An Assembly of Demigods
(A few of the signatories of the U.S. Constitution)
by Paul T. Butler
Benjamin Franklin looked over the roster of delegates at the start of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and said, "We have here at present what the French call 'an assembly of notables,' a convention composed of some of the principal people from the several states of our Confederation." Thomas Jefferson, examining the same roster in Paris, proclaimed the convention, "an assembly of demigods (half-gods)."
Most prominent among the "demigods" was George Washington. Early on the morning of May 9, 1787, he left Mount Vernon in his carriage. He wanted to bring Martha but she had "become too domestic and attentive to her two little grandchildren to leave home" said the General in his diary. The retired general received almost hysterical cheers and applause from huge crowds all along his route to Philadelphia, often delaying him for hours during his trip. He arrived in Philadelphia on May 13 and senior officers of the Continental Army greeted him at the outskirts of the city and formed an escort. Guns fired a salute and the bells of Christ Church pealed as the great man rode into the city.
Washington was 55 years old. His once-powerful physique was wracked with rheumatism. He was not convinced that the Philadelphia convention would find a solution to the nation's political problems and was hesitant to get involved in an effort that might be doomed to failure. When he resigned his military commission in December 1783, he clearly stated his intention of spending the rest of his days in private life. Friends urged him to reconsider and lend his commanding influence and prestige to the Philadelphia assembly.
Washington was still an impressive looking man. He had huge hands and feet; he wore size 13 shoes and always ordered "extra large" gloves. He stood 6 ft. 2 in. tall and weighed between 190 and 210 pounds, at a period when the average American male was approximately 5 ft. 7 in. and 140 pounds. He had deeply set blue-grey eyes, a prominent nose, and a well-defined and firm jaw line. His auburn hair had turned to white by 1787, and he wore reading glasses and suffered from poor hearing. His mouth was bulged by ill-fitting upper and lower dentures (not made of wood, incidentally, but of hippopotamus, elephant and walrus tusks and cattle and human teeth; weighing about 4 ounces, held together by gold springs; talking was very difficult). Though beset by rheumatism, his posture remained erect; his countenance was somber and serious; his manner reserved, dignified and aloof.
He wrote in his diary for May 25, 1787, ". . . by unanimous vote I was called up to the Chair as President of the body ..." and later wrote Henry Knox, "I was, much against my wish, unanimously placed in the Chair." Douglas Southall Freeman writes, "Parliamentary argument had never been among Washington's skills; his value (as President of the Convention) would rest more in presence than in active participation." The assembly surely knew this. They must have anticipated times when this convention could be held together only by the sheer prestige of his presence.
As President, Washington believed his main task was to keep the deliberations focused always on the central objective the establishment of a workable government. He, along with all the others, were very nearly overwhelmed with the awesomeness of free men (for the first time in history) determining what form of government should rule them. He writes, "The establishment of our new government seems to be the last great experiment for promoting human happiness by reasonable compact in civil society."
Washington deliberately refused to participate in the committee work, in the floor debates, in making any speeches or offering his opinions on any matter lest his great prestige should influence the paths of discussion or decision. He did vote as a delegate from Virginia. He voted on the losing side of more debates than on the winning side. He voted that a 3/4 majority be required to override a Presidential veto, but lost to the majority who voted for 2/3. He preferred a strong Chief Executive.
He was not bereft of all humor. When the Convention got around to discussing the power of Congress to raise an army, one of the delegates moved "that the standing army be restricted to 5000 men at any time." Washington was amused by the motion, but as chairman would not offer a motion himself. Instead, he whispered to one of the delegates sitting near him that they had better amend the motion to provide that "no foreign army should invade the United States at any time with more than 3000 troops."
Washington became depressed over the long, long, debates. He was used to quick decisions and immediate action. He was afraid the nation would soon disintegrate. He wrote in his diary, ". . . procedures which take the shortest course, in my opinion will, under present circumstances be found best. Otherwise, like a house on fire, whilst the most regular modes of extinguishing the flames is contended for, the building is reduced to ashes. ..." He wrote to Thomas Jefferson on May 30, 1787, that it was far too soon to anticipate what was going to come out of the Convention, but that something must soon come, "... for the situation of the General Government (if it can be called a government) is shaken to its foundation and liable to be overset by every blast. In a word, it is at an end, and unless a remedy is soon applied, anarchy and confusion will inevitably ensue."
Washington was a very social person. Most people do not know that. During the four months he was in the Philadelphia convention, his evenings and Sundays, when not resting or studying political matters, were spent socializing. He had tea and dinner with a host of different friends; attended a wedding dinner; attended religious services; went to a musical concert; inspected the gardens of botanist William Bartram; visited farms; sat for two portraits; dined with Ben Franklin; dined with the members of the Society of Cincinnati; twice went to plays in a theater; attended a gathering of the "Sons of Saint Patrick"; went to a grist mill; inspected vineyards and beehives; went trout fishing; toured Valley Forge and other former battle sites; and inspected a "new fangled" invention of Ben Franklin's called a "Mangle" for pressing clothes.
He could also be stern and strict when the occasion demanded it. When the Convention first opened, each delegate was given a copy of several propositions concerning the kind of government to form. They were cautioned to keep the copy in strict secrecy. A few days later, a copy that had been dropped on the floor was picked up and handed to Washington who put it in his pocket. Hours later, just before adjourning for the day, the President spoke to the members: "Gentlemen, I am sorry to find that some member of this body has been so neglectful as to drop in the State House a copy of their proceedings, which was picked up and delivered to me this morning. I must entreat the gentleman to be more careful, lest our transactions get into the newspapers and disturb the public repose by premature speculation. I know not whose paper it is, but there it is (throwing it down on the table). Let him who owns it take it." Then Washington, according to the Georgia delegate who recalled this story, "bowed, took his hat, and left the room with a dignity so severe every person seemed alarmed."
As presiding officer, Washington firmly ruled out all motions to adjourn before the scheduled 4:00 p.m. closing hour. He was determined to have the delegates keep at the job, full-time. They worked from 5 to 7 hours every day (except for Sundays and 10 days of adjournment for committee work) for more than 4 months. Each delegate was given a printed copy of the final document; they went over it line-by-line, word-by-word. Washington made hand-written notations on his copy, inserting changes agreed to verbally. On September 15th, for instance, there were at least 25 separate motions made for changes and alterations that were put before the Convention for decision.
At the final session on Monday, September 17, 1787, George Washington stood by the table, pen in hand, and said, "Should the states reject this excellent Constitution, the probability is that opportunity will never be offered to cancel another in peace; the next will be drawn in blood."
Both Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson had declared that George Washington had the soundest judgment of any person in colonial America. And Jefferson expressed the opinion that the key to his effectiveness as a leader was not only his honesty and integrity but also the soundness of his judgment. Washington himself, however, said he was merely "a humble agent of a favoring heaven" and God had marked the path "so plainly that I cannot mistake the way."
Clearly, we, and generations yet to come, are indebted to this singular individual, greatest of the great, not only for leading the physical struggle of war for human freedom, but for leading the philosophical struggle for preserving it in our Constitution. Had it not been for Washington's influence our Constitution would never have been born, nor ratified. Throughout the stormy and doubtful ratification process he continued, in the words of Congressman Henry Lee, "firm as a rock." And Washington maintained his unshakable faith that God would shed His special light on the efforts. He wrote about his anticipation of the acceptance of the Constitution by the people, "A few short weeks will determine the political fate of America for the present generation and probably produce no small influence on the happiness of society through a long succession of ages to come." The importance of George Washington's leadership was summarized by James Monroe to Thomas Jefferson: "Be assured that George Washington's influence carried this government."
Perhaps the second greatest influence in the formation of our Constitution was that of Benjamin Franklin. He was 81 and beset by infirmities (gout and gall stones). His illnesses made it all but impossible for him to even walk. But his mind was bright and alert, and he had continued to play an active role in the affairs of Pennsylvania government right up to this date. He had recently served as America's minister to France. Wishing to retire after that, he had been prevailed upon to accept election as governor of Pennsylvania, and then delegate to this Convention. Because horse-drawn carriages jostled his aching, 81 year old, gout-afflicted body, Franklin rode in an imported sedan chair. He was carried in it almost daily to and from the State House by prisoners from the Walnut Street Jail. Legend has it that on days when Franklin suffered severe attacks of gout, both he and the chair were taken directly into the ^assembly room where the delegates were meeting.
It was Franklin, when with the stifling heat, the endless, tedious, wrangling debates became rancorous, who suggested inviting clergymen to attend their sessions and offer daily prayer. He said, in part:
In the beginning of the contest with Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayers in this room for Divine protection. Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered ... do we imagine we no longer need His assistance? . . . We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings that except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it. I firmly believe this ... I therefore beg leave to move that, henceforth, prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven and its blessing on our deliberation be held in this assembly every morning before we proceed to business.
Franklin's motion was defeated because, in those days, it was expected that ministers be paid for such services, and the Convention had no authority to acquire or disburse such funds.
Rumor was circulating in Philadelphia that Ben Franklin objected to the Constitution the convention was writing and that it was doomed to failure. Franklin, on the final day, asked permission to speak. He had a speech written out. He could not stand to speak so he asked James Wilson to read his speech for him. Briefly, these were Franklin's words:
I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise . . . Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best.
Printer, scientist, inventor, philosopher, diplomat, politician, and leader of the fight for independence, Franklin's mere presence at the Convention became one of the primary factors in the formation of our Constitution as we have it today.
Something hurting Ben Franklin more than his gout, however, was a broken heart over the estrangement of his only son, William. William who was 47 had been a Tory during the Revolution and had exiled himself in London. He had been born in 1730 out of wedlock (some think by a servant girl named Barbara who later died). Ben took another woman in common law marriage (she had been abandoned by her former husband) the marriage was a happy one and William was cherished and cared for. But William, unhappy, ran away from home at the age of 16 and fought in King George's War against the French and then joined a "privateer" shipping out of Philadelphia. Ben searched him out and brought him home. William always thought of himself as an Englishman. At a later date William went to England and studied law; there he sired an illegitimate child, married an English aristocrat, and was appointed royal governor of New Jersey.
Ben and his son became political antagonists during the hectic years that fomented the Revolution. After Lexington and Concord, William began to pass on to London such information as he could glean concerning rebel activities.
In June, 1776, William was declared an enemy of the people and his arrest was ordered. He was eventually in jail in Litchfield, CT. While there his wife died before Congress could act to grant him special permission to go to her bedside. After 3 years of confinement he was exchanged and took up residence in British-occupied NY City. In the autumn of 1782 William Franklin left America for the last time. He would see his father only once more before Ben died in 1790. William's son, Temple Franklin, returned to America to live with his grandfather Ben. For Ben Franklin, the chasm that had come between him and William proved too wide to cross. Separated in heart as well as miles from his only surviving son, Ben spent his last years attended by his daughter, Sarah. Ben left William only a pittance in his will. Benjamin Franklin wrote, ". . . nothing has ever hurt me so much and affected me with such keen sensations, as to find myself deserted in my old age by my only son."
Gouverneur Morris was 35 years old. He was not related to the esteemed Robert Morris, although their politics were much the same (federalists). He was born just outside NY City in 1752, graduated from King's College (later Columbia University) and became one of NY's prominent lawyers. He assisted John Jay and Robert Livingston in drafting the NY state constitution in 1777. He served for about a year in Congress and had been a signer of the Articles of Confederation. He moved to Philadelphia in 1779 to practice law and served as Asst. Superintendent of Finance under Robert Morris. Suave and witty, with a wooden leg he looked the part of a pirate. Talkative, aristocratic, cynical, reputed to be a woman-chaser (even in those days!), he effectively advocated a stronger union among the states. During his convention speeches, Morris would thump his wooden leg against the Assembly floor for emphasis. A gifted writer as well as speaker, he served on the five-man Committee of Style and was chosen to do the actual drafting of the Constitution. Although James Madison had provided much of the Constitution's substance, Morris supplied its literary form and style. Years later he would write proudly that the U.S. Constitution "was written by the fingers, which write this letter." Madison even admitted "the finish given to the style and arrangement of the Constitution fairly belongs to the pen of Mr. Morris." One of the last sections he composed was the Preamble. As originally drafted by the Committee of Detail, the Preamble read: "We the People of the States of New Hampshire, Massachusetts (listing all the 13 states) ... do ordain, declare and establish the following Constitution for the Government of Ourselves and our Posterity." The Committee of Style rewrote the same passage to read: "We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, to 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." The change from "We the People of named states" to "We the People of the United States" did not seem particularly significant to the delegates when they read and considered Morris' draft. To history, however, it became one of the single most important acts of the Constitutional Convention. It would signify that the Union was the product, not of thirteen states, but of more than 3 million citizens. It was not a compact between sovereign governments, but a contract to which the citizens were parties.
Thirty-six year old James Madison of Montpelier, VA, arrived in Philadelphia on May 3, 1787 (first one there), from NY, where he had been serving in Congress. A slight man, barely 5 ft. 6 in. tall, Madison was shy and studious. What he lacked in extroversion and gregariousness, the little Virginian more than made up in wisdom, clear thinking, and scholarship. After graduating from the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), he had returned to his home state to take an active interest in public affairs. He served in the Virginia House of Delegates and Council of State and was elected to the Continental Congress twice. A close friend of Thomas Jefferson, Madison came to the convention with well developed ideas about republican forms of government and democratic processes. James Madison is often referred to as "the father of the Constitution" because during the 3 weeks before the Convention he wrote the guidelines for a strong central government that later became known as "the Virginia Plan" from which the Constitution was ultimately developed. Madison never missed a day of the convention (unlike many of his colleagues who had poor attendance records). He sat toward the front of the Assembly Room and took notes in code on the speeches and debates; today these notes form the single best record of the proceedings.
Madison was born in 1751, eldest of 12 children, from a family who had settled in VA in the 1600s. Dozens of slaves worked on Madison's plantation. He was a frail, sickly child studied with private tutors. In Princeton, he studied intensely, sometimes sleeping only 5 hours a night, and completed the regular course for graduation in 2 years. He studied Hebrew language, philosophy and theology, but a weak speaking voice kept him from taking up a career as a preacher. Madison was one of the moving forces most responsible in building a strong federal government in America. At the Convention he argued vehemently for national union of the states. He spoke fearlessly for nationalism when most Americans (including his friend Jefferson) put state's rights ahead of national interests. He was by nature a mediator, not an agitator. He vigorously opposed Hamilton's tendency to strip the states of all their powers, but also softened Jefferson's views favoring state's rights. His support of the strong federalist constitution angered many Virginians and his own constituency defeated him in his bid for a seat in the first U.S. Senate in 1788. He later became a Representative and then President.
Madison spoke on 71 days of the whole 86. He got so excited at times that he finally asked a friend to tug on his coat-tails if he became too emotional during a speech. Once, after talking himself to the point of exhaustion, he reproved his friend: "Why did you not pull on my coat-tails when you heard me going on like that?" Said the Friend: "I would rather have laid a finger on the lightning."
George Mason, 67, was a trained lawyer who had consistently refused to accept public office, preferring to stay home with his 4 daughters and 5 sons to tend his 5000-acre plantation, Gunston Hall, on the south bank of the Potomac, not far from Mount Vernon. A lifelong student of public institutions and political theories, Mason drafted the Virginia Declaration of Human Rights in 1776, a charter of individual freedom that was to become a model for similar pronouncements of individual rights around the world, including ours. Washington frequently sought his neighbor's counsel, while Jefferson described him as "the wisest man of his generation."
Most Americans do not know the name of this Virginia farmer-lawyer. Yet they owe this forgotten man, who helped write the Constitution (but refused to sign it without a guarantee of basic individual freedoms in the first draft), a large measure of thanks for the Bill of Rights adopted four years later! His personal notes of objections to the Constitution were printed by friends and became a handbook of ratification-opponents throughout the land until the Bill of Rights was added. He paid the price for insisting on the Bill of Rights belittlement then and obscurity now.
Mason was a complex man aristocrat who battled for popular rule; slave-holder who vehemently denounced slavery; farmer whose legal advice was sought by lawyers; legislator who distrusted legislatures; a philosopher who mastered the practical details of managing a large estate; a man who preferred his own fireside to national office.
Mason stood almost alone among his fellow-citizens in the southern states favoring and advocating freeing of the slaves. His greatest objection to the Constitution was that it compromised on the slavery question.
In 1776 George Mason wrote these words: "All men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights . . . the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety . . ."A month later, Thomas Jefferson paraphrased these words in our famous American Declaration of Independence.
Mason said in one of his speeches at the Convention that a nation which practices slavery invites "the judgment of heaven." It has been reported that his objections to the Constitution for not guaranteeing individual liberties led to threats on his life. Announcing one day that he would speak against the Constitution on the courthouse steps of Alexandria, VA, he so aroused the anger of Virginians they gathered a mob around the courthouse to do him bodily harm. He calmly proceeded with his speech, using such wisdom and logic that at the conclusion he simply stepped down into the throng, mounted his horse and rode away unharmed. James Madison at first saw no need for a Bill of Rights, but four years later conceded that he had been mistaken and Mason had been right.
By his crucial decision to oppose the Constitution, Mason set in motion the demand for freedom-guarding amendments which eventually forced adoption of the Bill of Rights the most precious part of the Constitution to the individual American. Even though others opposed ratification it was George Mason who initiated the fight and crystallized the issue!
As a delegate to the Annapolis convention in 1786, Alexander Hamilton had taken the lead in calling for the Philadelphia convention, and had pled with Washington to attend as a Virginia delegate. Hamilton was clearly one of the most brilliant delegates in Philadelphia. He was a delegate from NY. When he was in his late teens he became an officer in the Revolution. In his early 20's he served as Washington's aide and secretary. Later he would serve as George Washington's Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton was born in the British West Indies, left an orphan as a boy. His employer helped him come to America to get an education.
Just 32 years old at the Constitutional Convention, he had already distinguished himself as a soldier, lawyer, writer, speaker and financier. But most of the people of NY had little enthusiasm for the Constitutional Convention, and Hamilton found it difficult to arouse any strong support for his state's delegation.
When Hamilton was a teenager in the Revolution, a fellow officer remembered him as "a mere boy of small slender and delicate frame, with his cocked hat pulled down over his eyes, marching beside a cannon and patting it every now and then as if it were a favorite play-thing." He won General Washington's admiration as a commander of a NY artillery company, for coolness under fire and his handling of his men. After the war he was admitted to practice law after only three months of intensive study and mastery of the subject!
Hamilton and John Adams were inveterate political enemies. Since there was mystery surrounding his birth and parentage, John Adams referred to Hamilton as "that Creole bastard," and Hamilton publicly accused Adams of incompetency, insensitivity and inertia.
Hamilton was the author of the proposal to hold a Constitutional convention to "increase central government's powers" and thus he was primarily responsible for what resulted our U.S. Constitution. While at the Constitutional Convention he argued vehemently for the strongest possible central government even going so far as advocating a "king" to head such a government. He later wrote 51 of the Federalist Papers (85 articles in favor of ratification) and made many political enemies, including Thomas Jefferson and other southern "state's righters." Hamilton was slain by Vice President Aaron Burr in a duel where his own son had been killed just three years before! As Hamilton lay dying he called his beloved Elizabeth to his side and said, "Eliza, remember we are Christians." According to some historical sources Hamilton had decided prior to the duel that he would not seek to take Burr's life but would aim and fire above his head. The fledgling experiment in republican democracy lost a brilliant administrator at the expense of Aaron Burr's dubious "honor."
Roger Sherman of Connecticut had been born in MA but had moved to CT as a young man and had become a lawyer, legislator and judge. A Puritan who dressed plainly, spoke simply, though clearly, Sherman was 66 years old but still vigorous. John Adams called him "that old Puritan, honest as an angel." Jefferson described him "Mr. Sherman of Connecticut, who never said a foolish thing in his life." Sherman was the only man among the delegates who signed all four of the great American document (1) Articles of Association, 1774; (2) Declaration of Independence, 1776; (3) Articles of Confederation, 1777; (4) U.S. Constitution, 1787.
John Adams said of Sherman's influence in the old Continental Congress, "He was as firm in the cause of American independence as Mount Atlas."
As a boy he learned the cobbler trade. He had no formal education except what he received from his home and what he taught himself. He became a voracious reader and self-taught himself business and law; he was both a successful merchant and lawyer.
Sherman presented the famous "Connecticut Compromise" that resolved the most crucial difference between the large and small states on representation in the national legislature calling for two lawmaking groups; one based on population (the House), the other based on the equal number of members from each state (the Senate).
He had seven children by his first wife and eight by his second. He served in the House of Representatives and the Senate until his death in 1793 at the age of 72.
Robert Morris, a delegate from PA was 54, and had the reputation of wisdom (especially in finances) and integrity. He was called "the richest man in America." He had signed the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation and had served in the PA Assembly and the Continental Congress. He was U.S. Superintendent of Finance in 1781 and during the Revolution was responsible for providing large sums of money (often out of his own private estate) to carry on the war. His experience in the financial office had convinced him that the Confederation was incapable of meeting the monetary needs of the young country, and so he resigned the position in 1783. He was a close friend and warm admirer of General Washington and kept Washington as his house guest all during the Convention. Morris was born in England and came to this country at the age of 14. He made some bad investments in his last years, and lost his fortune. He was sent to prison because he could not pay his debts (this man who had borrowed against his own estate to finance the Revolution) and died bankrupt a pauper at the age of 72!
William Livingston, a delegate from New Jersey, had been reared by his grandmother because of the early and untimely death of both his parents. He spent a year with Moravian missionaries teaching the Bible to Mohawk Indians. He was a Yale graduate, a lawyer, and author of anti-Anglican verses, essays and satirical pieces. He became a brigadier general in the New Jersey militia, and later was governor of the State of New Jersey which office he kept until his death. At the convention he fought issuing of paper money as "cheating according to the law."
Each one of these delegates is a story. More than half of all the delegates were lawyers. That is as it should have been, for members of the legal profession had long led the struggle for independence. Many present at the Convention were present or former public office holders. Four-fifths of them were serving in or had been members of the Continental Congress. Almost half of them had served in the military or assisted the military. Many had helped draft their state's constitutions. There were merchants, farmers ("planters"), and one or two men who described themselves as "bankers." Three of the delegates were physicians, two (Hugh Williamson from NC, and Abraham Baldwin from GA) were preachers, and one, Franklin, was a printer.
On the whole, the delegates were remarkably young. The average age was 43. Jonathan Dayton of NJ was, at 26, the youngest; Franklin at 81 was the eldest. Many had humble origins. Franklin had come to America as an indentured servant, Jacob Broom from Delaware, was the son of a blacksmith. Some of them were teachers; George Wythe of VA was a professor at William and Mary. Most delegates had acquired comfortable positions in life. A few ranked among the richest men in the country. Most of them were deeply religious and Christians. Twenty-five of them were graduates of American colleges (Princeton the leader); another ten were from English universities.
In a letter to Jefferson, Franklin expressed cautious optimism about the convention. The delegates were "men of character and ability," Franklin said, "so I hope good from their meeting." "Indeed," he added, "if it does not do good it must do harm, as it will show that we have not wisdom enough among us to govern ourselves; and will strengthen the opinion of some political writers, that popular governments cannot long support themselves."
On the morning of May 14, 1787, George Washington entered the central hall of the Pennsylvania State House, walked through the paneled doors that led from the hall into the east chamber, and took his seat in one of the chairs arranged about the low speaker's platform. "Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair," he told his fellow-delegates. Then he added, "The event is in the hand of God."
Some delegates left the convention before the final copy of the Constitution was prepared. Other remained but only to express their opposition to the final version. George Mason obstinate on the point of a Bill of Rights announced that he "would sooner chop off his right hand than put it to this Constitution." Edmund Randolph now doubted whether the people of his state would approve the document and announced that he could not sign it. Elbridge Gerry thought that the members of the Senate would hold their offices too long and that MA would not be fairly represented, and that a Supreme Court without juries would be a "Star Chamber" (kangaroo court). He announced he would not sign.
But, proceeding in the traditional order of states from north to south, the delegates walked to the front of the room, bent over the table in front of the President's Chair and, with quill pen dipped in iron gall ink, signed their names on the last page of the document. Only 5000 words, and four pages long, but one of the profoundest documents of human history! There were 38 delegates present but 40 signatures (George Read of DL, who had overcome his earlier opposition to the document, signed both for himself and for John Dickinson, who was feeling ill and had gone home so there is a "forged" signature on the Constitution of the United States of America!). Thirteen delegates had left the convention before the final day and three had abstained. The 40th signature was that of Mr. William Jackson, not a delegate, but Secretary to the Convention, (ironically, his notes were not as complete as those of James Madison's).
This Constitution, written mostly by lawyers and planters, is a charter well suited to the needs of a great industrial nation. Yet it has never been fundamentally revised. In many other countries, constitutions come and go like the leaves of the trees. Ours is the result of wise and studious sages like James Madison who said, "In framing a system which we wish to last for ages, we should not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce." The framers of our constitution believed strongly in the rule of the majority. They guaranteed that no majority would have its way, however, unless it could prove itself "persistent and undoubted." They achieved this goal by separating and balancing the power of government, and by calling for a system of staggered elections, so that all elected officials would not be up for re-election at the same time.
The Constitution has continued to develop in response to the demands of an ever-growing society through amendments, congressional legislation, court decisions, presidential action, customs, state and political party actions. Yet the spirit and wording of the constitution have remained constant. Men of each generation have been able to apply its provision to their own problems in ways that protect their liberties.
James Madison, looking back on his experience at the Constitutional Convention, wrote: "It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in the creation of the Constitution a finger of that Almighty Hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution." George Washington called it "a miracle." The British statesman, William E. Gladstone, described the U.S. Constitution as "the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man." Others have said that it is the greatest single document, excepting the Bible, in all the history of the earth. And the greatest legal minds of two centuries have continued to marvel at it, as being almost beyond the scope and dimension of human wisdom. When one stops to consider the enormous problems the Constitution has somehow anticipated and the challenges and testing it foresaw and endured, that statement appears more understated than exaggerated. It does, indeed have the stamp of Divine wisdom upon it!
In a world of oppression and tyranny, the American people have no more precious possession (other than the Bible) than this great document. The story of how the framers wrote the Constitution and how it has met the challenges of American democracy and freedom through times of grave national testing is one that people should be proud of and never tire of hearing.
Abraham Lincoln said: "Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well-wisher to his posterity swear by the blood of the Revolution never to violate in the least particular the laws of the country, and never to tolerate this violation by others. As the patriots of '76 did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and law let every American pledge his life, his property and his sacred honor. Let every man remember that to violate the law is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the charter of his own and his children's liberty .Let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges, let it be written in primers, in spelling books, and in almanacs, let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And in short, let it become the political religion of the nation, and in particular, a reverence for the Constitution.
Over forty years ago, I raised my right hand and swore to defend my country and its Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, with my life if need be. That was when I was sworn into the U.S. Navy. I still pledge my life in allegiance to the United States of America and to her Constitution today.
Copyright © 1990, Paul T. Butler