William Grayson was elected to the House of Delegates in 1784 and again in 1788 and represented Virginia in Congress from 1785 to 1787. Although he supported strengthening the national government, he disapproved of many provisions of the Constitution that the Convention of 1787 had recommended to the states for ratification.
Grayson was elected to the Virginia Ratifying Convention that met in Richmond in June 1788. An excellent speaker, he was one of the best debaters in the convention. With Patrick Henry and George Mason, he was one of the principal leaders of the opponents of ratification, and he spoke often and persuasively, and on some occasions humorously, on the floor of the convention. Grayson shared with Henry and Mason and the other critics of the Constitution a fear that it would allow northern and northeastern states to form majorities in Congress against the interests of southern states and also jeopardize essential interests of westerners.
When the delegates of the Virginia Ratifying Convention began to debate the second article of the Constitution, Grayson and future president James Monroe both argued against the strength of power given to the presidency and the manner of electing the president. Both Grayson and Monroe had served in Congress under the Articles of Confederation, and as a result had seen the conflicting interests of the different states. Of particular concern to Grayson was the influence of foreign affairs and regional conflicts or rivalries, on the presidency. “I presume the seven Eastern States will always elect him,” Grayson predicted, about the president. “I have made an estimate which shows with what facility they will be able to reelect him,” Grayson said, and went forth to deliver the rest of his speech, which laid out a scenario where a president could win reelection with the votes of only 17 individuals from the least populous states. Grayson finished his speech by saying, “Surely the possibility of such a case ought to be excluded. I shall postpone mentioning in what manner he ought to be elected, till we come to offer amendments.”
Grayson's speech and computations are included in the published debates of the Virginia Convention of 1788. Grayson voted against ratification of the Constitution and voted for a long list of amendments that the convention recommended be added to the Constitution. Those amendments included the provisions that became the Bill of Rights as well as important structural modifications to the separation of powers and checks and balances. In 1789 the General Assembly elected Grayson and Richard Henry Lee the first United States senators from Virginia. They tried and failed to include the structural modifications in the list of constitutional amendments that Congress submitted to the states later in the year.
1. Why were William Grayson and James Monroe concerned about the presidency?
2. Did Grayson vote for or against ratification of the Constitution?
1. How realistic was Grayson's conspiracy theory surrounding the election of the president?
2. What do you think of the way that we elect our president? Would you change the system? How?
Historian Jon Kukla discovered that the computations that Grayson used corresponded directly with an unattributed document that was held by the Virginia State Library (now the Library of Virginia) in the Bryan Family Papers. The document contains a series of numbers and abbreviations that align precisely with the speech that Grayson delivered. The document was found with another unsigned document entitled “Notes on the Constitution,” which contained a number of proposed amendments to the Constitution that correspond to concerns Grayson expressed at the debates.
Kaminski, John P., and Gaspare J. Saladino, eds. The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, Vol. 8: Ratification of the Constitution by the States: Virginia. 1:xxxv–xxxvi. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1988.
Briceland, Alan V. “Virginia: The Cement of the Union.” In The Constitution and the States: The Role of the Original Thirteen in the Framing and Adoption of the Federal Constitution. Edited by Patrick T. Conley and John P. Kaminski, 201–337. Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1988.
Kukla, Jon. "'Freedom and Good Government': Antifederalist William Grayson's Intended Amendments to the United States Constitution." Virginia Cavalcade 36 (1987): 184–191.