UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, FEDERAL CONSTITUTION, 1787. McHENRY, James (1753-1816), Delegate to the Constitutional Convention from Maryland, containing notes taken in Philadelphia at the proceedings of the Convention, 1787.
A working manuscript: McHenry’s text with scattered underlines, emendations and brief additions. Neatly written in ink on rectos and versos of a bifolium (now separated), 4pp., (12 ¾ x 8 inches 325 x 200mm.) on laid paper without watermark. Originally folded horizontally in four sections, page 4 recto with light chipping along right-hand margin, catching a few letters text.
THE BIRTH OF THE FEDERAL CONSTITUTION: JAMES McHENRY’S NOTES DURING DEBATES AND PROCEEDINGS OF THE DELEGATES, INCLUDING THE CRUCIALVIRGINIA PLAN.
While James Madison’s “Notes on the Debates” of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 are undoubtedly the most well-known record of the Convention, Maryland delegate James McHenry’s (1753-1816) records add considerably to our knowledge of those debates. McHenry diligently kept notes from May 29-31, leaving the Convention during June and July due to family illness, and returning in August. Most of his notes were kept in a leather-bound notebook (now located in the Library of Congress), but this document, a loose paper, augments those notes. The document covers the crucial dates of May 30 and 31, recording the debates after Edmund Randolph introduced the Virginia plan on May 29. The Virginia Plan, which proposed a three-branch government (executive, judicial, and bi-cameral legislature), radically expanded the Convention’s mandate to revise the Articles of Confederation and set the terms for future debate. Speakers recorded are John Dickinson and George Read of Delaware; Rufus King and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts; Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania; Pierce Butler, Charles Pinckney, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina; and James Madison, Edmund Randolph, and George Wythe of Virginia. The issues debated are the definition of a federal versus a national government, the nature of the powers granted to a national government, and the possible role of the states’ individual governments. This document provides our most complete or only record of comments by Dickinson, King, Madison, Randolph, and Wythe.
James McHenry (1753-1816) was born in Ballymena, County Antrim, Ireland to Scots-Irish Presbyterians. He immigrated to Philadelphia in 1771. After attending the Newark Academy in Delaware, he studied medicine in Philadelphia with Benjamin Rush. In 1772, his parents and his brother John immigrated to Maryland, founding the mercantile firm of Daniel McHenry and Son. During the Revolution, McHenry served as a surgeon, first at a hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts and then with the Fifth Pennsylvania Battalion. He was captured by the British in November 1776. After his parole in May 1778, he served as senior surgeon at the “Flying Hospital” at Valley Forge, until George Washington appointed him his assistant secretary. In this capacity he became close friends with Washington and Alexander Hamilton. In August 1780, he was appointed aid de camp to the Marquis de Lafayette, serving until December 1781. In 1783, McHenry became one of the founding members of the Society of Cincinnati. After the war, McHenry abandoned medicine for the life of trade and public service. Throughout the 1780s, he served as a Maryland state senator, justice of the peace, and representative to the Continental Congress. On May 26, 1787, the Maryland state legislature appointed him delegate to the Constitutional Convention. He attended until May 31, when he left to care for his sick brother. He returned to the convention on August 6, remaining until September 17, when he (with reservations), signed the Constitution. At the Convention, he seldom spoke, but attempted to reconcile differences among the other Maryland delegates. Politically, McHenry could be seen as a moderate nationalist, believing that Congress should have jurisdiction over interstate trade, foreign commerce, and defense, but he feared that the interests of both the smaller and southern states would be dominated by the larger and northern states. He reluctantly signed the Constitution, but supported it at the Maryland state ratifying convention. Afterwards, McHenry became a staunch Federalist, maintaining his relationships with Washington and Hamilton. He served in the Maryland legislature and became a major influence on Washington’s appointments in that state. In 1796, Washington appointed him secretary of war, a position he retained under Adams. However, his relationship with Hamilton, his criticism of Adams during the Quasi-War with France, and his Federalist partisanship all combined to force him to resign in 1800. He died in 1816.
By 1786, the Articles of Confederation, drafted in 1776, were proving inadequate to the realities of the post-Revolution United States. The states under this loose confederation often acted contrary to or in direct opposition to each other’s interests, particularly in matters of interstate commerce, tariffs, international trade, foreign relations, and defense. On September 11-14, 1786, delegates from five states (Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia) gathered in Annapolis, Maryland, to discuss the future of the Articles. Lacking an official mandate and representation from all thirteen states, they could only present a report to Congress recommending a revision of the Articles. However, events such as several internal rebellions (most famously Shays’ Rebellion) further heightened the urgency for a national government. On February 21, 1787, the Continental Congress resolved that
“. . . it is 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 . . .”
Accordingly, 55 delegates convened at Philadelphia from May 25 to September 17, 1787. On May 29, Edmund Randolph (1753-1813) presented the Virginia Plan, which proposed a three-branch government (executive, judicial, and bi-cameral legislature). While Randolph introduced the plan, Madison is generally accepted as its author. However, it was immediately controversial because the plan not only revised the Articles, but proposed to radically reshape them. The issues debated were the definition of a federal versus a national government, the nature of the powers granted to a national government, and the possible role of the states’ individual governments. Key, too, was the proposed mode of representation in the legislature based on population, thus favoring the larger states.
Debates of May 30 and 31, 1787
McHenry’s notes open with Randolph proposing that the delegates consider the following resolutions:
1st. That a union of the States merely fœderal will not accomplish the object proposed by the articles of confederation, namely, “common defense, security of liberty, and general welfare”
2. Resolved that no treaty or treaties between the several states whole or a less number of the States in their sovereign capacities will accomplish this common defence, liberty or welfare--
3. Resolved that a therefore that a national legislature government[t] ought to be established consisting of a supreme legislature, judiciary and executive.
McHenry then records the responses of John Dickinson (1732-1808) and George Read (1722-1798) of Delaware; Rufus King (1744-1827) and Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814) of Massachusetts; Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816) of Pennsylvania; Pierce Butler (1744-1822), Charles Pinckney (1757-1824), and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746-1825) of South Carolina; and James Madison (1751-1836), Edmund Randolph , and George Wythe (1726-1806) of Virginia. This is in contrast to Madison’s notes, which record the presence and/or responses of
the above, excluding Dickinson and Wythe, as well as of Roger Sherman (1721-1793) of Connecticut, William Pierce (1753-1789) of Georgia, Alexander Hamilton (1755/7-1804) of New York, James Wilson (1742-1798) of Pennsylvania, Richard Dobbs Spaight (1758-1802) of North Carolina, and George Mason (1725-1792) of Virginia.
McHenry’s notes include comments by Dickinson, King, Madison, Randolph, and Wythe not recorded by Madison. The most interesting are those by Dickinson, King, and Madison.
Dickinson, one of the authors of the original Articles of Confederation, noted that “All agree that the confederation is defective all agree that it ought to be amended. We are a nation altho’, consisting of parts or States-- we are also confederated, and he hopes we shall always remain confederated.” He then proposed that the Convention examine what legislative, judiciary, and executive powers should be invested in Congress. King, who entered the Convention in favor of only a moderate revision of the Articles but ended in favor of a more radical revision, remarked on the difference between the Virginians’ plan and Dickinson’s understanding of the national situation: “The object of the motion from Virginia, an establishment of a government that is to act upon the whole people of the U. S. The object of the motion from Delaware seems to have application merely to the strengthening the confederation by some additional powers.” To which Madison replied “The motion does go to bring out the sense of the house-- whether the States shall be governed by one power.”
James McHenry’s draft notes on the Constitutional Convention present another perspective on those debates. They show how the issues which dominated the Convention were debated from the very beginning, as the delegates struggled to define what kind of government the United States would have and what kind of nation the United States would become.
Christie’s is grateful for cataloguing assistance from Jennifer E. Steenshorne, PhD., Associate Editor, The Selected Papers of John Jay
American Historical Association, “Papers of Dr. James McHenry on the Federal Convention of 1787,” American Historical Review 11, no. 3 (1906): 595-624.
Mary Sarah Bilder, Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015
Karen E. Robbins. James McHenry, Forgotten Federalist. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2013.