July 5, 1787: Madison and the Case Against Compromise

By:  Joe Wolverton, II, J.D.
July 5, 1787: Madison and the Case Against Compromise

On July 5, 1787, James Madison warned against the discord that comes from compromise for its own sake.

Over the three days spanning from July 2 to July 5, 1787, the attendees at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia approved a resolution that would sufficiently satisfy the demands of delegates from small states for equality of representation and those from the larger states who insisted that fairness demanded representation on the basis of population. It was the compromise that saved the union.

Monday morning, July 2, as soon as the gavel sounded calling the convention to order, the “crucial question” of the motion put forward the previous week by Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut calling for equality of representation in the Senate was taken up by the members.

The momentum didn’t last long, however, as the first vote on the measure ended in a tie — five states in favor of the Ellsworth proposal and five states against it. The Georgia contingent was divided.

But for the absence of two key representatives, however, that tally could have gone the way of the large states (that is to say, against the Ellsworth compromise) and the fate of that meeting would have taken an entirely different tack, likely resulting in a deadlock that would not have been broken and a Constitution that would have gone unwritten.

William Pierce of Georgia was missing from the meeting because he’d headed to New York to sit in Congress and, more interesting, to fight a duel. Richard Beeman, the author of Plain, Honest Men, provides a brief sketch of Pierce’s close call with death by duel.

By 1787, Pierce found himself deeply in debt, and during the Constitutional Convention's temporary recess between July 27-August 6, one of Pierce's creditors, John Auldjo, accused him of defaulting on a debt. Pierce, following the Southern code of a gentleman, promptly challenged Auldjo to a duel. Ironically, Auldjo was a client of Alexander Hamilton's, and Hamilton, who never approved of dueling, successfully interceded to calm Pierce down enough to prevent the duel from taking place. Had he not done so, it is possible that Pierce might have been the third member of the Constitutional Convention to be killed in a duel. [Richard Dobbs Spaight, delegate from North Carolina and Alexander Hamilton himself were both killed in duels.]

The second missing member of the convention that prevented the representation question from failing had a less interesting story.

Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer of Maryland was late that Monday morning when the vote was taken. Both Jenifer and Pierce were known to oppose equality of representation in the Senate. If Pierce had been present, his vote would have moved Georgia from the divided column to the “nays” and if Jenifer had been a little prompter, Maryland would have been divided and moved out of the “ayes,” thus defeating the Elllsworth equality measure by a vote of 6-4 with one state — Maryland — divided.

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