Ideology and Participation: Examining the Constitutional Convention of 1787

Published date01 September 2018
Date01 September 2018
Subject MatterArticles
749751PRQXXX10.1177/1065912917749751Political Research QuarterlyGelman
Political Research Quarterly
2018, Vol. 71(3) 546 –559
Ideology and Participation: Examining
© 2018 University of Utah
Reprints and permissions:
the Constitutional Convention of 1787
DOI: 10.1177/1065912917749751
David A. Gelman1
This article looks at the effect of ideology on delegate participation at the Federal Convention of 1787. Making use
of an original data set on delegate verbosity and delegate speeches at the Constitutional Convention, analysis reveals
that ideologically extreme Convention delegates were more likely to participate at the Convention. This leads to two
conclusions. First, ideology affected delegate participation in a meaningful way. Second, claims made about the intent of
the writers of the Constitution based on Convention records are biased in favor of ideologically extreme Convention
delegates, as extreme delegates were more likely to be recorded.
Federal Convention of 1787, Constitutional Convention, legislative behavior, original intent, American Political
Development (APD)
Using original intent requires understanding the nature of
2013; Pearson and Dancey 2011). It could also be that
debate at the Constitutional Convention. I contribute to
floor participation in a legislative setting has direct bene-
this understanding by investigating why certain delegates
fits to legislators, advancing their preferred policy posi-
contributed and participated differently than others during
tions (e.g., Maltzman and Sigelman 1996; Martin and
the Convention debates. Convention delegates were mem-
Vanberg 2004; Proksch and Slapin 2012).
bers of a deliberative body; as such, they were goal-ori-
Assessing the relationship between ideology and par-
ented actors (e.g., Fenno 1973, 1978; Mayhew 1974). I
ticipation in a deliberative legislature is complicated by
predicate my argument on the simple assumption that
additional factors of legislative life such as partisan influ-
goal-oriented actors will not expend the resources required
ences, electoral concerns, and agenda control. However,
to make floor speeches if doing so does not help them
the Federal Convention of 1787 was not a legislature.
achieve their goals. The purpose of this article is to deter-
Thus, it provides an opportunity to study this relationship
mine to what extent delegate ideology impacted participa-
without these potentially problematic considerations.
tion in floor debates at the Federal Convention of 1787.
Convention delegates were not subject to electoral con-
In exploring the impact of delegate ideology on debate
straints; floor debate was not subject to positive or negative
at the Convention, this article links recent work on the
agenda control, as any issue could be brought to the floor
observable events of the Convention (e.g., Dougherty and
of the Convention (even if it had already been disposed of).
Heckelman 2006, 2008; Heckelman and Dougherty 2013;
In addition, delegates operated with freedom to express
Pope and Treier 2011, 2012, 2015; Robertson 2005, 2006)
their views as a result of the rules of secrecy that prevented
with literature from the field of legislative studies con-
Convention proceedings from being shared with anyone
cerning legislator behavior. Scholars have examined how
outside the chamber. These conditions meant that delegates
participation potentially influences co-legislators in other
should have been in a position to engage in true delibera-
deliberative bodies, typically legislatures (e.g., Buchanan
tion where opinions were shared openly and decisions
et al. 1960; Francis 1962; Kovenock 1973; Smith 1989).
were the result of member preference over a given policy
Others have scrutinized why legislators choose to partici-
that was influenced to some degree by the discussion of
pate in their respective bodies (e.g., Arnold 1990; Hall
1996; Maltzman and Sigelman 1996). In seeking to under-
stand the determinants of floor participation in a parlia-
1University of Rochester, NY, USA
mentary setting, Eggers and Spirling (2014) find that
Corresponding Author:
electoral and party factors influence legislator behavior.
David A. Gelman, 330 E. 33rd Street, Apartment 6B, New York, NY
Others have found that gender influences participation
10016, USA.
(e.g., Karpowitz, Mendelberg, and Shaker 2012; Pearson

that policy. Thus, the Constitutional Convention provides
show no discernible bias or discrimination, making them
an excellent opportunity to study the impact of ideology on
a viable empirical data source.
participation in a deliberative body.
The Records provide nearly the whole of the historical
The article makes several contributions. First, I create
record of this event as the Convention operated under
and make use of an original data set of all individual
rules of secrecy (delegates were forbidden from discuss-
speeches at the Constitutional Convention. This allows
ing proceedings with anyone other than fellow delegates,
for the first systematic assessment of delegate floor
and daily debate was held with windows closed and
behavior at the Constitutional Convention. Second, I
shades drawn). At the conclusion of the Convention, the
investigate the relationship between delegate ideology
Convention secretary burned many of his notes and
and delegate participation in floor debates. Finally, I pro-
turned the official Journal over to George Washington for
vide an assessment of potential bias in my primary data
safekeeping. Washington then turned these papers over to
source, the Convention notes of James Madison.
the State Department in 1796 (Farrand 1966). A joint
I find evidence that ideologically extreme delegates
resolution of Congress in 1818 forced the publication of
did participate at the Federal Convention significantly
these papers which were compiled by then Secretary of
more than moderate delegates. I use original data on
State John Quincy Adams along with various delegate
delegate participation at the Constitutional Convention
notes in 1819.3 Prior to this, the public had no knowledge
to show that the higher level of participation by ideo-
that records of the Convention even existed.
logically extreme delegates is true in terms of both the
Efforts to understand the intentions of the delegates
number and length of their contributions to the recorded
have long been ongoing. In the 228 years since the ratifi-
Convention debates. Furthermore, these results hold
cation of the Constitution, a variety of scholarship on the
across several different analyses of the data. These
topic has emerged. Pre-Progressive Era historians typi-
findings not only demonstrate that ideology has an
cally treated delegates as idealistic demi-gods driven by
important influence on floor participation in a delibera-
love of freedom and liberty (see, for example, Gladstone
tive setting, but also throw doubt on the usefulness of
1878; Walker 1895). More contemporary historians have
claims made by modern politicians and jurists predi-
dialed back on the rhetoric but still maintain that the del-
cated on original intent, as these assertions may be
egates acted as they did due to ideological concerns (e.g.,
skewed from the actual process that guided the creation
Bailyn 1967; Rakove 1996; Wood 1967). Others have
of the Federal Constitution.
investigated whether delegates may have acted out of
economic self-interest (e.g., Beard 1966; Brown 1956;
Heckelman and Dougherty 2007, 2010; McDonald 1958;
McGuire 1988, 2003; McGuire and Ohsfeldt 1986).
Research about the Constitutional Convention predomi-
This study follows a tradition begun by McDonald
nantly uses a single source, Farrand’s Records of the
(1958) in using individual roll call votes from the
Federal Convention of 1787 (hereafter referred to as
Constitutional Convention to assess delegate behavior
either “Farrand’s Records” or simply “the Records”). The
during the Convention. Under the rules of the Convention,
Records bring together the personal diaries and notes of
voting was carried out by the states, not individual dele-
several of the Convention delegates and the official
gates. Thus, only the votes of the states were recorded.
Journal of the Convention. The materials were arranged
McDonald “deciphered” sixteen of the state votes into
chronologically by Farrand in 1911 and issued in a
individual roll calls by using attendance records, public
revised condition in 1937 in the Records of the Federal
statements by delegates, and private letters. Using the
Convention of 1787.1 The three documents collected
same technique, Dougherty and Heckelman (2008)
together in the Records that provide the most information
expand the number of deciphered votes to twenty-eight.
about daily proceedings are the official Journal, the notes
Dougherty et al. (2012) detail the creation of a new data-
of James Madison (delegate from Virginia), and the notes
base of all individual roll calls (a total of 569 votes) at the
of Robert Yates (delegate from New York). The official
Constitutional Convention.
Journal is no more than a base outline of the proceedings
Improved information on delegate voting has led to an
along with a...

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