The body of delegates which met in Philadelphia in 1787 was the most important convention that ever sat in the United States. The Confederation was a failure, and if the new nation was to be justified in the eyes of the world, it must show itself capable of effective union. The members of the Convention realized the significance of the task before them, which was, as Madison said, "now to decide forever the fate of Republican government."
Gouverneur Morris, with unwonted seriousness, declared: "The whole human race will be affected by the proceedings of this Convention." James Wilson spoke with equal gravity: "After the lapse of six thousand years since the creation of the world America now presents the first instance of a people assembled to weigh deliberately and calmly and to decide leisurely and peaceably upon the form of government by which they will bind themselves and their posterity."
Not all the men to whom this undertaking was entrusted, and who were taking themselves and their work so seriously, could pretend to social distinction, but practically all belonged to the upper ruling class. At the Indian Queen, a tavern on Fourth Street between Market and Chestnut, some of the delegates had a hall in which they lived by themselves. The meetings of the Convention were held in an upper room of the State House. The sessions were secret; sentries were placed at the door to keep away all intruders; and the pavement of the street in front of the building was covered with loose earth so that the noises of passing traffic should not disturb this august assembly. It is not surprising that a tradition grew up about the Federal Convention which hedged it round with a sort of awe and reverence. Even Thomas Jefferson referred to it as "an assembly of demigods." If we can get away from the glamour which has been spread over the work of the Fathers of the Constitution and understand that they were human beings, even as we are, and influenced by the same motives as other men, it may be possible to obtain a more faithful impression of what actually took place.
Since representation in the Convention was to be by States, just as it had been in the Continental Congress, the presence of delegations from a majority of the States was necessary for organization. It is a commentary upon the times, upon the difficulties of travel, and upon the leisurely habits of the people, that the meeting which had been called for the 14th of May could not begin its work for over ten days. The 25th of May was stormy, and only twenty-nine delegates were on hand when the Convention organized. The slender attendance can only partially be attributed to the weather, for in the following three months and a half of the Convention, at which fifty-five members were present at one time or another, the average attendance was only slightly larger than that of the first day. In such a small body personality counted for much, in ways that the historian can only surmise. Many compromises of conflicting interests were reached by informal discussion outside of the formal sessions. In these small gatherings individual character was often as decisive as weighty argument.
George Washington was unanimously chosen as the presiding officer of the Convention. He sat on a raised platform; in a large, carved, high-backed chair, from which his commanding figure and dignified bearing exerted a potent influence on the assembly; an influence enhanced by the formal courtesy and stately intercourse of the times. Washington was the great man of his day and the members not only respected and admired him; some of them were actually afraid of him. When he rose to his feet he was almost the Commander-in-Chief again. There is evidence to show that his support or disapproval was at times a decisive factor in the deliberations of the Convention.
Virginia, which had taken a conspicuous part in the calling of the Convention, was looked to for leadership in the work that was to be done. James Madison, next to Washington the most important member of the Virginia delegation, was the very opposite of Washington in many respects--small and slight in stature, inconspicuous in dress as in figure, modest and retiring, but with a quick, active mind and wide knowledge obtained both from experience in public affairs and from extensive reading. Washington was the man of action; Madison, the scholar in politics. Madison was the younger by nearly twenty years, but Washington admired him greatly and gave him the support of his influence--a matter of no little consequence, for Madison was the leading expert worker of the Convention in the business of framing the Constitution. Governor Edmund Randolph, with his tall figure, handsome face, and dignified manner, made an excellent impression in the position accorded to him of nominal leader of the Virginia delegation. Among others from the same State who should be noticed were the famous lawyers, George Wythe and George Mason.
Among the deputies from Pennsylvania the foremost was James Wilson, the "Caledonian," who probably stood next in importance in the convention to Madison and Washington. He had come to America as a young man just when the troubles with England were beginning and by sheer ability had attained a position of prominence. Several times a member of Congress, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, he was now regarded as one of the ablest lawyers in the United States. A more brilliant member of the Pennsylvania delegation, and one of the most brilliant of the Convention, was Gouverneur Morris, who shone by his cleverness and quick wit as well as by his wonderful command of language. But Morris was admired more than he was trusted; and, while he supported the efforts for a strong government, his support was not always as great a help as might have been expected. A crippled arm and a wooden leg might detract from his personal appearance, but they could not subdue his spirit and audacity.*
* There is a story which illustrates admirably the audacity of Morris and the austere dignity of Washington. The story runs that Morris and several members of the Cabinet were spending an evening at the President's house in Philadelphia, where they were discussing the absorbing question of the hour, whatever it may have been. "The President," Morris is said to have related on the following day, "was standing with his arms behind him--his usual position--his back to the fire. I started up and spoke, stamping, as I walked up and down, with my wooden leg; and, as I was certain I had the best of the argument, as I finished I stalked up to the President, slapped him on the back, and said. "Ain't I right, General?" The President did not speak, but the majesty of the American people was before me. Oh, his look! How I wished the floor would open and I could descend to the cellar! You know me," continued Mr. Morris, "and you know my eye would never quail before any other mortal."--W. T. Read, Life and Correspondence of George Read (1870) p.441.