The Summer of 1787 – Excerpt

Chapter Four
Demigods and Coxcombs Assemble
MAY 1787

James Madison reached Philadelphia on May 3, ten whole days before any other delegate (except for the ones who lived there), and eleven days before the Convention was scheduled to begin. His early arrival reflected both his eagerness and his lifelong habit of exacting preparation. Always gentle with his health when he could be, the Virginian gave himself ample time to recover from the grinding stagecoach ride from New York, where he had been representing Virginia in the Confederation Congress.

Although Philadelphia was the nation’s largest city, home to about 40,000 people, lodging was at a premium. In addition to the Federal Convention (as it was called), the city was hosting a gathering of Presbyterian ministers from around the country. Also in town was the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization of Continental Army officers that some feared as a political force. The Pennsylvania Herald took pride in the confluence:

Here, at the same moment, the collective wisdom of the continent deliberates upon the extensive politics of the confederated empire, an Episcopal convention clears and distributes the streams of religion throughout the American world, and those veterans whose valor and perseverance accomplished a mighty revolution are once more assembled. . . .

Madison settled in at Mrs. House’s boardinghouse at Fifth and Market, where Virginians on public business often stayed. It was familiar ground. Madison had lodged with Mrs. House in 1783 during his first term in the Confederation Congress, and the quiet, serious Virginian was little trouble. As one contemporary described him, “His ordinary manner was simple, modest, bland, and unostentatious, retiring from the throng and cautiously refraining from doing or saying anything to make himself conspicuous.” Another attributed to him “an air of reflection which is not very distant from gravity and self-sufficiency,” but also found “little of that warmth of heart.”

In the ten days until the next delegate arrived, Madison could review the two essays he had written in anticipation of the great convention. The first was an examination of republics and confederacies throughout history, including Belgium, Switzerland, and Germany, along with classical examples — the Lycian, Amphictyonic, and Achean republics. His second essay, called “Madison’s Vices” in ironic tribute to its author’s undoubted virtue, was an incisive catalog of the infirmities of the Articles. The vices numbered eleven, and the remedy for all of them was a strong central government. The Virginian was keenly aware of the risk that strong governments may take oppressive measures, as the British Parliament had. His goal was a government that not only was strong, but also would respect the rights of its citizens.

For Madison, the accommodation of competing forces was the central job of government. “All civilized societies are divided into different interests and factions,” he wrote, including “debtors or creditors,” “rich or poor,” “members of different religious sects,” “followers of different political leaders,” “inhabitants of different districts,” or “husbandmen, merchants or manufacturers.” Government must be “sufficiently neutral between the different interests and factions, to control one part of the society from invading the rights of another.”

During those ten days on his own, Madison did more than plan for the coming conclave. Correspondence from home forced his attention to his responsibilities as a slave owner. Had other servants or slaves assisted the escape of Anthony, a runaway brought back to the plantation? Madison had to judge the case from afar. He also called on Dr. Benjamin Franklin, his fellow delegate and recently installed as president of Pennsylvania. Feeling his eighty-one years, Franklin went out little but was happy to receive guests in his garden, particularly under a favorite mulberry tree. Knowing of the slight Virginian’s role in pushing for the Convention and of his relationship with Washington, Franklin extended to the younger man the respect warranted by both.

General Washington arrived second, having taken five days to cover the 140 miles from Mount Vernon in his own carriage, driven by his slaves. The contrast with Madison’s quiet entry into Philadelphia was stark.

At midday on May 13, the General was at Mrs. Withy’s Inn in Chester, south of the city, dining with former army colleagues. The party pressed on to a greeting by the Philadelphia Light Horse, nattily turned out in white britches, high boots, and black and silver hats. The troopers escorted the hero over a floating bridge that spanned the Schuylkill River. An artillery company fired a thirteen-gun salute (once for each state), church bells pealed, and cheering crowds lined the streets despite what the Pennsylvania Herald called “the badness of the weather.” It was another demonstration, if one was needed, that it was within the General’s power to be an American Caesar.

Like Madison, Washington had taken rooms with Mrs. House. Alighting at her establishment, he was met by the financier Robert Morris and his wife, who prevented the General from unloading his luggage. Washington had declined the Morrises’ written offer of lodging during the Convention, but they would not accept his refusal in person. They bundled the General to their home, acclaimed the finest in the city, a short walk away. Washington did not tarry there, but immediately set off to pay his own respects to Dr. Franklin. Along that four-block jaunt, he shook hands with Philadelphians, who cheered and gaped at the tall man with such an impressive bearing.

Though the Morrises’ intervention meant that Madison and Washington would not share the same roof, the studious younger man must have felt a particular satisfaction in the General’s arrival. Applying the General’s stature to Madison’s strategy, they had formed an effective partnership in bringing the Convention to pass. Madison was relying on that partnership to continue through the summer. Their challenges would increase as Philadelphia filled with delegates who had different visions of the nation to be formed, and different interests to protect.

On the next morning, May 14, Washington and Madison walked the short distance to the Pennsylvania State House (today called Independence Hall) for the scheduled opening of the Convention. They strode through a light drizzle with three more Virginians who had just arrived — George Wythe, John Blair, and James McClurg.

Wythe, sixty-one, was America’s first law professor. At the College of William and Mary he trained a generation of leaders that included Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and James Monroe. A signer of the Declaration of Independence and former Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, Wythe was his state’s leading judge from 1778 until his death in 1806. Blair, fifty-five, served alongside Wythe on Virginia’s chancery court and had participated in his state’s constitutional convention. McClurg, forty-one, a physician and professor at William and Mary, was a member of Virginia’s executive council.

Thanks to a cold winter and a wet spring, the Virginians shared the streets with Philadelphia’s aggravating black flies, which would linger through the humid summer. At the State House, they found only one other delegation, the Pennsylvanians led by Dr. Franklin. Raw weather had delayed many delegates, but the Pennsylvanians brought flair enough for the occasion.

The Pennsylvania Assembly elected its delegates in late 1786, almost two months before Congress endorsed the Convention. As the second largest state (after Virginia), Pennsylvania was essential to any effort to remake the government. The state’s cosmopolitan outlook derived from its diverse population, which included German immigrants, Quakers, and free blacks. Where the Virginians had forebears rooted in their state’s soil for a century and more, the eight Pennsylvanians were more mobile and more urban. Three were immigrants: Thomas Fitzsimons from Ireland, Robert Morris from England, and James Wilson from Scotland. Three hailed from other states: Connecticut (Jared Ingersoll), New York (Gouverneur Morris, who still lived there), and Massachusetts (Franklin).

All eight Pennsylvanians worked at city-based pursuits like trade and law. Only a week before, six of them had been at Dr. Franklin’s for a session of the Society for Political Inquiries. The presentation was on American trade and manufacturing, matters of less than the first moment to Virginia planters, but central to the national future.

At the Convention, the most prominent Pennsylvania delegates were the ones chosen last. When the state Assembly voted, James Wilson and Gouverneur Morris trailed less-distinguished colleagues by a wide margin, while Franklin was omitted altogether because he was thought too ill to serve. He was later unanimously added to the delegation when his health proved adequate to the task. Each of those three brought noteworthy qualities.

None could match Dr. Franklin for political theater, beginning with his universally recognized title of “Doctor.” The title dated from his honorary degree from St. Andrews in Scotland, granted for his scientific achievements (as were his honorary degrees from Oxford, Harvard, Yale, and William and Mary — not bad for a man who left school at the age of ten).

When attending diplomatic soirées in Paris, his theatrical instincts had draped him in American homespun and crowned him with fur caps. Now he challenged American rusticity by traveling in a glass-windowed sedan chair from France, borne by four husky prisoners from the nearby Walnut Street jail. As Dr. Franklin progressed through Philadelphia’s republican streets, his regal trappings drove home the message that honor in America grew from talent, not birth. Yet the swaying procession also must have brought a smile to those it passed, and to the doctor himself.

At eighty-one, Franklin most nearly contended with Washington for celebrity among Americans. His gifts and achievements defied summary. From humble beginnings, he found success as a businessman, inventor, publisher, scientist, writer, and statesman. His curiosity and creativity produced the lightning rod, the Franklin stove, and the first urinary catheter developed in America. His gentle wit would charm generations after his death, obscuring the pronounced aloofness of his family and personal relationships. Those meeting him in 1787 noted the contrast between his titanic reputation and his mundane appearance — in the words of one, he was a “short, fat, trunched old man.

Most important for the Convention were Franklin’s decades of political experience. More than thirty years before, in 1754, he had drafted the Albany Plan of Union for the thirteen British colonies (which was never adopted). He served in the Stamp Act Congress of 1765 and in the Revolutionary Congresses of 1774, 1775, and 1776, during which he edited the Declaration of Independence. He negotiated the crucial alliance with France during the Revolution, and then the peace treaty with Britain. Despite protestations of age and infirmity, which would cause him to skip sessions through the summer, Franklin’s talent for compromise would help the Convention over its roughest patches.

Over the summer, Franklin at times had something to say but did not feel strong enough to give a speech. He relied on James Wilson to read his remarks on those occasions, untroubled that they were delivered in Wilson’s distinctive Scottish burr. Being the doctor’s confidant and spokesman no doubt enhanced Wilson’s stature, though his standing as a lawyer and statesman was already considerable. Sharing with Washington and Madison the view that the national government must be stronger, he would play a far larger role in the coming Convention than anyone expected.

Born into a farm family in Fifeshire, Scotland, Wilson won a classical education through a scholarship to St. Andrews University. Pious parents marked him for the clergy, but the ambitious son threw over their plans and sailed to America at the age of twenty-four. His gifts earned him a coveted place in the Philadelphia law offices of John Dickinson (who would attend the Convention as a delegate from Delaware). Wilson dove into the life of his adopted country and never looked back, despite nagging from family members he left behind. (Two years before the Convention, his mother wrote, “I am ashamed of your unconcerned and unnatural like behavior to us.”)

Wilson won election to the Continental Congress in 1775. He was learned and hardworking, and his law practice flourished. He won Pennsylvania’s land dispute with Connecticut and represented the king of France in America. He helped organize the Bank of North America in 1781, then defended the bank against populist attacks. As a member of the Confederation Congress in the 1780s, he unsuccessfully tried to strengthen its power to tax and command state militias. With Washington and some other delegates, he shared a weakness — more like a fever in Wilson’s case — for speculation in frontier lands. For Wilson, the fever would prove fatal.

Tall, well dressed, and solidly built, his auburn hair fashionably powdered, Wilson radiated a lowering intensity while inspiring little affection. Speaking often in favor of a stronger central government, he led (in the words of one delegate) “not by the charm of his eloquence, but by the force of his reasoning.” His accent and formal deportment brought him the mocking nickname “James de Caledonia.” One lawyer described Wilson’s voice as “powerful, though not melodious; his cadences judiciously though somewhat artificially regulated,” while “his manner was rather imposing than persuasive.”

An early biographer recorded that his features “were far from disagreeable; and they sometimes bore the appearance of sternness, owing to his extreme nearness of sight.” He peered through thick spectacles, one contemporary noted, “like a surveyor through a compass.” Another said the Scot’s “lofty carriage” was adopted to prevent his eyewear from sliding off his nose.

No one questioned Wilson’s toughness. In 1778, he tenaciously defended two Quakers against charges of complicity with the British. The lingering effects of that controversy, along with his opposition to price controls, made him a target of militiamen disgruntled over the sacrifices they made while others profiteered. Rather than flee from a militia parade in 1779, Wilson and some allies barricaded themselves in his house. From what became known as “Fort Wilson,” they engaged in a musket battle — indeed, some think the gentlemen inside the house started the shooting — that cost the lives of four soldiers and two of Fort Wilson’s defenders.

Where Wilson was determined and disciplined, Gouverneur Morris (no relation to Robert Morris) was all flamboyance and talent. Called “Tall Boy” by some, Morris at thirty-five rivaled Washington in height and bearing, and was valued by hostesses as a bachelor and a charming raconteur. A female admirer reported that during a three-day wedding party, Morris “kept us in a continual smile (I dare not say laughter for all the world but you may admit it in the back room).” Happy to share his opinions on any subject, Morris suffered fools not at all. A Frenchman in 1782 found Morris “to possess the most spirit and nerve amongst those I met at Philadelphia,” but predicted “that his superiority, which he has taken no pains to conceal, will prevent his ever occupying an important place.”

Morris’s magnetic presence was made more dramatic by the oaken peg leg below his left knee. Seven years earlier, he had lost the lower part of the leg in a carriage accident just a few blocks from the State House. Owing to his rakish reputation, many assumed the injury occurred in flight from a jealous husband. Contemporaries suggested that the loss in no way reduced his appeal to women.

Morris’s ebullience permeates the tale (possibly apocryphal) of his assurance to Hamilton that the great Washington was not so austere as often thought. Hamilton, the story goes, proposed that Morris prove his point by delivering a matey slap to the General’s back at an impending social occasion. Morris duly administered the casual greeting, which moved the General’s customary reserve from cool to arctic, to Hamilton’s delight and Morris’s instant dismay.

Born to great wealth (his family’s estate is remembered as the Morrisania area of the Bronx), Morris would speak more often during the Convention than anyone else. One delegate observed that Morris “throws around him such a glare that he charms, captivates, and leads away the senses of all who hear him,” yet he also could be “fickle and inconstant.” He emerged as a passionate goad, a brilliant floater of trial balloons, some incisive and some ill considered. When debate blazed over slavery, the aristocratic Morris would distinguish himself beyond any other delegate.

For that first day’s encounter at the State House, after polite conversation about journeys and sedan chairs, there was little to do but retire and hope for better attendance on the morrow. A quorum of seven state delegations would not be present for another eleven days.

The Virginia delegation reached full strength quickly. Governor Randolph, heir to a leading family, arrived the next day, May 15, and joined Madison and McClurg at Mrs. House’s. Though younger than Madison, Randolph already had served as a delegate to his state’s constitutional convention, as a member of the Continental Congress during the Revolution, and as Virginia’s attorney general. Two days later, George Mason completed the state’s complement when he and his son settled at the nearby Indian Queen, which also was owned by the enterprising Mrs. House.

The Virginians personified the plantation aristocracy of the South and its professional class. They knew each other well, beginning with Mason and Washington, lifelong neighbors and friends. Wythe and Blair were judicial colleagues. Three had attended the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, where Wythe and McClurg were on the faculty, while four lived in and around that town of only a few thousand. Madison’s Montpelier estate was relatively distant in the state’s western hills, but it closely resembled in organization both Mount Vernon and Gunston Hall, while various Randolphs owned plantations throughout Virginia. All seven of them owned slaves.

The Virginians put to good use the delay in the Convention’s opening. Every morning they convened for several hours at Mrs. House’s, then met again at the State House at 3 P.M. to greet arriving delegates. Mason wrote to another son that the morning sessions were intended “to form a proper correspondence of sentiments” among the Virginians. Madison later gave the more forthright explanation that “it occurred to [the Virginia delegates] that from the early and prominent part taken by that State in bringing about the Convention some initiative step might be expected from them.” The Virginians’ deliberations benefited from afternoon conversations at the State House with delegates from other states. Though there is no record of those early discussions, it was a perfect opportunity to share hopes and ideas while staking out positions on points of special importance.

Those informal exchanges cheered George Mason. He wrote to a son that “the principal states” agreed that there should be a “total alteration of the present federal system.” In a prescient addition, he noted that the general concurrence did not include “the little states.” Mason also foresaw “much difficulty” in establishing a strong national government and “at the same time reserving to the state legislatures a sufficient portion of power.” He was surprised to find that the New Englanders, despite their reputation for democratic views, were almost “anti-republican,” which he attributed to “the unexpected evils they have experienced” with Daniel Shays and his men.

The Virginia-only sessions at Mrs. House’s marked the true beginning of the Convention. With the benefit of Madison’s preparation, as well as the General’s eloquent presence, the Virginians assembled the skeleton of a national charter. Preparing to lead when the Convention started, the seven Virginians little suspected that only three of them would sign the final Constitution.

As with any group deliberation involving dozens of people, the dynamics of the Convention were complex. Delegates played the roles dictated by personality and relationships, by their beliefs, and by the politics and economies of the states they represented. Some, like Madison and Wilson and Gouverneur Morris, pushed to the front of the stage and speechified on a daily basis; others, like Franklin, were more selective in their remarks, but exercised important influence offstage; and some, like Blair of Virginia and Jared Ingersoll of Pennsylvania, sat mute for four months, leaving scarcely a trace that they had been there.

For ingenuity in making oneself heard, no one matched John Adams, then on diplomatic duty in far-off London. Beginning on May 18 and every Friday thereafter, the entire front page of the Pennsylvania Mercury was devoted to excerpts from Adams’s recently published “Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America.” Adams’s prose was still appearing weekly when the Convention finished on September 17, though its impact on the delegates is doubtful. “Men of learning find nothing new in it,” Madison sniffed, adding, “men of taste many things to criticize.”

Though important contributions came from many delegates, including Connecticut’s late-arriving men of compromise, the Convention’s central actors were concentrated among the Virginians and Pennsylvanians, and with the third delegation to achieve a quorum in Philadelphia — South Carolina.

John Rutledge of Charleston reached Philadelphia on May 17 and stayed briefly at the Market Street home of James Wilson, with whom he had served in the Confederation Congress. Young Charles Pinckney moved into Mrs. House’s lodgings on the same day. The two remaining delegation members arrived a week later on the same ship — General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney with his wife and Major Pierce Butler with his wife and four daughters.

The South Carolina contingent was an ingrown affair. The Pinckneys were first cousins, but that was just the beginning of the interconnections. The sister of General Pinckney’s wife had married Rutledge’s brother, while Major Butler’s wife was cousin to the two sisters who had wed General Pinckney and the Rutledge brother. All four men owned plantations in the state’s Low Country, using slave workers to grow rice and indigo. All but Butler were lawyers, with both Rutledge and General Pinckney having read law in London. Despite their claustrophobic web of relationships, the Carolinians came to Philadelphia with an appetite for work, and they would exercise an outsized influence.

Rutledge was their leader. The forty-eight-year-old lawyer had been near the center of American affairs since the Stamp Act Congress of 1765. A feared trial lawyer — “possibly the most successful lawyer in the American colonies” — he could be overbearing. Pleasant enough when he wanted to be, Rutledge did not play the courtly southerner. Some complained that he cut them off abruptly, to the point of rudeness. Despite his success in the courtroom, many rated him no more than middling on his feet, “too rapid in his public speaking to be denominated an agreeable orator.”

When he met Rutledge in 1774, John Adams saw in the fast-talking southerner “no keenness in his eye, no depth in his countenance. Nothing of the profound, sagacious, brilliant or sparkling in his first appearance.” Rather, Adams described Rutledge in terms worthy of Shakespeare’s Iago, as maintaining “an air of reserve, design, and cunning.” (Sadly, Rutledge left no record of his first impression of Adams.) Rutledge’s hard edge was evident when he insisted that the South Carolina Assembly give the state’s delegates free rein to take any necessary action at the Continental Congress in 1774. What, the objection arose, if those delegates did the wrong thing in the dispute with Britain? “Hang them,” was Rutledge’s reply.

Even Adams’s wary assessment implicitly acknowledged the force of Rutledge’s personality. Tall, with long, powdered hair and a dignified manner, he favored “strong and argumentative” speech that “hurried you forward to the point it aimed at, with powerful impetuosity.” As South Carolina’s governor during its wartime occupation by the British, he was called “the Dictator.” During later years as a judge, “court, jury and audience quailed before him.”

Rutledge’s remarks at the Convention tended to be brief and unadorned, but they were shrewdly timed. He often presented motions, or seconded motions, on central matters. A steady and persuasive force, he worked best in drawing-room conferences, committee rooms, and taverns. A member of five committees through the summer, Rutledge chaired the most important one, the Committee of Detail, which produced the first — and in places, startling — draft of the Constitution.

The cousins Pinckney, doomed to be confused with each other through history, were eleven years apart in age. Both led American troops but ended the Revolution in British prison camps. The elder cousin, General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, was admired for his polish as a gentleman and maintained cordial relations with northern colleagues. A Massachusetts delegate called him “the cleverest being alive,” adding, “I love him better every time I meet him.” Twice the unsuccessful Federalist candidate for president, General Pinckney’s contributions to the Constitution largely involved defending slavery.

His energetic relative, known simply as Charles Pinckney, was deeply engaged in the Constitution-writing process. Sometimes sharp-elbowed, as reflected in the occasional nickname of “Blackguard Charlie,” Charles misstated his age so he could claim to have been the youngest delegate (a distinction held by Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey at twenty-six, three years younger than Charles). Charles then had the ill luck to have his lie uncovered.

While in the Confederation Congress in 1786, Charles chaired a “grand committee” that prepared amendments to the Articles of Confederation. He also, however, was an early supporter of a national convention to create a new charter of government. In a March 1786 speech, he said that such a Convention was the “only true and radical remedy for our public defects.”

Young Charles arrived in Philadelphia with a draft constitution, something not even Madison had attempted. Charles showed his draft to any delegate who would stand still long enough to see it, and later insisted it was the model for the Constitution. This last claim triggered pointed rejoinders from the elderly Madison and even the accusation that Charles was “a sponger and a plagiarist.” Charles’s post hoc glory-seeking has obscured his real contributions during the Convention.

The final South Carolinian, universally referred to as Major Butler, had come to America as a British army officer in the 1760s. Marriage to a local heiress persuaded him to join those he had been sent to pacify. Like General Pinckney, Butler’s contributions in Philadelphia focused on slavery questions, though he also made an impression with the ardor of his speech. More than any other, his comments are noted as “contending” or “objecting,” sometimes “warmly,” sometimes “decidedly,” sometimes “strenuous” and even “vehement.”

As the delegates straggled into Philadelphia, many met familiar faces. Some knew each other from war service; twenty-nine wore a uniform during the Revolution. Many had served overlapping terms in the Continental Congress, and since 1781 in the Confederation Congress. Nine, like Madison, simultaneously held seats in that Congress during the summer of 1787. Most shared a few occupations. Thirty-five were lawyers, thirteen were involved in trade, and twelve owned or managed plantations worked by slaves. About two dozen owned considerable (and sometimes precarious) amounts of public debt.

The city that greeted them was a worldly one. Ships filled Philadelphia’s port on the Delaware River, discharging exotic cargoes and crew members. Like any city of its time, it was no Arcadian paradise. “The streets and alleys reeked of garbage, manure, and night soil,” and water wells “must have been dangerously polluted.” A few years before the Convention, a Philadelphian complained that on the streets “dead dogs, cats, fowls, and the offals of the market are among the cleanest articles to be found. Dead animals — horses and cows — are left to putrefy on vacant lots.” Pigs running free consumed some of the street refuse. No wonder that General Washington started a practice of Sunday rides in the countryside. On Wednesday, May 23, he sneaked off for a midweek ride with Madison, John Rutledge, and some others, though many times he rode alone.

Philadelphia had a lurid reputation for disease. Yellow fever had struck in 1747 and 1762, and a devastating epidemic would spread in 1793. At least two delegates — one from Connecticut and one from Maryland — refused to attend the Convention because they feared the city’s contagion. “Having never had the small pox,” the Connecticut appointee wrote, referring to himself in the third person, “a disorder to which he would be greatly exposed in the City, . . . he cannot suppose it would be prudent for him to hazard his life.” By August, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts called the city “very sickly” for children, “a great number of whom had died.”

Some visitors found the city visually dull, built on a rectangular grid of streets laid out by William Penn when the colony was founded. A German carped, “[T]here is nothing but streets all alike, the houses of brick, of the same height mostly, and built by a plan that seldom varies.” Still, visitors admired the frequency of public pumps for water service. To fight crime, the roads were lit with whale-oil lamps and patrolling constables called out the hour and the state of the weather.

Crime and its consequences were often before the delegates, as the Walnut Street prison stood behind the State House. The inmates called to passing delegates “with Billingsgate language,” extending “long reedpoles, with a little cap of cloth at the end” to solicit donations. A citizen who failed to deposit alms would trigger “the most foul and horrid imprecations.” In March of 1787, eighteen inmates escaped through and over the prison’s walls, prompting municipal consternation. On May 12, the day before General Washington arrived, Philadelphia hanged one Robert Eliot for a burglary he committed before the laws were made “less sanguinary.” Even sanguinary punishments proved an incomplete deterrent to crime. In late June, a newspaper reported that a “nest of footpads” was attacking citizens near Broad Street.

More pleasant were the city’s bells. Christ Church in Second Street had a full octave of chimes, and “[a]t Philadelphia there is always something to be chimed, so that it seems as if it was an Imperial or Popish city.”

Twice a week, the evening bells would announce the next morning’s market (held on Wednesdays and Saturdays). Visitors marveled at the market, which extended for two roofed blocks in the middle of town. “Everything is adjusted in perfect order, and as neat and clean as a dining-hall.” A Frenchman wrote home, “Even meat, which looks so disgusting in all other markets, has an attractive appearance.” The offerings included raccoon, opossum, fish-otter, bear-bacon, and bear’s foot. The orderliness of the people also drew favorable comment, with one guest writing, “One would think it is a market of brothers.”

The inns and taverns were the social hubs of the city, particularly for long-term visitors like the delegates. In 1774, Philadelphia had a tavern for every 140 residents. The better inns were full in the summer of 1787, forcing some delegates to share rooms. A Delaware delegate described Mrs. House’s establishment as “very crowded, and the room I am presently in [is] so small as not to admit of a second bed.” Some roommates were decidedly unwelcome. A British traveler in the 1790s recorded that his room at the City Tavern (one of Philadelphia’s premier hostelries) included his “old tormenters, the bugs.”

Still, genuine comforts could be had at the Indian King, the George, and the Bunch of Grapes. The Indian Queen boasted sixteen rooms for lodgers, plus four garret rooms. A visitor there in 1787 described being greeted by a liveried servant in coat, waistcoat, and ruffled shirt. The servant produced two London magazines, called for a barber, brought a bowl for washing off road dust, and served tea.

Most obviously, the inns offered drink. Although the enthusiastic drinking habits of Maryland delegate Luther Martin would draw special notice, the delegates were no different from other Americans in their affection for porter beer, Madeira wine, rum punch, and hard cider. The consumption patterns of the day were impressive. When the Philadelphia City Troop honored Washington with a dinner at the end of the Convention, the fifty-five attendees consumed seven “large bowls” of rum punch, over a hundred bottles of wine (divided between Madeira and claret), and almost fifty bottles of beer and cider.

After sweaty summer days in the Convention, the delegates naturally congregated at taverns to slake their thirsts. William Samuel Johnson of Connecticut incurred large charges as a host at the City Tavern. Much politicking occurred at such occasions — Washington’s diary reflects at least a dozen of them — though no record remains of their substance.

A bond grew among those delegates who shared an inn for lodging or dinner. A Delaware delegate wrote that one group established a regular “table” at the City Tavern for every night except Saturday. For July 2, Pennsylvania’s chief justice received a dinner invitation from “the gentlemen of the Convention at the Indian Queen,” who included George Mason (and his son, John), one Pinckney, two Massachusetts delegates, and two from North Carolina.

The out-of-towners faced a long summer away from family and duties. Of the thirty-eight delegates who were both married and not from Philadelphia, fewer than ten were accompanied by their wives. The separation strained delegates and spouses. The daughter of William Samuel Johnson wrote that her father’s absence led her mother “to melancholy reflections which destroy her happiness and health.” Torn by other obligations, almost half the delegates arrived after the Convention began, or left before it ended, or slipped off in the middle.

Yet thirty of them stuck it out for the entire summer, attending virtually every session from May 25 to September 17. More than half of those came from the three delegations that led the Convention: all four South Carolinians, seven of the eight Pennsylvanians, and five of the seven Virginians. Even in the eighteenth century, leadership began with showing up.

By May 25 a quorum, at last, was at hand. Seven state delegations were present. With a majority of the states represented, along with individual delegates from two other states, the Convention was called to order. Anticipation ran high both inside and outside the chamber. “Upon the event of this great council,” wrote the Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser, “depends every thing that can be essential to the dignity and stability of the national character.” Henry Knox wrote from New England that the Convention was the “only means to avoid the most flagitious evils,” while George Mason noted with pride that the Revolution had been “nothing compared to the great business now before us.” Mason’s eagerness pulses through a letter to his eldest son:

[T]he influence which the [government] now proposed may have upon the happiness or misery of millions yet unborn, is an object of such magnitude, as absorbs, and in a manner suspends the operations of the human understanding.

The Convention’s prospects induced a sort of euphoria, which can be detected in Jefferson’s reference to the delegates as demigods. More than forty years later, the euphoria persisted in Tocqueville’s description of the Convention as containing “the choicest talents and the noblest hearts which had ever appeared in the New World.” The nation’s greatest leaders had gathered to wrestle its fundamental problems to the ground, and in the process to create a model of self-government for all humanity. Though it was begun to solve crises and troubles, the Constitution-writing process also was an act of profound optimism and self-confidence.

Still, the delegates gathering in Philadelphia were humans, with all the strengths and fallibility of the breed. George Mason, for one, was far from starry-eyed over the men who wrote the Constitution. After the Convention adjourned, the Virginian’s view of his colleagues was distinctly astringent:

You may have been taught [said Mason] to respect the characters of the members of the late Convention. You may have supposed that they were an assemblage of great men. There is nothing less true. From the Eastern states [New England] there were knaves and fools and from the states southward of Virginia they were a parcel of coxcombs and from the middle states office hunters not a few.

Whether demigods or coxcombs, or something in between, the nation’s future rested squarely on their shoulders.

Copyright © 2007 by David O. Stewart