Hidden gems in legal history

Happy quorum day

They were supposed to convene on the second Monday in May, which happened that year to fall on the 14th. But when that fateful day arrived in the City of Philadelphia, those that gathered discovered they didn’t have a quorum1 — that is, there weren’t enough of them there to act legally. They adjourned that Monday, to meet again the next day.

Came the 15th, and no quorum. The 16th, no quorum. The 17th, the 18th, the 19th. On into the next week, and still no quorum. It wasn’t in fact until the 25th of May — 225 years ago today — that enough representatives of enough of the states had arrived in Philadelphia to constitute a quorum to begin, officially, the Constitutional Convention of 1787.2

The Convention was the result of a resolution from the Continental Congress, on 21 February 1787, declaring that

in the opinion of Congress 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.3

The Articles, agreed upon in 1777 and finally ratified in 1781,4 had frankly been a disaster. Little more than an agreement among the states without a strong national focus, the Articles didn’t provide for an executive or judicial branch, allowed Congress to incur debt but not raise taxes to pay its bills, and didn’t have any teeth for Congress to enforce any measures it enacted.5

At the same time, a general economic downturn, the lack of a uniform paper currencey and high state taxes let to popular discontent and, in Massachusetts, an armed uprising called Shay’s Rebellion that had to be put down with a privately funded militia since there was essentially no standing army.6

Everybody pretty much knew something different had to be done. Just how different was disguised by the language of the resolution. Writing an entire new Constitution is a far cry from “revising the Articles of Confederation.” And an effort in the fall of 1786 to “Remedy Defects of the Federal Government” in terms of trade and commerce ended without enough states present to reach any agreement beyond calling for a constitutional convention.7

So when the Constitutional Convention met on 14 May 1787 and didn’t get a quorum of seven states, there were fears that this effort too was doomed.

In his diary on 14 May, George Washington wrote, “two States only were represented, viz., Virginia and Pennsylvania.” On the 15th, “No more States represented, tho there were members (but not sufficient to form a quorum) from two or three others…” 8

By the 16th, Washington wrote that there were still “(o)nly two States represented.” By the 17th, the arrival of a second delegate from South Carolina “formed a representation from that State.”9 On the 18th, “The State of New York was represented.” But no-one else appeared on Saturday the 19th and the convention “(a)greed to meet at 1 o’clock on Monday.”10

In a letter on the 20th, Washington wrote that “(n)ot more than four states were represented yesterday. If any have come in since, it is unknown to me.”11 In his diary entries, he continued to note the slow arrival of delegates: “Monday, 21. — Delaware State was represented. … Tuesday, 22. — North Carolina represented. … Wednesday, 23. — No more States represented. … Thursday, 24. — No more States represented.”12 Finally, on the 25th, Washington recorded in his Diary: “Another delegate comes in from the State of New Jersey. Made a quorum.”13

In the end the task of writing a new Constitution was achieved; on 17 September 1787 the document received unanimous assent from the Convention and “the Members adjourned to the City Tavern, dined together and took a cordial leave of each other.”14

So… there’s your cool “today in history” lesson. What does it have to do with genealogy? I mean, everybody knows that reading about the law and its making is soooooooo boring. You really wouldn’t want to bother reading through the dry and dusty records of a Constitutional Convention, even if they’re online in an easily readable form at the Library of Congress, would you? After all, what could a family historian who’s not descended from one of those fabled 55 delegates ever learn from those records?

Oh, not all that much, of course. Let’s see here… what interest could a family historian have in travel costs in 1787? Virginia delegate George Mason wrote to his son on the 20th of May: “We found travelling very expensive — from eight to nine dollars per day.”15 And Edmund Randolph wrote on 6 June 1787 that “The prospect of a very long sojournment here has determined me to bring up my family. They will want about thirty pounds for the expense of travelling.”16

And a genealogist would never care what it cost to stay in Philadelphia at the time, right? Mason’s letter to his son continued: “In this city the living is cheap. We are at the old Indian Queen in Fourth Street, where we are very well accommodated, have a good room to ourselves, and are charged only twenty-five Pennsylvania currency per day, including our servants and horses, exclusive of club in liquors and extra charges…”17 (And I don’t suppose any of us would ever care that every state had its own currency, right?)

And none of us whose late 18th century ancestors worked in an inn or a tavern would ever be interested in just what the Indian Queen was like, would we? On 13 July 1787, Manasseh Cutler wrote in his journal: “This tavern (Indian Queen) … is kept in an elegant style, and consists of a large pile of buildings, with many spacious halls, and numerous small apartments, appropriated for lodging rooms. … The gentlemen who lodged in the house were just sitting down to supper; a sumptuous table was spread, and the attendance in the style of noblemen.”18

Genealogists would never worry about things like weather conditions in the spring of 1787, right? On 15 May, James Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson about the delays in the arrival of delegates, particularly those coming from the Continental Congress in New York: “Of this the late bad weather has been the principal cause.”19

And there’d be no interest at all in the identities of 13 Rhode Islanders so worried about having their voice heard when Rhode Island refused to send a delegation that they wrote to the Convention to express their views20 or the one Philadelphia Jew who wrote in fear that the new Constitution might require an oath on the New Testament21 or… or…

Nope, nope, nope. Nothing a family historian could be interested in. Move along, folks. Nothing to see here.

Sigh… reading about the law and its making is soooooooo boring.


SOURCES

  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 990, “quorum.”
  2. Max Farrand, The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, 3 vols. (New Haven : Yale University Press, 1911), 1: 1-5; digital images, Library of Congress, A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 – 1875 (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/ : accessed 24 May 2012). See also Paul Richter, “No quorum, no Constitution!,” National Archives, Prologue: Pieces of History, posted 14 May 2012 (http://blogs.archives.gov/prologue/ : accessed 14 May 2012).
  3. Library of Congress, Journals of the Continental Congress, 34 vols. (Washington, D.C. : U.S. Govt. Printing Office, 1904-1937), 32: 74; digital images, Library of Congress, A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 – 1875 (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/ : accessed 24 May 2012).
  4. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Articles of Confederation,” rev. 23 May 2012.
  5. Israel Ward Andrews, Manual of the Constitution of the United States (New York : American Book Co., 1900), 36-38; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 24 May 2012).
  6. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Shays’ Rebellion,” rev. 16 May 2012.
  7. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Annapolis Convention (1786),” rev. 19 Apr 2012.
  8. Farrand, “Appendix A, VIII. George Washington: Diary,” The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, 3: 20.
  9. Ibid., “Appendix A, X. George Washington: Diary,” 3: 20-21.
  10. Ibid., “Appendix A, XIII. George Washington: Diary,” 3: 21.
  11. Ibid., “Appendix A, XIV. George Washington to Arthur Lee,” 3: 22.
  12. Ibid., “Appendix A, XVIII. George Washington: Diary,” 3: 26.
  13. Ibid., “Appendix A, XX. George Washington: Diary,” 3: 27.
  14. Ibid., “Appendix A, CX. George Washington: Diary,” 3: 81.
  15. Ibid., “Appendix A, XV. George Mason to George Mason, Jr.,” 3: 24.
  16. Ibid., “Appendix A, XXXVIII. Edmund Randolph to Beverly Randolph,” 3: 36.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid., “Appendix A, LXII. Manasseh Cutler: Journal,” 3: 58-59.
  19. Ibid., “Appendix A, IX. James Madison to Thomas Jefferson,” 3: 20.
  20. Ibid., “Appendix A, VII. Several Gentlemen of Rhode Island to the Chairman of the General Convention,” 3: 19.
  21. Ibid., “Appendix A, CIV. Jonas Phillips to the President and Members of the Convention,” 3: 78-79.
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7 Responses to Hidden gems in legal history

  1. Moises Garza says:

    This article is very interesting and reminded me of my college years since we had to read a book that gave detailed account of day to day conversations about the convention. History will always be relevant to genealogy specially when an event in time is
    part of our past and future generations.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      And history isn’t just relevant to us — it’s our meat and potatoes and bread and butter! (Not to mention, fun!)

  2. Pam Reid says:

    As usual, Judy, all kinds of awesome! Then, I am a history nerd. I live for hidden gems. My newly minted attorney daughter has the bug too. We go to the Library of Congress together and our hands shake going through boxes of Supreme Court justice’s papers. There are some real gems in those boxes!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I think there’s a big chunk of history nerd in all of us Pam, but how cool is it to go through those SCt papers!! (And congrats to the newly minted lawyer!)

  3. Diana says:

    Judy -
    Oh dear, another source to check – I saw someone’s mention of Manasseh Cutler and thought I’d better check it out – my 5ggfather (and three of his uncles) were among the first Ohio settlers (First Ohio Company) with Manasseh Cutler – I think I need to read that letter from the Rhode Island gentlemen!
    I’ve always been a history nerd too (and I married one).

  4. Pingback: The Legal Genealogist | Where Did They Go?

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