The Original Compromise: What the Constitution's Framers Were Really Thinking

By David Brian Robertson | Go to book overview

18
A Republic, If You Can Keep It

As James Madison concluded his Convention notes, he reported:

Whilst the last members were signing it, Doctor Franklin, looking
towards the President’s Chair, at the back of which a rising sun hap-
pened to be painted, observed to a few members near him, that Painters
had found it difficult to distinguish in their art a rising from a setting
sun. I have, said he, often and often in the course of the Session, and the
vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind
the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting:
But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not
a setting Sun.1

In a letter to his sister, Benjamin Franklin wrote, “We have however done our best and it must take its chance.”2 It was said that, outside Independence Hall, “A lady asked Dr. Franklin, ‘Well Doctor what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?’ ‘A republic,’ replied the Doctor, ‘if you can keep it.’”3

The framers’ Constitution could have turned out differently. The Convention likely would have failed, or produced a Constitution that could not be ratified, if the broad nationalists had abandoned the Convention after the final vote on the Connecticut Compromise, or if the narrow nationalists had followed the New York delegates who left, or if the conditional nationalists representing South Carolina and Georgia had walked out because of the slave issue. The Convention could have produced a Constitution with some significantly different provisions. Madison’s coalition might have held together long enough to win the critical July 14 vote on a form of proportional representation in the Senate. On that vote, Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts was absent, and in his absence Elbridge Gerry and Caleb Strong decided Massachusetts’s vote against modified proportional representation in the Senate.4 If the delegates had accepted proportional representation in both the Senate and the House, the broad nationalists would have been more likely to win votes on other Constitutional provisions. Other

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