J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, February 15, 2013

Gerry and Warren, Anti-Federalist Allies

The Massachusetts Historical Society recently bought a 1788 letter from James Warren to Elbridge Gerry (shown here) that hasn’t appeared in any published correspondence of the two politicians. It does appear online at the Wisconsin Historical Society’s monumental roundup of documents about the ratification of the Constitution.

By 1788, Warren and Gerry had worked together for nearly two decades, first as Whigs opposing the Crown in the Massachusetts legislature and Provincial Congress, then as part of the Revolutionary War effort—Warren as paymaster general for the army in 1775-76 and leader of the Massachusetts legislature, Gerry as a member of the Continental Congress.

In the mid-1780s Warren, unlike many of his wealthy Massachusetts merchant friends, didn’t fully condemn the Shays’ Rebellion. He and his wife, Mercy, preferred a weak national government and feared an overreaction to that rural uprising. There was indeed a Constitutional Convention in response. Gerry served as a Massachusetts delegate to it and came away opposed to the result.

Gerry reported to the Massachusetts legislature on 18 Oct 1787 about what he saw wrong with the proposed new government:
My principal objections to the plan are that there is no adequate provision for a representation of the people—that they have no security for the right of election—that some of the powers of the Legislature are ambiguous and others are indefinite and dangerous—that the Executive is blended with and will have an undue influence over the Legislature—that the judicial department will be oppressive—that treaties of the highest importance may be formed by the President with the advice of two thirds of a quorum of the Senate—and that the system is without the security of a bill of rights. These are objections which are not local but apply equally to all the States.
The Massachusetts ratification convention met in early 1787. It asked Gerry to testify, but when he did Richard Dana, a Federalist, complained that he was trying to enter into the debate even though he wasn’t a delegate. Gerry published an angry defense of himself. Despite his arguments, the Massachusetts convention ratified the new Constitution with a request for amendments.

By then the debate was becoming national. Gerry and fellow Anti-Federalist Luther Martin of Maryland engaged in a newspaper exchange with the Federalist delegate Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, who wrote as “A Landholder.” Ellsworth then claimed that Gerry had badmouthed Martin during the national convention, apparently trying to drive a wedge between them. Gerry published an open letter complaining about that.

By the summer of 1788, enough states had ratified the Constitution to give it legal force. Gerry was feeling rather ill used, and that’s when James Warren sent him this sympathetic letter about unfair attacks on him.

TOMORROW: Which rather veered off the topic.

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