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The Runaway Convention--A JBS Lie

For years, the John Birch Society (JBS) has lied about an Article V Convention. One of the biggest JBS Lies is the 1787 Constitutional Convention held in Philadelphia, PA from May until September, 1787 was a "runaway" convention. According to the JBS this means the convention exceeded the authority granted by Congress in its February 21, 1787 convention call. Based on that JBS lie JBS says if an Article V Convention were held as authorized under Article V of the Constitution ("convention for proposing amendments') it would also be a "runaway" convention. Therefore, JBS says, a convention should not be held.

Article V mandates Congress call a convention if the states apply which, according to public record, they have--TEN times!!!
See: Therefore Congress must call the conventions.


In fact there was no such thing as a "runaway" convention. In point of fact, on September 27, 1787, the Congress of the United States considered the question of whether the convention had exceeded its authority in proposing the Constitution. It was the first question placed before Congress upon receiving the proposed Constitution. A motion to this effect was made by Mr. Henry Lee of the state of Virginia. After much debate, as described by Melancton Smith, member of Congress, state of New York Congress voted down Mr. Lee's proposal by a nearly unanimous vote. Thus Congress considered the question of a "runaway" convention and determined neither the convention (or Congress) exceeded its authority regarding proposing a new Constitution.

This decision by Congress is conclusive and therefore defeat any subsequent questions on the issue of a "runaway" convention.  On that day, September 27, 1787, the 1787 Federal Convention had only concluded ten days before. All persons who had attended the convention (which included several members of Congress) were alive and in full possession of their faculties, particularly memories of events which were, at the time, only a few months old. This was the same Congress which, on February 21, 1787, issued the convention call establishing the 1787 convention. Obviously this Congress was therefore in the best position to know whether the convention it called had acted in accordance with the specifications of the call it itself had made only months before. The vote clearly reflects Congress believed the convention had not exceeded its authority as all but FOUR members of Congress voted against Mr. Lee's motion.


Here, taken from the Journals of Congress, is the proof showing the motion by Mr. Lee and the subsequent vote setting aside the motion (which, under parliamentary rules is the same as killing or voting against it. Note Congress never returned to Lee's motion and ultimately it was stricken from the record:

Those reading these pages may attempt to suggest Lee's motion was not actually about the convention but instead concerned Congress exceeding its authority. Therefore they will say, Congress never actually voted on the question of whether the convention exceeded its authority thus leaving the question open to debate. What these people hope all will ignore is fact that:
The record is clear. While debate over the contents of the Constitution proceeded for the next two years, the question of whether the convention (and hence, Congress, as the Articles of Confederation mandated Congress first approve or at least advance any proposal to "alter" the Articles of Confederation) had exceeded its authority was not discussed again. The debate over the Constitution immediately shifted from the right of Congress to propose an alteration to the contents of the proposed Constitution. Lee, who had unsuccessfully argued Congress had the right to amend the proposed Constitution, however, was ultimately vindicated. Public record shows that as a condition of ratification, the state conventions called for in the Constitution demanded amendments to the proposal as a condition of ratification. Nevertheless the vote of Congress on September 27, 1787 settled the question of whether the convention was a "runaway" as Congress officially determined the Convention (and Congress) had the right to propose the Constitution and did not exceed their authority in doing so. Hence there never was a "runaway" convention.

Because the amendment process (which included a convention for proposing amendments) allowed for proposal of amendments, these demands for amendment were agreed to by constitution supporters such as James Madison, who as a member of Congress, in May, 1789 proposed what ultimately became the first ten amendments to the Constitution, otherwise known as the Bill of Rights. As a member of Congress Madison also debunked the other lies of JBS on May 5, 1789 when he unequivocally stated a convention call was "peremptory" on Congress and Congress had no right to refuse to call when the states applied. Obviously if Madison had any concern the Article V Convention was a "runaway" he, or other members of Congress, all of whom were involved either in the proposal or ratification of the Constitution, would have mentioned this fact. Instead they stated unequivocally Congress had no power whatsoever to refuse calling conventions when the states applied. They also stated that such calls were based on the "number of states" thus debunking yet another JBS lie.

The reason Richard Henry Lee proposed in his motion that Congress, rather than the convention, had exceeded its authority is that Lee, like all in Congress, recognized the Federal Convention, as it was later titled by Congress, was in fact controlled by Congress and not the states. Possession, and thus responsibility for the convention and its actions, clearly rested with Congress. Hence, Lee's proposal dealt with Congress not the convention because under the terms of the Article of Confederation the convention was the responsibility of Congress and under the terms of those Articles, the Constitution was proposed, not by the convention,
(who some in Congress referred to as "the committee") but by Congress. Lee, who opposed the Constitution, also recognized the convention was not a creature of the states, but of the federal government, meaning Congress. Thus, another issue often raised by some is answered by the public record: the convention has always been a federal, not state,
convention hence its official title--Federal Convention of 1787.

Proof of this fact of "ownership" is obtained by answer to the simplest and most pragmatic of questions about the 1787 Convention: Who paid for it? Whoever paid for the 1787 Convention "owned" it. Whoever owns something is responsible it. In this case that means the "owner" was responsible for the contents and actions of the convention. There was no doubt in the minds of the convention delegates who "owned" the convention when they transmitted their bill of expenses (which were paid) to the appropriate political body for reimbursement. That body was Congress:

While the title of the request may read, "Report of the Convention of the States" the fact remains it was Congress, not the states, that paid the expenses of the convention. Beyond which, the 1787 Convention obviously involved representatives of 12 states, (at the behest of Congress) meeting to discuss the issues of the Articles of Confederation. What else would such a convention call itself given Congress never presented it with an official title except that of "Convention of delegates? As stated in the February 21, 1787 resolution by Congress:

"Resolved that in the opinion of Congress it is expedient that on the second Monday in May next a Convention of delegates who shall have been appointed by the several states be held at Philadelphia for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation and reporting to Congress and the several legislatures such alterations and provisions therein as shall when agreed to in Congress and confirmed by the states render the federal constitution adequate to the exigencies of Government & the preservation of the Union."

For the convention delegates not to have acknowledged those states which appointed them and instead referring to themselves as a "Convention of delegates" would have seemed to the states a major affront and insult. For no other reason than obvious political propriety the convention, which had voted in the very beginning to meet in state delegations and vote as state delegations, therefore called itself the "Convention of States" in some instances in deference to the states who support was absolutely required in order to get the proposed Constitution ratified. Congress had otherwise left the question of official title of their group to their discretion as the title "Convention of delegates" was nebulous at best. The fact Congress later changed the title of the convention to "Federal Convention of 1787" should settle any question as to how the "owner" of the convention felt on the question of title.

The convention cost the nation $1165.90 (approximately $30,600 in today's money) in government expenditure. Most of that money (approximately $22,300 in today's money) went to Mr. William Jackson for four months salary as secretary of the convention. Overall the price was not bad for a Constitution considering how everything worked out.