Elbridge Gerry and the Constitution, 1787-1788

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park.

It had been a long, hot summer for Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and his colleagues in 1787 at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. They had come to Philadelphia in May to improve upon the Articles of Confederation, which Gerry had signed in 1778, and ended up drafting a Constitution. Gerry had spoken often at the Convention, in fact, the sixth most times. Sometimes his colleagues agreed with him, sometimes not. However, he did not give up in expressing his views regarding government, hoping his colleagues would agree. Finally, during the second week of September he called 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.


Elbridge Gerry (center) can be seen in the mural of the members of the Constitutional Convention hanging in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C.

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.

In October he wrote Samuel Adams, President of the Massachusetts Senate and James Warren, Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives:

Gentlemen: I have the honor to enclose, pursuant to my commission, the Constitution proposed by the Federal Convention.

To this system I gave my dissent, and shall submit my objections to the honorable legislature.

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.

My principal objections to the plan are, that there is no adequate provision for a representation of the people; that they have no security for the right of election; that some of the powers of the legislature are ambiguous, and others indefinite and dangerous; that the executive is blended with, and will have an undue influence over, the legislature; that the judicial department will be oppressive; that treaties of the highest importance may be formed by the President, with the advice of two thirds of a quorum of the Senate; and that the system is without the security of a bill of rights. These are objections which are not local, but apply equally to all the states.

As the Convention was called for “the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation, and reporting to Congress, and the several legislatures, such alterations and provisions as shall render the Federal Constitution adequate to the exigencies of government, and the preservation of the Union,” I did not conceive that these powers extend to the formation of the plan proposed; but the Convention being of a different opinion, I acquiesced in it, being fully convinced that, to preserve the Union, an efficient government was indispensably necessary, and that it would be difficult to make proper amendments to the Articles of Confederation.

The Constitution proposed has few, if any, federal features, but is rather a system of national government. Nevertheless, in many respects, I think it has great merit, and, by proper amendments, may be adapted to the “exigencies of government, and preservation of liberty.”

The question on this plan involves others of the highest importance: 1. Whether there shall be a dissolution of the federal government; 2. Whether the several state governments shall be so altered as in effect to be dissolved; 3. Whether, in lieu of the federal and state governments, the national Constitution now proposed shall be substituted without amendment. Never, perhaps, were a people called on to decide a question of greater magnitude. Should the citizens of America adopt the plan as it now stands, their liberties may be lost; or should they reject it altogether, anarchy may ensue. It is evident, therefore, that they should not be precipitate in their decisions; that the subject should be well understood;–lest they should refuse to support the government after having hastily accepted it.

If those who are in favor of the Constitution, as well as those who are against it, should preserve moderation, their discussions may afford much information, and finally direct to a happy issue.

It may be urged by some, that an implicit confidence should be placed in the Convention; but, however respectable the members may be who signed the Constitution, it must be admitted that a free people are the proper guardians of their rights and liberties; that the greatest men may err, and that their errors are sometimes of the greatest magnitude.

Others may suppose that the Constitution may be safely adopted, because therein provision is made to amend it. But cannot this object be better attained before a ratification than after it? And should a free people adopt a form of government under conviction that it wants amendment?

And some may conceive that, if the plan is not accepted by the people, they will not unite in another. But surely, while they have the power to amend, they are not under the necessity of rejecting it.

I have been detained here longer than I expected, but shall leave this place in a day or two for Massachusetts, and on my arrival shall submit the reasons (if required by the legislature) on which my objections are grounded.

I shall only add that, as the welfare of the Union requires a better Constitution than the Confederation, I shall think it my duty, as a citizen of Massachusetts, to support that which shall be finally adopted, sincerely hoping it will secure the liberty and happiness of America.

I have the honor to be, gentlemen, with the highest respect for the honorable legislature and yourselves, your most obedient and very humble servant, E. GERRY. [1]

The Pennsylvania Gazette of February 27, 1788, reported “that the eastern papers give us an authoritative assurance that the Honorable Eldridge Gerry, Esq., of that state [Massachusetts], who declined to sign the recommendation of the new Constitution in the Federal Convention, now declares, since it has received the sanction of the majority of the people, that he will firmly support it.” The next day, in Richmond, the Virginia Gazette and Weekly Advertiser reported that “With the highest satisfaction we announce to the public, that the Convention of the state of Massachusetts adopted the new Constitution on the 6th instant, by a majority of 19, 187 yeas, 168 nays,” and that “Mr. GERRY has declared, since the adoption of the Constitution, that he will steadily support it.”

Indeed, 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 became the 5th Vice President of the United States, 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. For more information on Gerry see my article “A Founding Father in Dissent: Elbridge Gerry helped Inspire Bill of Rights in His Opposition to the Constitution.”

[1] Jonathan Elliot, ed., The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution as Recommended by the General Convention at Philadelphia, in 1787, Together with the Journal of the Federal Convention, Luther Martin’s Letter, Yates’s Minutes, Congressional Opinions, Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of ’98-’99, and Other Illustration of the Constitution, in Four Volumes, Second Edition, with Considerable Additions (Washington, D.C.: Published under the Sanction of Congress and Printed for the Editor, 1836), Vol. I, pp. 492-494.

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