An Assembly of Demigods
Who were these men called to Philadelphia during that scorching summer of 1787?
They were, for the most part, considered to be the foremost legal and political minds within the young nation. No less an authority than Thomas Jefferson, then serving as U.S. envoy to France, characterized the membership of the convention as "an assembly of demi-gods."
Each delegate brought to the convention his own particular concerns, both personal and on behalf of his state. In fact, despite the common respect accorded to each delegate, it was their differences -- not their similarities -- which were to most influence the convention's deliberations. The differing perspectives on such issues as representation in the national legislature, the establishment of a national judicial system and the powers of the executive resulted in repeated deadlocks. All proud men, their convictions were not easily swayed. More than once these divergent viewpoints threatened to dissolve the convention under a cloud of anger and discord.
Despite the firmness of these beliefs, says Catherine Drinker Bowen, author of Miracle at Philadelphia, " . . . the spirit behind it (the convention) was the spirit of compromise, seemingly no very noble flag to rally round. Compromise can be an ugly word, signifying a pact with the devil, a chipping off of the best to suit the worst. Yet in the Constitutional Convention the spirit of compromise reigned in grace and glory . . . Men rise to speak and one sees them struggle with the bias of birthright, locality, statehood -- South against North, East against West, merchant against planter. One sees them change their mind, fight against pride, and when the moment comes, admit their error."
Seventy-four delegates, representing all of the states except Rhode Island (which refused to participate), were named to the Philadelphia convention; yet only 55 attended at one time or another. Of these, only 42 were present at the close of the convention, with three of these refusing to sign the final draft of the U.S. Constitution.
By trade, 28 of the delegates were lawyers, nine were planters and six financiers. Four physicians and four public officials rounded out the group.
Even at 81 years of age, Philadelphia's own Benjamin Franklin could not deny that it was a gathering dominated by youth; indeed, the average age of those in attendance was 43. The youngest delegate, 27-year-old Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey, was joined by such young but experienced thinkers as South Carolina's Charles Pinckney, 29; Alexander Hamilton of New York, 30; Virginia's 36-year-old James Madison; Edmund Randolph, the 34-year-old governor of Virginia; and Gouverneur Morris, 35, of Pennsylvania. All of these men would play major roles in the convention.
Despite the dominance of youth, the delegates were remarkably experienced in the affairs of their individual states and the loosely-knit nation. Some 46 had been members of one or both houses of their colonial or state legislatures. Ten had been in attendance at state constitutional conventions, with 16 having served or soon to serve as governors. Included in the convention were 42 delegates to the Continental Congress; eight signers of the Declaration of Independence; six signers of the draft of the Articles of Confederation; seven members of the Annapolis Convention of 1786; three former executive officers under the Continental Congress; and two future presidents of the United States.
Although each state was admirably represented, there can be no doubt that the Virginia and Pennsylvania delegations contained the most illustrious figures. For example, the Virginia delegation included:
* George Washington -- The hero of the Revolutionary War Washington's mere presence in Philadelphia was to set a standard of conduct and thinking for others. It is a good indication of the nearly universal respect for Washington that, on the first day of the gathering, he was unanimously elected president of the convention.
* James Madison -- Known as the "Father of the Constitution," Madison had developed a comprehensive grasp of political systems throughout history. This knowledge, combined with a quiet but effective leadership, made him particularly well-suited for the task awaiting the delegates in Philadelphia. Perhaps just as importantly, Madison kept detailed notes of the convention's activities, which have provided subsequent generations with a factual account of the proceedings within the closed meetings.
* Edmund Randolph -- Although one of the three delegates who refused to sign the final document, Randolph formally presented to the convention the "large state plan" advocated by fellow Virginian Madison, and later worked in favor of ratification.
The equally distinguished Pennsylvania delegation included:
* Benjamin Franklin -- The elder statesman of the convention, Franklin was greatly respected and admired by those in attendance. Although not playing a large role in the actual deliberations, his appeals for cooperation and compromise more than once kept the meeting from dissolving in chaos. His role as a stabilizing influence cannot be downplayed.
* Gouverneur Morris -- As chairman of the convention's Committee on Style, he was largely responsible for the final wording of the Constitution. It was his job, and that of his committee, to incorporate the desires of the assembly into precise language.
* James Wilson -- Although not as well known today as other members of his delegation, Wilson was a most respected member of early American society. The recipient of an extensive legal education in Scotland, he was able to make notable contributions to the work of the convention, particularly during debates concerning the national judiciary.
Behind the luster associated with this gathering of the nation's most famous names, dark clouds loomed, however. To many delegates, the purpose of the convention -- to revise the Articles of Confederation -- was nothing less than an attempt to subjugate the individual states to the will of a strong national government. It was just such a belief that kept away another famous American, Patrick Henry. The five-term governor of Virginia was originally chosen as a delegate to the convention, but declined to serve.
Many other delegates who agreed to serve in Philadelphia eventually gave up, stymied by frustration. Alexander Hamilton, for instance, incurred the wrath of New York's governor, George Clinton, for his advocacy of a strong central government. The two other New York delegates, Robert Yates and John Lansing, were given specific instructions by Clinton to outvote Hamilton on any measure dealing with the establishment of a strong federal government. When the sentiments of the convention finally took a turn in that direction, Yates and Lansing took the opportunity to walk out in protest. The conscientious Hamilton soon followed, feeling that he could not realistically represent the New York delegation. He was to reappear only from time to time.
Obviously, unanimity was the rarest of commodities at the Philadelphia convention of 1787. However, instead of being a weakness, this diversity among delegates was to result in a document addressing the concerns of all -- not just the majority. That commitment to the rights of all is a standard which the Constitution continues to meet today.