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Historical Background

THE number of delegates who served at Philadelphia totaled 55, though they were not all on hand for the entire Convention. Some arrived late, left early, or were temporarily absent for various lengths of time. The 55 men, 39 of whom subscribed to the Constitution, were as follows (nonsubscribers indicated by asterisks):

Baldwin, Abraham (Ga.)
Bassett (Basset), Richard (Del.)
Bedford, Gunning, Jr. (Del.)
Blair, John (Va.)
Blount William (N.C.)
Brearly (Brearley), David (N.J.)
Broom, Jacob (Del.)
Butler, Pierce (S.C.)
Carroll, Daniel (Md.)
Clymer George (Pa.)
Davie, William R. (N.C.)*
Dayton, Jonathan (N.J.)
Dickinson, John (Del.)
Ellsworth (Elsworth), Oliver (Conn.)*
Few, William (Ga.)
Fitzsimons (FitzSimons; Fitzsimmons), Thomas (Pa.)
Franklin, Benjamin (P a.)
Gerry, Elbridge (Mass.)*
Gilman, Nicholas (N.H.)
Gorham, Nathaniel (Mass.)
Hamilton, Alexander (N.Y.)
Houston, William C. (N.J.)*
Houstoun, William (Ga.)*
Ingersoll, Jared (Pa.)
Jenifer, Daniel of St. Thomas (Md.)
Johnson, William S. (Conn.)
King, Rufus (Mass.)
Langdon, John (N.H.)
Lansing, John, Jr. (N.Y.)*
Livingston, William (N.J.)
McClurg, James (Va.)*
McHenry, James (Md.)
Madison, James (Va.)
Martin, Alexander (N.C.)*
Martin, Luther (Md.)*
Mason, George (Va.)*
Mercer, John F. (Md.)*
Mifflin, Thomas (Pa.)
Morris, Gouverneur (Pa.)
Morris, Robert (Pa.)
Paterson (Patterson), William (N.J.)
Pierce, William L. (Ga.)*
Pinckney, Charles (S.C.)
Pinckney, Charles Cotesworth (S.C.)
Randolph, Edmund J. (Va.)*
Read, George (Del.)
Rutledge, John (S.C.)
Sherman, Roger (Conn.)
Spaight, Richard D., Sr. (N.C.)
Strong, Caleb (Mass.)*
Washington, George (Va.)
Williamson, Hugh (N.C.)
Wilson, James (Pa.)
Wythe, George (Va.)*
Yates, Robert (N.Y.)*
Philadelphia, the site of the Convention, was the national metropolis. Pictured here is a scene about a decade later along Arch Street. The Second Presbyterian Church looms over the scene. (Drawing and engraving (ca. 1799) by William Birch & Son. Independence National Historical Park.)

Attending all or practically every session were 29 men: Bassett, Bedford, Blair, Brearly, Broom, Butler, Clymer, Fitzsimons, Franklin, Gerry, Gorham, Ingersoll, Jenifer, Johnson, King, Madison, Mason, Mifflin, Robert Morris, Charles Pinckney, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Randolph, Read, Rutledge, Sherman, Spaight, Washington, Williamson, and Wilson. Ten individuals missed only a few weeks: Baldwin, Davie, Dayton, Dickinson, Ellsworth, Livingston, Alexander Martin, Luther Martin, Gouverneur Morris, and Strong. Twelve persons were away for long periods: Blount, Carroll, Few, Gilman, Hamilton, Houstoun, Langdon, Lansing, McClurg, McHenry, Paterson, and Yates. Four men attended for extremely short stretches: Houston, Mercer, Pierce, and Wythe. Reasons for absences included personal and family illness, service in Congress, other profession, or personal business, late appointment, early departure, boredom or a feeling of uselessness, faith in the views and actions fellow State delegates, and opposition to the prevalent nationalism.

Although the group hardly matched Jefferson's characterization an "assembly of demigods," it was a distinguished one. Statesmen, legislators, patriots, and leaders in commerce and agriculture for the most part, the men were as a whole highly talented and well educated. They also enjoyed extensive political and worldly experience.

Nearly all of the body had much at stake in the experiment in Government that was called the United States and they were determined to see that experiment succeed. Four-fifths, or 44, of the 55 individuals were serving in or had been Members of the Continental Congress. Most of them had heartily backed the rebellion against Great Britain, and about half had fought in the Continental Army or State militia. Eight (Clymer, Franklin, Gerry, Robert Morris, Read, Sherman, Wilson, and Wythe) had signed the Declaration of Independence [see Signers of the Declaration, Volume XVIII in this series]. All but a few had participated in or were at the time actively involved in colonial, State, and local governments—from minor county offices to governorships. Many had helped draft the constitutions of their States or codified their laws. And a large number were to assume important posts, including the Presidency (Washington and Madison), under the Government they were to establish and in the State governments.

City Tavern
City Tavern, where many of the delegates to the Convention stayed, as it appeared around 1800. (Detail from drawing and engraving (ca. 1800) by William Birch & Son. Library of Congress.)

A considerable number of the Founding Fathers were friends or acquaintances. Many had attended college together or been political or business colleagues. Most of the men were wealthy or well-to-do and lived under comfortable circumstances. Land, slaves, and commerce were the principal sources of wealth. Almost a third of the group sprang from aristocratic families; practically all the rest, from those that were respectable and substantial. Not much more than a handful of individuals were of humble origins or of modest means.

By profession, the law predominated. This was the pursuit of more than half the delegates, though a substantial number were businessmen, merchants, planters, and large-scale farmers. In numerous cases, because of multiple occupations, overlapping occurred. Only two owned small farms. At least 12 men received their major incomes in the form of salaries from public office. Three were physicians, and the same number had retired from active economic pursuits.

As a group, the framers were relatively youthful. The average age was 43. The youngest was Jonathan Dayton at 26. The eldest was 81-year-old Franklin, who was so infirm that prisoners from the city jail usually had to carry him from his nearby home to the sessions in his sedan chair, which had been made specially for him after his return from France.

About half the delegates had attended college, principally at William and Mary, Harvard, Yale, College of New Jersey (present Princeton), King's College (Columbia), and the College of Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania). Several men had studied abroad and held or were to hold graduate and honorary degrees. A considerable number were privately educated or self taught.

The best known and respected were Washington of Virginia and Franklin of Pennsylvania. Their presence not only cooled passions, but also lent dignity and authority to the proceedings and helped to assure their success. Madison of Virginia, a political genius, was an excellent debater and a keen student and practitioner of government. The first to arrive in Philadelphia, on May 3, he had carefully prepared himself by studying various forms of governments since ancient times and had formed a realistic conception of what a government should be. He was to play a predominant role at the Convention.

newspaper article
This extract from a Philadelphia newspaper on the eve of the Convention reveals how concerned some Americans were about its success. (Pennsylvania Packet (Philadelphia), May 11, 1787. Library of Congress.)

Other outstanding delegates included Randolph, Mason, and Wythe of Virginia; Gerry, King, and Gorham of Massachusetts; Sherman, Ellsworth, and Johnson of Connecticut; Hamilton of New York; Gouverneur Morris, Robert Morris, Mifflin, and Wilson of Pennsylvania; Dickihson of Delaware; Luther Martin of Maryland; Williamson of North Carolina; Livingston of New Jersey; and Charles Pinckney, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Rutledge of South Carolina.

Despite wide differences in temperament and political views most of the framers were nationalists and believed that the Articles of Confederation needed substantive revision. Based on their experience with the inadequacies of the Confederation, practically all of them were united in the belief that the United States should be a single, unified Nation, not an agglomeration of semi-independent States, and they transferred that faith to the Constitution.

Probably few of the group would really have considered a monarchy or the abolition of the States; nor more than two or three the elimination of the central Government and the division of the country into three or four confederacies. All the men were fully aware that their work was unprecedented and complex. Major common concerns were the preservation and prosperity of the Union, establishment of a suitable national defense, fear of tyranny, protection of property rights, and the prevention of domestic discord.

Sometimes torn between the wishes of their constituents or States and their vision of the new Nation, concerned for posterity yet respectful of the past, and united in purpose, the delegates embarked upon their task.

Robert Morris' townhouse on High (present Market) Street, where Washington stayed during the Convention and later as President, In 1787 he had originally planned to reside at Mrs. Houses rooming place, but Morris persuaded him to change his mind. (Engraving (early 19th century) by Mumford, in John F. Watson, Annals of Philadelphia (1879-81). Library Company of Philadelphia.)

DURING a 4-month period between May 25 and September 17, 1787, the "Federal" or "Grand" Convention, as the newspapers called it, created a new frame of Government for the United States. On the scheduled opening date, May 14, the conferees who were on hand convened in the Pennsylvania State House's assembly, or east, room—the same one where the Declaration of Independence had been approved and signed. But, because of bad weather, travel difficulties, and other reasons, only about 10 were present, apparently only just from Pennsylvania and Virginia—but in sufficient numbers for State quorums.

During the 11-day interim while awaiting a quorum of States and while other delegates kept reporting, many of the attendees held private discussions and exchanged opinions. But the Virginia delegation, led by Gov. Edmund J. Randolph and spurred by Madison, met daily to prepare for the Convention. Its early arrival and thorough planning were to place it in a position of leadership.

On May 25 the daily official meetings of the main body yielded the necessary quorum of seven States. On that date, 29 delegates were present in sufficient numbers from Delaware, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Virginia, plus one each from Massachusetts and Georgia.

Not until July 23, however, when the two New Hampshire emissaries arrived, were all 12 States that were to attend represented. Claiming financial distress but possibly also evidencing inertia or suspicion of the goals of the Convention, New Hampshire had not provided funds for its delegates, one of whom paid both their expenses. Meanwhile, though, on July 10, two of the three New York representatives had departed. This left only Alexander Hamilton from that State in an unofficial capacity and 10 States officially taking part until July 23, after which 11 did so for the duration of the Convention.

newspaper article
Some of the delegates, including Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and Pierce Butler, arrived in Philadelphia via boat. (Pennsylvania Packet (Philadelphia), May 28, 1787. Library of Congress.)

Between May 25 and September 17, except for Saturday May 26 and during the two adjournments (July 3-4 and July 26-August 6), sessions were held 6 days a week. The hours usually ranged between 10 or 11 a.m. and 3 or 4 p.m., though sometimes they were shorter or longer. But the expenditure of time in sitting on committees, drafting papers and speeches, and otherwise preparing for the sessions made for long days for most of the group.

In April, before the Convention, the Continental Congress had extended the franking privilege to the delegates. How other costs were to be defrayed was not clear at the time of the meeting; many of the representatives thought they would need to do so out of their own pockets. Later in 1787, however, after the Convention, the Continental Congress was to pay the salaries of the secretary, doorkeeper, messenger, and the clerks who transcribed and engrossed the Constitution, as well as stationery charges; the Second U.S. Congress, in 1793, was to pay the printing bill.

William Jackson, secretary of the Convention. (Miniature, oil on ivory (1793), by an unknown artist. Independence National Historical Park.)

MOST of the first week's business was devoted to organization. On the first day, Friday, in a fateful move, Washington was unanimously chosen as presiding officer. Although he was not to say much during the deliberations, he guided them smoothly and his presence helped make the work of the Convention acceptable to the Nation.

Maj. William Jackson was designated as secretary. Unfortunately, he performed his recordkeeping duties indifferently. Had it not been for a few individuals who kept journals or notes—especially Madison, but also Yates, Lansing, King, McHenry, Paterson, Hamilton, and Pierce—not much would be known about the details of creation of the Constitution.

Credentials were accepted and read. Most of the rules that were adopted for the conduct of business followed those of the Continental Congress. As in that body, voting was to be recorded in geographical order north to south from New Hampshire to Georgia and be by State rather than individual delegate. Decisions of the majority could be reconsidered during the life of the Convention and were to be revocable.

Finally, it was quickly decided to keep the deliberations secret. Nothing "spoken in the House" was to be "printed, or otherwise published or communicated without leave." Doormen stood at the entrances of the meeting room throughout the sessions, and the public remained essentially uninformed about the deliberations. As a result, only gradually over the course of many years did the basic story of the formulation of the Constitution emerge.

Many of the delegates believed that only an atmosphere free of publicity and external pressures would insure the free and frank exchange of ideas and allow the participants to speak their hearts with candor and sincerity. At the same time, because they could change their minds and bargain with their colleagues, compromise would be facilitated. Temporary rashnesses would not appear on the public record, and outsiders would be prevented from becoming aroused over any disputes.

Yet, whatever the justifications, the secrecy did demonstrate a certain mistrust of the people; some of the delegates would never have dared deliver their Convention speeches, which contradicted things they said in public, to their constituents. Opponents of the secrecy rule claimed it would arouse public suspicion of the motives of the conferees.

Jackson's journal
First page of Secretary Jackson's journal, May 25, 1787, date of the first full-quorum meeting of the Constitutional Convention. (National Archives.)

THE first substantive business was conducted on May 29-30. On those dates, evincing the planning and initiative of the Virginia delegation, Randolph presented a speech outlining the weaknesses of the Confederation and offering a series of 15 resolutions to remedy them. These came to be known collectively as the Virginia Plan. It resulted in the first major conflict and compromise: the large versus small State issue. Despite its prominence at this time, this controversy was to have almost no bearing on the evolution of the constitutional system; rather, the great disputes were to be intersectional in nature.

Because Virginia had been one of the leaders in calling the Convention and was the most populous and in many ways the most powerful State, she played a major role in the proceedings. The Virginia Plan was the product of several minds, but preeminently that of Madison. By conceiving a relatively simple and clear plan and arranging for its early introduction, he seized a commanding position for the nationalists, who were never to relinquish it.

Far more than an attempt to revise the Articles of Confederation, the plan represented nothing less than a call for a new constitution. As such, it exceeded the desires of a number of the delegates, many of whom also felt it violated congressional and constituent instructions. Considering the extent of this opposition, surprisingly the plan was not seriously challenged as a whole until June 15. Nevertheless, it was a key point of debate throughout the proceedings and became the partial basis of the Constitution.

Reducing the States to a clearly subordinate position, the Virginia Plan called for a strong central government, which would unlike that of the Confederation consist of three separate branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. The number of persons who would constitute the executive office was not specified. The legislature was to elect the executive, which was eligible for only one term. The single-house Continental Congress would be replaced by a two-house, or bicameral, legislature. The plan suggested that the people elect the lower house; utilizing lists of persons nominated by the State legislatures, the lower would elect the upper. In both cases, representation would be based upon "quotas of contributions" [State monetary contributions] or the "number of free inhabitants," rather than upon State parity as under the Articles of Confederation, where Virginia held no more voting power than tiny Delaware.

A second sharp departure from the Articles was the vesting of broad authority in the proposed national legislature. It was authorized to pass laws on all matters "to which the separate States are incompetent, or in which the harmony of the United States may be interrupted by the exercise of individual [State] Legislation." The legislature was also empowered to negate State laws that in its opinion contravened the constitution and to force obedience.

Although Gov. Edmund J. Randolph did not sign the Constitution, he introduced the Virginia Plan and attended the Convention right up until its end. (Oil (undated) by Flavius J. Fisher, after an unknown artist. Virginia State Library; hangs in Virginia State Capitol.)

A "council of revision," made up of the executive and a number of judges, could veto legislative acts. The plan also proposed that the legislature would choose and pay a separate judiciary. Because the legislature would elect both the executive and the judges, the three branches lacked the independence ultimately granted them in the Constitution.

The remainder of the proposals were less startling. New States were to be admitted with less than a unanimous vote of the legislature, and each State and Territory was to have a republican form of government, as were the old ones. The Continental Congress was to continue until the new government took over. State officers were to take an oath to support the new constitution. Finally, the Continental Congress and then State conventions, "expressly chosen by the people," were to approve the new frame of government.

The plan was not a proposal for a "federal" or "confederated" union as those words were understood in 1787. Instead, it called for a consolidated "national" government. This was bound to provoke controversy. The delegates resolved to refer the plan and one offered by Charles Pinckney of South Carolina for a "federal government" to a committee of the whole, where less stringent rules would stimulate informal debate and allow the formulation of special proposals for consideration of the Convention. Daily, Washington called the meeting to order and surrendered the chair to Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts. Although the former took no part in the debates, he voted on all motions made by the committee of the whole; and, at other times when the Virginia vote was divided, he cast his vote, usually in accordance with Madison's views.

Ignoring the Pinckney proposal for the most part, the committee would debate the Virginia Plan from May 30 through June 13.

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Last Updated: 29-Jul-2004