The Constitutional Convention : The Most Momentous Chapter in American History

Article excerpt

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

So reads the preamble to our Constitution--this wonderful document that has the distinction of being the oldest written national constitution. It is also one of the shortest, containing only about 7,591 words in its seven articles and twenty-seven amendments. (By comparison, the state constitution of Louisiana has 200,000 words.)

This year we commemorate the 215th anniversary of the Constitutional Convention, called "the most momentous chapter in American history" by the historian Carl Van Doren in The Great Rehearsal. Here is a general potpourri of facts about it, as well as a look at some of its more provocative aspects.

The Constitutional Convention was scheduled to begin on May 14, 1787, but only delegations from Virginia and Pennsylvania were present on that date. By May 25, however, twenty-nine delegates from seven states--a majority--had arrived, and the most famous convention in United States history got under way.

AMERICA'S FIRST BRAIN TRUST

Twelve states ultimately sent representatives. Rhode Island did not send delegates. Controlled by "soft-money forces," mostly debtors and small farmers who were helped by inflation, it was opposed to the creation of a strong central government.

A look at the "how many" of the convention is revealing. Of the seventy-four delegates chosen to attend, fifty-five came. (The full complement of fifty- five was not reached until August 6, when John Francis Mercer of Massachusetts arrived.) The average daily attendance was thirty. On opening day, twenty-nine people were present. Thirty-nine would ultimately sign. More accurately, thirty-nine names appear on the document. (On the day when it was signed, forty-one were in attendance. Three would not sign: George Mason and Edmund Randolph of Virginia and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. But Delaware's John Dickinson, who had left because of illness, empowered his fellow Delawarian George Read to sign for him. So thirty-eight signed, representing thirty-nine people.)

Many were famous for their learning. In fact, this group has been called our nation's first brain trust. Over half were lawyers. Thirty-one had a college education. Two were college presidents, and three were college professors.

They had experience in politics: Thirty-nine had been or were members of Congress. Eight had served in state constitutional conventions, and seven had been state governors. Eight had signed the Declaration of Independence, but only six of these would sign the Constitution--George Wythe (Virginia) and Gerry refrained. Six had helped draft the Articles of Confederation.

They would determine our political future. Two were to become presidents of the United States (Washington and Madison). One would become vice president. (Ironically, this was Gerry, who not only refrained from signing but had opposed creating the office of vice president). Seventeen later became U.S. senators, and eleven would serve in the House of Representatives. Four would be on the Supreme Court, four would serve in the cabinet, and five would become ambassadors.

It was a relatively young group. A majority were under fifty; five were under thirty. Only four were over sixty. The average age was forty-two. Ben Franklin, at eighty-one, was the oldest; Jonathan Dayton (New Jersey) was the youngest at twenty-six. George Washington was fifty-five; James Madison, thirty-six; Alexander Hamilton, thirty-two; and Gouverneur Morris, fifty- five.

They were men of consequence--merchants, manufacturers, planters, bankers, educators, doctors, and lawyers. …