The First Federal Congress Project
Documentary History of the First Federal Congress

John Vining, Representative from Delaware

John Vining was born in Dover, Delaware, on 23 December 1758, the oldest son among Phebe Wynkoop and John Vining's three surviving children. His ancestors were Anglo-Saxon immigrants who originally settled in New England, where Vining's grandfather, Benjamin, became collector of the ports of Salem and Marblehead, Massachusetts. Vining's father held extensive lands in Salem, New Jersey, but ultimately settled in Dover, Delaware, where he became speaker of the colonial assembly. Vining was baptized in the Anglican faith, with Caesar Rodney, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, acting as godfather. Upon his father's death, the eleven year old Vining inherited a large fortune which a lifetime of liberal spending and generosity eventually reduced to near nothing.
Vining did not play an active role in the Revolutionary War. He remained in Delaware to study law in New Castle under George Read, another signer of the Declaration of Independence. He passed the bar in 1782 and began the practice of law in Dover the next year. Although not considered well read in the law, Vining acquired a reputation as an eloquent and effective lawyer. He was a dynamic and witty speaker outside the courtroom as well, where his handsome features and reputation for hospitality helped win him the sobriquet "the pet of Delaware."1
Vining entered the political arena as a delegate to the Confederation Congress in 1784 and 1785. Reelected in 1785, he did not attend but returned instead to Dover, where his ties to George Read, as well as his own socio-economic standing in Kent County, placed him squarely in the state's aristocratic party. Based in the southernmost Sussex County, his party won control of the state legislature in 1786 and Vining took a seat in the House of Assembly the next year. He was not elected to the state ratification convention. However, his vote in the House in favor of validating the contested election for Sussex's delegates helped to guarantee the convention's unanimous ratification of the Constitution on 7 December 1787.
Vining served on the Assembly committee to consider the mode of electing Delaware's United States Representative, Senators, and presidential electors. Five contenders vied for Delaware's at large seat in the House. These included Vining, fellow Assemblyman Rhoads Shankland, and Gunning Bedford, Jr., state attorney general and signer of the Constitution. All were Federalists, but Sussex County voters gave Vining a plurality of the votes cast on 7 January 1789.
Vining consistently arrived late to every session of the First Congress. He did not take his seat in the first session until 6 May, more than a month after a quorum had assembled. He arrived at the second session on 8 March, more than two months after business commenced, and at the third session on 13 December, a week after the scheduled opening day. Once he appeared for a session, however, Vining never requested a leave of absence. No Vining letters from the period are known to exist that might shed light on his private life at the seat of government. He remained active in his profession, and on 2 August 1790 became one of nine congressmen admitted to practice before the Supreme Court. Two weeks before the third session was due to convene in Philadelphia, Vining married the daughter of New York City merchant William Seaton. Mary Seaton Vining was tall, attractive, and an accomplished musician, attributes that complemented Vining's own engaging manner. None of their four sons lived long into maturity.
Vining compiled an admirable record of committee service. He served on a total of thirty-eight and reported for five of them, including the standing committee on enrolled bills and the Grand Committee that first considered proposed amendments to the Constitution. Seventeen of his committee assignments resulted in proposed legislation. Many of his committees dealt with the commercial and financial establishment of the new nation, but his committee service and debate record also suggest an above average interest in internal business and public administration. In addition to serving on the first joint committee on rules, Vining served on committees that drafted the first two bills for organizing the post office and the three bills establishing the "great departments."
During the first session debate on forming executive departments, prior to the introduction of the Foreign Affairs Act [HR-8], Vining rose to move the creation of a home secretary, whose duties would anticipate many of those since assigned to the departments of State and Interior. Supporters of the initiative envisioned the office in part as a reward for the long service of the former secretary of the Old Congress, Charles Thomson. Vining was forced to withdraw the motion but partially reopened the issue in the second session when he advocated appointing separate clerks for home and foreign affairs under the Salaries-Executive Act [HR-54].
Throughout the First Congress, Vining demonstrated a measured, deliberative approach that generally reflected a loose-constructionist, pro-Hamilton orientation. As an advocate for a strong executive, he rejected the argument that authorizing the secretary of the treasury to "digest and report" revenue plans to the House under the Treasury Act [HR-9] was an abridgement of the House's money powers. He seemed more concerned with controlling the enhancement of senatorial influence. He acknowledged the president's exclusive power of removal as a constitutional right. Later he argued that complying with the Senate's rejection of a controversial discrimination clause under the Tonnage Act [HR-5], "without a single new argument advanced to induce a change of sentiment . . . would establish a perpetual argument for the submission of the Representatives to the Senate in any future differences."2
Vining's position on the assumption of the states' Revolutionary War debts was probably his most controversial, as it was for so many of his colleagues. Vining claimed that, during his extended absence between the first and second sessions, he had canvassed public opinion and gathered information about assumption. Notwithstanding Maclay's private musings whether he would be willing to sell his vaunted objectivity to the highest bidder, Vining was a consistent supporter of assumption throughout. In the third session he voted for the Duties on Distilled Spirits Act [HR-110] intended to finance the increased debt, as well as for the Bank Act [S-15].
Vining's vigilance on behalf of the least populous state in the union led him to move for an amendment to the committee report that he himself had presented to the House on 28 July 1789, regarding the proposed amendments to the Constitution. Had it succeeded, his amendment would have entitled every state to two Representatives upon reaching a population of forty-five thousand instead of sixty thousand. The proposal was the single deviation in Vining's record as a core member of the Madison coalition for preventing substantive, structural amendments.
Later in the first session, Vining twice attempted to win for his home state the much coveted prize of the seat of government by proposing a removal to Wilmington. Both motions were lost by recorded votes. When the residence debate resumed in the next session, Vining shifted and supported a Potomac site, with a temporary seat in Philadelphia. So scrupulous was he in supporting an immediate removal from New York that twice he invoked the previous question to forestall a motion for suspending the relevant section of the Residence Act [S-12].
Vining's outspoken preference for Philadelphia predictably aroused the criticism of New York City's press. It was most likely in reference to Vining that "A Correspondent" cautioned his readers against the "verbose prating of these interested and factious disturbers of the public tranquility." The writer went on to criticize Vining for being more interested in spending his time "in private chat in committee rooms, or in lounging about the streets."3 The description echoes a more explicit character sketch that appeared in the New York Morning Post on 26 July 1790. The last of a series of ten congressional biographies, it was prompted by a piece written by Vining two days earlier, defending one of his colleagues and referring to the biographer as a "Bully," "Toad Eater," and "Pimp."4 Responding in kind, the biographer charged Vining with false erudition, absenteeism, and inconsistency. Not least among the charges were veiled allusions to libertinism. Vining was colorfully described as one "not naturally born, but sprung like [Venus] from the froth of the river D-l-w-re," and "a young River God, who languishes for the Nymphs of the Potowmack."
Delaware's lone representative was one of the First Congress's more colorful speakers. Although he often counseled efficiency in the House's deliberations, he was known to brandish a florid metaphor himself. Frequently he rose as a self-appointed referee advocating candor and compromise whenever a debate degenerated into repetitive or ad hominem harangues. But he was not above resorting to inflammatory language, and on at least one occasion was lectured by a colleague on "temperance and moderation."5
Vining was reelected to a second term by a large majority on 8 November 1790. He was not a candidate for reelection in 1792. After a brief term of office in the state Senate, he returned to Philadelphia, where from March 1793 to January 1798 he sat in the United States Senate. He resigned barely one year before the expiration of his term. The death of his wife apparently encouraged his frequently cited predisposition towards indolence and alcoholism towards the end of his life. He sold the family home and moved into a hotel in Dover, where he died in February 1802.
The John Vining papers do not exist, which may explain why no adequate biography has yet been written. A short sketch can be found in William T. Read, Life and Correspondence of George Read (Phiadelphia, 1870), pp. 501-7. The single known portrait of Vining is an early twentieth century composite of several likenesses. Executed by Clauson S. Hammitt, it hangs in the Old State House, Dover.
    1. Quoted in William T. Read, Life and Correspondence of George Read (Philadelphia, 1870), p. 502.
    2. HD 11:1085.
    3. "A Correspondent," NYDA, 8 Aug. 1790.
    4. "A Constant Reader," NYMP 24 July 1790.
    5. HD 13:1739.

Recommended citation: Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, ed. Charlene Bickford, et al. (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 2002). [Accessed (supply date here)]

Copyright 1999. Documentary History of the First Federal Congress Project. All rights reserved.