A National or Federal Organization: A Convention Spat Between Founders

Two basic factions showed up at the Constitutional Convention: one faction believed strongly in states' rights and desired to maintain a federal system, veering only slightly from the Articles of Confederation, but with a few targeted changes; the other sought a system that would be strongly national. Some in the latter faction were so staunchly national that they admired the British system and would have been happy to greatly reduce the power of the states: Their adversaries (i.e., the pro-federalist faction) were not about to replace one consolidated government with another one. The result of this conflict produced a system that was, in the words of James Madison, partly national and partly federal. The following excerpt highlights the high emotions of the moment.

August Glen-James, editor

We have no power to go beyond the federal scheme, and if we had, the people are not ripe for it.

William Patterson, New Jersey:

We shall be charged by our constituents with usurpation . . . . We are met here as the deputies of thirteen independent, sovereign states, for federal purposes. Can we consolidate their sovereignty and form one nation, and annihilate the sovereignties of our states who have sent us here for other purposes? . . . The people of America are sharp sighted and not to be deceived. The idea of a national government as contradistinguished from a federal one never entered into the mind of any of them. . . . We have no power to go beyond the federal scheme, and if we had, the people are not ripe for it. I therefore declare that I will never consent to the present system, and I shall make all the interest against it in the state which I represent that I can. Myself or my state will never submit to tyranny or despotism!

James Wilson, Pennsylvania, in response to Patterson:

Shall New Jersey have the same right or council in the nation with Pennsylvania? I say no! It is unjust—I never will confederate on this plan. The gentleman from New Jersey is candid in declaring his opinion. I commend him for it. I am equally so. I say again I never will confederate on his principle. If no state will part with any of its sovereignty it is in vain to talk of a national government.

Bowen, C. D. (2010). Miracle at Philadelphia: The story of the Constitutional Convention, May to September, 1787 (p. 85). New York: Little, Brown.