This Sunday, September 17, 2017, marks the two hundred and thirtieth anniversary of the final day of the U.S. Constitutional Convention—the day a miracle occurred on Philadelphia’s Chestnut Street.
On this day a gathering of men set aside their differences and placed the promise of a free and united nation above all else.
Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States ~ Howard Chandler Christy ~ Public Domain
An Embarrassment of National Affairs
Bitter political factions divided the fledgling United States of America by 1786. There wasn’t a national military force to secure the nation’s essential trade routes, there wasn’t a national currency to facilitate interstate trade, and there wasn’t a glimmer of compromise on the virulent issue of representation between the large states and the small states.
So a small group of frustrated patriots, meeting at Mann’s Tavern in Annapolis, Maryland, proposed a convention to address this embarrassment of the nation’s affairs. But though most thought the nation too dear to lose, they had no certainty the proposed convention would actually convene. An earlier attempt at such a conference had proved unsuccessful.
It took bloodshed on a Massachusetts field to turn the tide.
In late 1786, rebels in the northern states, most of them farmers led by Massachusettsan Daniel Shays, rose in armed protest against increasingly high taxes. Though the state militia squelched the rebellion within months, the states’ failure to fund federal troops to resist the rebels alarmed the country’s leaders.
Most agreed that if there was to be a strong national government, the Articles of Confederation must be adjusted. If not, there was little hope the new nation could survive.
A Code of Silence
Though it was scheduled to start May 14th in Philadelphia, the 1787 convention didn’t attain a quorum until May 25th. Once it was attained, adopting a code of silence was among the delegates’ first decisions.
No discussion of the proceedings was permitted outside the State House. No sound bites, no interviews, no tavern debates. All wanted their say without the worry of any spin the public or the press might put on a remark taken out of context.
Surprisingly, the men held to the code.
Reaching a Compromise
Delegates from twelve states met over four months that stifling Philadelphia summer.
The men debated immense issues those four months. States’ rights, slavery, the representation of small states versus large states, the power to tax and incur and pay debts, the power to coin money and regulate trade with foreign nations, the power to declare war and maintain armed forces—all these and more were bitterly contested and hotly negotiated. Finally, after hours of discussion and much contention, the Constitution was signed on Monday, September 17th, 1787.
In spite of their strong personalities and egos, those men were able to compromise. Furthermore, by doing so, they structured a fair and stable government that has served a prospering nation for over two hundred years.
Benjamin Franklin, though he didn’t approve of several provisions in the Constitution, offered his unconditional support that historic morning:
“It therefore astonishes me, sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies . . . Thus I consent, sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good.”1Benjamin Franklin
George Washington was the first to sign the document that Monday, and men from each of the states in attendance lined up behind him.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Theodor Horydczak Collection, [LC-H814-T-P01-012]
Sharing the News
Needless to say, after four months of secrecy, the public was chomping at the bit to learn what their delegates had accomplished. It affected the populace in a profound way that few of us can appreciate today.
Printers Dunlap and Claypoole typeset the document that Monday night. They sent it to New York by stage early the next day, timing the New York release with Philadelphia’s scheduled Wednesday release.
Remember Franklin’s statement?
“The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good.”
I don’t think the delegates in 1787 were any more principled or brilliant than our current senators and representatives. Well, maybe I do, but just a smidge. Surely, however, striving for compromise in the name of the public good is something well within our current members’ capabilities.
I, for one, would like to see them try.
Liam Brock, one of the characters in the romantic historical novel Voices Beckon, had a keen interest in what and who made things happen. That interest only intensified during the summer of 1787. When printer’s apprentice David Graham obtained access to the Constitution a day before it was distributed, he shared it with Liam.
Voices Beckon is available for $0.99 this Constitution Week ~ that’s an 80% savings!
“So is it true then, Davey? It’s not a modification of the Articles of Confederation? It’s something fresh?”
David grinned. “It is, which explains the secrecy. But ye have to read it, Liam. It’s remarkable.” ~ Voices Beckon
- Stewart, David O. The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution, New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2007