Elbridge Gerry and the Constitutional Convention, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher.

This September 17th is the 225th birthday of the Constitution.  Undoubtedly thousands of people will visit the Rotunda of the National Archives to see the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, as well as the Articles of Confederation.  If they look up at the murals in the Rotunda they will see one depicting the members of the Constitutional Convention.  If they look carefully at it, they will see an all but forgotten Founding Father, Elbridge Gerry, standing guardian over the documents he helped to bring to life.

Elbridge Gerry “standing guardian” over the Constitution in the Rotunda

Gerry of Massachusetts came to the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia on May 29, 1787, desiring a form of government that would find a balance between too much power and too much liberty. Such a government, he believed, should be based upon republican principles, where power would be divided wherever possible and where too much power would not be placed in the hands of a single person, group, or branch of government.

By the end of August Gerry feared the proposed constitution threatened the liberties of the people and the rights of the states.  He thought about leaving, but decided to stay so so he could correct as many defects as he could.

During the first week of September, he spoke frequently on limiting the military power, the manner of electing the President, checking the power of the chief executive, and against having a Vice President, especially one who was to be the president of the Senate. The latter provision he maintained violated the principles of separation of powers. “We might as well put the President himself at the head of the Legislature,” he had argued on September 7. “The close intimacy that must subsist between the president and vice president makes it absolutely improper.” His colleagues were not persuaded. In fact, all of his motions were rejected, as most members were satisfied with the document they had created. Ironically, a quarter of century later, Gerry would be Madison’s Vice President and die on the way to preside over the Senate.

Despite his setbacks during the first week of September, Gerry continued during the second week calling for reconsideration of certain provisions, including measures to protect individual rights and to curtail the power of the central government. On September 12, believing there was nothing else he could do to stop the proposed constitution from being adopted by the Convention, he moved that a national bill of rights be incorporated into it. He was seconded by George Mason. When his motion was rejected, Gerry unsuccessfully offered numerous specific provisions to guarantee individual liberties.

On September 15, after the members had gone over the final draft, Edmund Randolph, Mason, and Gerry spoke in opposition to the proposed constitution. Gerry, after detailing his minor objections, told the Convention that he could live with them if individual rights had not been rendered insecure by the power of the government to make laws it may call necessary and proper, to raise armies and money without limit, and to establish tribunals without juries. He then joined Mason and Randolph in calling for a second constitutional convention where measures could be adopted to adequately protect individual rights.

Two days later Gerry addressed the Convention for the 153rd and last time. After giving his objections to the proposed constitution, he stated he could not sign the document. Then he watched as 39 men affixed their signatures to the document. It must have been distressing to him, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation, not to sign. But it was even more distressing to think about the document itself, containing so many things he opposed and not including so many things he believed it should. Nevertheless, it must have pleased him to see that many of his motions and beliefs that protected the rights of citizens and the sovereignty of the states had been incorporated into the document and that he had been able to check many of the excesses of the extreme nationalists, thereby preventing the establishment of an even more powerful government.

In October he wrote the Massachusetts legislature that “it was painful for me, on a subject of such national importance, to differ from the respectable members who signed the constitution. But conceiving as I did that the liberties of America were not secured by the system, it was my duty to oppose it.” In this letter he gave his specific reasons for not signing, stressing the lack of any national bill of rights and the fact that the government was national, not federal in composition. “In many respects,” he wrote, “I think it has great merit, and by proper amendments, may be adapted to the ‘exigencies of Government’ and preservation of liberty.” He concluded the letter by pledging to “support that which is finally adopted.”

Once the Constitution was ratified, Gerry kept his word about supporting it, and agreed, once elected, to serve in the first House of Representatives. He arrived at Congress in the spring of 1789 ready to see that the proposed amendments that Massachusetts and other states had made, were given due consideration and to ensure the Constitution was implemented and administered so as to protect the liberties of the people.

Gerry, who had spoken the sixth most times at the Constitutional Convention, was an active participant, especially during the first five-month session, speaking more times than any other member save James Madison. Setting forth the same themes he had expounded at the Constitutional Convention, Gerry hoped the national government would find a true balance between liberty and power. He continually worked to protect the liberties of the people and the rights of the states.  He would leave Congress in 1793 and during the following 20 years serve on a diplomatic mission to France, two terms as governor of Massachusetts, and as Vice President.  He is the only Founding Father buried in Washington, D.C., at the Congressional Cemetery.  His words and deeds survive, at the National Archives, in the Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention, Record Group 360.

One thought on “Elbridge Gerry and the Constitutional Convention, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights

  1. Thanks, Greg, for the interesting article. While he may be forgotten as a Founding Father, Gerry’s name certainly continues to be frequently invoked by his other legacy, the gerrymander.

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