An Idea That Failed--The Committee of the States

Every constitution, it seems, includes at least one idea that fails.  The Constitution of the United States (COTUS) of 1787, for example, provided that the second-place finisher in the presidential election should become vice-president.  This worked so badly that it had to be scrapped after just four elections and replaced by the Twelfth Amendment.

For the Articles of Confederation, that idea was the Committee of the States.

“The United States, in Congress assembled,” ran Article IX, “shall have authority to appoint a committee to sit in the recess of Congress, to be denominated a ‘Committee of the States’, and to consist of one delegate from each State . . . The committee of the states, or any nine of them, shall be authorized to execute, in the recess of Congress, such of the powers of Congress as the United States, in Congress assembled, by the consent of nine states, shall, from time to time, think expedient to vest them with.”

The reasoning behind the Committee was logical.  Most assemblies, in the 1770’s, didn’t meet year round.  State legislatures didn’t.  The British Parliament didn’t.  And Congress didn’t want to—members had families, plantations, and businesses to look after, and needed recesses long enough to make the long journey home and back.

But, states had governors and courts, and Great Britain had a king.  The United States federal government, in 1777, had none of these.  Congress was the government.  If Congress recessed, then for so long as it recessed the federal government would cease to exist.

Thus, the Committee.  Congress could delegate powers to the Committee of the States, and all members except the unfortunate 13 chosen as committeemen could go home, for a break lasting perhaps several months.

While the Revolutionary War raged, Congress dared not use this process.  Congress sat year round, and the press of business was unrelenting.  Individual members would leave from time to time, and this contributed to attendance problems (see Absenteeism), but Congress as a whole seldom adjourned for more than a few days, and never for more than a few weeks.

Then, in 1784, came peace.  Congress, then meeting in Annapolis, Maryland (above left), determined to take a vacation.

On May 29, Congress duly named one member from each state then attending to sit as a Committee of the States, and vested the Committee with powers—limited powers, as it turned out, to do little more than answer correspondence and fill vacancies in military and civil offices.  On June 3, Congress adjourned until November.

The Committee held an organizational meeting on June 4, and then adjourned until June 26, at which time it found itself stymied by a familiar problem—a lack of a quorum.  Off and on through July the Committee met, sometimes with the bare minimum of nine attendees to conduct routine business, and sometimes with no quorum.  Finally, on August 11, three of the members tired of “tarry(ing) here for no purpose” and returned home.  The Committee never sat again.

If that had been the end of the matter, it would have been a non-event.  But, what the failed committee lacked in accomplishments, it made up for in engendered ill will.

Jacob Read of South Carolina fulminated against the departing members, and described one of them, Jonathan Blanchard (NH), as “much marked with the Small pox.”  “Never having thought for himself, “ Read wrote, “(Blanchard) from habit repeats What he has received from others as a Parrot would, and on some occasions is obliged to do so several times before he is quite sure he is right.”

J.F. Mercer of Virginia, incensed over the adjournment, described his colleagues as a “vagabond, strolling contemptible crew”.  “If I do not find the ensuing Congress of a very different complexion from the last,” Mercer wrote, “I will no longer myself degrade the Character of a human being by continuing (as a) useless Cypher among others, who are become as contemptible to the World, as they have long been to themselves.”

Congress never again constituted a Committee of the States.  Under the COTUS, the President manages the government between sessions of Congress, with power to summon a special session if needed.

Sources: Edmund Cody Burnett, The Continental Congress, 1941; Journals of the Continental Congress, Volume 27; Letters of Delegates to Congress, Volume 21

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