Oliver Ellsworth: Landholder 10

Updated May 14, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Landholder 10

Oliver Ellsworth

Friday, February 29, 1788

For the Maryland Journal, etc.

To the Honourable Luther Martin, Esq, [12]


I have just met with your performance in favour of the Honourable Mr. Gerry, published in the Maryland Journal of the 18th January, 1788. As the Public may be ignorant of the Sacrifice you have made of your resentments on this occasion, you will excuse me for communicating what your extreme modesty must have induced you to conceal. You, no doubt, remember that you and Mr. Gerry never voted alike in Convention, except in the instances I shall hereafter enumerate. He uniformly opposed your principles, and so far did you carry your abhorrence of his politics, as to inform certain members to be on their guard against his wiles, so that, he and Mr. Mason held private meetings, where plans were concerted “to aggrandise, at the expence of the small States, Old Massachusetts and the Ancient Dominion.” After having thus opposed him and accused him, to appear his Champion and intimate acquaintance, has placed you beyond the reach of ordinary panegyric. Having done this justice to your magnanimity, I cannot resist drawing the veil of the Convention a little farther aside; not, I assure you, with any intention to give pain to your Constituents, but merely to induce them to pity you for the many piercing mortifications you met with in the discharge of your duty. The day you took your seat[13] must be long remembered by those who were present; nor will it be possible for you to forget the astonishment your behaviour almost instantaneously produced. You had scarcely time to read the propositions which had been agreed to after the fullest investigation, when, without requesting information, or to be let into the reasons of the adoption of what you might not approve, you opened against them in a speech which held during two days, and which might have continued two months, but for those marks of fatigue and disgust you saw strongly expressed on whichever side of the house you turned your mortified eyes. There needed no other display to fix your character and the rank of your abilities, which the Convention would have confirmed by the most distinguished silence, had not a certain similarity in genius provoked a sarcastic reply from the pleasant Mr. Gerry; in which he admired the strength of your lungs and your profound knowledge in the first principles of government; mixing and illustrating his little remarks with a profusion of those hems, that never fail to lengthen out and enliven his oratory. This reply (from your intimate acquaintance), the match being so equal and the contrast so comic, had the happy effect to put the house in good humor, and leave you a prey to the most humiliating reflections. But this did not teach you to bound your future speeches by the lines of moderation; for the very next day you exhibited without a blush another specimen of eternal volubility. It was not, however, to the duration of your speeches you owed the perfection of your reputation. You, alone, advocated the political heresy, that the people ought not to be trusted with the election of representatives.[14] You held the jargon, that notwithstanding each state had an equal number of votes in the Senate, yet the states were unequally represented in the Senate. You espoused the tyrannic principle, that where a State refused to comply with a requisition of Congress for money, that an army should be marched into its bowels, to fall indiscriminately upon the property of the innocent and the guilty, instead of having it collected as the Constitution proposed, by the mild and equal operation of laws. One hour you sported the opinion that Congress, afraid of the militia resisting their measures, would neither arm nor organize them, and the next, as if men required no time to breathe between such contradictions, that they would harass them by long and unnecessary marches, till they wore down their spirit and rendered them fit subjects for despotism. You, too, contended that the powers and authorities of the new Constitution must destroy the liberties of the people; but that the same powers and authorities might be safely trusted with the Old Congress. You cannot have forgotten, that by such ignorance in politics and contradictory opinions, you exhausted the politeness of the Convention, which at length prepared to slumber when you rose to speak; nor can you have forgotten, you were only twice appointed a member of a Committee, or that these appointments were made merely to avoid your endless garrulity, and if possible, lead you to reason, by the easy road of familiar conversation. But lest you should say that I am a record only of the bad, I shall faithfully recognize whatever occurred to your advantage. You originated that clause in the Constitution which enacts, that “This Constitution and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof, and all treaties made or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land, and the judges in every State shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or the law of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.” You voted that an appeal should lay to the Supreme Judiciary of the United States, for the correction of all errors both in law and fact. You also agreed to the clause that declares nine States to be sufficient to put the government in motion.[15] These are among the greater positive virtues you exhibited in the Convention; but it would be doing you injustice were I to omit those of a negative nature. Since the publication of the Constitution, every topic of vulgar declamation has been employed to persuade the people, that it will destroy the trial by jury, and is defective for being without a bill of rights. You, sir, had more candour in the Convention than we can allow to those declaimers out of it; there you never signified by any motion or expression whatever, that it stood in need of a bill of rights, or in any wise endangered the trial by jury. In these respects the Constitution met your entire approbation; for had you believed it defective in these essentials, you ought to have mentioned it in Convention, or had you thought it wanted further guards, it was your indispensable duty to have proposed them. I hope to hear that the same candour that influenced you on this occasion, has induced you to obviate any improper impressions such publications may have excited in your constituents, when you had the honor to appear before the General Assembly.[16] From such high instances of your approbation (for every member, like you, had made objections to parts of the Constitution) the Convention were led to conclude that you would have honored it with your signature, had you not been called to Maryland upon some indispensable business; nor ought it to be withheld from you, that your colleagues informed many Gentlemen of the House, that you told them you intended to return before its completion. Durst I proceed beyond these facts, to which the whole Convention can witness, I would ask you why you changed your opinion of the Constitution after leaving Philadelphia. I have it from good authority that you complained to an intimate acquaintance, that nothing grieved you so much as the apprehension of being detained in Maryland longer than you could wish; for that you had rather lose one hundred guineas, than not have your name appear to the Constitution. But as this circumstance seems to have been overlooked when you composed your defence of Mr. Gerry, you may have your recollection of it revived by applying to Mr. Young, of Spruce street, Philadelphia, to whom you made your complaint. But leaving this curious piece of human vanity to such further investigation as you may think it deserves, let us come to those matters more particularly between us. You have said, that you “never heard Mr. Gerry, or any other member, introduce a proposition for the redemption of Continental money according to its nominal or any other value; nor did you ever hear that such a proposition had been offered to the Convention, or had been thought of.” That the Public may clearly comprehend what degree of credit ought to be given to this kind of evidence, they should know the time you were absent from the Convention, as well as the time you attended. If it should appear that you were only a few days absent, when unimportant business was the object, they will conclude in your favour, provided they entertain a good opinion of your veracity; on the otherhand, should it appear that you were absent nearly half the session, however your veracity may be esteemed, they must reject your evidence. As you have not stated this necessary information, I shall do it for you. The Session of Convention commenced the 14th of May, and ended the 17th of September, which makes 126 days. You took your seat the 10th of June,[17] and left it the 4th of September, of which period you were absent at Baltimore ten days, and as many at New York, so that you attended only 66 days out of 126. Now, sir, is it to be presumed that you could have been minutely informed of all that happened in Convention, and committees of Convention, during the 60 days of your absence? or does it follow by any rule of reasoning or logic, that because a thing did not happen in the 66 days you were present, that it did not happen in the 60 days which you did not attend? Is it anywise likely that you could have heard what passed, especially during the last 13 days, within which period the Landholder has fixed the apostacy of Mr. Gerry? or if it is likely that your particular intimacy with Mr. Gerry would stimulate to inquiries respecting his conduct, why is it that we do not see Mr. McHenry's verification of your assertion, who was of the Committee for considering a proposition for the debts of the union? Your reply to my second charge against this gentleman may be soon dismissed. Compare his letter to the Legislature of his State with your defence, and you will find that you have put into his mouth objections different from anything it contains, so that if your representation be true, his must be false. But there is another circumstance which militates against your new friend. Though he was face to face with his colleagues at the State Convention of Massachusetts,[18] he has not ventured to call upon them to clear him either of this charge, or that respecting the Continental money. But as the Public seemed to require that something should be said on this occasion, an anonymous writer denies that he made such a motion, and endeavours to abate the force of my second allegation, merely by supposing that “his colleagues were men of too much honor to assert that his reasons in Convention were totally different from those which he has published.

But alas, his colleagues would not acquit him in this way, and he was of too proud a spirit to ask them to do it in person.[19] Hence the charge remains on its original grounds, while you, for want of proper concert, have joined his accusers and reduced him to the humiliating necessity of endeavouring to stifle your justification. These points being dismissed, it remains only to reconcile the contradictory parts you have acted on the great political stage. You entered the convention without a sufficient knowledge in the science of government, where you committed a succession of memorable blunders, as the work advanced. Some rays of light penetrated your understanding, and enabled you (as has been shown) to assist in raising some of its pillars, when the desire of having your name enrolled with the other laborers drew from you that remarkable complaint so expressive of vanity and conviction. But self-interest soon gained the ascendant, you quickly comprehended the delicacy of your situation, and this restored your first impressions in all their original force. You thought the Deputy Attorney General of the United States for the state of Maryland, destined for a different character, and that inspired you with the hope that you might derive from a desperate opposition what you saw no prospect of gaining by a contrary conduct. But I will venture to predict, that though you were to double your efforts, you would fail in your object. I leave you now to your own reflections, under a promise, however, to give my name to the public, should you be able to procure any indifferent testimony to contradict a single fact I have stated.

February, 1788.

A Landholder.

[12] The Landholder, IV-VIII, were reprinted in The Maryland Journal, and the attack on Gerry in them, drew from Luther Martin a defence of that gentleman, which is printed in this collection. The Landholder replied with this letter, but this one of the series was not printed in The Connecticut Courant, its place being taken by the number X., printed immediately after this letter.—P.L.F.

[13] June 9.—P.L.F.

[14] This is a misstatement. The motion to elect representatives as the state legislature should direct was made by C. C. Pinckney, was seconded by Martin, and approved of by Sherman, and on being put to a vote was favored by Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware and South Carolina. Cf. Papers of James Madison, II., 925.—P.L.F.

[15] Mr. Gerry agreed with Mr. Martin on these questions.

[16] By direction of the General Assembly of Maryland, Martin reported the proceedings of the federal Convention to them, and this was afterwards printed in pamphlet form under the title of Genuine Information.—P.L.F.

[17] June 9, according to Madison, the Journal and Martin's Genuine Information. —P.L.F.

[18] Gerry, though defeated in an election to the Massachusetts Convention, was invited by them to attend, in order to furnish information to the members.—P.L.F.

[19] To prevent any misconstruction the following is the publication entire: [This note is by the Landholder, and is followed by the article already printed at p. 127. It therefore seems unnecessary to add it here.—P.L.F.] I will not say this writer makes a distinction between a thing done in convention and a thing done in committee. Be this as it may, he confesses more than Mr. Martin; for it seems that Mr. Gerry proposed that the “public debt should stand on the same ground it now stands on by the articles of confederation.” He might have subjoined that Mr. Gerry prefaced this motion by observing that it was the same in substance as his first, in as much as it included his first. But notwithstanding this motion was readily agreed to without his explanation being contradicted, yet he never afterwards favoured the convention with a look of peace, or a word of reconcilement.

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