When, in October 1781, a messenger arrived in Philadelphia to inform the Continental Congress of the critical victory at Yorktown, delegates were distressed, though probably not surprised, to learn that the treasury had no funds to pay him. Hastily they took up a collection. Such were the embarrassments of political life under the Articles of Confederation, which bound the 13 original states loosely and only at their convenience. Congress was free to ask for money; the states were equally free to refuse. The weakness of the Confederation was the bane of Gen. George Washington, who struggled mightily to hold together a continental army in the service of a nation the states had yet to acknowledge, and of the visionary Alexander Hamilton, who saw America’s potential vitiated daily by her alarming disunity. Finally, nudged to action by rebellion and discord, Congress agreed to a convention in Philadelphia, beginning May 14, 1787, “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation”—a mandate the delegates were quick to exceed. Next year will mark the bicentennial of their historic presumption, the “heroic and lawless act” (as Martin Van Buren later described it) that gave us the United States Constitution.
Although the 55 delegates were men of distinguished background—eight had signed the Declaration of Independence, seven had been state governors, 21 had fought in the Revolution—they averaged only 43 years of age. The youngest, Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey, was 26; Hamilton was 32; James Madison, who perhaps more than any other man shaped the Constitution, recorded its progress on the floor of the convention and promoted it energetically afterward, was 36. Washington, unanimously chosen to preside, was an Olympian 55. The convention’s elder statesman was Benjamin Franklin, 81, so enfeebled by gout that he had to be trundled about his home city in a sedan chair by inmates of the Walnut Street jail.
Those who sat at the convention were eminent in their time, but few have remained household names. Among the notable absentees were John Adams, then ambassador to the Court of St. James’s; Thomas Jefferson, ambassador to France; Patrick Henry, a states’-rights zealot who fought the Constitution furiously when it was presented for ratification in Virginia; Samuel Adams and Gov. John Hancock of Massachusetts, a habitual fence sitter who threw his support to the Constitution only when its approval seemed nearly assured. Being nominated to the convention was not an honor universally prized. Of 74 delegates chosen, 19 never attended, and 14 more left early for personal and political reasons. New Hampshire’s two delegates arrived nine weeks late, only after one of them, merchant John Langdon, agreed to pay the other’s expenses. Rhode Island, in the grip of debt-ridden farmers bedazzled by the palliative power of cheap paper money, was determined to avoid the imposition of a national currency and sent no delegates at all—remaining outside the union until 1790, when the U.S. threatened to sever commercial relations.
Washington, as the convention’s president, hardly spoke at all during the four months of debate, but his presence was indispensable. A sober and sobering figure who rarely smiled and whose forensic skills were handicapped by ill-fitted false teeth, he remained America’s most formidable symbol of nationhood. He was known to advocate a strong central government, and it was understood, while the delegates thrashed out the term and powers of a proposed chief executive, that the office was being tailored for him. Yet he had come to the convention only reluctantly. He suffered severely from rheumatism, and he feared that the convention might fail. Besides, the admiration with which he was almost universally regarded was based partly on his heroic willingness to step down from power after the Revolution; both he and the convention might appear compromised if now he were too quick to resume it. As always, his sense of duty prevailed.
Realizing they were breaking treacherous ground and wanting the freedom to do their thinking aloud, the delegates agreed to conduct their business in secrecy. Even during the suffocating Philadelphia summer, windows at the State House were closed for privacy, and armed sentries were posted outside. Legend has it that a member of the convention attended Dr. Franklin’s convivial dinners to keep the aged philosopher from waxing too garrulous. Only once did the convention break its own rule of silence, to rebut publicly a popular rumor that the delegates were contemplating a monarchy, to be presided over by the Hanoverian Bishop of Osnaburgh, second son of King George III. On another occasion a delegate’s copy of some constitutional proposals was found outside the meeting room and was turned over to Washington. At the close of the day’s session the once and future commander-in-chief addressed the delegates sternly, cautioning them to be more responsible. “I know not whose paper it is,” he announced coldly, throwing it down on the table, “but there it is. Let him who owns it take it.” Then he bowed, picked up his hat and strode from the room. The delegates, alarmed, searched their pockets; no one risked claiming the document.
Responsibility for turning the convention’s deliberations into a constitutional draft was given to a Committee of Style. The principal author was Governor Morris, a large man known as “The Tall Boy,” who was the convention’s most prolific speaker. Sophisticated and a lover of luxury, he had a wooden leg—the consequence, rumor had it, of a leap from a lady’s balcony when pursued by her husband. In fact Philadelphia was not a city of balconies, and Morris had been injured when thrown from his carriage. A sociable man, he was friendly with the austere Washington. Hamilton once bet him a dinner that he wouldn’t greet Washington with a slap on the back and the hale-fellow salutation, “How are you today, my dear general?” Morris accepted the wager, but reported that after the look Washington gave him, he wouldn’t do it again for a thousand dinners.
Thirty-nine delegates signed the proposed Constitution on Sept. 17, setting the stage for a lengthy ratification process involving both friendly and ungentle persuasion. In December, Delaware became the first state to approve the new Constitution and Pennsylvania the second, but only after Antifederalist members of the state legislature had earlier taken refuge in a Philadelphia lodging house, hoping to prevent a quorum from authorizing a ratifying convention. A Federalist mob broke down the door and dragged two struggling legislators to the State House, where the vote was taken over their protests. The following February, with a total of nine states needed to ratify, Massachusetts became the sixth, following the belated intercession of Hancock. The governor had been stung when Washington was chosen over him as commander-in-chief during the Revolution; now Hancock was persuaded that, if Virginia failed to join the union, he might become the nation’s first President. But Virginia did join, after a long and passionate debate that nearly ended in a duel between Patrick Henry and Gov. Edmund Randolph. As a delegate in Philadelphia, Randolph had been instrumental in shaping the Constitution, then had refused to sign it. Back in Virginia he reversed himself again, leading Henry to suggest, none too obliquely, that the governor had been given inducements. Randolph may have had his revenge. Shortly before the ratification vote in Virginia, he received a letter from New York Gov. George Clinton, suggesting that if Virginia would hold out against approving the Constitution without amendment, New York would too. The letter might have forged an alliance that would have doomed the Constitution as written, but Randolph kept it to himself until the offer was moot. Virginia became the 10th state to ratify; New York, reluctantly, the 11th. Randolph, under Washington, became the first attorney general of the United States.