Any honest student of the United States Constitution must stand in amazement at the incredible accomplishment that took place in Philadelphia 223 years ago. It was eleven years after declaring our independence from England and only four years after the Treaty of Paris that officially ended the War for Independence. America was in turmoil because, as Thomas Jefferson had predicted, if people or states do not know what to do with freedom, it can be worse than under tyranny. So the calling of a Constitutional Convention was itself an incredible happening, or as Jefferson called it, “an assembly of demigods.”
Delegates Miraculously Gather
Although previous attempts to get the states together had failed, it was fortunate indeed that each of the states sent some of its most outstanding leaders to the convention. Only Rhode Island failed to send any delegates. One of the surprising things connected with the convention was the fact that George Washington, who had pleaded for a convention so long, almost did not attend himself. His brother had just died, his mother and sister were seriously ill, and he was in such pain from rheumatism that he could scarcely sleep at night. Nevertheless, the general decided to go. James Madison and others pointed out that because of his position in the public mind as the most trusted leader in the nation, it would appear that he had lost confidence in the Congress and perhaps in republican principles if he did not attend. Although he had been carrying one arm in a sling because of rheumatic pain, he left Mount Vernon at sunrise on May 9 and arrived in Philadelphia th e day before the delegates were to convene on May 14.
Altogether 73 delegates had been appointed by the states, but in the end only 55 actually participated. Many of the states had not provided for any travel or expense money, and this accounted for most of the absenteeism. In fact, many of those who did come, including James Madison, had to borrow money for living expenses before the convention was over.
Adams and Jefferson Tutor Delegates before the Convention
Two men who made some of the greatest contributions to the constitutional precepts of the day were unable to attend. One of them was John Adams, who was serving as the American minister to England. Nevertheless, he had written a treatise entitled A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States , and that document had been widely read by delegates to the Constitutional Convention.
The other intellectual leader was Thomas Jefferson. He was absent serving as the American minister to France. However, he had sent over a hundred carefully selected books to James Madison and George Wythe, the best reference works available. Madison made himself a walking encyclopedia on the history and political philosophy of governments of the past, and Jefferson corresponded with him on what he considered to be the essential elements of a good constitution.
A month before the Convention, Madison wrote a summary of the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation entitled The Vices of the Political System of the United States . He then outlined the kind of constitution which he thought would remedy the situation. No one came to the Convention better prepared for the task at hand than James Madison.
The Nation's Best
In terms of experience and professional training, the 55 delegates represented a cross-section of the most capable men in the country.
- Two were college presidents (William S. Johnson and Abraham Baldwin).
- Three were or had been college professors (George Wythe, James Wilson, and William C. Houston).
- Four had studied law in England.
- Thirty-one were members of the legal profession, several of them being judges.
- Nine had been born in foreign countries and knew the oppressions of Europe from firsthand experience.
- Twenty-eight had served in Congress, and most of the rest had served in state legislatures.
- Nineteen or more had served in the army, 17 as officers, and 4 on Washington's staff.
Dr. Samuel Eliot Morison of Harvard writes:
"Practically every American who had useful ideas on political science was there except John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, on foreign missions, and John Jay, busy with the foreign relations of the Confederation. Jefferson contributed indirectly by shipping to Madison and Wythe from Paris sets of Polybius and other ancient publicists who discoursed on the theory of 'mixed government' on which the Constitution was based. The political literature of Greece and Rome was a positive and quickening influence on the Convention debates."
- A distinctive quality of this convention was the youthfulness of most of its participants. The average age was about 41.
- Five (including Charles Pinckney) were under 30.
- One (Alexander Hamilton) was 32. Three (James Madison, Gouverneur Morris, and Edmund Randolph) were within a year of being 35.
- Three (Washington, John Dickinson, and George Wythe) were 55.
- Only four members had passed 60, and Benjamin Franklin, at 81, was the oldest member by a gap of 15 years.
Major William Pierce Describes Characters at the Convention
The following are comments about some of the principal personalities at the Convention as observed by another of the delegates, Major William Pierce of Georgia. For those who believe the Founders represent a very special group of people, perhaps even raised up for the very purpose of founding America, here is just a little more evidence for that belief.
Dickinson, John , delegate from Delaware.
"Famed through all America, for his Farmers Letters ; he is a scholar, and said to be a man of very extensive information.... He is ... a good writer and will be ever considered one of the most important characters in the United States."
Franklin, Benjamin , delegate from Pennsylvania.
"Well known to be the greatest philosopher of the present age; all the operations of nature he seems to understand, the very heavens obey him, and the clouds yield up the lightning to be imprisoned in his rod.... He is ... a most extraordinary man.... He is 82 years old, and possesses an activity of mind equal to a youth of 25 years of age."
Hamilton, Alexander, delegate from New York.
"Colonel Hamilton is deservedly celebrated for his talents. He is a practitioner of the law, and reputed to be a finished scholar. To a clear and strong judgment he unites the ornaments of fancy, and whilst he is able, convincing, and engaging in his eloquence the heart and head sympathize in approving him.... Colonel Hamilton requires time to think; he inquires into every part of his subject with the searchings of philosophy, and when he comes forward he comes highly charged with interesting matter; there is no skimming over the surface of a subject, he must sink to the bottom to see what foundation it rests on."
Madison, James, delegate from Virginia.
"A character who has long been in public life; and what is very remarkable, every person seems to acknowledge his greatness. He blends together the profound politician, with the scholar. In the management of every great question he evidently took the lead in the Convention, and though he cannot be called an orator, he is a most agreeable, eloquent, and convincing speaker. From a spirit of industry and application which he possesses in a most eminent degree, he always comes forward the best informed man of any point in debate. The affairs of the United States, he perhaps, has the most correct knowledge of any man in the Union. He has been twice a member of Congress, and was always thought one of the ablest members that ever sat in that council."
Mason, George , delegate from Virginia.
"A gentleman of remarkable strong powers, and possesses a clear and copious understanding. He is able and convincing in debate, steady and firm in his principles, and undoubtedly one of the best politicians in America."
Morris, Gouverneur , delegate from Pennsylvania.
"One of the geniuses in whom every species of talents combine to render him conspicuous and flourishing in public debate. He winds through all the mazes of rhetoric and throws around him such a glare, that he charms, captivates, and leads away the senses of all who hear him. With an infinite streak of fancy, he brings to view things, when he is engaged in deep argumentation, that render all the labor of reasoning easy and pleasing.... He has gone through a very extensive course of reading, and is acquainted with all the sciences. No man has more wit ... than Mr. Morris. He was bred to the law, but I am told he disliked the profession and turned merchant."
Morris, Robert , delegate from Pennsylvania.
"A merchant of great eminence and wealth; an able financier and a worthy patriot. He has an understanding equal to any public object, and possesses an energy of mind that few men can boast of. Although he is not learned, yet he is as great as those who are. I am told that when he speaks in the Assembly of Pennsylvania, that he bears down all before him."
Pinckney, Charles , delegate from South Carolina.
"A young gentleman of the most promising talents. He is, although only 24 years of age [actually he was 30], in possession of a very great variety of knowledge. Government, law, history and philosophy are his favorite studies, but he is intimately acquainted with every species of polite learning, and has a spirit of application and industry beyond most men. He speaks with great neatness and perspicuity, and treats every subject as fully, without running into prolixity, as it requires. He has been a member of Congress, and served in that body with ability and eclat."
Randolph, Edmund , delegate from Virginia.
"Is governor of Virginia, a young gentleman in whom unite all the accomplishments of the scholar and the statesman. He came forward with the postulata, or first principles, on which the Convention acted, and he supported them with a force of eloquence and reasoning that did him great honor."
Rutledge, John , delegate from South Carolina.
"His reputation in the first Congress gave him a distinguished rank among the American worthies. He was bred to the law, and now acts as one of the chancellors of South Carolina. This gentleman is much famed in his own State as an orator.... He is undoubtedly a man of abilities, and a gentleman of distinction and fortune. Mr. Rutledge was once governor of South Carolina."
Sherman, Roger , delegate from Connecticut.
"In his train of thinking there is something regular, deep, and comprehensive. He ... deserves infinite praise. No man has a better heart or a clearer head.... He can furnish thoughts that are wise and useful. He is an able politician, and extremely artful in accomplishing any particular object; it is remarked that he seldom fails.... He sits on the bench in Connecticut and is very correct in the discharge of his judicial functions.... He has been several years a member of Congress and discharged the duties of his office with honor and credit to himself, an advantage to the State he represented."
Washington, George , delegate from Virginia.
"Well known as the commander in chief of the late American Army. Having conducted these States to independence and peace, he now appears to assist in framing a government to make the people happy. Like Gustavus Vasa, he may be said to be the deliverer of his country; like Peter the Great, he appears as the politician and the statesman, and like Cincinnatus he returned to his farm perfectly contented with being only a plain citizen, after enjoying the highest honor of the Confederacy, and now only seeks for the approbation of his countrymen by being virtuous and useful. The General was conducted to the Chair as president of the Convention by the unanimous voice of its members."
Wilson, James , delegate from Pennsylvania.
"Ranks among the foremost in legal and political knowledge.... He is well acquainted with man, and understands all the passions that influence him. Government seems to have been his peculiar study, all the political institutions of the world he knows in detail, and can trace the causes and effects of every revolution from the earliest stages of the Grecian commonwealth down to the present time. No man is more clear, copious, and comprehensive than Mr. Wilson, yet he is no great orator. He draws the attention, not by the charm of his eloquence, but by the force of his reasoning."
Wythe, George , delegate from Virginia.
"One of the most learned legal characters of the present age.... He is remarked for his exemplary life and universally esteemed for his good principles. No man, it is said, understands the history of government better than Mr. Wythe -- nor anyone who understands the fluctuating conditions to which all societies are liable better than he does.... He is a neat and pleasing speaker, and a most correct and able writer."
It has often been wondered, with doubt, if such an assembly could ever be brought together again today.
This September will be the 223 rd anniversary of their writing of the Constitution. Hopefully, we will honor them by honoring the document they gave us.
Earl Taylor, Jr.