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Posts Tagged ‘Philadelphia’

Well, eleven days I wrote about the Constitutional Convention.  Specifically, we were introduced to the Committee of Detail.  Their job was to take all the proceeding of the previous sixty days of work and, over eleven days, condense it into some semblance of order.  As I mentioned before, this wasn’t in any way a finished product.  It was what we call at our office a “strawman” document…a starting point from which to refine issues.

The Convention delegates took a much-needed eleven-day vacation.  They wrote letters home, caught up on the latest news in Philadelphia, took in a play, did some reading, or just relaxed.  All the delegates, that is, except the five members of the Committee, who worked really hard to put things together.

Edmund Randolph desired “a fundamental constitution.”  He wanted it kept simple and free from the kinds of language and provisions that simply bogged down the document with inflexibility with which the future couldn’t deal.  The Constitution should contain general principles and propositions, believing “the construction of a constitution of necessity differs from that of law.

The Committee of Detail did not, as far as I can tell, come up with the famous Preamble.  That would fall to the Committee of Style down the road.  But they offer up some general guidelines.  We again turn to Virginia’s Randolph, who believed such text should state “that the present foederal government is insufficient to the general happiness, that the conviction of this fact gave birth to this convention, and that the only effectual means which they can devise for curing this insufficiency is the establishment of a supreme legislative, executive and judiciary…“.

The document was divided into articles and sections and printed.  On August 6, 1787, the delegates returned and received their “strawman” copy.  Some were surprised and even shocked at what the document contained, though not because (like our recent healthcare legislation) no one knew what it contained.  Quite the contrary, there were no unknowns here.  It’s just that, after months of debate, it was still a little bit unnerving to see all laid out in plain text.  After receiving the draft, the session for the day ended, but the convention was far from over.

Each article, section, and clause was still open for debate and, if necessary, a vote.  And for the next five weeks, that debate would continue.  The delegates to the Constitutional Convention knew that much had been accomplished.  And each one knew there was a long way to go.

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WordPress has added this nifty new feature to our suite of tools.  It’s a world map, and it allows me to see the countries from where all of you come to visit.  This morning, I see there are folks from the United States, and Poland, and some other places.  It’s kind of cool to see the various countries and continents represented.

I don’t know where you are specifically, but where I am, it’s been downright hot.  We topped out at 106°F yesterday (which is a staggering number for central Iowa), and it’s been over 100° for what seems like a month.  I look outside the window, and the yards stare back with deep-fried goodness.  Fortunately, our break has arrived.  Storms rolled through last night, bringing our first real rainfall in a month, and this morning the winds had a northern component to them.  It’s still really humid, but it actually feels cool!

The summer of 1787 was pretty hot as well.  Early-American Philadelphia roasted in a hot, humid, hazy sunshine that made a good many people sick, a lot more people very short-tempered, and everyone wish someone would just invent shorts and t-shirts already.

For the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, it was time for a break as well, and not just from the temperatures, which had conveniently moderated a bit ten days prior.  Two months of debate, two months of disagreement, and two months of discussion were all beginning to wear them down.  But a tremendous amount of progress had been made in that two months.  The basic shape of the new government had been worked, including that most sticky of issues:  how a bicameral legislature would be represented.

It was time to start collecting the various parts, what the delegates called “resolves” (and twenty-three had been passed to this point), along with other proposals and amendments, into some kind of order.  George Washington, who would have rather been riding the countryside, following the rivers and thinking about a canal system, penned in his diary that they needed to “draw into method and form the several matters which had been agreed to by the Convention as a Constitution for the United States.

So on July 26, 1787, the Convention created the Committee of Detail.  The job of this committee was not to create a finished product, but simply to get things organized.  Then the delegates could look over their work, have some more debate, and make corrections and further changes.  The Committee was Detail was made up of five members, including Virginia’s Edmund Randolph (who, as we know, ultimately did not sign the finished product), James Wilson from Pennsylvania, Nathaniel Gorham from Massachusetts, Connecticut’s Oliver Ellsworth, and John Rutledge from South Carolina.  They were given eleven days (until August 6) to knock together a “Report”.

And the rest of the delegates to an eleven-day sabbatical.  The delegates themselves didn’t talk about the proceedings in “mixed” company, fearing the spread of rumor and outright falsehoods.  But many wrote letters home to family and friends, since flying or driving home was, in 1787, out of the question.  There was much “wagging of tongues” around Philly, as bystanders and newspapers speculated on what might be taking place.

General Washington went trout fishing.

Recommended Reading:  Decision in Philadelphia – Another account of the Convention I’m reading right now, and it’s pretty good.

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George Clymer was a member of the Pennsylvania legislature.  He had also been a member of the Constitutional Convention.  That gathering, which spanned the summer months of 1787, had seen argument, contention, and discord give way to eventual consensus.  A Constitution had been ratified in mid-September, but as the month neared its end, the time had come for the states to get involved.

On the 28th (just a couple weeks after Mifflin unveiled the new document), George stood up in the state body and proposed that a convention for ratification be agreed upon.  While there was hearty approval from those favoring the Constitution, there was plenty of dissent.  The more hesitant noted that legislative session was due to end the following day (a Saturday), and new business (especially something as important as the Constitution) was probably better left tabled for the next session.  In addition, elections were just a month away, so it was preferred to let the new body take up the debate about a special convention.

Those in Clymer’s camp knew the situation.  They believed they had the votes to pass Clymer’s resolve now.  But with the session ending and elections coming, there was adequate time for the “anti-federalists” to make enough noise to scare people.  Maybe the elections would cause a wave of anti-federalists to be voted in, and a convention would be buried under the weight of opposition.

After some debate, the issue was put off until late Friday afternoon.  But when everyone reconvened at 4:00pm, some people were missing from the room.  Nineteen anti-federalists were no-shows, which meant the body didn’t have the quorum necessary to conduct any business…such as, shall we say…vote on a state convention for the purpose of debating the Constitution.  What a coincidence!

This caused no small uproar in the city of Philadelphia.  Taverns that evening were full of strong ale and strong opinion.  People took to the streets, some with strong feelings one way or the other, and others with no real knowledge of what was being argued about at all.  And the federalists?…those in favor of the Constitution?…they just wanted to know where the nineteen missing men were holed up.  The sergeant-at-arms went looking and found them sequestered in a home owned by “Mr. Boyd” on 6th Street.

Do I really need to tell you what was about to happen?  18th century politics were a little bit different than they are today.  Oh yeah, we have groups of delegates that will, in opposition to a bill or some piece of legislation, purposely vacate their chairs so that a quorum cannot be reached…it still happens from time to time.  But we don’t very often see the response that the citizens of Philadelphia witnessed on September 29, 1787.

That Saturday morning, a group of men broke down the door of Mr. Boyd’s house, ran in, and absconded with two legislators.  They were dragged, kicking and screaming, back to Independence Hall, and placed in their chairs.  A quorum had been reached and, very quickly, the question of a constitutional convention was put to a vote.  Not surprisingly, it passed 45-to-2.

Pennsylvania, ready or not, was going to debate and decide what to do about the Constitution.  The date was set for November 30th.

Recommended Reading:  Ratification:  The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 – This one is not yet in my collection…it should be.  It should also be in yours.

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Well, with ratification came reading, and with reading came the inevitable reaction.  I suppose that a statement like that, in light of all the times I’ve blathered on about the Constitutional Convention, isn’t all that surprising.  But let’s speak to it for a minute this evening.

On a September Monday in 1787, the Constitution was ratified by the delegates meeting on the first floor of Independence Hall in Philadelphia.  On a September Tuesday (the next day), which happened to be September 18, 1787, Thomas Mifflin got to make the climb to the second floor.  It was there that the Pennsylvania legislature had been meeting for the last couple of weeks.  The first floor was normally their domain, but they had graciously allowed the Convention delegates to use the space.  And with all the rumor swirling around about a new Constitution and a change in government structure, it’s pretty easy to imagine a bunch of legislators quietly listening with ears pressed against the floor, trying to catch snatches of what was being said one floor below.

One can almost see the “lookout”, standing outside the door, making sure no one is coming.  And when Mifflin’s shoes are heard on the steps, the lookout quickly and quietly runs back to the room and half whispers, “Somebody’s on the way!”…at which point everyone jumps back to their spots and makes things look like normal business.  I’m sure it didn’t happen that way, but it paints a humorous, children-in-the-classroom type of behavior with which we’re all familiar.

Anyways, Thomas Mifflin entered the room, Constitution in hand, and read it to those assembled.  It was the first public disclosure of the document.  If you’ve never read the Constitution, you might fear that the delegates were in for a many-hours-long discourse.  But of course, we’ve all read our nation’s most important document, so we know that, assuming no interruptions, Mifflin likely completed his work in less than two hours.  And once he was done, Pennsylvania’s governing body knew they were in for some dramatic changes.  Pennsylvania’s constitution (in place for nearly a dozen years) called for a one-chambered legislature, yearly elections, and a leader chosen by the legislature.  All this talk of electors and a bicameral legislature and checks and balances was a lot to process at one time.

And let’s be honest, even Pennsylvania’s own constitution was the subject of fighting among the citizens…there had much inkshed and some bloodshed over it.  There were factions and fights, division and disruption aplenty.  Now, to top it off, here was Mifflin telling them their national government was radically changing.  There was something new about which to fight!!

Those against ratification would go to great lengths to prevent it, and those for ratification would go to greater lengths to get it.  We’ll be back in 1787’s version of the Pennsylvania statehouse before too long, because it’s going to get a bit goofy…

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I don’t know about you, but when I come to the end of a project, I like that last day to be a relaxed one.  Maybe I tie up a loose end here or there.  Tweak a piece of code or a PowerPoint slide.  Some final edits on a document for the big presentation.  Maybe a little bit of last-minute word-smithing on the manuscript before it heads to publication.  But that’s about it.

I don’t want to be running around in a franctic panic, trying to take care of a dozen unfinished tendrils while simultaneously being hit with four or five “could-you-just-add-this” requests with three voice-mail messages informing me of problems sit in the phone queue.  That’s not my idea of a good time.

But in some sense, that second scenario is what faced the delegates to the Constitutional Convention.  September 15, 1787 was the Convention’s final working day.  The Pennsylvania legislature, which normally met in the room they were using, had already been in session for nearly two weeks and had graciously moved upstairs to give this body time to complete its work.

The Committee of Style and Arrangement, which had formed on the 8th, had finished its work five days later, presenting to the delegates a finished Constitution.  And from that point, debate had begun over wording, phrasing, style, and structure.  There were small changes suggested and accepted.  There were major changes suggested (like a Bill of Rights) and rejected.  And in between, there was dissension against and support for issues small and not-so-small.

And the 15th, rather than a wind-down, saw the flurry of activity continue.  It began with Maryland’s Daniel Carroll, who suggested that an address introducing the Constitution be prepared for the people, as that was a fairly common practice in that day.  After some debate, it was decided (in the interests of time) to have the standing Congress draft such a document.

There was argument (yet again!) over representation, as some delegates didn’t believe their state had quite enough representatives for their respective populations.  And once one state made such a demand, others were bound to follow.  It quickly threatened to rage out of control.

There was a continuation of old issues.  Mason again said that the Senate had way too much power.  Edmund Randolph (who had proposed the Virginia Plan) increasingly showed dissent for the government in its final form.  George Mason agreed and then offered up the proposal that, on this last day of business, stopped everyone in their seats.

He suggested a Second Constitutional Convention.

George Mason…who had come to Philadelphia swearing he’d be buried here rather than leave before a workable solution was found.  And it was more than a proposal, the man was insisting on it.

South Carolina’s Charles Pinckney stood to respond.  James Madison records that “Pinckney descanted on the consequences of calling forth the deliberations and amendments of the different states on the subject of government at large.  Nothing but confusion and contrariety could sping from the experiment.  The states will never agree in their plans – and the deputies to a second Convention coming together under the discordant impressions of their constituents, will never agree.”

In other words, it was now or never.  Nearly every member had some minor (or major) disagreement with the finished product.  But it would always be that way…no Constitution would be perfect, regardless of how much time was given to its construction.

There was much trepidation when the Second Convention came to a vote.  All states voted no.

Madison records the final acts as follows:

“On the question to agree to the Constitution as amended.  All the States aye.  The Constitution was then ordered to be engrossed.  And the House adjourned.”

There would be Monday’s signing, but the Convention was over.  The U.S. Constitution was completed.  It had been an exceptional three months.  The ratification process was about to begin.

Recommended Reading: Miracle at Philadelphia

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We recently discussed the arrival in Philadelphia of the delegates that would meet, in the words of Congress, “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.”  We also explained that methods of travel in 1787 didn’t look much like what we have today.  There were no planes, trains, and automobiles.  Nor were there subways and steamcars.  Bicycles were still 40-50 years away.  The fastest methods of transport used horses, and not everyone had them.  Roads were little more than dirt pathways, and the spring of that year had been especially rainy.

In addition, there was also the rule requiring delegates from a majority of the states be present before activities commenced.  Since there were thirteen states, seven needed to be represented.  Furthermore, Rhode Island (wanting nothing to do with the upsetting the status quo) had already committed to boycotting the proceedings.  So while the Convention was scheduled to start on the 14th of May, it was readily apparent on the 14th that delegates from seven states had not arrived.  In fact, only eight delegates had arrived in total.

But delegates did straggle in and, on May 25, 1787, the required quorum of seven states was reached.  The Convention could officially begin.  Activities were modest (it was a Friday, after all), with the election of a Convention President (big surprise here, George Washington) and a Secretary (William Jackson).  Additionally, the rules committee was created, comprised of Virginia’s George Wythe, South Carolina’s Charles Pinckney, and Alexander Hamilton from New York.

It began rather quietly and would falter throughout, but the finished product three months later would be one of the most exceptional achievements in history…the U.S. Constitution.  And over the next three months, I hope we’ll be able to visit a few of the highs (and lows) of this most-important of gatherings.

Recommended Reading: Miracle at Philadelphia

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 The Constitutional  Convention that ended in September of 1787 certainly ended differently than the one that began in May.  In fact, it’s only known as the “Constitutional” Convention because of the results.  It began as a “Foederal” Convention.  But actually, it kind of began before that.

In 1785, Maryland and Virginia got into a heated argument over navigation on the Potomac River, and representatives from each state decided to meet at Mount Vernon to reconcile the issue.  Using this as a springboard issue, the commission was enlarged and met instead in Annapolis, Maryland in September of 1786.

But Alexander Hamilton, long a champion of a modified charter (to the Articles of Confederation), suggested to Congress that all thirteen states gather for even broader-reaching discussions…as he wrote, “to take into consideration the trade and commerce of the United States.”  Since all things financial were Hamilton’s specialty, and commerce was very weakly addressed in the Articles, it made sense to him.

To many, however, the Articles of Confederation were perfect because they strictly limited the power of any federal government.  All this talk of “trade and commerce” sounded way too far-reaching and more like a trashing of the Articles than a modification.  In the end, Congress resolved that the convention meet “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.”

The meeting place was appropriately Independence Hall (where the Declaration was signed eleven years prior) in Philadelphia, and the start date was May 14, 1787.  Seventy-four delegates were named, of which fifty-five showed up.  Of course, transportation wasn’t what it is now, and the spring of 1787 had been particularly wet, so delegates kind of mucked their way into Philadelphia.  The ever-punctual James Madison arrived on the 3rd of May, but others would straggle in.

Rhode Island sent no one, and was resolutely against any measures that forced them to give up the financial racket they had built using their own currency.  “Rogue Island” it was often called.  One man said that “Rhode Island has acted a part which would cause the savages of the wilderness to blush.”  George Washington wrote that “Rhode Island still perseveres in the impolitic – unjust – and one might add without much impropriety scandalous conduct, which seems to have marked all her public councils of late.”  Harsh rhetoric, to be sure, coming from a man of guarded words.

And what of Washington?  Well, he arrived on May 13, 1787 to a hero’s welcome.  The bells chimed (and not just because it was Sunday morning), artillery was fired, and the General was escorted through Philadelphia by the City Troop.

The Federal Convention was about to begin…

Recommended Reading:  Miracle at Philadelphia – As I’ve been plowing through Ketcham’s book on James Madison, I’ve been taking little tangents for related material.  This is one of them.

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