"Notes of Major William Pierce on the Federal Convention of 1787"

From Wythepedia: The George Wythe Encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Major William Pierce, Jr. (1753 – 1789), was an officer in the American Revolution, and a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Pierce briefly attended the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, while on leave in 1780, as he was inducted in to Phi Beta Kappa in June of that year.[1] Establishing a business in Savannah after the war, Pierce was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives, and sent to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787.

Pierce took notes on the proceedings of the Convention which survived in manuscipt, and made brief observational sketches of the other delegates, mentioning George Washington, George Wythe, George Mason, James Madison, John Blair, Edmund Randolph, and James McClurg, from Virginia.[2] Pierce wrote that Wythe was "one of the most learned legal Characters of the present age," and "universally esteemed for his good principles."

Article text, January 1898


On the proposition in the words following—"to legislate in all cases where the different States shall prove incompetent."1

M.r Sherman was of opinion that it would be too indifinitely expressed,—and yet it would be hard to define all the powers by detail. It appeared to him that it would be improper for the national Legislature to negative all the Laws that were connected with the States themselves.

M.r Maddison said it was necessary to adopt some general principles on which we should act,—that we were wandering from one thing to another without seeming to be settled in any one principle.

M.r Wythe observed that it would be right to establish general principles before we go into detail, or very shortly Gentlemen would find

1Doc. Hist., I. 202. The debate on this question is presented in the Madison Papers, 760-761, but none of the remarks here reported are to be found there, save the second speech of Madison.

Page 320

themselves in confusion, and would be obliged to have recurrence to the point from whence they sat out.

M.r King was of opinion that the principles ought first to be established before we proceed to the framing of the Act. He apprehends that the principles only go so far as to embrace all the power that is given up by the people to the Legislature, and to the federal Government, but no farther.

M.r Randolph was of opinion that it would be impossible to define the powers and the length to which the federal Legislature ought to extend just at this time.

M.r Wilson observed that it would be impossible to enumerate the powers which the federal Legislature ought to have.

M.r Maddison said he had brought with him a strong prepossession for the defining of the limits and powers of the federal Legislature, but he brought with him some doubts about the practicability of doing it:—at present he was convinced it could not be done.


From Virginia.

Gen.l Geo: Washington, Geo: Wythe, Geo: Mason, Ja.s Maddison jun.r Jn.o Blair, Edm.d Randolph, and James M.c Lurg.

Gen.l Washington is well known as the Commander in chief of the late American Army. Having conducted these States to independence and peace, he now appears to assist in framing a Government to make the People happy. Like Gustavus Vasa, he may be said to be the deliverer of his Country;—like Peter the great he appears as the politician and the States-man; and like Cincinnatus he returned to his farm perfectly contented with being only a plain Citizen, after enjoying the highest honor of the confederacy,—and now only seeks for the approbation of his Country-men by being virtuous and useful. The General was conducted to the Chair as President of the Convention by the unanimous voice of its Members. He is in the 52.d year of his age.

M.r Wythe is the famous Professor of Law at the University of William and Mary. He is confessedly one of the most learned legal Characters of the present age. From his close attention to the study of general learning he has acquired a compleat knowledge of the dead languages and all the sciences. He is remarked for his examplary life, and universally esteemed for his good principles. No Man it is said understands the history of Government better than M.r Wythe,—nor any one who understands the fluctuating condition to which all societies are liable better than he does, yet from his too favorable opinion of Men, he is no great politician. He is a neat and pleasing Speaker, and a most correct and able Writer. M.r Wythe is about 55 years of age.

M.r Mason is a Gentleman of remarkable strong powers, and possesses a clear and copious understanding. He is able and convincing in debate, steady and firm in his principles, and undoubtedly one of the best politicians in America. M.r Mason is about 60 years old, with a fine strong constitution.

M.r Maddison is a character who has long been in public life; and what is very remarkable every Person seems to acknowledge his greatness. He blends together the profound politician, with the Scholar. In the management of every great question he evidently took the lead in the Convention, and tho' he cannot be called an Orator, he is a most agreable, eloquent, and convincing Speaker. From a spirit of industry and application which he possesses in a most eminent degree, he always comes forward the best informed Man of any point in debate. The affairs of the United States, he perhaps, has the most correct knowledge of, of any Man in the Union. He has been twice a Member of Congress, and was always thought one of the ablest Members that ever sat in that Council. M. Maddison is about 37 years of age, a Gentleman of great modesty,—with a remarkable sweet temper. He is easy and unreserved among his acquaintance, and has a most agreable style of conversation.

M.r Blair is one of the most respectable Men in Virginia, both on account of his Family as well as fortune. He is one of the Judges of the

Page 332

Supreme Court in Virginia, and acknowledged to have a very extensive knowledge of the Laws. M.r Blair is however, no Orator, but his good sense, and most excellent principles, compensate for other deficiencies. He is about 50 years of age.

M.r Randolph is Governor of Virginia,—a young Gentleman in whom unite all the accomplishments of the Scholar, and the States-man. He came forward with the postulata, or first principles, on which the Convention acted, and he supported them with a force of eloquence and reasoning that did him great honor. He has a most harmonious voice, a fine person and striking manners. M.r Randolph is about 32 years of age.

M.r M.c Lurg is a learned physician, but having never appeared before in public life his character as a politician is not sufficiently known. He attempted once or twice to speak, but with no great success. It is certain that he has a foundation of learning, on which, if he pleases, he may erect a character of high renown. The Doctor is about 38 years of age, a Gentleman of great respectability, and of a fair and unblemished character.

See also


  1. As "Captn. Wm. Pierce." Oscar M. Voorhees, ed., "The Original Phi Beta Kappa Records (Continued)," Phi Beta Kappa Key 3, no. 12 (May, 1919), 601.
  2. "Notes of Major William Pierce on the Federal Convention of 1787," American Historical Review 3, no. 2 (January 1898), 319-320, 331-332. Published as Richard Leffler, John P. Kaminski, and Samuel K. Fore, eds., William Pierce: On the Constitutional Convention and the Constitution: Notes from the Convention, Sketches of Delegates, and Writings on the Constitution (Dallas, TX: Harlan Crow Library, 2012).

External links