The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

VIII. American Political Writing, 1760–1789

§ 16. The Constitutional Convention

In May, 1787, the Federal Convention met at Philadelphia. In anticipation of its deliberations, Madison set down his opinion as to the Vices of the Political System of the United States, and prepared a summary view Of Ancient and Modern Confederacies. The former noted most of the important points around which the debate later turned, but there is nothing in the Constitution to show that the latter had influence with the convention. The convention was preëminently a practical body. The sources of the Federal Constitution are in the government of England, the constitutions of the states, the Articles of Confederation, and the experience of the country and of Congress under the Articles. The Journal of the convention comprises only a bare record of proceedings, and does not report debates; the proceedings, moreover, were behind closed doors. For our knowledge of what was said, as distinguished from what was voted, we are dependent upon Madison’s elaborate Notes, taken down at the time and corrected and supplemented by the journal; some Minutes of Yates, a New York delegate; a Report by Luther Martin to the Maryland assembly; and the letters, many of them still unpublished, of members of the convention. The elaborate publication of documents, debates, and reports which commonly attends a modern state constitutional convention was conspicuously lacking.

While the convention was in session, there was published at Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, in separate editions, the first volume of John Adams’s Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America. This work, written and first published in London, was occasioned, the author states, by Turgot’s sweeping attack upon the American theory of government, contained in a letter to Dr. Richard Price, in 1778, and published by Price in his Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution, and the Means of Making it a Benefit to the World (1785). Two additional volumes appeared in 1788. The prominence of the author gave the work, especially the first volume, some vogue; but the disorderly arrangement, the verbose and careless style, the many glaring inaccuracies and inconsistencies due to hasty writing and negligent proof reading, a political philosophy nowhere profound, and the characteristic temper of the advocate rather than of the expositor, did Adams no credit; while his frank criticisms of some features of American government opened the way for attacks upon his sincerity and loyalty which followed him throughout his life. To this disfavour the “worship of the Constitution” as a perfect instrument, which began soon after the successful establishment of the government under it, undoubtedly contributed.

With the adjournment of the Convention in September, and the submission of the Constitution to ratifying conventions in the stages, the public become for the first time acquainted with the pending scheme of government; and the great debate on ratification began. The newspapers teemed with political essays, and pamphlets multiplied. The Constitution lacked neither friends nor foes. On the side of the Constitution were James Sullivan of Massachusetts, with his eleven letters of Cassius; Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, with thirteen letters of A Landholder; Roger Sherman of the same state, who contributed five letters of A Countryman and two of A Citizen of New Haven; and John Dickinson, in his Letters of Fabius. The opposing views of the Anti-federalists were vigorously set forth by Agrippa, whose eighteen letters are probably to be ascribed to James Winthrop of Massachusetts; by George Clinton of New York, who published seven letters under the name of Cato; by Robert Yates, in two letters of Sydney; and in seven letters by Luther Martin.

The pamphlet literature was equally important. Noah Webster, best known to later generations as a lexicographer, came to the support of the new instrument in An Examination into the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution; as did John Jay, in An Address to the People of the State of New York; Pelatiah Webster of Philadelphia, in The Weakness of Brutus Exposed, a reply to the first of a series of sixteen essays ascribed to Thomas Treadwell of New York; Tench Coxe, in An Examination of the Constitution, written over the pseudonym of “An American Citizen”; and David Ramsay, in An Address to the Freemen of South Carolina. The opposition was represented by Elbridge Gerry’s Observations on the New Constitution; Melanchthon Smith’s Address to the People of the State of New York, and preëminently by Richard Henry Lee, in his Observations leading to a Fair Examination of the System of Government proposed by the late convention, and by George Mason of Virginia, in his Objections to the proposed Federal Constitution, to the latter of whom James Iredell of North Carolina made an elaborate rejoinder.