Nathaniel Gorham and the Committee of the Whole

Nathaniel Gorham and the Committee of the Whole

Nathaniel Gorham supported the American Revolution primarily through his work in the State of Massachusetts.  He did, however, play one very important role in the creation of the United States government.

Attending Congress

Nathaniel Gorham arrived in Philadelphia in May 1787 fresh from his tenure as President of the Confederation Congress.  He had demonstrated himself as an able administrator during the American Revolution, working in the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and on the Board of War.  

Gorham was attending a convention to amend the Articles of Confederation.  Like most of the delegates arriving in Pennsylvania that summer, he did not know he would be a player in the founding of a new government.

As the convention began, the attendees created the format by which the sessions would operate.  The first step was obvious: choose a person to act as chairman.

This decision was easy.  

George Washington.

The Committee of the Whole

The delegates then decided to use a technique called the Committee of the Whole.  

Then, as now, Congress would form committees who would break off to study a subject and return with recommendations.  Those recommendations could be voted on later.

The Committee of the Whole followed this pattern.  The only difference is instead of just a few delegates joining the committee, the Committee of the Whole consisted of ALL the delegates.

The reason for this is simple.  Anything that was said in the Committee of the Whole would not be official.  It allowed the representatives to speak more casually than they might if everything was on the record.

As author Richard Beeman puts it, “This strategy gave the delegates the opportunity…to measure the relative strength of opposing opinions on particularly contentious issues and, when appropriate, to change their minds as they groped their way toward compromise and consensus.”

But there was a problem.  How would the men know when they were in Congress and when they were in Committee?

The solution was, like in all other committees, to choose a chairman.

The choice: Nathaniel Gorham.

Why Gorham

Gorham was a popular choice for several reasons.

Having been known as an able administrator, and the most recent President of the Confederation Congress, his talent for the position was known to all in attendance.

Additionally, he was a moderate.  He was not clearly committed to any of the arguments.

And yes, there were arguments.  The Revolution was easy to agree on…Win the war.  Now, there was a government to create.


As Chairman of the Committee of the Whole, Gorham would monitor tensions in the room.  More than once he adjourned for the night at just the right time, saving the convention from imploding.

It was up to Gorham to recognize who was next to speak.  He had to make sure everyone had their turn in an order that moved the debates along and simultaneously didn’t hurt anyone’s feelings.

For the first month of the Convention, and periodically thereafter, Washington would start the day’s session then immediately step down. 

In his place, running the Constitutional Convention, was Nathaniel Gorham.


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Also, I highly recommend the book 'Plain, Honest Men' from which I took the quote above.  I'm not sponsored, it is just a very easy to read account of what happened during the summer of '87 in Philadelphia.

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