The History of the Virginia Federal Convention of 1788
The Virginia Federal Convention of 1788, also known as the Virginia Ratifying Convention, took place from June 2 through June 27. The issue at task was voting on the ratification of the newly composed United States Constitution. By the time of the Virginia convention, eight states had already voted to ratify, leaving only Virginia, New Hampshire and New York to vote on ratification. For the Constitution to go into effect, only one of these states needed to ratify. Delegates from the two major parties at the time, Federalist and Antifederalists, convened in Richmond to debate whether Virginia was to be the ninth state ratifying the Constitution. George Wythe was one of the esteemed delegates elected to attend the convention. At this Convention, George Wythe was considered one of the more influential and knowledgeable delegates from his long and varied career in public service, education, and law.
The delegates from the Federalist and Antifederalist parties represented the two opposing sides to the ratification of the Constitution. The Federalists supported the new Constitution which increased the powers of the federal government from those outlined in the Articles of Confederation. Meanwhile, the Antifederalists supported a more limited federal government and more powerful state governments similar to the power dynamics in the Articles of Confederation. Before the convention each side published works advocating for their view; Richard Henry Lee represented the Antifederalists with the creation of the Federal Farmer and Madison represented the Federalists with him being a third of Publius, the creator of the Federalist Papers. The leading Federalist delegates were George Wythe, James Madison, John Marshall, and Governor Edmund Randolph. The leading Antifederalist delegates were George Mason, Patrick Henry, and James Monroe. Once the debates started, Henry monopolized the floor by speaking seventeen of the twenty-two days, as many as eight times a meeting. Meanwhile, the main speaker for the Federalists, Madison, spoke mainly in rebuttal attacking Henry's faulty logic, skewed view of history, and misconstruction of the language of the Constitution. These debates were extremely important to both sides because of the delegation was equally split on party lines with each side numbering 84 delegates. To keep these debates organized, a Committee was appointed to oversee the debates. George Wythe was chosen to be the Chair of this Committee. Some of the main debating points included the delegated powers under Article 1 Section 4, the necessary and proper clause, enumerated powers, the possibility of implied powers, and the supremacy clause. The main concern of the Antifederalists was that there was going to be an authoritarian federal government who would trample over the rights of the people and state. The Federalists countered this worry by citing the multiple checks and balances that restrained Congress, the Executive, and the Judiciary from impeding on civil liberties and the autonomy of the states.
On Wednesday, June 25, 1788, a day after George Wythe brought forward the resolution to ratification, the Convention ratified the United States Constitution with 89 ayes and 79 noes. Among the 89 ayes was George Wythe. This made Virginia the tenth state to vote for ratification of the Constitution. One of the reasons that some may have switched sides was that James Madison conceded that a Bill of Rights needed to be added to the Constitution. The acknowledgment the Convention to proposed amendments to the Constitution in the form of either a Declaration or a Bill of Rights. Virginia sent twenty amendments for the Bill of Rights and twenty amendments for the body of the Constitution. The loss for the Antifederalists resulted in a diminished prestige for some of the more recognizable delegates such as Patrick Henry. Meanwhile, the Federalists were subjected to backlash in Virginia such as James Madison being denied a place in the federal Senate.
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- 2 Volume Two
- 3 See Also
- 4 References
- 5 External links
The number and character of the delegates selected for the service demonstrated the importance of the movement; and Virginia, when she had confided her trust to George Washington, Patrick Henry, Edmund Randolph, John Blair, James Madison, George Mason, and George Wythe, calmly awaited the result of their labors.
The person of Wythe was more familiar to persons from abroad; for, since the removal of the seat of government from Williamsburg, he had taken up his abode in town,38 and might be seen in his court or in his study, and not unfrequently of a bright frosty morning, in loose array, taking an air-bath in the porch of his humble residence on Shockoe Hill.
38Judge Wythe's residence stood at the southeast corner of Grace and Fifth streets, on the spot where stands the residence erected by the late Abraham Warwick, and now owned and occupied by Major Legh R. Page.
Pendleton, the President of the Court of Appeals, and Wythe, a chancellor and a member of the same court, who had been pitted against each other in the Senate and in the forum throughout their political lives, and were now to act in unison, were not the only representatives of the judiciary.42
42These two venerable men, with George Mason and Patrick Henry, were those first sought by the spectator, as in a convention, forty years later, were Madison, Monroe, Marshall and Fayette. If the reader wishes to know the constitution of the courts in 1787, let him turn to Mr. Minor's edition of Wythe's Reports, page 20 of the memoir.
Some of the prominent members of Congress were present. Harrison, Henry and Pendleton stood up in the Carpenters' Hall, when the eloquent Duchè, then firm in his country's cause, had invoked the guidance of Heaven in the deliberations of the first Congress; while Grayson, Henry Lee of the Legion, Madison, Monroe, Edmund Randolph, and Wythe, had been or were then in the councils of the Union.
It was ultimately carried in a house of one hundred and seventy members by a majority of ten only, and five votes would have reversed the decision; and it is certain that at least ten members voted, either in disobedience of the positive instructions of their constituents, or in defiance of their well-known opinions.48
48See the proceedings of the Assembly which met three days before the adjournment of the present Convention. Judge Marshall, who was a member of the present Convention, and probably wrote from the result of his observation in Virginia, says, "that in some of the adopting States, a majority of the people were in opposition"; he also says, "that so small in many instances was the majority in its favor, as to afford short ground for the opinion that had the influence of character been removed, the intrinsic merits of the instrument would not have secured its adoption." Life of Washington, II, 127. Sympathizing as I do with the views of Henry, Mason, &c., who opposed the Constitution, it might appear invidious to give the names of those who
voted as charged in the text. As an illustration of "the influence of character," it may be said that no four men excited more influence in favor of the Constitution in Virginia, than George Washington, Edmund Pendleton, George Wythe, and James Madison, and four purer names were probably never recorded in profane history; yet to those who look into the secret motives that unconsciously impel the most candid minds on great occasions, which involve the destinies of posterity, it may be said that they were all men of wealth, or held office by a life tenure, and that, though married, neither of them ever had a child. In the same spirit it may be mentioned that Mason and Henry were men of large families, and that hundreds now living look back to "Gunston Hall" and "Red Hill." In the case of Henry, the cradle began to rock in his house in his eighteenth year, and was rocking at his death in his sixty-third.
From the passage of the resolutions of the House of Burgesses against the Stamp Act to the time when, eleven years later, an independent State Government was formed, there had been a palpable line drawn between the parties of the country. In that interval some prominent names might occasionally be found on either side of the line; but the line was at all times distinctly visible.54
54If the critical reader will run over the names of the members of the House of Burgesses of 1765, and the names of the members of the early Conventions, he will think, with me, that a majority of the men who opposed the resolutions of Henry against the Stamp Act, opposed the resolutions of the same gentleman of March, 1775, which proposed to put the Colony into military array, and the resolution, I am inclined to think, instructing the Virginia delegates in Congress to propose independence. The same members who opposed independence, we are expressly told by Henry, in his letter to R. H. Lee, of December 8, 1777, also opposed the adoption of the Articles of Confederation. And these members were, in the main, warm advocates for the adoption of the new Federal Constitution. On the other hand, Henry, R. H. Lee, George Mason, William Cabell, and others, who sustained the measures above enumerated, were the fiercest opponents of that instrument. Heretofore the party, of which Henry was usually regarded the head, had held almost undisputed sway in the Assembly; but, though it still included a large majority of the people, the skill and tact with which the friends of the new Constitution selected their candidates among the judges, and the military men, and the old tories, who, though they opposed all the great measures of the Revolution, including the Articles of Confederation, had become strangely enamored of the new scheme, had shaken the established majority. This was one of the
causes of the public alarm at the time. The Federalists well knew that when such men as Edmund Pendleton, George Wythe, John Blair, and Paul Carrington, all of whom were on the bench, appeared at the hustings, nobody would vote against them.
Paul Carrington now rose, and in a short address nominated Edmund Pendleton as President.75
75Neither the Journal of the Convention nor Robertson reports the name of the member who nominated Pendleton. I heard, from a gentleman who was present at the time, that Judge Carrington made the motion; but I am wholly at a loss for the name of the seconder, who, I suppose, was Wythe, from the fact that he was the only member likely to be brought out against Pendleton, and that Pendleton almost invariably called him to the chair in Committee of the Whole. I do not find that any of our early deliberative bodies have ever elected the chairman of the Committee of the Whole, which was formerly the usual practice in the House of Commons. The nomination of Pendleton was fixed upon beforehand, beyond doubt, and there can be as little doubt that Wythe was party to it. In the Convention of 1829-30 it was arranged with the privity of Madison, and doubtless at his suggestion, that Mr. Monroe should be made president of the body, and he was so nominated by Mr. Madison himself; but the ablest members of the Convention were not aware of the design; and when Mr. Madison made the nomination, those who sate near John Randolph and observed his countenance, say that he was on the eve of rising to oppose it, not so much from hostility to Mr. Monroe as from a belief that the honor of the presidency should first be conferred on Madison.
But George Wythe was now known to approve the Constitution, and so far from opposing Pendleton would sustain him by his vote. Had Wythe been of the opposite party, the opponents of the Constitution would doubtless have ventured a contest. Nor is it certain that the contest would not have been successful. Wythe was, as a man, more popular than Pendleton; many of the members had been his scholars, and loved him with an affection which neither time nor distrust could weaken; and he would certainly have carried with him the votes of the smaller counties on tide, which had ever regarded him with warm attachment, and had long counted his fame among their most precious possessions.
and had chosen a printer of its proceedings, it adjourned, on the motion of George Mason to the next day at eleven, then to meet in the New Academy on Shockoe Hill.
80The Committee of Privileges and Elections were so distinguished a body that I annex their names, with the remark that such an array of genius, talents, and public and private worth had not been seen before, nor has it been seen since, on such a committee in Virginia : Benjamin Harrison, George Mason, His Excellency Governor Randolph, Patrick Henry, George Nicholas, John Marshall, Paul Carrington, John Tyler, Alexander White, John Blair, Theodore Bland, William Grayson, Daniel Fisher, Thomas Mathews, John Jones, George Wythe, William Cabell, James Taylor of Caroline, Gabriel Jones, Francis Corbin, James Innes, James Monroe, Henry Lee, and Cuthbert Bullitt. The committee is appointed with great liberality, the friends of the Constitution having a majority of two only.
When the House had received and acted upon the reports of the Committee of Elections, the order of the day was read, and the Convention went into Committee of the Whole. Wythe was called to the chair. Next to Pendleton, his fame as a jurist and a statesman had been more widely diffused at home and abroad than that of any other member. He had been longest in the public service; had long been a member of the House of Burgesses, which he entered as early as 1758; had been the intimate and confidential
friend of Fauquier and Botetourt, and the associate of all the royal governors of Virginia who in his time had any pretensions as gentlemen and scholars; had spoken in the great debate on the Declaration of Independence in Congress; had voted for the Declaration of Rights and the Constitution of Virginia; had filled the chair of the House of Delegates, when Pendleton, suffering from his recent accident, was detained at home, and had acquired in the performance of his various duties that knowledge of the law of parliament and those habits of a presiding officer, which were now indispensable to an occupant of the chair. His position in one respect was unique. As a professor of William and Mary, he had trained some of the ablest members of the House, who regarded him with a veneration greater than that, great as it was, which was shared by the public at large.90 He had reached his sixty-second year; yet as he moved with a brisk and graceful step from the floor to the chair, his small and erect stature presented a pleasing image of a fresh and healthy old man. In a front view, as he sate in the chair, he appeared to be bald; but his gray hair grew thick behind, and instead of being wrapped with a ribbon, as was then and many years later the universal custom, descended to his neck, and rose in a broad curl. He had not yet given way to that disarrangement of his apparel which crept upon him in extreme age, and was arrayed in the neat and simple dress that has come down to us in the portrait engraved by Longacre.91 Though never robust, he was now more able to bear, in a physical sense, the formidable ordeal of the chair than Pendleton. He had been a member of the General Convention which framed the Constitution, and had assented to the Virginia platform presented to that body; but, as he was absent when that instrument was subscribed by the members, his name did not appear on its roll. He was, however, in favor of its ratification.
90Among the numerous pupils of Wythe in the Convention were Chief Justice Marshall, President Monroe, George and Wilson Cary Nicholas, Read, Innes, Lewis, Samuel Jordan Cabell, &c.
91A single-breasted coat, with a standing collar, a single-breasted vest, with a white cravat buckled behind.
His address, which had been polished by long and intimate association in the most refined circles of the Colony, to which by birth he belonged, and of the Commonwealth; his minute acquaintance with every topic of local legislation; his ready command of that historical knowledge within the range of a well-educated lawyer of the old regime; perfect self-possession, which had been acquired in many a contest at the bar and in the House of Delegates with most of the able men now opposed to him, and which enabled him to wield at will a robust logic in debate which few cared to encounter, made him one of the most promising of that group of rising statesmen who had caught their inspiration from the lips of Wythe.
After a graceful allusion to the philosophy of the passions which were apt to rage most fiercely on those occasions which required the calmest deliberation, but excepting the members of the Convention from such an influence, he continued : " Pardon me, sir, if I am particularly sanguine in my expectations from the chair; it well knows what is order, how to command obedience108 and that political opinions may be as honest on one side as the other. Before I pass into the body of the argument, I must take the liberty of mentioning the part I have already borne in this great question; but let me not here be misunderstood.
108This very pointed intimation to Wythe to keep the discussion from wandering from the sections under debate, shows very plainly the pro gramme of the Federalists. If such was their policy in committee of the whole, we can well judge what they designed it to be in the House.
The moustache, then seen only on some foreign lip, was held in abhorrence, and served to recall the carnage of Blackbeard, who had been slain in the early part of the century, in the waters of Carolina, by the gallant Maynard, and whose name made the burden of the song with which Mason and Wythe had been scared to sleep in their cradles.
The morning of Thursday, the fifth day of June, witnessed a dense crowd in the New Academy. It was expected that Madison would reply to Henry and Mason; and that Henry and Mason, unrestrained by the order of discussion, would review the Constitution at large. Some business appertaining to contested elections was soon despatched; and Pendleton, having called Wythe to the chair, was helped to a seat in the body of the house. There was a pause, for the courtesies of parliament were strictly observed, and Madison was entitled to the floor. But he was nowhere to be seen. It was whispered that he had been taken suddenly ill, and was confined to his room. Every eye was then turned to Henry and Mason, when, to the amazement of all, Pendleton was seen to make an effort to rise, and, supported on crutches, addressed the chair. Those who forty years later, in the Convention of 1829 beheld Mr. Madison, in the midst of an excited discussion rise from his seat, and proceed to make a speech, and can recall the confusion produced by the members hastening from their seats to gather around him, or leaping on the benches in the hope of seeing, if they could not hear, what was passing before them, may form some conception of the interest so suddenly excited by the appearance of Pendleton on the floor with a view of making a regular speech. He had been for the third of a century eminent for skill in debate, and his fame had become a matter of history; and he had never before been in a body the discussions of which were better adapted to the display of his extraordinary talents; but he was so far advanced in life, so crippled by his hurt, and so long absent from public bodies and unused to debate, it was not expected that he would be able to do more than to speak to some point of order or to give his vote. He soon, however, gave a remarkable proof that fine powers kept in full employment do not sensibly decay with time, and that he only wanted physical strength to take the lead out of the hands of the promising statesmen who had been born and had grown up since he first entered a deliberative assembly. It is said that some of the oldest members,"111 as they looked at the feeble old man on his
111In the Convention of 1829, when Mr. Monroe was conducted to the chair by Mr. Madison and Chief Justice Marshall, several members
feet, and at his ancient compeer Wythe leaning forward in the chair to catch the tones of a voice which for the past thirty years he had heard with various emotions, were affected to tears.
were seen to weep. There are several points of resemblance in the incidents of the two bodies. Pendleton, speaking on his crutches, recalls William B. Giles, who had broken a leg by a similar accident, [his descendants say that he was disabled by rheumatism—Ed.] and was only a year or two younger than Pendleton. The change in the opinions of Edmund Randolph has its counterpart in the change attributed to Chapman Johnson; and the collision between Patrick Henry and Edmund Randolph was repeated in that between Chapman Johnson and John Randolph. The election of Pendleton instead of Wythe, who was the more popular of the two, is reflected in the election of Monroe instead of Madison, who was universally fixed upon both in and out of the Convention as its presiding officer, and who alone could have defeated his election, which he did by instantly rising when the body was called to order and nominating Mr. Monroe.
He [George Nicholas] was one of that brilliant group of soldier-statesmen who had caught their inspiration and their love of country from the lips of Wythe.
The same policy which had induced the friends of the Constitution to select Pendleton to open the debate on the judiciary, impelled them to select Wythe as the proper person to bring forward the resolution of ratification. As soon as the House was called to order, a motion was made that it should resolve itself into committee, and adopted. ... Wythe instantly rose to address
the chair. There was need of haste; for Henry had prepared a series of amendments which he desired the House to adopt, and thus postpone the final vote on the Constitution for an in definite period. He looked pale and fatigued; and so great was his agitation that he had uttered several sentences before he was distinctly heard by those who sat near him. When he was heard, he was recapitulating the history of the Colonies previous to the war, their resistance to the oppressions of Great Britain, and the glorious conclusion of that arduous conflict. To perpetuate the blessings of freedom, he contended that the union of the States should be indissoluble. He expatiated on the defects of the Confederation. He pointed out the impossibility of securing liberty without society, the impracticability of acting personally, and the inevitable necessity of delegating power to agents. He recurred to the system under consideration. He admitted its imperfection, and the propriety of some amendments. But, he said, it had virtues which could not be denied by its opponents. He thought that experience was the best guide, and that most of the improvements that had been made in the science of government, were the result of experience. He appealed to the advocates for amendments to say whether, if they were indulged with any alterations they pleased, there might not be still a necessity of alteration ? He then proceeded to the consideration of the question of previous or subsequent amendments. He argued that, from the dangers of the crisis, it would be safer to adopt the Constitution as it is, and that it would be easy to obtain all needful amendments afterwards. He then proposed a form of ratification, which was handed to the clerk and read to the committee."235 Well might Wythe evince unusual emotion in presenting his scheme. Henry rose in a fierce humor strangely mixed with grief and shame. Whether he felt discomfitted by having been
235See the form as it was adopted the following day.
forestalled by Wythe in offering his own scheme, which had been prepared with great care, to the committee, or was moved by the terms of Wythe's proposition, or was influenced by the sense of the imminent danger of losing the great battle which he had been waging in behalf of what he deemed the common liberty, there was something in his manner and in the subdued tones of his voice that foretold a fearful explosion. In the beginning of his speech he pitched his passion to a low key. He thought the proposal of ratification premature, and that the importance of the subject required the most mature deliberation. He dissented from the scheme of Wythe, because it admitted that the new system was capitally defective; for immediately after the proposed ratification comes the declaration that the paper before you is not intended to violate any of the three great rights —liberty of the press, liberty of religion, and the trial by jury. What is the inference when you enumerate the rights which you are to enjoy? That those not enumerated are relinquished. He then discanted on the omission of general warrants, so fatal in a vast country where no judge within a thousand miles can be found to issue a writ of habeas corpus, and where an innocent man might rot in jail before he could be delivered by process of law; the dangers of standing armies in times of peace, and ten or eleven other things equally important, all of which are omitted in the scheme of Wythe. Is it the language of the Bill of Rights that these things only are valuable? Is it the language of men going into a new government? After pressing with great force the inconsistency and futility of a ratification with subsequent amendments, he exhorted gentlemen to think seriously before they ratified the Constitution and persuaded themselves that they will succeed in making a feeble effort to obtain amendments. With respect to that part of Wythe's proposal which states that every power not granted remains with the people, it must be previous to adoption, or it will involve this country in inevitable destruction. To talk of it as a thing subsequent, not as one of your inalienable rights, is leaving it to the casual opinion of the Congress who shall take up the consideration of that matter. They will not reason with you about the effect of this Constitution. They will not take the opinion of this committee concerning its operation. They will construe it as they please. If you place it subsequently, let me ask the consequences? Among ten thou-
sand implied powers which they may assume, they may, if we be engaged in war, liberate every one of your slaves if they please. And this must and will be done by men, a majority of whom have not a common interest with you.
Of that brilliant group of soldier-statesmen, who drew their inspiration from the counsels of Wythe, and whose virtues shed renown not only on Virginia, but on the Union at large, none more eminently merits the grateful and affectionate regard of succeeding times than James Innes.
We know that the most distinguished living Virginian, who had heard both speakers [Patrick Henry and James Innes], has pronounced Innes the most classical, the most elegant, and the most eloquent orator to whom he ever listened.248 Born in Caroline, the residence of Pendleton, and the pupil of Wythe, he possessed the confidence of those illustrious men, who watched with affectionate attachment the development of his genius, who witnessed his finest displays, and who, in their extreme old age, deplored his untimely death.
248Such is the opinion of Governor Tazewell, who, when a young man, was accustomed to hear Innes. I once asked Governor Tazewell what he thought of Innes as a lawyer. "Innes, sir, was no lawyer (that is, he was not as profound a lawyer as Wythe, or Pendleton, or Thomson Mason, who were eminent when Innes was born); but he was the most elegant belles-lettres scholar and the most eloquent orator I ever heard." It must be remembered that Innes, at the time of his death, in 1798, had not completed his forty-fourth year; and that Wythe and Pendleton attained to nearly double his years.
A committee was also appointed " to prepare and report such amendments as shall by them be deemed necessary to be recommended in pursuance of the second resolution," and consisted of Wythe, Harrison, Mathews, Henry, Randolph, George Mason, Nicholas, Grayson, Madison, Tyler, Marshall, Monroe, Ronald, Bland, Meriwether Smith, Paul Carrington, Innes, Hopkins, John Blair, and Simms.
"We, the said Delegates, in the name and in behalf of the People of Virginia, do, by these presents, assent to, and ratify the Constitution, recommended on the seventeenth day of September, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-seven, by the Federal Convention for the government of the United States, hereby announcing to all those whom it may concern, that the said Constitution is binding upon the said People, according to an authentic copy hereto annexed, in the words-following:" 267
267The form of ratification has been usually attributed to the pen of Madison; but I am compelled to give up this opinion, which was common thirty years ago. It is but an enlargement of the preamble offered by Wythe, and doubtless from internal evidence written by him. That preamble is not such as in my opinion Madison or Randolph would have drawn, and is very properly amended in a vital part in the form of ratification. As Randolph was chairman of the committee which reported the form, and was a critical writer, and as the form was mainly an enlargement of the preamble presented by Wythe, the safer conjecture is that its merit belongs jointly to Randolph and Wythe.
When Pendleton took the chair the clerk proceeded to read the second engrossed copy of the form of ratification, which was signed by the president. It was then ordered that the form should be deposited in the archives of the General Assembly. Wythe now rose and presented the amendments proposed by the select committee to be made to the Constitution in the mode prescribed by that instrument. Those amendments consisted of a Declaration of Rights, in twenty articles nearly similar to those prefixed to the Constitution of the State, and a series of amendments proper, also in twenty articles, to be added to the body of the Federal Constitution.
What Wythe had been to Jefferson, Jefferson became to young Stuart: the adviser, the friend, and the revered associate through life.
In 1752, at the homestead of "Cannicello," Andrew [Andrew Moore] was born, and was there brought up, availing himself of the advantages of instruction within his reach so effectually as, before manhood, to become a teacher in a school of his own. He determined to study law, and attended, about 1772, a course of lectures under Wythe, at William and Mary.
It will be remembered that, during the session of the Assembly in 1776, a Committee of Revisors had been appointed, consisting of Thomas Jefferson, Edmund Pendleton, George Wythe, George Mason, and Thomas Ludwell Lee. These gentlemen met in Fredericksburg on the 13th of January, 1777, and divided the task among themselves.126 In February, 1779, they reassembled in Williamsburg, read and commented on the parts of each, ordered a fair copy to be made of the whole, and deputed two of their number to present their joint work to the Assembly. It was accordingly presented in the shape of one hundred and twenty-six bills. Thus was accomplished the most laborious, the most responsible, and the most delicate undertaking which had then been assigned to three men, and which, if it stood apart from the great deeds of an extraordinary epoch, would make an epoch of its own.127
126At this meeting all the revisors attended, when George Mason and Lee resigned, but not until some most important principles were settled, and the parts were assigned to Jefferson, Pendleton, and Wythe. Professor Tucker says (Life of Jefferson, Vol. I, 104, note) that he learned from Mr. Madison that Lee and Pendleton were in favor of codification, Wythe and Jefferson against it, and that Mason gave the casting vote. I use the word revisor because it is the word of the bill. In modern times it is written with an e. It is from the mint of Jefferson, and is nearer the original. I may add that the pay of the revisors, as proposed in the House of Delegates in 1785, was three hundred pounds apiece, or one thousand dollars of our present currency. What a theme for the artist, that gathering of the revisors in an attic in Fredericksburg! 127It is due to Jefferson and Wythe to say that Mr. Pendleton, not having embraced exactly the views of his colleagues, "copied the British acts verbatim, merely omitting what was disapproved; and some family occurrence calling him home, he desired Mr. Wythe and myself (Jefferson) to make it what we thought it ought to be, and authorized us (Wythe and Jefferson) to report him as concurring in the work. We accordingly divided the work, and re-executed it entirely, so as to assimilate its plan and execution to the other parts." (Jefferson to Skelton Jones, July 28, 1809.) This explicit statement destroys the
force of the compliment said by Henry Lee, the son of General Henry Lee, to have been paid by John Wickham to Pendleton on the superior precision of his (Pendleton's) part of the revision; and as we may suppose that Jefferson, being the younger and more ready man, recast much more of Pendleton's part than Wythe, it may be that the very precision praised by Wickham was the merit of Jefferson. Still, eminent credit is due to each of the revisors, and it deserves to be noticed that although the admirable accomplishment of this great work was sufficient of itself to fill the measure of the fame of each, yet such were the numerous and valuable services rendered by each of the revisors to his country that the revision of the laws appears only as one act of the series. See Randall's Jefferson, Vol. I, 217.
The revised bills, continued from the last session, were still under discussion; but, after many had been disposed of, it was determined to appoint a second committee of revisors to complete an entire revision of the laws; for in the interval of the first appointment of the revisors ten years had elapsed, and the legislation of that period required to be drafted into the Code; and Edmund Pendleton and George Wythe, two of the former revisors, and John Blair were appointed to perform the work.
And on the 4th of December George Washington, Patrick Henry, Edmund Randolph, John Blair, James Madison, George Mason, and George Wythe were elected, by joint ballot of both houses, deputies to the General Convention.
Mason was one of the first of our early statesmen to condemn the policy of insufficient salaries for the highest functionaries of the State—a policy which prescribed as a fit reward for the services of a Wythe a sum a modern day laborer might earn in the course of a year.
That he [Robert Carter Nicholas] was the equal and rival of such men as Thomson Mason, Wythe, Pendleton, Peyton Randolph, and his brother John, and others of a similar stamp, is praise enough with posterity.
A few weeks after the adjournment of the Convention which formed that instrument, Wythe, in a letter to Jefferson, expressed himself in a way that would lead at first sight to the opinion that he believed an ordinary Legislature competent to amend that instrument at pleasure, and a design was seriously meditated during the war of undertaking the office of revisal.289
289In a review of the Life of Jefferson by Randall, in the Richmond Enquirer of 15th of January, 1858, the language of Wythe is examined, and shown to be the result of forgetfulness for the moment, and not conflicting with the doctrine afterwards laid down by him, that an act of Assembly in conflict with the Constitution is void. A letter of George Mason's, deprecating the attempt to revise the Constitution by the Assembly, may be seen in the Virginia Historical Register.
One of the most interesting debates of the session occurred on the bill authorizing the creation of a stock of eleven million two hundred and fifty thousand dollars for the payment of the purchase-money of Louisiana. It was warmly opposed by White, Wells, Pickering, Dayton, Tracy, and others, and was warmly supported by Wythe, Taylor (of Caroline), Breckenridge, and Nicholas.
Born in Williamsburg, he [Wilson Cary Nicholas] might, in early youth, have seen his father, and Peyton Randolph, and Wythe bearing the pall of Fauquier, and might have told us where the bones of that skilful dealer in cards, and elegant scholar, were laid away. pg. 357
- The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution as Recommended by the General Convention at Philadelphia, in 1787
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- George Nicholas
- Edmund Randolph