"Hold the wagon back! There is more danger of its running too fast than going too slow."
- Abraham Baldwin
Technically, when Abraham Baldwin and William Few signed the U.S. Constitution in 1787, both men lived in Richmond County. But when that county was divided three years later to create Columbia County, neither man changed his place of residence. As long as each man lived in Georgia, he would serve his state and nation from a county called Columbia.
Baldwin came to Georgia in 1784, settling briefly in Savannah before accepting 200 acres of granted land near present-day Appling when the state capital moved to Augusta. Within a year he was appointed to the state Legislature, and soon became one of Georgia"s delegates to the Continental Congress.
On May 25, 1787, he joined fellow Georgians William Pierce, William Houstoun and William Few at the first meeting of the U.S. Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, a process that would take nearly four months to complete. Without a bold move by Abraham Baldwin, however, it's anyone's guess when or if our new nation would have had a constitution at all.
For some delegates the Articles of Confederation, which had been written and amended often during the war years, was "constitution" enough. Remembering the strong monarchy they had left behind, these states might have been happy with no central government at all.
But others recognized weaknesses in the earlier document that would hamper the future of the country if they were left unresolved.
Still, these points had already been debated so often that by the time Congress adopted the resolution to hold the convention it was assumed their only purpose was, once again, to amend the Articles of Confederation.
For weeks they met in private, in committee, and jointly with all delegates present. They debated long, made decisions one day and amended them the next, and struggled for a compromise on all areas of disagreement.
Finally, with hopes fading for an agreement on any form of the "Articles," the delegates realized their only hope was to form a completely new document.
First came the "Virginia Plan," which advocated three separate but equal branches of government "" legislative, executive and judicial "" and may have passed immediately if the delegates could have agreed on the make-up of the legislative branch. The Virginians suggested two legislative bodies, each with "population or some other proportional measure" determining the number of members from each state.
Not so, said the smaller states, who believed their representation would never equal that of the more populous states like Virginia. The small state of New Jersey then proposed a one-house Congress with an equal number of members from each state, but that idea met with less approval than the Virginia Plan. By the end of June the delegates were no closer to a finished document than they were when they started.
Tensions ran high in Independence Hall on July 2 when yet another roll-call vote on the legislative branch began, and neither side appeared willing to compromise. Furthermore, if the concerns of the small states were not addressed, their delegates had threatened to walk out and, essentially, shut the constitution process down.
The voting see-sawed back and forth "" large states ahead, then small, then tied "" until only the large state of Georgia was left to vote. Everyone assumed William Houstoun and Abraham Baldwin (the only Georgia delegates present that day) would vote against the wishes of the smaller states.
Houstoun went first and, as expected, voted with the larger states. But Baldwin stunned his colleagues by voting in favor of the other side, leaving the vote tied.
Moments later, consternation gave way to relief as the delegates realized what Baldwin had done: He had bought them more time. Had he voted with Houstoun the convention would have been over. Now both sides could return to the bargaining table and try again.
Two weeks later the "Great Compromise" concerning the legislative branch of the new government was adopted. There would be two houses after all, but population would determine the size of only one, while the other would consist of two members from each state, equal representation just as the small states had requested.
More fine-tuning was still needed, but the most difficult work of the convention was over. On Sept. 17 the 38 delegates present adopted the U.S. Constitution, to this date the longest-lived national constitution in the history of the world.
Among its signers were Abraham Baldwin and William Few from soon-to-become Columbia County, Georgia.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. This column is an excerpt from As Long as The Rivers Run, her work in progress on the history of Columbia County. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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