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Virginia's Application for a Convention of States (5 May 1789)

by Nick Williford (NAWilliford)

Cite as: NAWilliford, ‘Virginia's Application for a Convention of States (5 May 1789)’ in Bill of Rights 2018 Editors' Commentary, Quill Project at Pembroke College (Oxford, 2019), item 250.


The debate that surrounded the appropriate action to take on Virginia’s application for a convention of the states to amend the Constitution presaged the emerging divisions on the question of amending the new Constitution and of how such a process should operate under the Constitution’s provisions.

Representative Richard Bland Lee, who submitted the resolution on behalf of Virginia, expressed a desire that the application would be discussed by a Committee of the Whole House with Madison’s proposed amendments (Annals of Congress, 1st Cong., 1st sess., 258-60). This proposal, however, elicited opposition from Elias Boudinot of New Jersey, a veteran of the Revolution with extensive experience in the Confederation Congress, including one term as that body’s president. Boudinot contended that the proper course was to table the application until the requisite number of two-thirds of the states likewise had submitted applications for a convention. Until then, Boudinot contended, the House had no power under the Constitution to take up the matter (Ibid. 260).

The reluctance of certain members to address the calls for Constitutional amendment, such as those expressed in Virginia’s application, caused Madison to urge members ‘to treat this subject with all due respect.' Yet, Madison agreed that ’Congress had no deliberative power with respect to a convention.' Should two-thirds of the states call for a convention, then the matter would be out of Congress’s control; it would be compelled to call such a convention. But, until the requisite number of applications were submitted, it was appropriate to table the application (Ibid.).

Bland, on the other hand, asserted that the House’s discussion of the application was in nowise unconstitutional, drawing further opposition from Benjamin Huntingdon of Connecticut, who opposed committing the application to a committee. Thomas Tudor Tucker of South Carolina, however, agreed with Bland and offered that Article V’s two methods of amendment—a convention called by two-thirds of the states or a proposal to the states by Congress—meant that commitment and discussion of the application lay within Congressional discretion. Further, the states clearly had the power to submit such applications and, out of respect, such applications should not be disregarded (Ibid. 260-61).

In this discussion, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts questioned whether the debate was in order and suggested that the application ought to be tabled until whatsoever time consideration of amendments might be taken.

John Page of Virginia opposed referring the application to a committee but offered that entering the petition into the journal would accord due respect. Bland and Madison consented to this suggestion, which was seconded by Alexander White, also of Virginia (Ibid. 261). Following this exchange, ‘[t]he house resumed the consideration of the report of the committee respecting the duties on tonnage’ (New-York Daily Advertiser, edition of 6 May 1789).

The exchange among members of the House reveals that at this early stage divisions were evident in the sentiments of the members of the House of Representatives concerning the need or efficacy of amending the Constitution. These divisions would be more evident as the issue arose again. Interesting, too, are the discussions of the appropriate manner in which such an amendment process should operate in light of the Constitutional text. Yet, one point raised in this exchange that would bear on subsequent arguments, particularly those of Madison, is that all seem certain that if two-thirds of states duly call for a constitutional convention, then the process would be effectively out of Congress’s power.

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