In James Madison's Virginia, politicians won elections by plying the voters with cookies, ginger cake, occasionally a barbecued bullock or a hog, and gallons of "bumbo" -- or liquor, usually rum punch.
In his 1758 Virginia assembly campaign, George Washington supplied 160 gallons of bumbo to 391 voters -- 1 1/2 quarts each, according to historian Charles S. Sydnor.
To Madison, all this was a "corrupting influence," and during his second run for the Virginia House of Delegates, in 1777, he refused to supply the bumbo. He lost the election -- to a tavern keeper.
It left Madison with a sour view of popular politics and a somewhat low opinion of 18th-century American voters -- especially when they ran in packs. His skepticism steadily increased as the clout of ordinary people increased in post-Revolutionary America.
Yet Madison's views were mild when compared to those of his fellow delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Looking back from a modern perspective at the first week of debate, what stands out is the intensity, even the virulence, of the delegates' disdain toward the mass of the people. It is apparent that many of the delegates blamed the rise of democracy for the country's problems, for the "evils" that afflicted the nation.
They were convinced, as Virginia delegate Edmund Randolph proclaimed in the convention that week, "that in tracing those evils to their origin, every man had found it in the turbulence and follies of democracy."
As the delegates began seriously considering a new government for the United States, it became clear that, in their desire to end "the turbulence and follies," some were prepared to go quite far: as far as doing without direct popular elections entirely.
Madison's mission, and that of his allies, was to contain the others.
The convention got down to business on May 29, when Randolph presented Madison's sweeping Virginia Plan for a new constitution. Soon afterward, one of the delegates pointed out to the others that they would be crossing a forbidden line by even considering it.
The convention had been authorized by the states and by the Congress of the Confederation only to propose a few changes to the existing loose system of government that tied the states together. And there they were, in secret, considering the obliteration of that system.
There were a few murmurs of concern, but in short order the delegates demonstrated what they thought of the restrictions placed upon them; they symbolically tossed them out. With little debate, they completely redefined their mission, approving the following resolution:
"Resolved, that a national Government ought to be established consisting of a supreme Legislative, Executive and Judiciary."
They then plunged forward into Madison's plan, line by line -- the house, the senate, the executive, the judiciary -- in a flurry of votes and speeches.
Few of the specific propositions they approved during this week would stick: One of the convention's first decisions was to meet initially as a "committee of the whole" that could debate informally, take nonbinding votes and produce a sense of the convention. How far, in principle, were they prepared to go? By their approval of that resolution -- and the momentum they began to achieve -- they had given their answer: far indeed.
The waters were being tested, and some -- the subject of popular elections among them -- were dangerous indeed.
"When the pot boils," James Otis of Massachusetts had warned before the revolution, "the scum will rise."
By 1787, those words struck a chord in many of the country's leaders. Before the revolution, most Americans had been content to leave politics to the "the better sort," as the educated upper crust was called. In some places, elections had been mere tokens, with public offices being passed on within families like a birthright.
With the jarring social dislocation of the war and the democratic rhetoric of independence, all that had changed. The "lower sort" -- the smaller farmers, artisans and laborers, the "leather apron" crowd in cities like Philadelphia -- were no longer content to sit back. They began increasingly to participate in state legislative elections, and increasingly men claiming to represent their interests began to win office and wield power.
A strange reversal of traditional roles took place: the men of the manors and plantations, the bankers and businessmen -- the men of the convention -- began to think of themselves as an oppressed minority, victims of a genie they themselves had unleashed with the revolution. The state legislatures they once controlled had become handmaidens to the mob.
The most controversial result were laws passed by many of the state legislatures to relieve the heavy burden of debt on their citizens, including statutes that suspended the repayment of debts. Worse was the proliferation of paper money, which many legislatures began to churn out by the wagonload. Backed only by hope, the value of the currency declined rapidly. Nevertheless, some states forced creditors to accept it at face value.
To many Americans, such acts were immoral, breaches of sacred rights of property and contracts. Madison, for one, condemned the trend, ranking it with religious oppression as a threat to American liberties.
Nonetheless, Madison's Virginia Plan included a proposal for popular elections in the lower house of a two-house Congress. In spite of everything, he believed republican government must have some anchor in the people; that if it was to pass laws for people, it must possess their confidence. One of the reasons Americans were unwilling to entrust power to the existing Congress of the Confederation was that its members were chosen by, and spoke for, state governments, not the people.
In addition, he had to consider the alternative to direct elections: elections of congressmen by the state legislatures. That method would have defeated one of the prime purposes of his plan -- to strip the states of their control over the national government.
Elbridge Gerry, a sharp-featured, birdlike merchant from Massachusetts, led the opposition to popular elections. Gerry had once thought of himself as a man of the people. Like so many of the other delegates, he had begun his political career amid the romance of the independence movement, proclaiming the virtues of the the common man.
Gerry's rude awakening, some biographers believe, came in 1774 when a mob burned to the ground a smallpox hospital he had helped build. The breaking point was Shays' Rebellion, the farmers' insurrection of the 1780s that began in his own state. (Other delegates had had similar personal experiences: Alexander Martin, a delegate from North Carolina, had once been whipped and beaten by an angry crowd of "Regulators" -- southern precursors of the Shaysites in New England. Delegate James Wilson of Pennsylvania had in 1779 fled for his life through the streets of Philadelphia to escape a mob of political opponents.)
When Madison's proposal for popular election of a lower house of government came up on May 31 and June 6, Gerry let it all spew out:
"The evils we experience," said Gerry, "flow from the excess of democracy . . . . The people are the dupes of pretended patriots."
The best evidence of the people's poor judgment, he said, were the representatives they elected to the state legislatures. "In Massachusetts, the worst men get into the legislature. Several members of that body," he claimed, had "lately been convicted of infamous crimes. Men of indigence, ignorance and baseness spare no pains, however dirty, to carry their point against men who are superior . . . . "
He was still a "republican," Gerry said, but one who had been "taught by experience the danger of the leveling spirit."
Roger Sherman of Connecticut agreed. "The people," he said, "should have as little to do" as possible with government. They lack "information" and "are constantly liable to be misled."
George Mason of Virginia and Wilson of Pennsylvania joined Madison as the chief defenders of the proposal. None of them would deny what the others were saying about their lesser countrymen. Their task was to convince the convention that under the Virginia Plan, the voice of the people would be controlled -- that this government would be no wild democracy.
Madison reminded them that while the people would elect the house, the house would choose the senate; and the two houses together would choose the president and the judiciary. This, he said, would temper the voice of the people, refining it by "successive filtrations."
The evils of the states, he felt, were not caused by popular elections; they were caused by popular elections in small districts, which allowed unworthy men to get elected. In his plan, representatives would be elected from much larger districts, which would screen out bad characters.
Because the new political arena would be national and so vast, it would be impossible for oppressive factions to get elected. There would be so many factions, he said, that they would neutralize each other: "The remedy is to enlarge the sphere and thereby divide the community into so great a number of interests and parties" that all will be safe.
Finally: "Popular election of one branch of the national legislature," he said, is "essential to every plan of free government . . . . The great fabric to be raised would be more stable and durable if it should rest on the solid foundation of the people themselves . . . . "
Madison's biographers regard this moment in the convention as one of his finest. Reading Madison's words, it is hard to believe this was the same man who just a few years earlier was too timid to open his mouth in the Virginia assembly.
Two votes were taken in the first week of the convention on the proposition to let the people elect representatives to the lower house. Madison prevailed on both, with six of the 10 state delegations then present voting with him.
Most of the weighty propositions on which they voted that week would not stick. After this informal debate, they would be rehashed for the next 3 1/2 months. This one, however, would remain untouched.
Madison and the other Virginians had good reason to be satisfied. The first week had gone well.
Too well -- as the second week would demonstrate.
NEXT MONDAY: A counterthrust.