[Note: Part I of a talk delivered during the celebration of the Bicentennial of the Federal Constitution, at the quarterly meeting of Historic Jonesboro/Clayton County (Ga.). I did not think that, as a high school teacher, I would ever be asked to address a local historical group, but I was wrong, thanks to the efforts of a couple of scholarly acquaintances, Hardy Jackson and Brad Rice, faculty members at what was then Clayton Junior College but is now Clayton State University. A list of sources will be appended to Part II.]
On December 31, 1787, a convention meeting in Augusta ratified the proposed Federal Constitution. Georgia was the fourth state to ratify the Constitution and one of only three to do so unanimously. Thus, at first glance there doesn’t appear to be much of a story here: politically astute Georgians, recognizing the peril in which their nation stood under the notoriously ineffectual Articles of Confederation, enthusiastically supported the new frame of government created by an assembly of demigods in Philadelphia. The reality was a good deal more complex, however.
To begin with, it is possible to see Georgia’s prompt approval of the Constitution less as a fervent embrace of the new than as a decisive rejection of the old. One scholar who takes this line goes so far as to label the action of the Augusta ratifying convention as nothing less than “Georgia’s first act of secession from the United States.” (Jackson, “The Road to the Constitution,” p.43) In truth, Georgia’s relations with the Confederation Congress could hardly have been worse in 1787. Throughout the 1780s, the state was consistently in arrears in her financial obligations to Congress under the requisition system, and for a variety of reasons was seldom fully represented in that body. Another sore point was Georgia’s vast land claims, which extended south to Spanish Florida and westward to the Mississippi River. Native American tribes, Spaniards, and the American Congress all coveted this territory, while Georgia desired to open the lands to settlement under her own authority but found herself unable to do so.
At the heart of the ill will between Georgia and Congress was the question of Indian relations. In order to open her western territory to white settlement, Georgia had to normalize relations with her Indian neighbors, who had supported the British during the American Revolution. To do this, state officials negotiated a series of treaties with the Creeks in 1783 (at Augusta), 1785 (Galphinton), and 1786 (Shoulderbone). Unfortunately for the prospects of peace along the southern frontier, only a few Creek chiefs were willing to sign away tribal lands at these treaty sessions; others, including the most influential Creek leader, Alexander McGillivray, denounced each treaty in turn and refused to recognize its validity. Moreover, Congress moved to assert its control over the southern Indians, a step that gave hope to the Creeks but angered Georgians. The result of all this frontier intrigue was a steady deterioration in relations between Georgia and the Creeks, on the one hand, and between the state and Congress on the other. Violence flared in the backcountry between white settlers and the Creeks, and a full-scale Indian war loomed on the horizon.
It was in this context of frontier tensions and political alienation that Georgia reacted to the possibility of a reinvigorated central government. The Georgia Assembly considered the report of the Annapolis Convention, which paved the way for the more famous gathering in Philadelphia, in January and February 1787. On February 10, the Assembly elected William Few, Abraham Baldwin, William Pierce, George Walton, William Houstoun, and Nathaniel Pendleton as delegates to represent Georgia in Philadelphia, where the convention was to assemble in May to consider revision of the Articles of Confederation. Four of those chosen by the Assembly actually attended the Philadelphia Convention; except for a period of about ten days in late July and early August, the state had at least two delegates present. Abraham Baldwin attended throughout and was the state’s outstanding delegate; William Few was in Philadelphia except for a month when he had to attend a congressional session in New York City; William Pierce remained from May 31 to about July 1, and he spent much of that time taking notes on personalities and proceedings of the convention that have proven useful to scholars ever since; William Houstoun arrived at the convention on June 11 and remained until about July 26.
Georgia’s convention delegates did not speak very often: Abraham Baldwin took the floor eight times; William Houstoun, seven; William Pierce, four; and William Few, not at all. In the course of debate, Baldwin and Pierce favored a stronger central government, but they also hoped to protect the rights of the states. Baldwin believed that the first branch of the proposed bicameral national legislature should represent the people and the second the states. He also insisted that the new government should have some contact with the people and that the states needed to surrender some of their sovereignty; otherwise, he felt, the new government would be no improvement over the old one. In short, the Georgia delegation in Philadelphia usually voted with the “large states” or “stronger central government” group in the convention.
Abraham Baldwin and William Houstoun, the only Georgians present in early July, played key roles in helping to resolve a knotty problem and, according to some scholars, helped to save the Philadelphia Convention. At the time, delegates were badly split over the question of the basis for representation in the upper house of the proposed national legislature and seemed about to break up in disarray. On July 2, the convention voted on a crucial motion by Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut that the states have equal representation in the Senate. The vote was by states, which meant that members of each state delegation had to settle the issue among themselves before their state’s one vote could be cast and counted. With eleven states represented at Philadelphia, the vote on Ellsworth’s proposal stood at five to five when Georgia’s turn came. Abraham Baldwin, who had previously announced that he would oppose the motion, instead voted for it, while William Houstoun voted against it; this split the Georgia delegation, so the state’s vote could not be cast. The tie stood, and the convention had time to devise and adopt the famous “Connecticut Compromise,” which provided for proportional representation in the House of Representatives and equal representation in the Senate.
Ordinarily, Georgia’s delegation would have voted with the large states, which opposed Ellsworth’s motion. If both Georgians had done so, the large states would have defeated the proposal by one vote, and the small states probably would have gone home. This time, though, Baldwin reversed his earlier stand and voted for Ellsworth’s motion. Why? The only direct evidence on this question is a statement from a Maryland delegate, Luther Martin, who said that Baldwin voted as he did in order to preserve the tie, buy time for compromise, and thus prevent the immediate breakup of the convention. Moreover, Baldwin was a native of Connecticut, and he knew several of the delegates from that state personally. A final, tantalizing bit of circumstantial evidence supporting Martin’s assertion is that, when the convention subsequently approved the “Connecticut Compromise” by one vote, Baldwin reverted to type and voted against the proposal.
The members of the Georgia delegation at Philadelphia also took an active interest in another potentially divisive question, the foreign slave trade. Abraham Baldwin joined delegates from South Carolina in arguing that slavery was a local matter that should be left to the states, and he asserted that Georgia would oppose any attempt to restrict one of her “favorite prerogatives.” Baldwin also claimed that states still allowing the foreign slave trade would probably abolish it shortly if left alone. Only the Carolinas and Georgia favored further importation of slaves from abroad. The other states were therefore able to carry another compromise measure that allowed the foreign slave trade to continue until 1808, at which time Congress could examine the question again.
William Few and Abraham Baldwin signed the finished Constitution, and William Pierce said he would have done so if he had been in Philadelphia at the time. Pierce did not believe that the Constitution was perfect, but he felt that it was probably the best one possible under the circumstances. There is also no reason to believe that William Houstoun would not have signed the Constitution had he been present in Philadelphia when the convention ended. With the end of the convention, the fate of the proposed Constitution was in the hands of the states.
End of Part 1
For those interested in reading more about Georgia History, here are links to my books on the subject:
Politics on the Periphery: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)