Spurious Quotations and the “Convention of States”

The “Convention of States” (CoS) movement has fervent supporters and detractors. Any discussion of our Constitution and the idea of amending it, in any form, must be undertaken with the utmost wisdom and intellectual sincerity. Upon researching the topic, I discovered many quotes from Founding Fathers and some Republican dignitaries that appeared to support the idea of calling a “Convention of States.” These quotes are mainly promoted on the “Convention of States” website, but also across social media by CoS supporters, without links to source material.

I decided it would be important to provide context to these quotes, and to provide links to the source material for people to form their own opinions. Quotes cited by CoS supporters are provided as bullet points, and my comments are in bold. Full quotes in greater context are in italics.


  • “It should be remembered that a constitutional door is open for such amendments as shall be thought necessary by nine (two thirds of the) states.”

George Washington

(from his letter to John Armstrong, April 25, 1788)

This quote was regarding the inclusion of the Bill of Rights to the original Constitution, not on the topic of a “Convention of States.”

Read the quote in context here:

https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-06-02-0201


  • “If, in the opinion of the people, the distribution or modification of constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way in which the Constitution designates.”

George Washington

(from his farewell address, 1796)

This is regarding the topic of Constitutional amendments in general, not specifically to the mechanism of a “Convention of States.”

Read the quote in context here:

https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-00963


  • “The warmest friends and the best supporters the Constitution has, do not contend that it is free from imperfections; but they found them unavoidable, and are sensible, if evil is likely to arise therefrom, [that] the remedy must come hereafter; for in the present moment it is not to be obtained. And as there is a constitutional door open for it, I think the people (for it is with them to judge) can, as they will have the advantage of experience on their side, decide with as much propriety on the alterations and amendments which are necessary [as] ourselves. I do not think we are more inspired, have more wisdom, or possess more virtue than those who will come after us.”

George Washington

(from his letter to Bushrod Washington, November 9, 1787)

This letter is regarding the states’ ratification of the Constitution, but this quote here is done an injustice by omission of the following two sentences:

“The power under the Constitution will always be with the people. It is entrusted for certain defined purposes and for a certain limited period to representatives of their own chusing; and whenever it is exercised contrary to their interests, or not according to their wishes, their Servants can, and undoubtedly will be, recalled.”

Washington was commenting that amendments to the Constitution would take place through elected representatives. Here he is arguing that the people’s best remedy for improper governance is through the ballot box.

Read the quote in context here:

https://founders.archives.gov/GEWN-04-05-02-0388


  • “It would be improper to require the consent of the National Legislature, because they may abuse their power, and refuse consent…”

George Mason (June 11, 1787, from notes of the debates in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 as reported by James Madison)

In this discussion, the Founding Fathers were debating the constitutional amendment process. The majority opinion amongst the founders was that the Constitution should only be amended with the consent of the national legislature, what we call the Congress. Colonel George Mason, a Virginian delegate, opposed this idea and preferred that the Constitution should be amended “without the consent of the national legislature.” So, in Mason’s view, the Congress should play no role in constitutional amendments. This was clearly a minority opinion as noted in the June 11th meeting minutes which read:

Resolution 13, for amending the national Constitution hereafter without consent of Natl. Legislature being considered, several members did not see the necessity of the Resolution at all, nor the propriety of making the consent of the Natl. Legisl. unnecessary.

Col. MASON urged the necessity of such a provision. “The plan now to be formed will certainly be defective, as the Confederation has been found on trial to be. Amendments therefore will be necessary, and it will be better to provide for them, in an easy, regular and Constitutional way than to trust to chance and violence. It would be improper to require the consent of the Natl. Legislature, because they may abuse their power, and refuse their consent on that very account. The opportunity for such an abuse, may be the fault of the Constitution calling for amendment.”

It is likely that this provision of Article V was added to the Constitution to appease Mason’s concerns, but this effort was in vain. While Colonel Mason raised some valid concerns, especially regarding what came to be known as the bill of rights, he ultimately refused to sign the Constitution in its final form.

It is clear from reading this that the founders saw our standard amendment process through the Congress as the favored method of constitutional amendment, with Mason’s idea of amendment by the states as an alternate, legally equal but less favored model.

Read the full debate in context here: https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/debates_611.asp


  • “Col Mason thought the plan of amending the Constitution exceptionable and dangerous. As the proposing of amendments is in both the modes to depend, in the first immediately, in the second, ultimately, on Congress, no amendments of the proper kind would ever be obtained by the people, if the Government should become oppressive, as he verily believed would be the case.”

(September 15, 1787, from notes of the debates in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 as reported by James Madison)

Colonel Mason shows inconsistency in his arguments here – he declares that constitutional amendments would be dangerous, but then also proposes that the “Convention of States” would be the best method for amending. It can be seen, by reading the full debate in context, that Mason’s views were a minority position, and that one of the other Founding Fathers, Roger Sherman, felt that a “Convention of States” could be abused. Note that Roger Sherman was another well-respected Founding Father, being the only person father to sign all four of the key founding documents. We also see here that Madison was skeptical of the most passionate aspects of Mason’s arguments.

Mr. SHERMAN expressed his fears that three fourths of the States might be brought to do things fatal to particular States, as abolishing them altogether or depriving them of their equality in the Senate. He thought it reasonable that the proviso in favor of the States importing slaves should be extended so as to provide that no State should be affected in its internal police, or deprived of its equality in the Senate.

Col MASON thought the plan of amending the Constitution exceptionable & dangerous. As the proposing of amendments is in both the modes to depend, in the first immediately, in the second, ultimately, on Congress, no amendments of the proper kind would ever be obtained by the people, if the Government should become oppressive, as he verily believed would be the case.

Mr. Govr. MORRIS & Mr. GERRY moved to amend the article so as to require a Convention on application of 2/3 of the Sts.

Mr. MADISON did not see why Congress would not be as much bound to propose amendments applied for by two thirds of the States as to call a call a Convention on the like application. He saw no objection however against providing for a Convention for the purpose of amendments, except only that difficulties might arise as to the form, the quorum &c. which in Constitutional regulations ought to be as much as possible avoided.

Read the full debate in context here: https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/debates_915.asp


  •  “It, moreover, equally enables the general and the State governments to originate the amendment of errors, as they may be pointed out by experience on one side, or on the other.”

James Madison (from Federalist 43)

Here, Madison is arguing in favor of having the States ratify amendments regardless of the method of origination. He is defending Article V in its entirety, not making an argument solely for a “Convention of States.” 

“To provide for amendments to be ratified by three fourths of the States under two exceptions only. ”That useful alterations will be suggested by experience, could not but be foreseen. It was requisite, therefore, that a mode for introducing them should be provided. The mode preferred by the convention seems to be stamped with every mark of propriety. It guards equally against that extreme facility, which would render the Constitution too mutable; and that extreme difficulty, which might perpetuate its discovered faults. It, moreover, equally enables the general and the State governments to originate the amendment of errors, as they may be pointed out by the experience on one side, or on the other. The exception in favor of the equality of suffrage in the Senate, was probably meant as a palladium to the residuary sovereignty of the States, implied and secured by that principle of representation in one branch of the legislature; and was probably insisted on by the States particularly attached to that equality. The other exception must have been admitted on the same considerations which produced the privilege defended by it.

I would argue that “The mode preferred by the convention” mentioned is through the Congress. In addition, I would argue that Madison’s mention of “the general [government] refers to the federal government, which would imply the Congressional method and not the convention.

Read the quote in context here: https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed43.asp


  • “…the national rulers, whenever nine states concur, will have no option upon the subject. By the fifth Article of the plan, the Congress will be obliged “on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the states[which at present amount to nine] to call a convention for proposing amendments, which shall be valid to all intents and purposes…” “The words of this article are peremptory. The Congress “shall call a convention.” Nothing in this particular is left to the discretion of that body…We may safely rely on the disposition of the state legislatures to erect barriers against the encroachments of the national authority.”

Alexander Hamilton (from the last of the Federalist Papers, Federalist 85)

We finally get to what appears to be a properly quoted Founding Father. Hamilton here does appear to support a “Convention of States.” However, the omission of a key following sentence is an injustice to Hamilton’s message here:

The zeal for attempts to amend, prior to the establishment of the Constitution, must abate in every man…

While Hamilton does speak favorably of the “Convention of States” here, the purpose of his argument is to refute the position held by the anti-federalists that the Constitution should be amended prior to it’s adoption by the states. Hamilton’s quote does hold weight, but it is somewhat out of context.

Read the full quote in context here: https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed85.asp 


  • “The ultimate arbiter is the people of the Union, assembled by their deputies in convention, at the call of Congress, or of two-thirds of the States. Let them decide to which they mean to give an authority claimed by two of their organs. And it has been the peculiar wisdom and felicity of our constitution, to have provided this peaceable appeal, where that of other nations is at once to force.”

Thomas Jefferson (from his letter to Justice William Johnson Monticello June 12, 1823)

Clear from the body of this quote – Jefferson is merely mentioning the amendment processes within Article V. He does not appear to lend preference to one method or another.


  • “Should the provisions of the Constitution as here reviewed, be found not to secure government and rights of the states, against usurpations and abuses on the part of the United States, the final resort within the purview of the Constitution, lies in an amendment of the Constitution, according to a process applicable by the states.”

James Madison

(from his letter to Edward Everett Aug 28, 1830)

This quote comes from a Madison letter regarding the concept of state “nullification” of federal laws. We can see that Madison views amending the Constitution as the “final resort.” Also, his following paragraph is illuminating on the theoretical depths to which this conversation went:

And in the event of a failure of every Constitutional resort, and an accumulation of usurpations and abuses, rendering passive obedience and non-resistance a greater evil, than resistance and revolution, there can remain but one resort, the last of all; an appeal from the cancelled obligations of the Constitutional compact, to original rights and the law of self-preservation.

I think it would be fair to argue that Madison did not hope or wish for the United States to undergo revolution. This is more of a theoretical discussion about the mechanisms of the Constitution and not a call to action as the quote by itself would provide.

Read the quote in its full context here: https://rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/founders/default.xqy?keys=FOEA-print-02-02-02-2138


  • “This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing Government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it…While I make no recommendation of amendments, I fully recognize the rightful authority of the people over the whole subject, to be exercised in either of the modes prescribed in the instrument itself; and I should, under existing circumstances, favor rather than oppose a fair opportunity being afforded the people to act upon it. I will venture to add that to me the convention mode seems preferable, in that it allows amendments to originate with the people themselves, instead of only permitting them to take or reject propositions originated by others, not especially chosen for the purpose, and which might not be precisely such as they would wish to either accept or refuse.

Abraham Lincoln (from his first inaugural address – March 4, 1861)

Another quote taken woefully out of context. One must keep in mind that Lincoln became president during the intense debate revolving around the issue of slavery. This quote is betrayed by the nefarious omission of sentences by ellipses and deletion of those following it which provide key context to his perspective. The full quote reads:

This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing Government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it. I cannot be ignorant of the fact that many worthy and patriotic citizens are desirous of having the National Constitution amended. While I make no recommendation of amendments, I fully recognize the rightful authority of the people over the whole subject, to be exercised in either of the modes prescribed in the instrument itself; and I should, under existing circumstances, favor rather than oppose a fair opportunity being afforded the people to act upon it. I will venture to add that to me the convention mode seems preferable, in that it allows amendments to originate with the people themselves, instead of only permitting them to take or reject propositions originated by others, not especially chosen for the purpose, and which might not be precisely such as they would wish to either accept or refuse. I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution–which amendment, however, I have not seen–has passed Congress, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service.

Here Lincoln is arguing that a proposed constitutional amendment, which would prevent the federal government from interfering on the issue of slavery, is less desirable because it has come from Congress and not the people. While he does speak in favor of the convention method, one may rightfully assume that he is doing so here to undermine the moral authority of his Democrat enemies in the legislature. He also argues that it is the right of the people to overthrow the government via revolution, but he then turned around and crushed such a rebellion through the Civil War. While this quote does lend some insight to Lincoln’s perspective on the convention aspect of Article V, one must balance the historical context of this quote against any possible application to a current day “Convention of States” proposal. I would say the argument in favor of inclusion of this quote is real, but weak.

Read Lincoln’s full address here: https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lincoln1.asp


  • “Through their state legislatures and without regard to the federal government, the people can demand a convention to propose amendments that can and will reverse any trends they see as fatal to true representative government.”

Dwight Eisenhower

(from commencement address at Defiance College, Ohio, 1963)

This is an accurate quote, and Eisenhower does, in fact, call for those listening to his speech to consider the idea of a “Convention of States.” But the following paragraph is perhaps even more informative of the true intention of his raising of the topic:

Moreover, constitutional amendment is not to be lightly undertaken. But if you and your generation fortified by a superb education, with access to the knowledge and wisdom of the ages, and imbued with the spirit of our founders, decide that reformation of a radical kind becomes due—then I say, let nothing stop you. Study, examine, survey, think, consider, decide and then—by all means—act. No discovery in science or in space for which you may be responsible, no art that you may create, no fortune that you may amass can ever faintly approach in importance what you do to America’s political heritage.

Ike clearly favors the idea of a “Convention of States.” However, he cautions that it must be undertaken with the knowledge and wisdom of the ages and imbued with the spirit of our founders. Clearly, Eisenhower’s intention here is not solely to promote a mechanism of amendment to the Constitution, but to implore the young graduates that they must approach any such effort with grace, extreme caution, and a deep commitment to education. I would argue that, according to Eisenhower, education and wisdom must be the primary goal of constitutional activists, not merely blind obsession with a single remedy or political mechanism.

Read Eisenhower’s full speech here: https://books.google.com/books?id=pgSh2LvgS-AC&pg=PA11506&lpg=PA11506


  • “The Constitution provides for both methods and the Convention is a safety valve giving the people a chance to act if Congress refuses to.”

then CA Governor Ronald Reagan

(in his radio address on 2/13/79)

We come to yet another out-of-context quote. Let’s see the full thing:

I hope we won’t lose sight of the main target in a debate over which route we take to amend the Constitution. Some want to call a constitutional convention. Others want to go the legislative way with Congress passing an amendment to then be ratified by the states. Among these latter, voices have been raised warning of danger that a constitutional convention would open the door to all manner of proposed amendments. In my view, those who warn of this show little faith in our democratic procedures. The Constitution provides for both methods and the convention is a safety valve giving the people a chance to act if Congress refuses to. Frankly I’d prefer the legislative way, but maybe it will take the threat of a convention to bring that about.  

This address was regarding a balance budget amendment. You can see here that Reagan clearly has faith in the idea of a constitutional convention, but he prefers the legislative route. He also finds the whole debate rather silly. Read the full quote in context: https://books.google.com/books?id=hgg2qIetD2EC&lpg=PT356&ots=J4wAVEJ88r


As you can see, many of the quotes used by the “Convention of States” advocates are without merit or intentionally misleading. While a few of the quotes do appear to show partial or even complete support (perhaps only in the case of George Mason) for the idea of a “Convention of States” being a primary mechanism of corrective governance, I would advise constitutional advocates to be cautious in deciding whether to align with a movement that would misuse the quotes of our Founding Fathers and Republican leaders to further their cause. Also, Eisenhower’s quote in particular shines light on the true nature of our predicament as Republicans – we can amend the Constitution all we like, but our society will continue to decline unless we unite to educate our fellow citizens on the purpose of government through “the knowledge and wisdom of the ages, and imbued with the spirit of our founders.” I kindly request to be informed of my misunderstanding of any of these quotes so corrections can be made. I also look forward to further debate and research on this and other topics regarding our great Constitution.

Matthew Johnson
Chairman
Cumberland County Young Republican Organization