Signing the Constitution

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The Rising Sun Chair

Independence National Historical Park

Signing the Constitution

" …But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun."

- Benjamin Franklin quoted in Madison's Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention

The Convention opened this day with a reading of the engrossed Constitution. James Wilson then read Franklin's plea to approve the document. Franklin's statement, wise and in part humorous, concludes somberly with "… I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little his own infallibility - and to make manifest our unanimity and put his name to this instrument."

Doctor Franklin then moved that the form for signature be: "Done in convention, by the unanimous consent of the states present the 17th of September &c - In witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names." Madison notes that George Mason had drawn up this ambiguous form to persuade the dissenters to sign the document. William Blount (NC) was "relieved by the form proposed" and would with his signature attest that this plan of union was a unanimous act of the States in Convention.

There was one more change first. Nathaniel Gorham asked if, to gain popular support, the minimum number of constituents per house member could be reduced from 40,000 to 30,000. This would address a concern of Hamilton and others that the legislature was too small and thus not enough representative. All eyes went to Washington. He allowed the question, stating that as chairman he had felt constrained from voicing his own opinions; but "late as the present moment was for admitting amendments, …thought this of so much consequence that it would give much satisfaction to see it adopted." The Convention agreed to it unanimously.

As they prepared to sign, Randolph apologized for not signing; he was trying to keep himself free for a final decision later. (He did support the Constitution in ratification.) Others spoke. Hamilton "expressed his anxiety that every member should sign." Elbridge Gerry stated testily that he could not help but view Franklin's remarks urging each man to doubt his own infallibility "as leveled at himself and the other gentlemen who meant not to sign." Along with Randolph and Gerry, Mason, even with his signing language added, did not sign. Thirty-nine did.

James Madison notes that while the last members were signing, Dr. Franklin observed he had often looked upon the President's chair with its painted sun and wondered whether it was rising or setting. Franklin expressed his optimism having the "happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun."

The delegates then, as Washington writes in his diary, "adjourned to the City Tavern, dined together and took a cordial leave of each other."

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Tuesday, September 18, 1787
The Start of Ratification Politics

HOME The 225th Anniversary of the Constitution Convention

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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