The Pinckney "Draft" of the Constitution
Bill Long 9/29/07
Re-Opening a Controversy, First Essay
My recent trip to SC and GA not only gave me a chance to meet autism professionals and to study the trees and plants of the SE, but also to rekindle historical interest in people from that region. One of the people who has most occupied my interest in the past few days has been Governor Charles Pinckney (1757-1824). He was the fourth Pinckney so named since his great-grandfather Thomas settled in Charles Towne in 1691, and his varied career in the SC Legislature, Confederation Congress, Constitutional Convention of 1787, US Congress, Governor's Office and as Ambassador to Spain was all overshadowed by his possible contributions to the shaping of the US Constitution. That precious document, hammered out in a hot Philadelphia summer 220 years ago, was approved by the States in 1788 and has become the basis of our federal government. This and the next essay explore the contribution of Charles Pinckney to the shaping of that document.
Let's state the issue in its most bald form. James Madison, often considered the "father" of the US Constitution, downplayed the role of Charles Pinckney in the Constitutional Convention. When Pinckney introduced his draft Constitution on Tuesday May 29, 1787 to the Convention, all Madison said in his diary was:
"Mr. Charles Pinkney [sic] laid before the house the draught of a federal Government which he had prepared to be agreed upon between the free and independent States of America. Mr P's plan ordered that the same be referred to the Committee of the whole appointed to consider the State of the American Union," Records of the Federal Convention (ed. Farrand), Vol. 1, 20ff (quoted in Mathews, Forgotten Founder, p. 41).
He says nothing more of Pinckney's draft. Since contemporareous records of the affairs of the Convention were not preserved, the task fell to Secretary of State John Quincy Adams in 1818 to compile the journal of the convention. He wrote to Pinckney to ask about the "draught (draft)," and Pinckney wrote back saying that he had several available to him and would supply Adams with one that he thought was similar to the one he submitted to the Convention in May 1787. But either Pinckney's memory was faulty, he couldn't find the document, the Committee substantially copied what he contributed, or he simply wanted to exaggerate his contribution...because the document he submitted to Adams was very similar to the Constitution that eventually emerged from the Committee of Detail (the subcommitte which actually drafted the Constitution in private session beginning on July 24, 1787). This five member committee, by the way, consisted of John Rutledge (SC), Edmung Randolph (VA), Oliver Ellsworth (CT), James Wilson (PA) and Nathanial Gorham (MA), and they reported their draft to the Convention on August 6, 1787.
Adams duly included the document submitted to him by Pinckney in his journal of the Constitutional Convention. But then, about a dozen years later, after Pinckney had died, the historian Jared Sparks asked James Madison about Pinckney's draft/contribution. Madison downplayed it and said that it was not original to Pinckney but it really was only a reflection of the Virginia Plan submitted also on May 29, 1787. Because of Madison's authority at the time and Pinckney's known quality of exaggeration and self-promotion (I talk about that a little here; I will say more later), Madison's account was accepted and Pinckney's was discounted. Pinckney's mystery "draught" was therefore dismissed as either unreconstructable or, probably, not that influential in the constitution-making process. After all, Pinckney was only 29 at the time of the Convention; what insight could such a young man really have?
The Roots of Madison/Pinckney Dislike
Madison, however, already had been piqued at Pinckney because of a letter Pinckney wrote a few years before the Convention to John Jay. Jay was what was called "Secretary of Foreign Relations" during the Articles of Confederation Congress of 1785. In that capacity he was to negotiate a treaty with Spain for the use by the young country of the Mississippi River for commerce. Spain, however, didn't want the new nation to have the freedom of use of the river, and so it signaled its intent not to go forward with the treaty. Jay, negotiating for a weak and fledgling nation, drew up language for a treaty that would work against Southern and Western interests (Western meaning the western sections of VA, NC and SC). The treaty never was ratified. Nevertheless, Pinckney then drew up a harsh letter to Jay, warning him never again to do such a thing.
James Madison, who was not a member of the Congress at the time but was studying political philosophy, which would come to great use in the next few years, interpreted Pinckney's letter as an indication of "factionalism," a feature of a new political system which was anathema to Madison. Thus, even before they met, Madison considered Pinckney to be an arrogant and factitious young man, concerned more with gaining advantage for himself and his region than with the welfare of the country overall. Apparently Madison never lost this view of Pinckney, and he even convinced George Washington in the 1790s that Pinckney would go to any lengths for self-promotion.
Thus, near the end of his life, Madison simply reiterated to JQ Adams what he had felt about Pinckney for forty years. Pinckney was dead by then and could do nothing to resuscitate his reputation. Since his draft submitted to the Committee of Detail didn't survive, and since Madison denigrated the document Pinckney submitted 30 years later, it seemed that Pinckney's reputation would forever suffer.
Discovery of the Wilson Papers
Then, because of the enterprising work of some historians about 100 years ago, it came to light that the PA Historical Society had diary records of James Wilson from the Committee of Detail, documents that might have some clues to the contents of the original Pinckney draft. I give that information here because most Internet sources on the drafting of the US Constitution mention Pinckney only in passing. In an article in the American Historical Review from 1903, Prof. J. Franklin Jameson quoted portions of Wilson's notes which he (and many later scholars) believe to be the words from the Pinckney draft. These words, which Jameson describes as "remarkable," show that it is likely that Pinckney contributed at least 20 clauses to the US Constitution. An article a few years later, comparing the draft to Pinckney's 1787 Observations on the Plan of Government Submitted to the Federal Convention, in Philadelpha, on the 28th of May, 1787 (not published however, until after the Convention), concluded that Pinckney might have contributed up to 32 clauses to the Constitution.
Well, I am not going to try to explore all 32 in detail. It would take too long, and I don't have the knowledge at this point to do all the comparisons. But the next essay will give the text of Wilson's notes on Pinckney's draft, so that you can see how it is similar to and differs from the final draft of the US Constitution. In the end, my hope is that Charles Pinckney will be accorded a more highly-regarded position among the pantheon of demi-gods at Philadelphia.
The next essay quotes from Wilson's notes.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long