12 Things You Might Not Know About the Constitutional Convention

How, 229 years ago, 55 delegates — in periwigs, and with the windows closed — spent a long hot summer in Philly hammering out a new form of government.

By Howard Chandler Christy - The Indian Reporter, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=662340

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, Howard Chandler Christy, Public Domain

On May 25th, 1787, what came to be known as the Constitutional Convention convened at the State House in Philly. Originally called merely to tweak the Articles of Confederation that had governed the United States since 1781, the convention instead wound up creating a new framework for the young nation. Here are just a few of the arguments, considerations, personalities and conflicts (because conventions always have that stuff, right?) that you learned about in fifth grade but haven’t thought much about since. 

  1. The convention was originally supposed to convene on May 14th, but because travel in the 18th century was difficult, almost all the delegates were late, and there weren’t enough for a quorum until the 25th. (Delegates from New Hampshire didn’t show until the end of July, and Rhode Island never sent any, boycotting the convention out of concerns about the wisdom of strengthening the central government.) The Virginia delegation was first on the scene, and took advantage of the head start to draft what came to be known as the Virginia Plan. This was a set of 15 resolutions forming the outline for a new national government, intended, according to the man who introduced the plan, Virginia delegate Edmund Randolph, to avoid “the fulfillment of the predictions of the American downfall.” It proposed a bicameral legislature with the number of members in each house dictated by the size of each state’s population; a national judiciary (there was none in the Articles); and a committee of three presidents.
  2. George Washington was part of the Virginia delegation and arrived on May 13th. Senior officers from his army met him in Chester and had dinner with him there. The Light Horse Troop and other citizens on horseback then escorted him from the floating bridge at Grays Ferry into the city. He intended to stay at a boardinghouse, but merchant/banker Robert Morris and his wife convinced him to stay at their home at 190 High Street instead. Before his eventful day ended, Washington called on fellow delegate Ben Franklin, who was 81 and in frail health.
  3. Though these two giants served at the convention, other prominent founding fathers weren’t present. Thomas Jefferson was abroad, serving as the minister to France; John Adams was, too, as minister to Britain. Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry refused to attend, concerned about expanding the federal government’s powers. (Henry said he “smelt a rat in Philadelphia, tending toward the monarchy.”) John Hancock stayed away because of health issues.
  4. One of the first actions of the convention was to vote to keep its deliberations secret. In order to do so, the windows of the State House (now known as Independence Hall) were closed to thwart eavesdroppers. For the entire summer, from May through September, as delegates hammered out the new constitution. In Philadelphia. In periwigs. Christ. New Jersey delegate William Paterson declared the city “the warmest place I have ever been in,” and he wasn’t talking about the hospitality.
  5. Jonas Phillips, a former indentured servant, a veteran of the Revolution and a founding member of Philly’s Mikveh Israel synagogue — the oldest formal congregation in America, and the oldest continuous synagogue in the country — petitioned the Convention not to include a national oath that would require officeholders to swear to belief in both the Old and New Testaments.
  6. Convention delegates divided the government into upper and lower houses, like the English Parliament, believing that the upper house was needed to counter the “fickleness and passion,” according to Virginia delegate James Madison, of the common people. Since there was no inherited nobility in the United States, there was some uncertainty as to who should sit in this upper chamber, but the general consensus was that they should be upper-crust, wealthier and wiser than the lower house members.
  7. In England, judges served as agents of the King. Madison saw this as a source of patronage and corruption and wanted to create an unprecedented “supreme” court system, a third branch of government, of equal weight with the legislative and executive branches, that would hear cases of national interest. There was debate at the convention over whether the legislature or the president should choose such federal judges; as a compromise, it was decided that the president would nominate them and the Senate would confirm them. This system worked fairly well until the year 2016.
  8. The word “slave” doesn’t appear in the U.S. Constitution, but the topic of slavery infused the convention. While some members (even some slave-owning members; of the 55 delegates, some two dozen were slave owners) argued vociferously against slavery, it was embedded in a number of compromises. A slave was to be counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of apportioning representation in the House, to counter Southern fears that the more populous North would abolish slavery. There was a ban on outlawing the Atlantic slave trade for 20 years, through 1808. What’s known as the Fugitive Slave Clause required “any Person held to Service or Labour in one state, under the Laws thereof,” to be “delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.” And the Constitution provided that the federal government had the power to quash domestic uprisings, which included slave rebellions. In a speech on the 200th anniversary of the ratification of the Constitution, Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice of the Supreme Court, noted that the framers of the Constitution “consented to a document which laid a foundation for the tragic events which were to follow.”
  9. Gouverneur Morris, a member of a prominent New York family (his Loyalist mother turned the family estate over to the British during the Revolution), is credited with writing the eloquent “We the People” preamble to the Constitution. During the war, in 1778, his tie-breaking vote prevented the Continental Congress from dismissing Washington as commander in chief of the Continental Army and court-martialing him. Morris, who wore a pegleg because of an unfortunate carriage accident, was a notorious womanizer. After he was defeated in his bid to win re-election to the Continental Congress as a representative from New York, he promptly moved to Philadelphia. He spoke more and more often than any other delegate at the convention. Alas, he died in 1816 after attempting to perform self-surgery with a whalebone to clear a urinary blockage.
  10. Another of the convention’s most frequent speakers, Virginia’s George Mason, refused at the last minute to sign the final Constitution. Among his objections: that it didn’t include a bill of rights (he thought he could draw one up in a couple of hours) that would set specific limits on the power of the government and thereby safeguard human liberty. Opponents countered that the Constitution didn’t need a bill of rights because the people and states reserved any powers not specifically ceded to the federal government. Mason was convinced that the Constitution as written would result in a monarchy or corrupt aristocracy. Ahem. The first 10 amendments to the Constitution now make up our Bill of Rights.
  11. Mason wasn’t the lone holdout; of the 55 delegates, only 39 signed the Constitution. Fourteen delegates had already left town; Delaware’s John Dickinson had a proxy sign for him. And Massachusetts’ Elbridge Gerry (who was kind of a dick) and Mason’s fellow Virginian Edmund Randolph joined him in refusing to sign.
  12. At the signing ceremony on September 17th, Ben Franklin remarked to those nearest him (as recorded by Madison) that he knew artists found it hard when painting a sun — there was one on Washington’s chair — to distinguish one that was rising from one that was setting: “I have often and often in the course of the Session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.” The delegates then adjourned to the City Tavern at 2nd and Walnut streets for dinner.

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