Letter on Status of Constitutional Convention, August 1788

Contributed By Jennifer Terhune


Below is a Letter from John DeWitt, Esq., Delegate from Duchess County, New York, to James Terryton, dated August 14, 1788. It summarizes the status of the Constitutional Convention and concerns for a pending Bill of Rights. It was also printed in the The Oath Keeper newspaper in September 2010, by Jennifer Terhune, an Editor.

“Dear Friend James,

I sincerely hope that this letter finds you in well recovered
Health; and that all vestiges of your late Affliction are, by now, completely eradicated. News of your recovery was greeted with great joy amongst your many friends, and we all agreed that you should be made aware of the most recent events.

Indeed, much has occurred in which we feel sure you will be keenly interested. Before proceeding further, allow me to forward the heartiest best wishes of our mutual friends: the Honorable Governor Clinton and the Honorable Metacom Smith. These both wish you a happy and expedient recovery, as, of course, do I myself. Please forward to your esteemed Wife, Rachel, greetings of the highest regard from my dear Abigail and myself, who are both, by the grace of God, prospering in the best of Health.

Without further ado, allow me to proceed to the matters of import. As you are aware, a meeting was called by certain members of the government to reconsider the Articles of Confederation. The weakness of this document was apparent to all; some stronger measures needed to be put in place. I journeyed myself to Philadelphia along with Mr. Metacom Smith, to watch and follow the proceedings as closely as possible. (In passing, I must tell you that the little mare of your Father’s stock is as good a piece of horseflesh as I’ve ever ridden. I thoroughly tried out her paces on the trip down, and she rides as smoothly as a Narragansett, and could outpace Smith’s gelding in the blink of an eye.)

When we arrived in Philadelphia, the whole city seemed to be in a state of excitement, even the lowest and rudest aware that important happenings were afoot. Although Smith and I weren’t delegates, and so could not vote, Smith made very well sure that the delegates were aware of his opinion. Indeed, I enjoyed watching our energetic friend as he worked his way behind the scenes.

As you know James, and as we were all in previous agreement, we believed that the States should maintain power over the centralized government. These Federalists seem not to understand the danger of overly powerful central government, despite recent events. In any case, there was a great deal of dissension in the Convention, and all plans put forth were debated rigorously. One particularly appalling plan was put forth by that sly fox,
Alexander Hamilton. I have had a low opinion of that man for many years, as you well know, but now I have even less regard for him. Indeed, that he should claim to represent our fair State is insulting in the extreme! Hamilton’s plan was odious to many of the delegates, so much so that it was defeated out of hand.

One issue of great importance and debate was the power of the Executive (by this I mean a President – a role similar to the old Roman consuls, if you remember your Livy). The plan settled upon has only one executive, however, called a President. I doubt seriously the wisdom of having only one executive officer; I think perhaps two or even three would have been wiser. The idea of a single man in the executive feels too much like the monarchy we have so recently left. The mode for electing this President is a rather round about process involving Electors; but the details of this, my dear James, you must ask
Smith, for I did not follow the debate, being in opposition of the single executive altogether.

Also, I had by this time grown weary of the arduous debating and the hot, dirty city. You know I’ve always been one to prefer the country life, James, and the thought of the cool lake breezes drew me home. Smith stayed on however; while I dropped into our local tavern (you remember Sam’s New York, of course, James?) to get the news. The rest of the events I outline to you are as reported by Smith.

To continue with the Convention: another great issue debated was the question of representation regarding slaves in the Southern States. These States wanted to count slaves as persons to be represented, which is in my estimation, ridiculous. The slaves are most certainly not represented in Congress by any number of Representatives; the whole idea is farcical. In the end, it was decided to continue the absurd practice of three-fifths of the slave population counted for representation.
Smith agreed with me that this is indeed absurd; but ’twas the only compromise that could be reached.

The next issue of importance (although indeed there were many more, and to write them all would be the work of an epic) was the Bill of Rights question, an issue very close to my heart, and I know, Friend James, to yours also. As such, I was disappointed; for Smith said the delegates at the Convention were afraid to touch the issue; fearing a disintegration of the Convention completely.

The Convention did close without affixing a Bill of Rights, or indeed any enumeration of the Rights of the Citizen. As such, most of us here in New York were opposed to ratification. However, we were assured by Mr. Madison of Virginia that a Bill of Rights would be the first work of the new Government. Still, however, we hesitated; as you can imagine, James, we did not want to sign over power to any new Government that did not assure the Rights of Man that we have so recently, and so dearly, fought to assure. The debate was intense, and I grieve to say, rancorous at times. Old insults and family scandals were dredged up with such vindictiveness as to be truly shocking. Our tavern, Sam’s, was an exceedingly contentious place for a time, and only grew more so as many other States ratified the new Constitution.
Thus, it came to such a pass that the new Constitution was soon to have enough States to ratify, and our State would have been left out in a peculiar state of limbo. The specter of this prospect was enough to spur us all into action, especially our friend, Smith. He decided that we had to ratify, or be left out in the cold; and so he went around to the Delegates and convinced them. A Bill of Rights being promised helped to assuage our fears and doubts, and Smith almost single-handedly turned the tide of opinion. (In passing, I might add that in so doing, Smith accomplished in a week what Alexander Hamilton had been attempting for months).

Thus, my dear James, our State of New York ratified the new Constitution on July 26th, the year of our Lord 1788, at Convention in Poughkeepsie. In our declaration of ratification, we included our own enumeration of the Rights of Man. I was myself a signer for Duchess County.

I admit that I have doubts about our new Government, such as I have expressed here; however, I am content to sit back for a time and see what develops. The first election went off quite smoothly, and the outcome was quite obvious from the start. General George Washington, the Virginian, has been elected President. I believe him to be a good man, James, and I think the Government will do reasonably well in his hands. I fear, however, that the men who seek this office in the future may not be such – but we shall see.

Well, James, that closes my story up to this point, and now you know what events have occurred and where they stand presently. I hope this letter has fulfilled its other object: that it has given you some pleasant reading and mental diversion as you plod the sometimes weary road to recovery. I hope, and indeed, I am sure that soon we will meet again, hale and hearty as of old, and discuss all our topics of mutual interest. I look forward to that day, and until then, my dear Friend, I remain

Your Sincerest Friend,
John DeWitt”

August 14, 1788

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