Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Early in 1788, George Washington wrote his friend the Marquis de Lafayette that there had been a “miracle” in Phila­delphia. Considering the many efforts and failures be­tween 1765 and 1787 to estab­lish an enduring form of government, first for individ­ual states and then for all­ – fundamental laws, orders of government, plans of union, resolutions, declarations, instructions, articles, ordinances – it was something of a miracle that the fifty-five Convention delegates from all parts of the new nation gathered in Philadelphia from May 25 to September 17, 1787, suc­ceeded in hammering out the Constitution under which the United States rose from weak­ness and obscurity to power and glory as the greatest na­tion in the world.

The United States in 1787, an area measuring nearly nine hundred thousand square miles, was as large as France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Britain and Ireland combined, but its heterogeneous population of less than four million individ­uals of varied cultures and classes could in no way, in the thinking of the world, be favorably compared to France’s twenty-five million, the Ger­man states’ twenty million, the British Isles’ fifteen million, or Spain’s ten million. Nor was any lasting political unification of such an area as that of the American nation possible without military force.

Europe’s intelligentsia quite understandably gave the United States’ 1787 attempt to establish a workable, lasting national government little hope of success. The American public in general was far less hopeful than apprehensive; it was best not to expect too much of another “experiment in government.”

The greatest statesmen and political leaders in America were among the delegates who assembled in Pennsylvania’s State House (now Indepen­dence Hall), where, eleven years earlier, the Declaration of Independence had been adopted. It was those leaders – George Washington, James Madison and Edmund Randolph of Virginia; Ben­jamin Franklin, James Wilson, Robert Morris and Gouver­neur Morris of Pennsylvania; Alexander Hamilton of New York; John Rutledge, Charles Pinckney and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina; John Dickinson of Delaware; William Paterson of New Jersey; Roger Sherman of Connecticut; and Rufus King of Massachusetts – who did most in performing the “mira­cle” and who made 1787 the year that made a nation. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were greatly missed, but, noted some of the delegates, their spirits pervaded the meeting. (Adams was in London on a diplomatic mission and Jefferson labored in Paris obtaining foreign loans and arranging commerce treaties.)

The states made their own decisions regarding the num­ber of delegates they would send to the convention. Penn­sylvania sent eight, the most; Virginia sent seven, New Hampshire only two; fiercely independent Rhode Island alone sent none. Most of the delegates were young: Jona­than Dayton of New Jersey was twenty-six; Charles Pinck­ney, twenty-nine; Hamilton, thirty; and Madison, “father of the Constitution,” thirty-six. Franklin’s age of eighty-one and fifty-five year old Wash­ington brought the average age to only forty-three. More than half the delegates were graduates of English or Ameri­can colleges, and all were politically experienced. Some had served as state governors, many had been members of state legislatures, some had been delegates to the Stamp Act Congress of 1765, more than half had served in the Continental or Confederation Congresses, and several had signed the Declaration of Inde­pendence. There had never before been such an august assembly in America.

George Washington, James Madison and several other delegates arrived in Philadel­phia several days early in order to develop their plans for the federal Constitution. Washington immediately vis­ited Benjamin Franklin and discussed probable Conven­tion problems. He disagreed with some of Franklin’s ideas about how best to organize and operate a government, as did other delegates, but he recognized the elderly states­man as America’s cleverest and most experienced political philosopher and negotiator.

On May 25, after the dele­gates’ credentials had been presented, Robert Morris nom­inated Washington for presi­dent of the Convention. John Rutledge seconded the nomi­nation, and the motion carried unanimously. Madison re­called later that, “Dr. Franklin, who alone could have been thought of as a competitor of George Washington, was to have made the nomination of the General himself, but the bad weather and the state of his health had confined him to his house.” Washington was certainly the man for the post; throughout the long hot sum­mer of debate and decision he remained calm, dignified, courteous, and reasonable but firm, while ideas vehemently clashed and tempers blazed.

Another extremely impor­tant choice was made that May 25. James Madison took on a labor no one else wanted and very few could have handled, by becoming the unofficial secretary of the Convention, with the almost impossible task of recording “an exact account of what may pass, and all that may happen, in the Convention.” The remarkable narrative he completed soon after the Convention con­cluded is today the principal source of historians’ knowl­edge of all phases of the “Mira­cle at Philadelphia.”

At the second meeting of the Convention, on Monday, May 28, disagreements about various rules of procedure were settled. The most difficult to resolve was whether or not, on all issues, each state, re­gardless of size, was to have one vote, as had been the case in continental meetings. The large states, led by Pennsylva­nia’s two Morrises, insisted that small states not be al­lowed the same voting power as they – to which the small states objected in no uncertain terms. Although the Virgin­ians, including Madison, had fervently hoped to forever do away with the “one state/one vote” principle, they recog­nized they would have to accomplish that later if they did not want the Convention to end immediately. They convinced the Pennsylvanians to surrender to the small states on the issue, which was ac­complished after several elo­quent pleas to small-state delegates that they “in the course of deliberations, give up their equality for the sake of an effective government.”

During the second meeting, the delegates established rules of conduct. They were not to read, whisper or exchange notes during speeches. When each meeting adjourned, every member was to “stand in his place until the president passes.” Delegates were to be allowed time for “orderly re­consideration” (so they could, without embarrassment, change their minds to facilitate agreement on issues). No delegate was to reveal any­thing whatsoever about any action taken or any word spo­ken to any person not a dele­gate. The last rule, called the “secrecy rule,” was, Madison recounted many years later, “the most important proce­dural decision of the Conven­tion, because no Constitution would ever have been adopted by the Convention if the de­bates had been made public.” Delegates spoke freely, with no fear that their opinions and their honest doubts and prob­ing questions would be misin­terpreted by the American people.

While the Convention was still in its early stages, delegates encountered financial problems. Lodging and living expenses were much more costly in Philadelphia than most of the delegates had anticipated, and it became more obvious every day that the Convention would last longer than they had originally foreseen. State treasuries had allotted far too meager funds for their use in Philadelphia, and urgent pleas dispatched to home states for more money were accommodated slowly, if at all. Very few of the delegates had personal fortunes; most were wealthy in later years. Those who did own land and securities had little cash. Plan­tation owner George Mason of Virginia borrowed sixty pounds from fellow-delegate Edmund Randolph even be­fore leaving home. (Two years later, George Washington had to borrow money for his trip to New York to assume the presi­dency!) But it is possible that the financial binds shared by so many, and the generosity of those who could spare any money at all in lending it to others, tended to promote efforts of opposing delegates to finally compromise, instead of abandoning the Conven­tion. Franklin’s hospitality often eased tension and pro­vided delegates with a good meal and fine liquor. His din­ing room could seat twenty­-four, and frequently did.

After several days of unre­solved disagreements erupting on the Convention floor, Franklin suggested that a chaplain be engaged to open the meeting each day with a prayer. No one objected but, as a delegate pointed out, there was no money to compensate a chaplain. Nevertheless, a chaplain appeared every morning thereafter, but Frank­lin never revealed the arrange­ments he had made.

Of the several Plans of Government submitted by the delegates to the Convention, the Virginia Resolves, fifteen resolutions painstakingly drawn up by the Virginia dele­gation before the opening of the Convention and intro­duced on the floor by Edmund Randolph in a three-hour speech, constituted the most important plan because the Constitution, as finally adopted, embodied to a far greater extent its features than those of any other plan. The “Resolves” have since been accurately labeled “the founda­tion, the very core” of the United States Constitution.

The first Resolve proposed that the Articles of Confedera­tion be “corrected and en­larged,” undoubtedly included to appease the several delega­tions known to be in favor of merely maintaining and some­what expanding the Articles, because the remaining Re­solves went far beyond revis­ing the Articles and proposed an entirely new national gov­ernment. The most important features of the Virginia Plan related to representation based on population; a bicameral legislature; election of the first branch of the legislature by the people; election of the second branch by the first from per­sons selected by state legisla­tures; authority to be held by the national legislature “in all cases in which the separate states are incompetent”; an executive to be elected by the legislature; a judiciary “to consist of one or more su­preme tribunals, and of inferior tribunals”; admission of new states; and provision for amending the new Constitu­tion. The last was as farsighted as it was essential. The first ten amendments, known together as the “Bill of Rights” for the protection of the individual, followed so soon after the ratification of the Constitution that they are frequently re­garded as a part of the original document.

For four long, steamy weeks, the Virginia Plan was debated, refined and amended to incorporate features of other plans. From the New Jersey Plan were exacted resolutions which evidenced more concern for the organization of national power as it related to interests of the states than did the Vir­ginia Plan. Many delegates’ speeches included worthy suggestions for additions, others proposals that were peculiar and even absurd. One member moved that “the standing army be restricted to no more than five thousand men,” requesting an opinion by General Washington. Washington replied that the resolu­tion seemed acceptable just so long as the Convention added an amendment prohibiting armies from invading the United States with more than three thousand troops. The delegates cast sixty ballots while arguing about selection of presidents. The term was first set at six years, then eleven, fifteen, seven and, finally, four years.

Finally, on September 17, after three grueling months of debate and decision, the com­pleted draft of the Constitution was signed by thirty-nine delegates. (Several delegates were absent and a few refused to sign.) The Convention ad­journed and the proposed Constitution was submitted, in each state, to a convention chosen by the people. The Constitution was to take effect when at least nine states had ratified it. That happened on June 21, 1788, with ratification by New Hampshire. Delaware had been first, followed by Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massa­chusetts, Maryland and South Carolina. Ratification, slow at first, had been speeded by the publication in a New York paper of a series of eighty-five letters authored by Madison, Hamilton and John Jay under the pen name “Publius,” ex­plaining various provisions of the Constitution and urging its ratification. These essays be­came famous as The Federalist Papers. The remaining states­Virginia, New York, North Carolina and, finally, in May 1790, Rhode Island-eventually ratified. After the ninth state ratified, the old Congress of the Confederation legislated that the new government would go into effect on March 4, 1789, which it did.

Before leaving Philadelphia in September 1787, George Washington wrote his fellow Virginian, Antifederalist Pa­trick Henry, who had refused to serve as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. “I wish the Constitution had been made more perfect. But I sincerely believe it is the best obtainable at this time .. .it appears to me that the political concerns of this country are in a manner suspended by a thread … and, if nothing had been agreed upon by the Con­vention, anarchy would soon have ensued.”

 

This is the last of a special series of five major articles commemorat­ing the bicentennial of the United States Constitution.

 

For Further Reading

Bowen, Catherine Drinker. The Miracle at Philadelphia. Bos­ton: Little, Brawn and Company, 1986.

Farrand, Max., ed. The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787. New Haven: Yale Univer­sity Press, 1967.

Hyneman, Charles S. and Donald Lutz, eds. American Political Writings During the Founding Era, 1760-1805. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1983.

Kurland, Phillip B. and Ralph Lerner, eds. The Founders’ Con­stitution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

McDonald, Forrest. Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1985.

Wood, Gordon S. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787. New York: Norton, 1942.

 

Peggy Robbins, a native of Tennes­see, is a resident of Gulfport, Mississippi. A graduate of Martin College, Pulaski, Tennessee, she has written many articles for national and regional magazines, such as Smithsonian, South­west Art, Sporting Classics, American History Illustrated, and Civil War Times Illustrated. Although the history of Pennsylvania is one of her favorite subjects, her work has also appeared in a number of state history and cultural magazines. Her first contribution to Pennsyl­vania Heritage, William Penn’s Colony of Cave People,” appeared in the summer 1987 edition.