Philadelphia Constitutional Convention 1787



Grave discussions were held in the Library at Mount Vernon, where Washington, acting upon the suggestion of Hamilton five years before, proposed a convention of the several States to agree upon a plan for unity in a commercial arrangement over which, by the constitution, the Congress had no control. That suggestion beamed out upon the surrounding darkness like a ray of morning light, and was the herald and harbinger of future important action. Coming from such an exalted source, the suggestion was heeded. A convention of the States was called at Annapolis, in Maryland. Only five States (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Virginia) sent deputies. These met on the 11th of September, 1786. There being only a minority of the States represented, action was postponed, and they adjourned after adopting the form of a recommendation for the several States to send deputies to a convention to meet in Philadelphia in May following. A report of their proceedings was sent to the Congress, and that body, in February, 1787, passed a resolution strongly urging the legislatures of the several States to send deputies to meet in the proposed convention for "the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation, and reporting to Congress and the several legislatures such alterations and provisions therein as should, when agreed to in Congress and confirmed by the States, render the Federal Constitution adequate to the exigencies of the government and the preservation of the Union." Delegates were appointed by all the States excepting Rhode Island. While there was a general feeling that something must be done for the preservation of the Union, great caution was manifested in the delegation of powers to those who were to represent the States in the proposed convention.

In May, 1787, delegates from several States assembled in convention in Independence Hall in the State-House at Philadelphia. George Washington, a delegate from Virginia, was chosen to preside over their deliberations, and William Jackson, one of Washington's most intimate personal friends, was appointed secretary. It was the 25th of May before there were delegates enough from the requisite number of States to form a quorum. The business of the convention was opened by Edmund Randolph of Virginia, who, at the request of his colleagues, made a carefully prepared speech, in which he pointed out the serious defects in the Articles of Confederation, illustrated their utter inadequacy to secure the dignity, peace, and safety of the republic, and asserted the absolute necessity of a more energetic government. At the close of his speech he offered to the convention fifteen resolutions, in which were embodied the leading principles whereon to construct a new form of government. The chief business of the convention was suggested by his proposition, "that a national government ought to be established, consisting of a supreme legislative, executive, and judiciary."

Upon this broad foundation all future action of the convention was based. The members had scarcely a precedent in history for their guide. The great political maxim established by the Revolution was, the original residence of all human sovereignty is in the people. It was left for the founders of the republic to parcel out from the several Commonwealths of which the new nation was composed, so much of their restricted power as the people of the several States should be willing to dismiss from their local political institutions, in making a strong and harmonious government that should be, at the same time, harmless toward reserved State rights. This was the difficult problem to be solved. "At that time," says Mr. Curtis in his History of the Constitution, "the world had witnessed no such spectacle as that of the deputies of a nation, chosen by the free action of great communities, and assembled for the purpose of thoroughly reforming its Constitution, by the exercise and with the authority of the national will. All that had been done, both in ancient and modern times, in forming, moulding or modifying constitutions of government, bore little resemblance to the present undertaking of the States of America. Neither among the Greeks nor the Romans was there a precedent, and scarce an analogy."

The Convention had not proceeded far when it was discovered that the Articles of Confederation were too radically defective to afford a basis for a stable government, and therefore, instead of trying to amend them, they went diligently at work to form a new constitution. Slow progress was made, for opinions were very conflicting. At length, when it appeared probable that the result would be a failure to agree upon anything, the venerable Dr. Franklin, then eighty-two years of age, arose in his place and said: "How has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of Lights to illuminate our understandings? In the beginning of the contest with Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayers in this room for the divine protection. Our prayers, Sir, were heard; and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending Providence in our favor. To that kind Providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have now forgotten this powerful Friend? or do we imagine we no longer need His assistance? I have lived, Sir, a long time; and the longer need His assistance? I have lived, Sir, a long time; and the longer I live the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men." At the conclusion of his remarks Franklin moved: "That henceforth prayers, imploring the assistance of Heaven and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business; and that one or more of the clergy of this city be requested to officiate in this service." Upon a memorandum of this motion, Franklin wrote: "The convention, except three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary!"

For many weeks the debates went on, sometimes with courtesy and at others with great acrimony, until the 10th of September (1787), when all plans and amendments adopted by the Convention were placed in the hands of a committee for revision and arrangement. That committee, composed of Messrs. Madison, Hamilton, King, Johnson, and Gouverneur Morris, those the latter to put the document into proper literary form. On the 19th, after the plan reported by the committee had been discussed clause by clause, slightly amended and adopted, and it had been neatly engrossed on parchment, it was spread before the members for their signatures. In the performance of that act there was some hesitation. A large majority of the delegates wished it to go forth to the people, not only as the act of the Convention, but of the individual members. Some who could not agree to it in all its parts, objected to giving their sanction to the whole, by appending their signatures; but the patriotic action of Hamilton, caused several who held back, to sign the instrument. He desired a much stronger national government than the Constitution would establish, but said: "No man's ideas are more remote from the plan than my own; but is it possible to deliberate between anarchy and confusion on one side, and the chance of good on the other?" His appeals, and those of Franklin, caused every member present to sign, excepting Mason and Randolph of Virginia and Gerry of Massachusetts. Then Franklin, pointing to the chair occupied by Washington, the President of the Convention, at the back of which a Sun was painted, said: "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 Sun behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting; at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising sun."

The Convention ordered their proceedings to be laid before the Congress, and by a carefully-worded resolution recommended that body to submit the new Constitution to the people (not the States), and ask them, the source of all sovereignty, to ratify or reject it. The Congress did so. Conventions of the people were accordingly held in the several States, to consider the instrument. It was violently assailed in these conventions and through the medium of the press, by those who regarded allegiance to a State as paramount to that to the national government; while powerful essays in its favor were written by Hamilton, Madison and Jay, under the title of The Federalist. These had a most salutary effect upon the public mind, and were very influential in producing the happy result obtained. Long and able debates upon the subject were had in the conventions; and at public gatherings and at every fireside it was a topic for discussion and earnest conversation. Slowly the people deliberated; and it was nine months after the Constitution was adopted by the Convention before it was ratified by nine States, that number being necessary to make it the organic law of the land. The following are the names of the delegates who signed the Constitution, and the order of their signatures: George Washington, of Virginia, President; John Langdon and Nicholas Gilman, of New Hampshire; Nathaniel Gorham and Rufus King, of Massachusetts; Wm. Samuel Johnson and Roger Sherman, of Connecticut; Alexander Hamilton, of New York; William Livingston, David Brearley, William Paterson and Jonathan Dayton, of New Jersey; Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Mifflin, Robert Morris, George Clymer, Thomas Fitzsimmons, Jared Ingersoll, James Wilson, Gouverneur Morris, of Pennsylvania; George Read, Gunning Bedford, Jr., John Dickinson, Richard Bassett and Jacob Brown, of Delaware; James McHenry, Daniel-of-St.-Thomas Jennifer and Daniel Carroll, of Maryland; John Blair and James Madison, of Virginia; William Blount, Richard Dobbs Spaight, Hugh Williamson, of North Carolina; John Rutledge, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Charles Pinckney and Pierce Butler, of South Carolina; and William Few and Abraham Baldwin, of Georgia.

While the national Constitutional Convention in 1787 was in session at Philadelphia, the Continental Congress, feeble and dying, were sitting at New York, with only eight States represented; but they performed a very important work at midsummer. By treaties with the principal Indian tribes between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes, the aboriginal titles to seventeen million acres of land in that region had been extinguished. This act, with that of the cession of Virginia to the United States of all its claims to lands in that region, put the general government in actual possession of a vast country out of which several flourishing States have been formed. The Congress, by unanimous vote on the 13th of July, 1787, adopted an "Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States northwest of the Ohio." It provided, among other things, that there should be "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said Territory otherwise than in the punishment of crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." The existence of these conditions in the "Northwestern Territory," as the country was now called, created a mighty stream of emigration to flow down the western slopes of the Alleghany Mountains into the Ohio Valley. The first settlement founded there by Europeans (excepting by Moravian missionaries) was seated by General Rufus Putnam and others, at the mouth of the Muskingum River, which he named Marietta, in honor of Marie Antoinette, then queen of Louis the Sixteenth of France. Other immigrants followed; and it has been estimated that during the years 1788 and 1789, full twenty thousand men, women, and children went down the Ohio in boats to settle near its banks. Since then, how wonderful has been the growth of the empire beyond the Alleghany Mountains.

On the 21st of June, 1788, the New Hampshire convention ratified the new Constitution. This completed the sanction of the number of States necessary to make it the organic law of the country. Delaware ratified it on the 7th of December, 1787; Pennsylvania on the 12th, and New Jersey on the 18th of the same month; Georgia on the 2nd, and Connecticut on the 9th of January, 1788; Massachusetts on the 6th of February; Maryland on the 28th of April; South Carolina on the 23d of May, and New Hampshire, as we have observed, on the 21st of June, 1788. On the 26th of the same month, Virginia ratified it; New York on the 26th of July, and North Carolina on the 21st of November. Rhode Island held back until the 29th of May, 1789, after the new government had gone into operation. By these acts of ratification, the inhabitants of our country emphatically declared, in the language of the Preamble to the National Constitution: "We, the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." In accordance with the provisions of that Constitution, the people of the States wherein it had been ratified chose Presidential electors. These formed the first Electoral College, and on the first Wednesday in February, 1789, they chose George Washington, President, and John Adams, Vice President of the United States. On the 4th of March following, the first Congress under the new order of things began their first session, when the Continental Congress--the representative of the League--officially expired.

The history of the old Continental Congress is a remarkable one. At first it was a spontaneous gathering of patriotic representatives of thirteen colonies that stretched a thousand miles along the western shores of the Atlantic, who met to act for the common good. With unexampled boldness and faith, they snatched the sceptre of rule from their oppressing sovereign, and assuming imperial functions, created armies, issued bills of credit, declared the provinces to be independent States, made treaties with foreign nations, founded an empire, and compelled their king to acknowledge the States which they represented, to be independent of the British crown. The career of that Congress astonished the world with the brilliancy of the events achieved. A mightier and more stable power took the place of this conqueror, and immediately arrested the profound attention of the civilized nations. It was seen that its commerce, diplomacy, and dignity were no longer exposed to neglect by thirteen clashing legislative bodies, but were guarded and controlled by a central power of wonderful energy. Great Britain no longer thought of sending hither consuls, alone, to represent her, but placed a minister plenipotentiary near the republican court. Other European governments sent hither dignified diplomatic agents. We no longer exhibited the weakness of a League of States, but the power of a Nation. The prophecy of Bishop Berkeley was on the eve of fulfillment:

"Westward the course of Empire takes its way."







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