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A Convention for Proposing Amendments: Facts vs. Fear

PrintBy Ken Quinn — Is an Article V Convention for Proposing Amendments the same as a Constitutional Convention? That seems to be the most misunderstood issue in regards to Article V discussions, as the movement gains national popularity. Many people believe that the two are synonymous, primarily due to simply being ignorant of the convention debates. Unfortunately there are others, that in their zeal to oppose an Article V Convention, intentionally use the term Constitutional Convention or “Con-Con” in order to strike fear in our legislators to paralyze them from submitting Article V applications to Congress for the purpose of proposing amendments to address many serious concerns.

Opponents of the Article V convention, such as the John Birch Society, which is the most vocal, have a two-fold goal: to intentionally make you believe the delegates at the 1787 Constitutional Convention violated their authority and that it would happen again if an Article V Convention was called. These are two myths that are foundational to their scare tactics and both are easily disproved by the written record of the delegates at the convention.

So why don’t we go back in time to do some truth-seeking together and listen to what the men that gave us Article V had to say about it and lets leave all the prophets of doom with their fear-mongering tactics to themselves.

[RELATED: Article V Convention of States: The Ultimate Check Against a Runaway Congress...]

The first myth we need to bust is the typical story about the “runaway” delegates at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. The typical falsehood goes like this;

The Constitutional Convention was called by Congress for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation. However, the delegates completely exceeded their authority and threw out the Articles and created a completely new government. Thankfully what they did worked out for us in the end but we no longer have men like that today and if an Article V convention is ever called our Constitution will be completely thrown out again by the Leftists and we will lose our country forever.”

Or something to that effect, sound familiar?

A common ploy that the opposition uses to “prove their point” is taking quotes out of context or or leaving out portions of a quote. Let me show you how it is done.  They will typically provide a couple of quotes from James Madison that seem to oppose Article V. For example they quote from Federalist 40 in which he does state, in regards to the convention, that it “be held at Philadelphia, for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.”

What I find so ironic is not only do they leave out most of the quote, but they intentionally fail to share with you that Federalist 40 is titled “On the Powers of the Convention to Form a Mixed Government Examined and Sustained.” This is actually Madison’s argument proving that the delegates had full authority to write a new constitution!  I guess they believe that folks won’t actually bother to take the time to read The Federalist Papers for themselves or look up the quotes, which unfortunately allows the deception to continue. In Federalist 40 Madison begins:

The second point to be examined is, whether the convention were authorized to frame and propose this mixed Constitution.

The powers of the convention ought, in strictness, to be determined by an inspection of the commissions given to the members by their respective constituents. As all of these, however, had reference, either to the recommendation from the meeting at Annapolis, in September, 1786, or to that from Congress, in February, 1787, it will be sufficient to recur to these particular acts.

The act from Annapolis recommends the “appointment of commissioners to take into consideration the situation of the United States; to devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the Constitution of the federal government adequate to the exigencies of the Union; and to report such an act for that purpose, to the United States in Congress assembled, as when agreed to by them, and afterwards confirmed by the legislature of every State, will effectually provide for the same.”

And:

Resolved – That in the opinion of Congress it is expedient, that on the second Monday of May next a convention of delegates, who shall have been appointed by the several States, be held at Philadelphia, for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation, and reporting to Congress and the several legislatures such alterations and provisions therein, as shall, when agreed to in Congress, and confirmed by the States, render the federal Constitution adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the Union.”

As we can clearly see by Madison’s own words, there were two recommendations for the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. The first came from the Annapolis Convention that met between Sept 11th-14th, in 1786. This convention was called to address trade and commerce issues, but only 5 states attended, which was not enough to conduct business. Therefore they recommended that a convention be held the following year in Philadelphia and made the aforementioned recommendation. It wasn’t until February 21, 1787 that Congress showed support for the Philadelphia Convention and issued their own recommendation which was actually only their opinion.

By the time Congress issued this opinion, seven states had already commissioned their delegates under the broader authority recommended by the Annapolis Convention. When the delegates convened in Philadelphia ten out of twelve states (Farrand’s Records Volume 3) had commissioned their delegates under this much broader recommendation. Therefore, it is very clear to see from not only Madison’s argument in Federalist 40, but also from the commissions of the states that attended, that the overwhelming majority provided their delegates with full authority to write the new constitution.

Myth #1. The delegates at the Constitutional Convention exceeded their authority – BUSTED!

The second myth is that an Article V Convention is the same as a Constitutional Convention.  All one needs to do is review Madison’s notes on September 15th from the Convention to read that Article V, which provides for a convention for proposing amendments”, was unanimously approved by the delegates.  Immediately following that vote was a motion made by Mr. Sherman of Connecticut to allow for future Constitutional Conventions, which was rejected by the delegates:

Mr. SHERMAN moved to strike out of article 5, after “legislatures,” the words, “of three fourths,” and so after the word “conventions,” leaving future conventions to act in this matter, like the present convention, according to circumstances.

This motion was defeated by a vote of 7 to 3. Then a second motion for another Constitutional Convention was made by Mr. Randolph from Virginia.

Mr. RANDOLPH: “that amendments to the plan might be offered by the state conventions, which should be submitted to, and finally decided on by, another General Convention.”

Col. MASON seconded and followed Mr. RANDOLPH in animadversions on the dangerous power and structure of the government, concluding that it would end either in monarchy or a tyrannical aristocracy—which, he was in doubt,—but one or other, he was sure. This Constitution had been formed without the knowledge or idea of the people. A second Convention will know more of the sense of the people, and be able to provide a system more consonant to it. It was improper to say to the people, take this or nothing. As the Constitution now stands, he could neither give it his support or vote in Virginia; and he could not sign here what he could not support there. With the expedient of another Convention, as proposed, he could sign.

Mr Pinckney from South Carolina responded”

Mr. PINCKNEY. These declarations, from members so respectable, at the close of this important scene, give a peculiar solemnity to the present moment. He descanted on the consequences of calling forth the deliberations and amendments of the different states, on the subject of government at large. Nothing but confusion and contrariety will spring from the experiment. The states will never agree in their plans, and the deputies to a second Convention, coming together under the discordant impressions of their constituents, will never agree. Conventions are serious things, and ought not to be repeated.

All of the states rejected Mr. Randolph’s motion for another General Convention. Any honest observer of these proceedings can clearly see that the delegates overwhelmingly rejected the idea of a future Constitutional Convention and only approved the language found in Article V of a “convention for proposing amendments.” to allow the states to make the necessary changes to the Constitution in the future as needed.

Another quote used by opponents to make it appear as though James Madison was against an Article V convention is a letter he wrote to George Lee Turberville in November of 1788. Madison wrote, Having witnessed the difficulties and dangers experienced by the first Convention, which assembled under every propitious circumstance, I should tremble for the result of a Second.” 

However, if you notice the date of this letter, the Constitution was recently ratified and the context of it is his response to the Anti-Federalists in New York calling for a second Convention to revise the Constitution. He was stating that he was not in favor of a second Constitutional Convention not an Article V convention for proposing amendments. Madison was clearly a strong advocate of an Article V convention as he states in Federalist 43:

That useful alterations will be suggested by experience, could not but be foreseen. It was requisite, therefore, that a mode for introducing them should be provided. The mode preferred by the convention seems to be stamped with every mark of propriety. It guards equally against that extreme facility, which would render the Constitution too mutable; and that extreme difficulty, which might perpetuate its discovered faults. It, moreover, equally enables the general and the State governments to originate the amendment of errors, as they may be pointed out by the experience on one side, or on the other.”

And again in Federalist 37:

The most that the convention could do in such a situation, was to avoid the errors suggested by the past experience of other countries, as well as of our own; and to provide a convenient mode of rectifying their own errors, as future experiences may unfold them.”

Indeed, Madison was a strong proponent of an Article V convention for proposing amendments his entire life. In 1830 he wrote the following in a letter to a Mr. Everett:

“Should the provisions of the Constitution as here reviewed, be found not to secure the government and rights of the states, against usurpations and abuses on the part of the United States, the final resort within the purview of the Constitution, lies in an amendment of the Constitution, according to a process applicable by the states.”

Myth #2 An Article V Convention for Proposing Amendments is the same as a Constitutional Convention – BUSTED!

Unfortunately, most people do not bother to research the facts and will believe the fantasies of the opposition without doing their own homework. In full disclosure this writer must admit guilt to belonging to that group at one point. I opposed an Article V Convention out of ignorance and did not bother to research the issue and only believed the story I was told. When I learned that there was another side to this argument, I was willing to listen and acknowledged that I may not know everything about it or perhaps the view that I held was inaccurate.

I am so glad that I did because it has given me an even greater appreciation for the Framers and their wisdom to look down the corridors of time to see that one day the government they created would become too overbearing, and that they will need to provide future generations a mechanism to defend themselves against it.

Article V is that mechanism. We are that generation.

Ken Quinn is Coalitions Director for the Convention of States Project in Maine

Editor’s Note: This column is the second in a series that will explore the Convention of States. For more information, please visit www.conventionofstates.com. 

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