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Cobb, who had been in Washington's military family during the war, was major-general of militia, and at the same time a judge of the Court of Common Pleas. On the day when the court was to sit, he came upon the open green in front of the court-house, at the head of three hundred men in military array, and confronted a far more numerous mob. They sent to him, demanding that he should desist from opening the court. His only answer was: “I shall this day sit in that court as a judge, or die on this horse as a general.” The mob knew their man, and dispersed.
But extracts from letters written at that time, by men who were most likely to understand the condition and temper of the public mind, will present that more accurately than any words of mine.
On the 20th of January, 1787, Colonel Humphries writes thus to Washington, accounting for the omission by those in favor of a federal union to press the appointment of deputies from Connecticut: “The reason was, a conviction that the persons who could be elected were some of the most anti-federal men in the State, who believed, or acted as if they believed, that the powers of Congress were already too unlimited, and who would wish, apparently, to see the Union dissolved. These demagogues," continued the letter, “really affect to persuade the people (to use their own phraseology) that they are only in danger of having their liberties stolen away by an artful, designing aristocracy. But should the convention be formed under the most favorable auspices, and should the members be unanimous in recommending, in the most forcible, the most glowing and the most pathetic terms which language can afford, that it is indispensable to the salvation of the country Congress should be clothed with more ample powers, the States would not all comply with the recommendation. They have a mortal reluctance to divest themselves of the smallest attribute of independent separate sovereignties."
In a letter to Colonel Humphries, Washington says: "For God's sake, tell me what is the cause of all these commotions. Do they proceed from licentiousness, British influence disseminated by the Tories, or real grievances which admit of redress? If the latter, why was redress delayed until the public mind had become so much agitated? If the former, why are not the powers of government tried at once? It is as well to be without, as not to exercise them. Commotions of this sort, like snow-balls, gather strength as they roll, if there is no opposition in the way to divide and crumble them."
And in a letter to General Knox he says: "I feel infinitely more than I can express to you, for the disorders which have arisen iu these States. Good God! Who besides a Tory could have foreseen,
or a Briton have predicted them? I do assure you that even at this moment, when I reflect upon the present aspect of our affairs, it seems to me like the visions of a dream. My mind can scarcely realize it as a thing in actual existence,
so strange, so wonderful does it appear to me. In this, as in most other matters, we are too slow. When this spirit first dawned, it might probably have been easily checked; but it is scarcely within the reach of human ken, at this moment, to say when, where, or how it will terminate. There are combustibles in every State, to which a spark might set fire. In bewailing, which I have often done with the keenest sorrow, the death of our much lamented friend, General Greene, I have accompanied my regrets of late with a query, whether he would not have preferred such an exit to the scenes which it is more than probable many of his compatriots may live to bemoan.”
At length the legislature of New York, by an order which passed the senate by a majority of but one vote, instructed the delegates from that State to move in Congress a resolution recommending to the several States to send deputies to meet in a convention for the purpose of revising and proposing amendments to the federal constitution.
On the 21st of February, 1787, the Congress resolved that it was expedient “ that, on the second Monday in May next, a convention of delegates, who shall have been appointed by the several States, be held at Philadelphia, for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation, and reporting to Congress and the several legislatures such alterations and provisions therein as shall, when agreed to in Congress and confirmed by the States, render the federal constitution adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the Union."
Twelve States sent delegates to Philadelphia at the time appointed, Rhode Island alone refusing to appoint any. The convention met, unanimously chose Washington as their president, and proceeded, with closed doors, to discuss the subjects before them.
The deliberations of the convention were protracted. All the difficulties in the way of union, all the objections on the part of the States to give up any part of their independent sovereignty, came up, and were discussed over and over, sometimes with considerable asperity of feeling and of language, but on the whole temperately and wisely. Mutual concessions were made. The absolute necessity of union became more and more apparent, as the diversities of opinion and feeling and interest were manifested. Compromises were assented to; and at length, on the 17th of September, about four months after the convention met, a constitution was agreed to, which was substantially the same as it now is.
By a resolution passed on the same day, the convention directed that the constitution should be laid before Congress, and recommended that it should be submitted in each State to a convention of delegates, for their assent and ratification; and that as soon as nine States should ratify it, it should go into operation.
This constitution was transmitted to Congress, accompanied by the following letter from the president of the convention. An admirable letter it is, stating very briefly, and yet clearly, the principles which governed the convention in framing the instrument, and should forever govern the people in their view of it:
“We have now the honor to submit to the consideration of the United States, in Congress assembled, that constitution which has appeared to us the most advisable.
"The friends of our country have long seen and desired that the power of making war, peace, and treaties; that of levying money and regulating commerce, and the correspondent executive and judicial authorities, - shall be fully and effectually vested in the general government of the Union. But the impropriety of delegating such extensive trust to one body of men is evident. Thence results the necessity of a different organization. It is obviously impracticable, in the federal government of these States, to secure all the rights of independent sovereignty to each, and yet provide for the interest and safety of all. Individuals entering into society must give up a share of liberty, to preserve the rest. The magnitude of the sacrifice must depend as well on situation and circumstances, as on the object to be obtained. It is at all times difficult to draw with precision the line between those rights which must be surrendered, and those which may be reserved. And on the present occasion this difficulty was increased by a difference among the several States, as to their situation, extent, habits, and particular interests.
“In all our deliberations on this subject we have kept steadily in our view that which appeared to us the greatest interest of every true American, - the consolidation of our Union, in which is involved our prosperity, felicity, safety, perhaps our national existence. This important consideration, seriously and deeply impressed on our minds, led each in the convention to be less rigid in pointe of inferior magnitude than might have been otherwise expected. And thus the constitution which we now present is the result of a spirit of amity, and of that mutual deference and concession which the peculiarity of our political situation rendered indispensable.
“That it will meet the full and entire approbation of every State, is not, perhaps, to be expected. But each will doubtless ronsider that, had her interest alone been consulted, the conse
quences might have been particularly disagreeable and injurieus to others. That it is liable to as few exceptions as could reasonably have been expected, we hope and believe; that it may promote the lasting welfare of that country so dear to us all, and secure ber freedom and happiness, is our most ardent wish."
The constitution came before State conventions in 1787 and 1788. The conventions of Georgia, New Jersey, and Delaware adopted it at once, unanimously. Those of Connecticut, Maryland, Pennsyl. vania, and South Carolina adopted it by large majorities. Here were seven States, a bare majority of the thirteen, and two less than the number requisite to put the constitution into operation; and it was thought very doubtful whether other States would ratify it.
Rhode Island would not call a convention. That of Massachusetts met in January, 1788, and it was understood that a majority of the members were disposed to reject it. The most strenuous efforts were made by those who were in its favor, and were at last so far successful, that on the 6th of February a vote in its favor was carried by a small majority; and at the same time some important amendments were recommended. A convention met in New Hampshire soon after, and here, too, it was understood that a majority was opposed to the constitution; but here also it was overcome, and the constitution adopted by a very small majority, and with a recommendation of amendments.
The convention of Virginia met on the second of June. Here, also, the ablest and most influential men of the State were divided in opinion, the celebrated Patrick Henry leading the opposition. But on the 26th of June the constitution was adopted.
The convention of New York met on the 17th of June. A decided majority of the convention were opposed to the constitution. Ten States, however, had adopted it, and it would certainly go into operation. This fact had great weight, and on the 26th of July the constitution was adopted, but with the recommendation of numerous amendments. The convention of North Carolina was in session at the same time as that of New York, and at first refused their assent until a declaration of rights, with other amendments, were first laid before Congress or a convention of the States. But on the 21st of November, 1789, that State ratified the constitution. And on the 29th of May, 1790, the State of Rhode Island ratified the constitution; and it then embraced all the original thirteen States.
On the 13th of September, 1788, Congress resolved "that the first Wednesday in January following be the day for appointing electors in the several States which before the said day shall have ratified the said constitution; that the first Wednesday in February be the day for the electors to assemble in their respective States, and vote for a president; and that the first Wednesday in March next be the time, and the present seat of Congress (New York) the place, for commencing the proceedings under the said constitution.”
The electors did so meet and vote; and the States which had ratified the constitution chose their senators and representatives. They were eleven in number, Rhode Island and North Carolina not having ratified the constitution until a later period, as above stated. Then the first Congress met, and the Constitution of the United States went into operation, on the 4th day of March, 1789.
Here we close our chapter on the History of the Constitution of the United States. I have given, with as much brevity as seemed to be consistent with distinctness, an account of the circumstances attending the formation of the constitution; the successive steps taken; and the difficulties encountered and overcome. Especially have I endeavored to show how perfectly indispensable it was for the preservation not merely of our national honor and prosperity, but of our national existence. And not only of our national prosperity, but of the prosperity, order, and freedom of the integral parts of which our nation consists, and of the individuals who com
All these things the people of this country ought to know and to remember. This knowledge should help the people to value this constitution aright; to learn, from the many and great difficulties which attended its creation, the perils which will always demand a watchful care and a constant defence of it: for the same or similar erroneous opinions, and the same diversities of feeling and of interest, which caused those difficulties, are operative now, and will perhaps always be operative. The lessons of the past were painful and distressing to those to whom they were first given. They are given to us, also, as well as to them. And in our own generation, other lessons, written in letters of blood, have been given to us, for us and our children. Would that we might hope that the mercy of God will permit these lessons to teach us and all coming generations that local or personal prejudices, opinions, feelings, or interests, become our worst enemies, when they threaten to impair the excellence, to paralyze the energies, or imperil the permanence of that constitution, which, obtained with so much difficulty, has already wrought so much good, and promises to secure it for us and our posterity.