, 4 June, Lansing reports that Charles Pinckney (Lansing has it "Pinkney" throughout) "moved that the Blank in the 7th Resolution fixing the Number of the Executive be filled in with the Word one." James Wilson and Roger Sherman are both reported to have spoken in favor of the resolution, the former noting that "It is congenial to the Feelings of the People to have a single Executive—they have been accustomed to it—Every State has a single Person as Executive—three may divide and adopt distinct Propositions." The resolution was carried by a vote of 7 to 3, with New York, Delaware, and Maryland voting in the negative; Lansing does not provide the reasons for his state's objection.
In his notes of the debate on 7 June, Lansing details an argument made by James Wilson that is not recorded by any other authority: that the population of the states was increasing too rapidly to assign Senators based on numbers of inhabitants and that instead the number of Senators assigned to each area should be permanently fixed. "As Convention have already voted a national Government," Lansing summarizes Wilson's statement, "foederal Principles cannot obtain. If so, we ought to try to procure different Views and different Sentiments—Representation cannot be proportioned by Numbers—Propagation by best Calculation so rapid as to double Number of Inhabitants every 25 Years—Of Consequence of Representation encreased in proportion to Population the older the Government the weaker and more debilitated would it be. He proposed a Division into Districts for Representation—that Division to be permanent."
The tension between large states and small was never far from the surface of the debates, as evidenced by Delaware delegate Gunning Bedford's comments on 8 June. Lansing notes that Bedford objected to a proportional representation in the national legislature "because an undue Weight is intended to be given to some States—Pennsylvania and Virginia are intended to have one third of Representation—The smaller States will be so unconsequential in the general Scale that their Interests will be uniformly sacraficed whenever they are adverse to those of larger States, and the Voice of the solitary Member from Delaware it is not probable will be attended to."
As the Convention began to move inexorably towards an abandonment of the Articles of Confederation in order to design an entirely new centralized system of government, Lansing himself took to the floor to support the New Jersey Plan. He reveals in his notebooks that during the 16 June proceedings, "I stated the difference between National and foederal Systems—the first subjects all to the Controul of the general Government and draws its Representation from Individuals—the foederal has its Representation from States collectively and subjects great foederal Concerns to general Government. The one involves a total Subversion of State Sovereignties—the other delegates only Part.—I urged that the Confederation ought to be the Basis of our System. This Power now contended to [that is, to propose a new constitution] too great to be given by Implication. Improbable that so many individual States should adopt same Language to describe an Intention which cannot be inferred from the wording of it."
The day of Lansing's speech, the debate about representation was growing more contentious; Lansing notes that James Wilson warned that "Inequality in Representation is a Poison which will contaminate every Branch of Government." That same day, Randolph urged the delegates not to be bound by their instructions to simply reform the Articles of Confederation. "This is a great Occasion," Lansing records him as stating, "Step boldly beyond prudential Rules."
Alexander Hamilton's stirring endorsement of Randolph's vision is recorded in Lansing's notebooks for 18 June. It is intriguing that Lansing presents his colleague's comments in such depth, since they were antithetical to his own views. "Hamilton—The Situation of the State he represents and the Diffidence he has of his own Iudgment induced him to Silence tho his Ideas are dissimilar from both Plans.
"No Amendment of Confederation can answer the Exigencies of the States. State Sovereignties ought not to exist—Supposes we have Powers sufficient—Foederal an Association of States differently modified—Diet of Germany has Power to legislate for Individuals—In United States Confederacy legislate for States and in some Instances on Individuals—Instances Piracies. The term sole he supposes was to impress an Idea only that we were not to govern ourselves, but to revise Government. ... We ought not to sacrafice the public Good to narrow Scruples. All America, all Europe, the World would condemn us. The only Enquiry ought to be what we can do to save our Country. ... Cannot combine States but by absorbing the Ambition and Avarice of all. ... If general Government preserves itself it must extinguish State Governments."
On 19 June, James Madison offered a new justification for the Convention drafting an entirely new constitution, claiming that the Articles of Confederation were so weak that the member states violated them with impunity. The Virginian, Lansing recorded, was "anxious to perpetuate Union—but will not consent to prolong it on its present Principles.—How is Confederation observed?
"Georgia has entered into War and made Treaties in express Violation of Union.
"Virginia and Maryland entered into Compact in like Violation.—Massachusetts has a regular Body of Forces without Approbation of Congress.
"The conciliator Resolution of Congress respg Wioming Dicision evinces Weakness of general Government.
"The Power retained by the different States Executives of pardoning would alone defeat national Government."
Luther Martin responded immediately to Madison, maintaining that "before the Confederation each State had complete Sovereignty—When confederated they met so and they must remain equal." On 27 June, Martin expanded his case, stating that "general Government only intended to protect State Governments" and countering Madison's specific charges:
"Virginia and Maryland made Convention for settling Navigation in Chesepeak and Potowmack—there is no Breach of Confederation.
"The Troops of Massachusetts were drawn out to quell Rebellion—neither of those Instances prove a Disrespect to Articles of Union."
Lansing entered the debate again himself on 20 June, urging a compromise position. Whatever system the Convention ultimately proposes, Lansing told his fellows, "We must be certain that it will secure important and equal Benefits to all. If destitute of these Convictions we should be Traitors to our Country. ... As long as State Sovergnties exist each [must have] an equal Suffrage—this is equitable—it is necessary."
Over the next week of debates, Lansing records a colorful range of comments about representation in the national legislature. "By having annual Elections remote States would generally be unrepresented in Beginning of Sessions" (George Mason, 21 June). "It is necessary to give general Government Energy—prevailing Opinions are too democratic" (Nathaniel Gorham, 23 June). "Honesty will probably predominate in lower House Ability in the upper" (Edmund Rutledge, 23 June). "The United States too extensive to furnish a general Legislature competent to the Management of domestic Concerns. States ought to be divided into five Classes—to have from one to five Votes" (Charles Pinckney, 25 June). "[H]as Objection to any Part of Legislature being elected by the State Legislatures—it will perpetuate local Prejudices—States are not intended as component Parts of general Government—they need not be represented" (James Wilson, 25 June). "The Advantages of Government cannot be extended equally to all—Those remote from Seat of Government cannot be placed in a Situation equally advantageous with such as near it—Distinctions will always exist ... The Government ought to be so organized as to give a Balance to it and protect one Order of Men from the predominating Influence of the other" (James Madison, 26 June). "We are now considering the Cause of Democracy—[I am] attached to a free Government and would chearfully become a Martyr to it—The occasional Violence of Democracy and the uniform Tyranny of a Despot are productive of the same Consequences" (Alexander Hamilton, 26 June). "[G]eneral Government only intended to protect State Governments" (Luther Martin, 27 June). "Happiness is preferable to the Splendors of a national Government" (Luther Martin, 28 June).
On 2 July, Lansing's notes offer an expanded version of Charles Pinckney's proposal for dividing the states into categories or classes: "He is one of those who believed that if the Proportion is adjusted in both Branches as in first it will operate in the Mode stated by Minority. ... Proposes 4 Classes—States to have from one to four Votes." As Strayer noted in The Delegate from New York, "This is the only absolutely contemporary description of what Pinckney proposed."
By 28 June, Lansing could see the direction that the Convention was taking, and it may have been as an attempt to frustrate the inevitable that he "moved that Word not be struck out" of the seventh Resolution of the Report of the Committee of the Whole. If adopted, this proposal would have completely reversed the meaning of the article, which stated "that the Right of Suffrage in the first Branch of the national Legislature ought not to be according to the Rule established in the Articles of Confederation. ..."
Alexander Hamilton left Philadelphia on the morning of 30 June, although he would return to the Convention periodically and did sign the completed Constitution. The day before he left, he spoke eloquently about the necessity of devising a strong, central "System on the Spot. ... This is a critical Moment of American Liberty—We are still too weak to exist without Union. It is a Miracle that we have met—they seldom occur."
That same day Lansing records Oliver Ellsworth's proposal for allocating legislative representation—one that was very close to the system finally adopted. "In first Branch you draw Representation from Numbers—the Individuals will have their Rights protected here. He will move that each State have an equal Vote in second Branch. This will preserve State Sovereignties—"
The debates of 30 June are among the liveliest and most significant recorded by Lansing. David Brearly is recorded as making what must be one of the keenest statements of the entire Convention: "Can we forget for whom we form Governments—for Men not imaginary Beings called States." Madison rejects the claims that small states are injured by proportional representation. "Equality of Representation was dictated by the Necessity of the Times," Lansing reports him saying. "The larger States cannot be safe unless they have a greater Share in Government."
William Richardson Davie speaks in strong support of Madison, observing that "The Preservation of the State Governments is the Object of Confederation, but if each State has a single Vote it will defeat the whole System." Gunning Bedford, however, provides a fiery rebuttal. "Ambition and Avarice influences us—We represent the different Interests of our States—the larger States wish to aggrandize themselves at the Expence of the others. The Language of the greater States is give us Power we will exert it for your Benefit. If a Combination does not destroy us, a Rivalship of the large States will. ... Is the Breach of the Union so trifling as to be told with a Smile ... The People expect an Amendment of the Confederation—they will be surprised at our System—they are not ripe for it."
Benjamin Franklin tries to mediate between these extremes, Lansing reporting that he said, "We must do like a Ioiner in making a Table—take off the Protuberances—pare the different Opinions to a common Standard." But as late as 5 July, there was still resentment in the State House over Bedford's speech of 30 June. On the later date, Gouverneur Morris pointedly noted that "If the smaller states persist, if the Argument is unavailing, the Sword will determine it.—To overturn the States is impracticable—but you may extract the Teeth of the Serpents.—We have been too warm."
Bedford, Lansing records, admitted that he had been warm, though "not owing to a Want of Respect—but while he acknowledges that he was apparently warm, he cannot help remarking that he has Reason to be so—The Language of Intemperance is by no means peculiar to himself.—Gentlemen have threatened in Terms very indelicate, tho' they have generally moderated their Voices when they did so."
Lansing attended the Convention on 10 July, but the final entry in his notebooks is for the previous day. There he records the report of the committee recommending the apportionment of representation in the first branch of the legislature. The committee recommended fifty-six members, with Virginia assigned nine; Pennsylvania, eight; Massachusetts, seven; New York, North Carolina, and South Carolina, five each; Connecticut and Maryland, four each; New Jersey, three; New Hampshire and Georgia, two each; and Rhode Island and Delaware, one each. The question was approved by a vote of nine to two, with New York casting one of the dissents.
V. Lansing after the Convention
When Lansing departed from Philadelphia after the 10 July 1787 session of the Constitution Convention, it was not entirely clear that he would not be returning; other delegates, after all, had already established a precedent for coming and going. Virginian George Mason thought that Lansing and Yates had both left because the circuit court sessions were about to begin in New York. Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer, of Maryland, later said that he had been told that Lansing and Yates did intend to return to the Convention.
But on 26 August, Lansing's brother, Abraham, wrote to Abraham Yates Jr. that "I find but little Inclination in either of them to repair again to Philadelphia, and from their General Observations I believe they will not go—early in the Commencement of the Business at Philadelphia, my Brother informed me that he was in sentiment with a respectable Minority of that Body, but that they had no prospect of succeeding in the measures proposed, and that he was at a Stand whether it would not be proper for him to Leave them, this Circumstance convinces me the more that they will not again attend." Similarly, their Maryland cohort Luther Martin wrote that the two New York anti-federalists "had uniformly opposed the system, and I believe, despairing of getting a proper one brought forward, or of rendering any real service, they returned no more" (Genuine Information III, Baltimore Maryland Gazette, 4 January 1788).
It was not until 21 December that Lansing and Yates explained their departure from Philadelphia and detailed their objections to the proposed Constitution. Their letter of that date to Governor George Clinton was widely printed in newspapers, first on 14 January 1788 in the Daily Advertiser and New York Journal, and subsequently in the New York Packet, the New York Morning Post, the Independent Journal, and other New York state papers. It was first printed outside of New York in the February issue of the Philadelphia American Museum, and eventually appeared in newspapers in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia.
The letter to Clinton is significant not only for explaining Lansing's departure from the Constitutional Convention but for articulating the arguments he would take up in the New York State Ratifying Convention, where he would lead the anti-federalist faction.
"We do ourselves the honor to advise your Excellency, that, in pursuance of concurrent resolutions of the Honorable Senate and Assembly, we have, together with Mr. Hamilton, attended the Convention appointed for revising the articles of Confederation, and reporting amendments to the same.
"It is with the sincerest concern we observe, that in the prosecution of the important objects of our mission, we have been reduced to the disagreeable alternative of either exceeding the powers delegated to us, and giving our assent to measures which we conceived destructive of the political happiness of the citizens of the United States; or opposing our opinion to that of a body of respectable men, to whom those citizens had given the most unequivocal proofs of confidence. Thus circumstanced, under these impressions, to have hesitated would have been to be culpable. We therefore gave the principles of the Constitution, which has received the sanction of a majority of the Convention, our decided and unreserved dissent; but we must candidly confess, that we should have been equally opposed to any system, however modified, which had in object the consolidation of the United States into one Government.
"We beg leave briefly to state some cogent reasons which, among others, influenced us to decide against a consolidation of the States. These are reducible into two heads.
"First. The limited and well defined powers under which we acted, and which could not, on any possible construction, embrace an idea of such magnitude as to assent to a general Constitution in subversion of that of the State.
"Secondly. A conviction of the impracticability of establishing a general Government, pervading every part of the United States, and extending essential benefits to all. ... we were of opinion, that the leading feature of every amendment ought to be the preservation of the individual States, in their uncontroled constitutional rights; and that, in reserving these, a mode might have been devised, of granting to the Confederacy, the monies arising from a general system of revenue, the power of regulating commerce, and enforcing the observance of Foreign treaties, and other necessary matters of less moment.
"Exclusive of our objections, originating from the want of power, we entertained an opinion that a general Government, however guarded by declarations of rights or cautionary provisions, must unavoidably, in a short time, be productive of the destruction of the civil liberty of such citizens who could be effectually coerced by it; by reason of the extensive territory of the United States; the dispersed situation of its inhabitants, and the insuperable difficulty of controling or counteracting the views of a set of men (however unconstitutional and oppressive their acts might be) possessed of all the powers of Government, and who, from their remoteness from their constituents, and necessary permanency of office, could not be supposed to be uniformly actuated by an attention to their welfare and happiness; that however wise and energetic the principles of the general Government might be, the extremities of the United States could not be kept in due submission and obedience to its laws at the distance of many hundred miles from the seat of Government; that if the general Legislature was composed of so numerous a body of men as to represent the interest of all the inhabitants of the United States in the usual and true ideas of representation, the expence of supporting it would become intolerably burthensome, and that if a few only were invested with a power of legislation, the interests of a great majority of the inhabitants of the United States must necessarily be unknown, or if known even in the first stages of the operations of the new Government, unattended to.
"These reasons were in our opinion conclusive against any system of consolidated Government: to that recommended by the Convention we suppose most of them forcibly apply. ..."
Despite Lansing's efforts, New York State ratified the Constitution, although by the narrowest of margins. Governor Clinton then considered nominating Lansing for one of the state's first two senate states, but he decided than Lansing would likely decline—not because of his objection to the Constitution but because of family responsibilities.
Once the Constitution was ratified and became the law of the land, Lansing never wavered in his support of the new government. His motives for not supporting the Constitution were entirely patriotic and predicated on his refusal to exceed the brief of his appointment as a delegate to the Convention. And while the Constitution did not earn his initial support, Lansing's notes from the proceedings and debates of the Constitutional Convention are one of the vital primary sources of the making of the United States Constitution.
As James Madison's record of the Convention has been so compromised by later revision and emendation, and as Robert Yates's original notes have long been lost, John Lansing's notebooks may accurately be seen as the most important contemporary holograph record of the Constitutional Convention.
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