It was predictable that Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts would sour on the Constitutional Convention, for he had a deep aversion to big government, and as this government took shape he was beginning to realize that it would be bigger than anything that had come before in America.

He objected, for example, to the clause the convention had approved allowing Congress to buy up property for a seat of government and for military forts, believing that the government would eventually use the power to gobble up whole states.

He was even more upset by the power vested in Congress to make any law it considered "necessary and proper." It was dangerously vague.

And where, Gerry wondered, was the prohibition on standing peacetime armies and other guarantees for the rights of individuals?

By mid-August, Gerry, who had earlier played an active role in bringing about compromise, was alienated, spilling out his unhappiness in letters to his young wife, who was in New York.

"I am exceedingly distressed at the proceedings of the convention," he wrote on Aug. 26, "being apprehensive and almost sure that they will, if not altered materially, lay the foundation of a civil war."

"I have been a spectator for some time," he said on Aug. 29, "for I am very different in political principles from my colleagues." It is an "arbitrary system of government" they are creating, he wrote. "I am determined to leave no stone unturned to prevent measures which if adopted will probably produce the most fatal consequences."

(Fueling Gerry's anger was his belief that someone was opening his mail and reading these letters. "There are a set of beings here capable of any kind of villainy," he wrote his wife. "I think they need not open this letter, to know my opinion of them . . . . I think they have intercepted some before and that a person who is a notorious turncoat knows the contents.")

In late August, Gerry began to look for allies in his campaign "to leave no stone unturned." Among those who joined him was, of course, Luther Martin of Maryland, who by this time was going around saying: "I'll be hanged if ever the people of Maryland agree" to the Constitution.

"I advise you to stay in Philadelphia," fellow Marylander Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer responded to Martin, "lest you should be hanged."

George Mason of Virginia signed on to Gerry's crusade as well. Mason, 62, was one of the convention's elder statesmen. Yet in the convention he had commanded little respect. His emotional speech against slavery had been dismissed as irrelevant. As one of the largest planters, he was still steaming about the fact that the new constitution would allow the maritime states to obtain cargo preference laws, raising the price of shipping agricultural products.

The strong presidency devised by the convention was the last straw for Mason. It was, he declared, "an experiment on which the most despotic government had never ventured."

At the beginning of the convention, Mason had promised to "bury his bones" in Philadelphia rather than go home without a constitution. Now, in early September, he told the delegates, as James Madison reported the words, that he would "sooner chop off his right hand than put it to the Constitution as it now stands."

The small group -- Gerry, Martin, Mason and a few others -- began to meet in the evenings as the end of the convention approached. All of them, Martin recalled later, "considered the system as then under consideration . . . extremely exceptionable and of a tendency to destroy the rights and liberties of the United States."

The strategy of this group, joined by others on particular issues, appears to have been to make a show of force that would pressure the convention into making substantial alterations in the document.

They began by attacking the proposal put forward by Madison and others to have the Constitution ratified by sending it to special conventions in the states. It should be submitted to Congress for its approval or rejection before going to the states, they insisted. Moreover, they demanded that the states be given the opportunity to offer amendments before the Constitution took effect. Worse, some of them wanted, God forbid, a second constitutional convention at which amendments would be considered.

They began forcing their issues on Sept. 10, with a motion by Gerry to send the Constitution to Congress for its consideration. Joining in support of Gerry's motion -- surprisingly -- was Alexander Hamilton, the archnationalist of New York.

Hamilton had made no secret of his dislike for the plan -- for reasons the opposite of Gerry's. The government was too weak for Hamilton's taste, not sufficiently "high mounted," as the New Yorker always said. But he had also said grudgingly that he would support it.

James Wilson of Pennsylvania, who had thought he and Hamilton were on the same side, sputtered in disbelief. "It is necessary now to speak freely," he said. If the Constitution went to Congress, it would probably die there. "After spending four or five months in the laborious and arduous task of forming a government for our country, we are ourselves at the close throwing insuperable obstacles in the way of its success."

Gerry's motion to send the Constitution to Congress was defeated.

Then came another volley and another surprise. Edmund Randolph, the Virginian who had presented the Virginia Plan to the convention back in May, rose and ticked off one by one his objections to the Constitution: The House of Representatives was too small; the "necessary and proper" clause too general; there was no guard against standing armies; no clear boundaries between national and state legislatures and federal and state judiciaries.

"With these difficulties in {my} mind," Randolph declared, "what course am {I} to pursue? Am {I} to promote the establishment of a plan which . . . will end in tyranny?"

The only way he would be satisfied, Randolph concluded, would be if the Constitution was submitted to Congress, then to the state legislatures, then to state conventions, closing with "another general convention with full power to adopt or reject the alterations proposed by the state conventions and to establish finally the government."

Randolph so moved and his motion was seconded by none other than Benjamin Franklin.

This was hard to explain, and there is no record of Franklin trying to do so. Most likely, it was his way of acting the conciliator, for immediately after he seconded Randolph, Mason moved as if on cue that the motion be postponed while the convention considered some amendments to satisfy the dissenters.

A wholly new phase of the convention began. In an effort to appease the critics, the convention reopened debate on virtually every article, rehashing over the next few days dozens of issues that had been thought settled, making dozens of changes, large and small, throughout the document and rejecting many others.

So as to decrease presidential power, for example, the convention made it easier for Congress to override the presidential veto, reducing the vote required from three-fourths of each house to two-thirds.

To facilitate removal of a corrupt president, the convention expanded the grounds of impeachment, adding "high crimes and misdemeanors" to treason and bribery, which had been approved earlier.

Of all the proposals considered during this period, one stands out in retrospect above all the others. Seven states had bills of rights protecting fundamental liberties from government infringement, declarations guaranteeing the right to trial by jury, freedom of the press, of speech, of religion. Bills of rights were often breached, sometimes in the same state constitutions in which they were proclaimed, but they stood nonetheless as powerful symbols.

The convention had already included some specific protections in the proposed Constitution, guaranteeing that the writ of habeas corpus "shall not be suspended" except during rebellions and invasions; that no bill of attainder or ex post facto law be passed, that no state pass any law "impairing the obligation of contracts."

But the provisions fell far short of some of the state declarations. Mason, Gerry and Charles Pinckney of South Carolina wanted to go further.

On Sept. 12, Mason, the primary author of Virginia's 1776 Declaration of Rights, rose: He wished, he said, "that the plan had been prefaced with a bill of rights and would second a motion made for the purpose. It would give great quiet to the people, and with the aid of the state declarations, a bill might be prepared in a few hours."

Gerry moved that a committee be appointed to draft a bill of rights and Mason seconded it.

The debate was brief. Roger Sherman of Connecticut declared that since the state declarations of rights were not repealed by the Constitution, they would be sufficient to protect the people. The Congress, he said, "may be safely trusted."

The roll was called on Gerry's motion; not a single state delegation voted to have a bill of rights.

Two days later, Gerry and Pinckney proposed adding to the Constitution a declaration that "the liberty of the press should be inviolably preserved." If they couldn't get a bill of rights, they would settle for one right.

Sherman again answered: "It is unnecessary. The power of Congress does not extend to the press." On the roll call, only one state, Maryland, voted aye.

Madison, Hamilton, James Wilson and others later defended the convention's refusal to incorporate a bill of rights at the convention. Like Sherman, they said it was unnecessary because without the explicit authority to meddle with peoples' rights, Congress was already restrained from doing so. Besides, to set aside specific rights for protection in the Constitution might suggest that other rights, not mentioned, could be tampered with.

Madison, in fact, believed that the real danger to liberty lay not simply in "big government," but in big government that was improperly constituted. If the powers of each branch were properly checked -- as he believed they were in this Constitution -- a bill of rights was superfluous.

Some weeks later, when Madison wrote Thomas Jefferson in Paris and informed him that the convention had rejected a bill of rights, Jefferson reacted by return mail with fury:

" . . . A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse or rest on inference."

The exclusion of a bill of rights was the convention's worst political blunder, and it would come back at the Constitution's supporters during the ratification controversy ahead.

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