In the latter part of July 1788, the convention convened in Poughkeepsie to determine whether New York would ratify the United States Constitution was approaching conclusion. Several days earlier, on July 17, 1788, anti-Constitution delegate Melancton Smith had proposed that the delegates ratify the Constitution. But there was a significant catch: New York would expressly reserve the right to recede if the new Congress did not authorize, within a specified number of years, a convention under Article V for the consideration of amendments. Smith's motion provided in relevant part (emphasis added):
[T]he Convention . . . have therefore agreed to assent to and ratify the said Constitution in the firmest confidence that an opportunity will be speedily given to revise and amend the said Constitution, in the mode pointed out in the fifth article thereof, expressly reserving nevertheless to this state a right to recede and withdraw from the said Constitution, in case such opportunity be not given within ____ years.
James Madison was then in New York City, having recently come from Virginia, where he had successfully led the pro-Constitution forces to victory at that state's ratification convention in late June. On July 20, 1788, Madison wrote a response to a letter he had received from Alexander Hamilton in Poughkeepsie, in which Hamilton somewhat sheepishly advised Madison that he was inclined to go along with Smith's proposal as the best that could be done. Madison fired back a letter in which he advised that Smith's proposal was unacceptable and had to be rejected (bold added):
To Alexander Hamilton
N. York Sunday Evening [July 20, 1788]
Yours of yesterday is this instant come to hand & I have but a few minutes to answer it. I am sorry that your situation obliges you to listen to propositions of the nature you describe. My opinion is that a reservation of a right to withdraw if amendments be not decided on under the form of the Constitution within a certain time, is a conditional ratification, that it does not make N. York a member of the New Union, and consequently that she could not be received on that plan. Compacts must be reciprocal, this principle would not in such a case be preserved. The Constitution requires an adoption in toto, and for ever. It has been so adopted by the other States. An adoption for a limited time would be as defective as an adoption of some of the articles only. In short any condition whatever must viciate the ratification. What the New Congress by virtue of the power to admit new States, may be able & disposed to do in such case, I do not enquire as I suppose that is not the material point at present. I have not a moment to add more than my fervent wishes for your success & happiness.
[P.S.] This idea of reserving [a] right to withdraw was started at Richmd. & considered as a conditional ratification which was itself considered as worse than a rejection.
This post focuses on Madison's postscript, in which he stated that the Virginia Convention had considered "[t]his idea of reserving right to withdraw" similar to that proposed by Melancton Smith and had rejected it on the grounds that it was "a conditional ratification which was itself considered as worse than a rejection." The bottom line question: was Madison's assertion true? Or was Jemmy fibbing?
Madison's postscript in fact contains two assertions: (1) Did the Virginia Convention consider the reservation of a right to withdraw akin to Smith's? And (2) Did the Virginia Convention reject it because it was a conditional ratification worse than a rejection? We consider each in turn.
George Wythe's Motion
In her fine book Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788, Pauline Maier identifies one instance in which the idea of ratification subject to a right to withdraw may have been presented at the Virginia Convention.
On Tuesday June 24, 1788 George Wythe took the floor of the Convention, then sitting as a committee of the whole, and moved for ratification. The motion, however, was "complex." Among other things, it described a number of essential rights that could not be abridged under the Constitution, such as liberty of conscience and freedom of the press. It also specified (in the words of Prof. Maier) "that any imperfections in the Constitution should be addressed through the amending process it prescribed rather than endanger the union by seeking previous amendments."
Although the record is unclear, Wythe may also have proposed that Virginia's ratification would "cease to be obligatory" if recommended amendments were not acted on within two years:
Wythe then moved to his main resolutions: that, in the opinion of committee of the whole, the Constitution should be ratified, and that the convention should recommend amendments to the first federal Congress. He perhaps asked that another another committee draw up those amendments. According to Patrick Henry, the text of Wythe's motion, which [David] Robertson [the Reporter of the Convention] did not include in the Debates - also said that Virginia's ratification would "cease to be obligatory" if the amendments the convention proposed were not enacted.
A look at Volume 3 of Elliot's Debates confirms that the official report of the Virginia Convention did not, in fact, include a right of withdrawal in Wythe's motion. However, the reporter himself admitted that Wythe "spoke so very low that his speech could not be fully comprehended." For the record, here is Wythe's speech as recorded. I have added additional paragraph breaks; the emphases are in the original:
Mr. WYTHE arose, and addressed the chairman; but he spoke so very low that his speech could not be fully comprehended.
He took a cursory view of the situation of the United States previous to the late war, their resistance to the oppression of Great Britain, and the glorious conclusion and issue of that arduous conflict. To perpetuate the blessings of freedom, happiness, and independence, he demonstrated the necessity of a firm, indissoluble union of the states. He expatiated on the defects and inadequacy of the Confederation, and the consequent misfortunes suffered by the people. He pointed out the impossibility of securing liberty without society, the impracticability of acting personally, and the inevitable necessity of delegating power to agents.
He then recurred to the system under consideration. He admitted its imperfection, and the propriety of some amendments. But the excellency of many parts of it could not be denied by its warmest opponents. He thought that experience was the best guide, and could alone develop its consequences. Most of the improvements that had been made in the science of government, and other sciences, were the result of experience. He referred it to the advocates for amendments, whether, if they were indulged with any alterations they pleased, there might not still be a necessity of alteration.
He then proceeded to the consideration of the question of previous or subsequent amendments. The critical situation of America, the extreme danger of dissolving the Union, rendered it necessary to adopt the latter alternative. He saw no danger from this. It appeared to him, most clearly, that any amendments which might be thought necessary would be easily obtained after ratification, in the manner proposed by the Constitution, as amendments were desired by all the states, and had already been proposed by the several states.
He then proposed that the committee should ratify the Constitution, and that whatsoever amendments might be deemed necessary should be recommended to the consideration of the Congress which should first assemble under the Constitution, to be acted upon according to the mode prescribed therein.
However, Prof. Maier correctly observes that Patrick Henry's subsequent remarks appear to confirm that he, at least, heard Wythe propose some sort of right to withdraw. After Wythe concluded, Henry, the leader of the Anti forces at the convention, immediately rose to urge that Virginia should refuse to ratify the Constitution without prior amendments. What responsible party, Henry argued, would enter into a compact without first obtaining assurances on the most critical points? In this context, Henry indicated that (emphasis added):
According to the honorable member's proposal, the ratification will cease to be obligatory unless they accede to these amendments. We have ratified it. You have committed a violation, will they say. They have not violated it. We say, we will go out of it. You are then reduced to a sad dilemma--to give up these three rights [Henry also complained that Wythe had identified only three rights as having been omitted], or leave the government. This is worse than our present Confederation, to which we have hitherto adhered honestly and faithfully. We shall be told we have violated it, because we have left it for the infringement and violation of conditions which they never agreed to be a part of the ratification. The ratification will be complete. The proposal is made by the party. We, as the other, accede to it, and propose the security of these three great rights; for it is only a proposal. In order to secure them, you are left in that state of fatal hostility which I shall as much deplore as the honorable gentleman. I exhort gentlemen to think seriously before they ratify this Constitution, and persuade themselves that they will succeed in making a feeble effort to get amendments after adoption.
On balance, then, it appears that Madison did correctly relate "[t]his idea of reserving right to withdraw was started at Richmd." But what about Madison's second assertion - that the "idea of reserving right to withdraw" was "considered as a conditional ratification which was itself considered as worse than a rejection"? For the answer to that question, let's look at what became of Wythe's proposal.
The Response to Wythe's Proposal
As we have seen, Patrick Henry immediately attacked Wythe's proposal on the grounds that anything other than prior amendments would be ineffective and foolish:
With respect to subsequent amendments, proposed by the worthy member, I am distressed when I hear the expression. It is a new one altogether, and such a one as stands against every idea of fortitude and manliness in the states, or any one else. Evils admitted in order to be removed subsequently, and tyranny submitted to in order to be excluded by a subsequent alteration, are things totally new to me. But I am sure the gentleman meant nothing but to amuse the committee. I know his candor. His proposal is an idea dreadful to me. I ask, does experience warrant such a thing from the beginning of the world to this day? Do you enter into a compact first, and afterwards settle the terms of the government?
I cannot conclude without saying that I shall have nothing to do with it, if subsequent amendments be determined upon. Oppressions will be carried on as radically by the majority when adjustments and accommodations will be held up. I say, I conceive it my duty, if this government is adopted before it is amended, to go home. I shall act as I think my duty requires. Every other gentleman will do the same. Previous amendments, in my opinion, are necessary to procure peace and tranquillity. I fear, if they be not agreed to, every movement and operation of government will cease; and how long that baneful thing, civil discord, will stay from this country, God only knows: When men are free front restraint, how long will you suspend their fury? The interval between this and bloodshed is but a moment. The licentious and wicked of the community Will seize with avidity every thing you hold. In this unhappy situation, what is to be done? It surpasses my stock of wisdom. If you will, in the language of freemen, stipulate that there are rights which no man under heaven can take from you, you shall have me going along with you; not otherwise.
Henry's long (pp. 587-596) and vehement speech allowed the pro-Constitution forces to focus the substance of his proposed amendments and the danger of requiring that they be incorporated into the Constitution as a condition of ratification - while avoiding Wythe's proposal altogether. Governor Edmund Randolph followed Henry's speech with an equally long speech of his own, in which he contrasted the catastrophe of conditional ratification with the efficacy of post-ratification recommended amendments, never once mentioning Wythe's compromise:
What are we about to do? To make this [prior amendments] the condition of our coming into this government. I hope gentlemen will never agree to this. If we declare that these amendments, and a bill of rights containing twenty articles, must be incorporated into the Constitution before we assent to it, I ask you whether you may not bid a long farewell to the Union? It will produce that deplorable thing--the dissolution of the Union--which no man yet has dared openly to advocate. . . . Let gentlemen seriously ponder the calamitous consequences of dissolving the Union in our present situation. I appeal to the great Searcher of hearts, on this occasion, that we behold the greatest danger that ever happened hanging over us; for previous amendments are but another name for rejection. They will throw Virginia out of the Union, and cause heartaches to many of those gentlemen who may vote for them.
But let us consider things calmly. Reflect on the facility of obtaining amendments if you adopt, and weigh the danger if you do not. Recollect that many other states have adopted it, who wish for many amendments. I ask you if it be not better to adopt, and run the chance of amending it hereafter, than run the risk of endangering the Union. The Confederation is gone; it has no authority. If, in this situation, we reject the Constitution, the Union will be dissolved, the dogs of war will break loose, and anarchy and discord will complete the ruin of this country. Previous adoption will prevent these deplorable mischiefs. The union of sentiments with us in the adopting states will render subsequent amendments easy. I therefore rest my happiness with perfect confidence on this subject.
When Madison himself rose somewhat later (pp. 616-622) that same day, he likewise ignored Wythe's compromise, framing the choice as one between ratification with suggested amendments and requiring "certain alterations, as the previous condition of [Virginia's] accession":
Suppose eight states only should ratify, and Virginia should propose certain alterations, as the previous condition of her accession. If they should be disposed to accede to her proposition, which is the most favorable conclusion, the difficulty attending it will be immense. Every state which has decided it, must take up the subject again. They must not only have the mortification of acknowledging that they had done wrong, but the difficulty of having a reconsideration of it among the people, and appointing new conventions to deliberate upon it. They must attend to all the amendments, which may be dictated by as great a diversity of political opinions as there are local attachments. When brought together in one assembly, they must go through, and accede to, every one of the amendments.
The gentlemen who, within this house, have thought proper to propose previous amendments, have brought no less than forty amendments, a bill of rights which contains twenty amendments, and twenty other alterations, some of which are improper and inadmissible. Will not every state think herself equally entitled to propose as many amendments? And suppose them to be contradictory! I leave it to this Convention whether it be probable that they can agree, or agree to any thing but the plan on the table; or whether greater difficulties will not be encountered than were experienced in the progress of the formation of the Constitution.
I am persuaded that the gentlemen who contend for previous amendments are not aware of the dangers which must result. Virginia, after having made opposition, will be obliged to recede from it. Might not the nine states say, with a great deal of propriety, "It is not proper, decent, or right, in you, to demand that we should reverse what we have done. Do as we have done; place confidence in us, as we have done in one another; and then we shall freely, fairly, and dispassionately consider and investigate your propositions, and endeavor to gratify your wishes. But if you do not do this, it is more reasonable that you should yield to us than we to you. You cannot exist without us; you must be a member of the Union.
Wythe's proposal never resurfaced. The next day, Wednesday June 25, 1788, after further unrelated debate, the Virginia Convention, sitting as committee of the whole, rejected, by a vote of 80 to 88, a resolution requiring the submission of proposed amendments to the other states before ratification. The Convention then adopted, by a vote of 89 to 79, a resolution ratifying the Constitution with recommended amendments only:
Resolved, That it is the opinion of this committee, that the said Constitution be ratified. But in order to relieve the apprehensions of those who may be solicitous for amendments,-
Resolved, That it is the opinion of this committee, that whatsoever amendments may be deemed necessary, be recommended to the consideration of the Congress which shall first assemble under the said Constitution, to be acted upon according to the mode prescribed in the 5th article thereof.
So was James Madison fibbing when he stated that "This idea of reserving right to withdraw was . . . considered [by the Virginia Convention] as a conditional ratification which was itself considered as worse than a rejection"? I would say the answer is clearly "yes." The only person who addressed that aspect of Wythe's proposal was Patrick Henry. And, as we have seen, he attacked it as ineffectual. The clear import of Madison's comment to Hamilton was that the pro-Constitution forces at the Virginia Convention had objected to the proposal as "conditional" and "worse than a rejection." The available record indicates that they did nothing of the sort. Nor is there any reason to believe that the Virginia Convention rejected Wythe's proposal for that reason.