Contest-Winning Essay: The Founding Fathers Kept a Secret

By Gabriella E. Modesti, Jamesville-DeWitt High School ’20

Nothing spoken or written can be revealed to anyone–not even your family–until we have adjourned permanently. Gossip or misunderstanding can easily ruin all the hard work we shall have to do this summer.”
(George Washington, Presiding Officer, 1787)

As is clear from political scandals, Watergate being the best example, American citizens do not like their democratic representatives conducting government in secret. Ironically, the American government was created under a rule of secrecy by our founding fathers during the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

Matters of secrecy, more commonly known as confidentiality, are prevalent in many professions today: the attorney-client relationship; patient to health-care provider relationship, including therapists; and even in some religions, such as Catholicism (confessions). In those situations, confidentiality is welcomed and expected. However, in matters involving a representative democracy, secrecy or confidentiality raises suspicions. That is no less the case 233 years ago, as it is now.

In 1787, the Constitutional Convention was held in Philadelphia. Delegates flocked to the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall) (see Exhibit A) to improve upon the Articles of Confederation. The convention took place from May to September. Due to the vow of secrecy they all took, windows were sealed and curtains were closed. The delegates, in their clothes of the times, suffered in the heat. New Englanders wore their wool attire, and southerners dressed in linen suits (see Exhibit B). William Patterson (see Exhibit C), from neighboring New Jersey, called Philadelphia the “warmest place I have ever been in.” (Apparently, he had never been to Florida in August.)

The delegates passed various rules, such as: the house had to have delegates from at least seven or more states; every member rising shall address the president and not speak more than twice; and committees shall be appointed by a ballot. Many rules of procedure were established before the Convention began. The secrecy rule, or “Injunction of Secrecy,” was simple: “That no copy be taken of any entry on the journal during the sitting of the House, without leave of the House. That nothing spoken in the House be printed, or otherwise published or communicated without leave.”

George Mason, of Virginia, described the rule to his son, as such:

All communications of the proceedings are forbidden during the sitting of the convention; this I think was a necessary precaution to prevent misrepresentations or mistakes; there being a material difference between the appearance of a subject in its first crude and undigested shape, and after it shall have been properly matured and arranged.

James Madison voted in favor of secrecy because “opinions were so various and at first so crude that it was necessary they should be long debated before any uniform system of opinion should be formed.” Later, he believed a constitution would never have been created had delegates not had the opportunity to consider issues and change their minds. Without the pressure of public opinion, the delegates could think through the ideas presented and argued.

Thomas Jefferson, who at the time was serving in Paris as U.S. Minister to France, disagreed with Madison. He wrote to John Adams, the U.S. Minister to Great Britain:

[I am] sorry they began their deliberations by so abominable a precedent as that of tying up the tongues of their members. Nothing can justify this example but the innocence of their intentions, & ignorance of the value of public discussions.

At that time, many people viewed conventions as “radical assemblies.” Even the Presiding Officer, George Washington, was hesitant about attending at first because he thought the citizens would see this as a seizure of power from the states by an all-powerful, quasi-royal central government. But once put into place, the rule of secrecy was taken seriously. When notes of the Virginia plan were found on the floor outside the meeting room, Mr. Washington complained to the delegates:

Gentlemen, I am sorry to find that some one Member of this Body, has been so neglectful of the secrets of the Convention as to drop in the State House a copy of their proceedings, which by accident was picked up and delivered to me this morning. I must entreat Gentlemen to be more careful, least our transactions get into the News Papers, and disturb the public repose by premature speculations. I know not whose Paper it is, but there it is (throwing it down on the table), let him who owns it take it.

Perhaps it comes as no surprise that no one took ownership of the lost document.

Secrecy may have been required due to the issues being debated. Men like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton wanted to create a new government, rather than fix the present one. They were also seeking to bolster the authority of the federal government to be able to tax, regulate commerce, and resolve conflicts between the states. The delegates created a model of government that relied upon a series of checks and balances by dividing federal authority between the Legislative, the Judicial, and the Executive branches of government.

Weary of monarchies, the framers of the Constitution had originally imagined a weak presidency and a strong legislature divided into a House of Representatives and the Senate. Federalism–the relationship between the federal government and states–was also addressed. Each of issues was thoroughly and hotly debated.

Without the Injunction of Secrecy, Madison feared many delegates would not have spoken their minds so freely. They talked about many controversial topics, ranging from slavery to taxation. Delegates from the North and South had ranging opinions and since they were secluded, little was held back. If the public had been involved, there may have been bribing or influence from powerful people of that day and age (compare that to lobbying today). This would have had a severe and negative effect on this process, potentially causing conflict between a delegate’s true beliefs and personal desires. Public access, along with more outside influence, would have brought more opinions and pressures; the founding fathers had enough to discuss and accomplish without these added issues. Without secrecy, the Convention may also have been subject to improper influence from those still loyal to England.

With secrecy, however, also came gossip and incorrect information. The Pennsylvania Herald had wrongfully reported that a suggestion was made to expel Rhode Island from the Union. Another time, the same paper reported that the Convention was considering a monarchy form of government. That gossip was so dangerous that an intentional “leak” was provided from the Convention to a local printer: “tho’ we cannot, affirmatively tell you what we are doing; we can negatively tell you what we are not doing–we never once thought of a king.”

As James Madison wrote in a letter to James Monroe, “The rule of secrecy was a prudent one not only as it will effectively secure the requisite freedom of discussion, but as it will save both the Convention and Community from a thousand erroneous and perhaps mischievous reports.” Media in the 1700s was vastly different than it is today. Our government was also in a fragile state. There was a great deal of uncertainty and instability at that time. Perhaps secrecy, or better yet confidentiality, was unavoidable in order to complete the indelible task of drafting the U.S. Constitution.

Sources

https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/hot-hot-hot-the-summer-of-1787https

https://www.history.com/news/7-things-you-may-not-know-about-the-constitutionalconvention

https://www.history.com/topics/united-states-constitution/constitution

https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digitalencyclopedia/article/constitutional-convention/

https://www.nps.gov/inde/learn/historyculture/places-independencehall.htm

John P. Kaminsky, Secrecy and the Constitutional Convention, The Center for the Study of the American Constitution, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2005.

https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/the-rules-of-the-convention/