1787 Constitutional Convention: Madison and Reverse Nullification

By:  Joe Wolverton, II, J.D.
1787 Constitutional Convention: Madison and Reverse Nullification

At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, James Madison remarkably supported giving the federal government power to nullify state laws.

This week in 1787 was an eventful one at the Constitutional Convention underway in Philadelphia. The proposals, speeches, and votes touched on issues of federalism — states' rights that still dominate our debates some 227 years later.

At the center of the several controversies stood the diminutive but daunting James Madison. It was his work before and after the Constitutional Convention that earned the future fourth president the nickname “Father of the Constitution.” 

As this article will demonstrate, not only was Madison not the Father of the Constitution (a designation he rejected), but, as constitutional scholar Kevin Gutzman writes, “Far from being the father of the Constitution, then, Madison was an unhappy witness at its C-section birth. Perhaps he might more appropriately be called an attending nurse. He certainly did not think of it as his own offspring.”

The events of the first fortnight of June 1787 reveal the reason Madison regarded the final product of the convention foreign to the plan he prepared in the months before the gavel sounded.

First, the delegates deliberated on the form of the national legislature (see this previous article on the controversy conceding that word), with Madison taking an unusual, and to most contemporary Americans, unexpected position.

In the Virginia Plan (see this earlier article on that proposal), Madison proposed that the “members of the second branch of the National Legislature ought to be elected by those of the first, out of a proper number of persons nominated by the individual Legislatures.”

The first branch is what would become the House of Representatives, while the second branch is the Senate. In other words, then, Madison wanted senators to be elected by representatives, chosen from a pool of candidates selected by state legislatures.

This was to be the first of many significant defeats suffered by Madison during the summer of 1787.

Speeches by opponents of this resolution reveal one of the major historical and contemporary fissures among Americans concerned with the principle of federalism.

Rising first to challenge this part of the plan was Richard Dobbs Spaight of North Carolina. Spaight argued that the Senate (the so-called second branch) should be chosen by the state legislatures and he offered an amendment to that effect.

As he had done during the debate on the rules that would govern the convention, Pierce Butler of South Carolina allied himself with his northern neighbor, riding to the defense of Spaight and states’ rights.

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