May 31, 1787

Constitutional Convention
Signing the Constitution

From a painting, Louis Glanzman 1987

In honor of the 225th Anniversary of the Constitutional Convention, below is a page from the NPS Constitutional Day Book, written in 1987. It covers five areas including what was happening in Congress, then meeting in New York City, events in Philadelphia and what the various delegates were discussing at the Constitutional Convention on May 31, 1787.

Philadelphia Today

The temperature rose markedly from the morning's 69°, and there was an afternoon thunder shower. Nancy Shippen Livingston, living at home to escape an intolerable marriage, had a party. As described by her father:

"Mrs. [Robert] Morris, Mrs. [Mathew] Ridley, formerly Miss K. Livingston, Mrs. Bingham, Mrs. [Rufus] King, Mrs. [Charles C.] Pinckney [Miss Stead], Mrs. Moore and their husbands - P. (British consul Phineas) Bond and his three sisters, Messrs. G. Harrison, Rutledge, F. Corbin, the two Franks, John Livingston and Mr. Reinagle were the party. General Washington, the Chews and the Coxes were invited but engaged. Nancy made a great exertion at the nobility and acquitted herself to a charm as you know she can when everything is to her mind."

Confederation Today

Only the same four states and Mr. Dane appeared in Congress, and Dane was getting restless. He wrote today to Rufus King:

"There are only five states represented in Congress. I hear that Clark is chosen a member of the Convention. If so I think we cannot expect N. Jersey, at present, to attend Congress very steadily. I have heard nothing of Dr. Holten. I have therefore suggested to the Governor that I shall conceive it proper for me, in a few days to return to Massa. etc. unless I hear of Dr. Holten's recovering his Health; and that he will probably soon attend Congress."

North Carolina delegate Robert Burton was even more restless. He wrote John Gray Blount from Philadelphia where he was stopping over on his way back to North Carolina. He noted that "the Convention sitting here are so private that there is no telling what business they are on ..."

Convention Today

William Pierce, of Georgia, appeared and took his seat. The Convention resolved itself into Committee of the Whole and (1) Decided on a bicameral legislature. (2) Agreed on election of 1st house by the people. (3) Agreed not to have second house elected by first house. (4) Agreed that either house could initiate legislation.

Delegates Today

Dr. Johnson did business and received many visits until 2:00, when he took the Ferry over to Powles Hook and caught the stage there for Elizabeth, where he called on Mr. Boudinot, former President of Congress.

General Washington dined at Mr. Tench Francis' and drank tea with Mrs. Meredith, whose husband Samuel was a member of Congress and an old friend of the General's. Washington also wrote a note to Henry Knox expressing pleasure that "Miss Lucey's eye" was better, and that he expected to see the General and Mrs. Knox in Philadelphia soon.

As noted above under Philadelphia Today, several delegates attended a party given by Nancy Shippen. When one's father has been Director General of Hospitals for the Continental Army and two of one's uncle's and one's father-in-law had signed the Declaration of Independence, one's invitations are apt to be accepted.

Governor William Livingston was still in Burlington, N.J., from whence he transmitted an ordinance of Congress to the New Jersey legislature.

Governor Bowdoin wrote from Boston to Elbridge Gerry, enclosing a new commission as a Convention delegate.

William Burroughs wrote from Boston to John Langdon in Portsmouth that he was shipping Langdon two barrels of pork on the sloop Sally, Jonathon Shapley, master, at a cost of seven pounds ten shillings.

Looking Back Today's Debates

Having yesterday attempted to bypass detailed discussion of the Virginia plan in order to get an agreement in principle on proportionate representation, and been thwarted by Read and the Delaware delegation, the Committee of the Whole went back to the Virginia Plan. Madison noted that the third Resolution calling for a bicameral (two house) legislature "was agreed to without debate or dissent, except that of Pennsylvania, given probably from complaisance to Docr. Franklin who was understood to be partial to a single House of Legislation."

The fourth proposal, popular election of the members of the first house, was more controversial. Two staunch New England Whigs, Gerry and Sherman opposed the provision "The evils we experience flow from an excess of democracy," and "the people should have, immediately, as little to do as may be about the Government," they said. Pierce Butler simply argued that popular election was impractical. Mason, Wilson and Madison supported popular election. The proposition was approved by six states, with New Jersey and South Carolina opposed and Connecticut and Delaware divided.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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