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.
There were other prominent members of the Pennsylvania delegation, but none of them took an important part in the Convention, not even the aged Benjamin Franklin, President of the State. At the age of eighty-one his powers were failing, and he was so feeble that his colleague Wilson read his speeches for him. His opinions were respected, but they do not seem to have carried much weight.
Other noteworthy members of the Convention, though hardly in the first class, were the handsome and charming Rufus King of Massachusetts, one of the coming men of the country, and Nathaniel Gorham of the same State, who was President of Congress--a man of good sense rather than of great ability, but one whose reputation was high and whose presence was a distinct asset to the Convention. Then, too, there were the delegates from South Carolina: John Rutledge, the orator, General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of Revolutionary fame, and his cousin, Charles Pinckney. The last named took a conspicuous part in the proceedings in Philadelphia but, so far as the outcome was concerned, left his mark on the Constitution mainly in minor matters and details.
The men who have been named were nearly all supporters of the plan for a centralized government. On the other side were William Paterson of New Jersey, who had been Attorney-General of his State for eleven years and who was respected for his knowledge and ability; John Dickinson of Delaware, the author of the "Farmer's Letters" and chairman of the committee of Congress that had framed the Articles of Confederation--able, scholarly, and sincere, but nervous, sensitive, and conscientious to the verge of timidity--whose refusal to sign the Declaration of Independence had cost him his popularity, though he was afterward returned to Congress and became president successively of Delaware and of Pennsylvania; Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, a successful merchant, prominent in politics, and greatly interested in questions of commerce and finance; and the Connecticut delegates, forming an unusual trio, Dr. William Samuel Johnson, Roger Sherman, and Oliver Ellsworth. These men were fearful of establishing too strong a government and were at one time or another to be found in opposition to Madison and his supporters. They were not mere obstructionists, however, and while not constructive in the same way that Madison and Wilson were, they must be given some credit for the form which the Constitution finally assumed. Their greatest service was in restraining the tendency of the majority to overrule the rights of States and in modifying the desires of individuals for a government that would have been too strong to work well in practice.
Alexander Hamilton of New York, as one of the ablest members of the Convention, was expected to take an important part, but he was out of touch with the views of the majority. He was aristocratic rather than democratic and, however excellent his ideas may have been, they were too radical for his fellow delegates and found but little support. He threw his strength in favor of a strong government and was ready to aid the movement in whatever way he could. But within his own delegation he was outvoted by Robert Yates and John Lansing, and before the sessions were half over he was deprived of a vote by the withdrawal of his colleagues. Thereupon, finding himself of little service, he went to New York and returned to Philadelphia only once or twice for a few days at a time, and finally to sign the completed document. Luther Martin of Maryland was an able lawyer and the Attorney-General of his State; but he was supposed to be allied with undesirable interests, and it was said that he had been sent to the Convention for the purpose of opposing a strong government. He proved to be a tiresome speaker and his prosiness, when added to the suspicion attaching to his motives, cost him much of the influence which he might otherwise have had.
All in all, the delegates to the Federal Convention were a remarkable body of men. Most of them had played important parts in the drama of the Revolution; three-fourths of them had served in Congress, and practically all were persons of note in their respective States and had held important public positions. They may not have been the "assembly of demigods" which Jefferson called them, for another contemporary insisted "that twenty assemblies of equal number might be collected equally respectable both in point of ability, integrity, and patriotism." Perhaps it would be safer to regard the Convention as a fairly representative body, which was of a somewhat higher order than would be gathered together today, because the social conditions of those days tended to bring forward men of a better class, and because the seriousness of the crisis had called out leaders of the highest type.
Two or three days were consumed in organizing the Convention--electing officers, considering the delegates' credentials, and adopting rules of procedure; and when these necessary preliminaries had been accomplished the main business was opened with the presentation by the Virginia delegation of a series of resolutions providing for radical changes in the machinery of the Confederation. The principal features were the organization of a legislature of two houses proportional to population and with increased powers, the establishment of a separate executive, and the creation of an independent judiciary. This was in reality providing for a new government and was probably quite beyond the ideas of most of the members of the Convention, who had come there under instructions and with the expectation of revising the Articles of Confederation. But after the Virginia Plan had been the subject of discussion for two weeks so that the members had become a little more accustomed to its proposals, and after minor modifications had been made in the wording of the resolutions, the Convention was won over to its support. To check this drift toward radical change the opposition headed by New Jersey and Connecticut presented the so-called New Jersey Plan, which was in sharp contrast to the Virginia Resolutions, for it contemplated only a revision of the Articles of Confederation, but after a relatively short discussion, the Virginia Plan was adopted by a vote of seven States against four, with one State divided.
The dividing line between the two parties or groups in the Convention had quickly manifested itself. It proved to be the same line that had divided the Congress of the Confederation, the cleavage between the large States and the small States. The large States were in favor of representation in both houses of the legislature according to population, while the small States were opposed to any change which would deprive them of their equal vote in Congress, and though outvoted, they were not ready to yield. The Virginia Plan, and subsequently the New Jersey Plan, had first been considered in committee of the whole, and the question of "proportional representation," as it was then called, would accordingly come up again in formal session. Several weeks had been occupied by the proceedings, so that it was now near the end of June, and in general the discussions had been conducted with remarkably good temper. But it was evidently the calm before the storm. And the issue was finally joined when the question of representation in the two houses again came before the Convention. The majority of the States on the 29th of June once more voted in favor of proportional representation in the lower house. But on the question of the upper house, owing to a peculiar combination of circumstances--the absence of one delegate and another's change of vote causing the position of their respective States to be reversed or nullified--the vote on the 2d of July resulted in a tie. This brought the proceedings of the Convention to a standstill. A committee of one member from each State was appointed to consider the question, and, "that time might be given to the Committee, and to such as chose to attend to the celebration on the anniversary of Independence, the Convention adjourned" over the Fourth. The committee was chosen by ballot, and its composition was a clear indication that the small-State men had won their fight, and that a compromise would be effected.
It was during the debate upon this subject, when feeling was running high and when at times it seemed as if the Convention in default of any satisfactory solution would permanently adjourn, that Franklin proposed that "prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven... be held in this Assembly every morning." Tradition relates that Hamilton opposed the motion. The members were evidently afraid of the impression which would be created outside, if it were suspected that there were dissensions in the Convention, and the motion was not put to a vote.
How far physical conditions may influence men in adopting any particular course of action it is impossible to say. But just when the discussion in the Convention reached a critical stage, just when the compromise presented by the committee was ready for adoption or rejection, the weather turned from unpleasantly hot to being comfortably cool. And, after some little time spent in the consideration Of details, on the 16th of July, the great compromise of the Constitution was adopted. There was no other that compared with it in importance. Its most significant features were that in the upper house each State should have an equal vote and that in the lower house representation should be apportioned on the basis of population, while direct taxation should follow the same proportion. The further proviso that money bills should originate in the lower house and should not be amended in the upper house was regarded by some delegates as of considerable importance, though others did not think so, and eventually the restriction upon amendment by the upper house was dropped.
There has long been a prevailing belief that an essential feature of the great compromise was the counting of only three-fifths of the slaves in enumerating the population. This impression is quite erroneous. It was one of the details of the compromise, but it had been a feature of the revenue amendment of 1783, and it was generally accepted as a happy solution of the difficulty that slaves possessed the attributes both of persons and of property. It had been included both in the amended Virginia Plan and in the New Jersey Plan; and when it was embodied in the compromise it was described as "the ratio recommended by Congress in their resolutions of April 18, 1783." A few months later, in explaining the matter to the Massachusetts convention, Rufus King said that, "This rule... was adopted because it was the language of all America." In reality the three-fifths rule was a mere incident in that part of the great compromise which declared that "representation should be proportioned according to direct taxation." As a further indication of the attitude of the Convention upon this point, an amendment to have the blacks counted equally with the whites was voted down by eight States against two.
With the adoption of the great compromise a marked difference was noticeable in the attitude of the delegates. Those from the large States were deeply disappointed at the result and they asked for an adjournment to give them time to consider what they should do. The next morning, before the Convention met, they held a meeting to determine upon their course of action. They were apparently afraid of taking the responsibility for breaking up the Convention, so they finally decided to let the proceedings go on and to see what might be the ultimate outcome. Rumors of these dissensions had reached the ears of the public, and it may have been to quiet any misgivings that the following inspired item appeared in several local papers: "So great is the unanimity, we hear, that prevails in the Convention, upon all great federal subjects, that it has been proposed to call the room in which they assemble Unanimity Hall."
On the other hand the effect of this great compromise upon the delegates from the small States was distinctly favorable. Having obtained equal representation in one branch of the legislature, they now proceeded with much greater willingness to consider the strengthening of the central government. Many details were yet to be arranged, and sharp differences of opinion existed in connection with the executive as well as with the judiciary. But these difficulties were slight in comparison with those which they had already surmounted in the matter of representation. By the end of July the fifteen resolutions of the original Virginia Plan had been increased to twenty-three, with many enlargements and amendments, and the Convention had gone as far as it could effectively in determining the general principles upon which the government should be formed. There were too many members to work efficiently when it came to the actual framing of a constitution with all the inevitable details that were necessary in setting up a machinery of government. Accordingly this task was turned over to a committee of five members who had already given evidence of their ability in this direction. Rutledge was made the chairman, and the others were Randolph, Gorham, Ellsworth, and Wilson. To give them time to perfect their work, on the 26th of July the Convention adjourned for ten days.