Story of Our Constitution - E. M. Tappan

The Coming of the Delegates

Delegates were chosen by the legislatures, and the legislatures of the different States did not all meet on the same date. Traveling was, as has been said, difficult and full of dangers. When a man set out on a journey he could only guess at the time of his arrival. Most of the delegates came to Philadelphia on horseback. Several of those from Virginia came by boat. The treasury of New Hampshire was empty, and there was some delay before "real money "for the expenses of her delegates could be raised. Rhode Island would have nothing to do with the convention. She was repudiating debts and issuing large quantities of paper money. "They are afraid of everything that may become a control on them," Madison wrote to his father of her citizens.

Washington had hesitated about accepting his appointment as delegate. The Cincinnati were to meet at the same time and in the same city and wished him to accept a second term as their president. He had refused on the ground of private business, and now felt that he could not properly accept this later appointment. Moreover, as he said, he did not wish to be swept back into the tide of public affairs. His life since the close of the war had been as fully occupied as it was during the struggle. He had taken leave of his officers with great affection, and with tears in their eyes they had silently watched him while he entered the barge that was to carry him to Paulus Hook, New Jersey, on his way to Mount Vernon. For his services as commander-in-chief of the army he had refused any compensation, but had agreed to keep an account of his expenses. This account he now presented to the comptroller of the treasury, in Philadelphia. In Annapolis, where Congress was then in session, he formally laid down his sword. "I here offer my commission," he said, "and take my leave of all the employments of public life."

So it was that he returned to beautiful Mount Vernon, which he had not seen for eight years; but the peace and quiet for which he had longed he could not find even there. Guests came in a constant stream. Everybody wrote to him. Some sent him inquiries which, as he said, "would require the pen of a historian to satisfy." People applied for favors of all sorts. One requested the loan of his private papers to assist in writing a history of the events of the war. One asked him to write to Europe for a wolf-hound. Another wished permission to dedicate an arithmetic to him. The Empress of Russia begged him to collect for her the vocabularies of some of the Indian tribes—and he did. Little Mademoiselle Lafayette, eight years old, wrote him a letter, which received a prompt reply. Those who could think of nothing else to write about, sent him pages of compliments. Everybody who had ever wielded a paint-brush wanted him to sit for his portrait.

Washington and Columbia


And all this while he was longing to give his time to his family and his estate. That his place should have some attention was very necessary. During his long absence he had received weekly reports from his overseer; but for eight years Mount Vernon had missed its master's hand, and it was sadly in need of care. This was the "private business" which demanded his presence.

His finances were troubling him. For two years his crops had failed. He could not collect debts that were long overdue. His living expenses were much increased by the numerous visitors. He wrote his mother that he had no idea where he could get a shilling toward the taxes that were due; he would not be in debt, and he feared lest he should have to sell part of his estate. His country was not ungrateful; but when he learned that through Congress the whole nation was to be invited to unite in a gift to him, he gratefully declined it in advance; he would take no rewards for serving his own land. Even when the companies formed to connect the Virginia rivers with the Ohio wished to present him with shares worth many thousands of dollars, he refused to accept the gift, because he believed that he could arouse the interest of the people in the undertaking more surely if they knew that he had no selfish concern in it.

Surely, no one could have blamed Washington if he had left public business to others and had spent a little time in attending to his own affairs. When he left the army, he said that he hoped to pass the remainder of his life "in a state of undisturbed repose," and he felt sure that becoming a delegate would be the beginning of a return to public life. But duty to his country came first with him, and when Shays's Rebellion showed so plainly the lawlessness of the land, he laid aside all thoughts of his own advantage and accepted the appointment.

Washington never accepted any position without preparing himself as thoroughly as possible to fill it well. Now that he had agreed to be present at the convention, he set to work to make his presence of value. He read the standard books on politics, and he read also the history of a number of the modern and ancient confederacies. He pondered over these; he made outlines of what he read; and he noted in each case its good points and its bad ones and why it was a success or a failure.

The convention was to meet on Monday, the 14th of May, 1787. Five days earlier, Washington set out from Mount Vernon in his carriage. Of course he could not make his appearance anywhere in the country without receiving all the honors that the people could show him. Fourteen miles from Philadelphia he was met by the speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly and a number of officers and prominent men of the State, who rode beside his carriage. At Gray's Ferry, two miles from the city, stood the Philadelphia Light-Horse drawn up ready to escort him into town. As they entered, the bells on all the churches rang in joyful greeting, and the crowd that lined the streets shouted their welcome. He had intended to stay at a boarding-house, but, as he wrote in his diary, "Being again warmly and kindly pressed by Mr. & Mrs. Robert Morris to lodge with them, I did so, and had my baggage removed thither."

Robert Morris had come to this country from England when he was only thirteen. He soon found a position in a business house, and from that day his rise to fame and fortune was quite like that of some of the heroes of the Oliver Optic  books, for at twenty he and the son of his employer formed a partnership, and twenty years later they were at the head of the largest business house in Philadelphia. When war broke out, he was made a delegate to the Continental Congress, and he was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. He was the "financial backer" of the Revolution, and at the times when it seemed as if for the lack of money the cause must fail, he always came to the rescue.

One of those times was six months after the signing of the Declaration, when Washington was trying to recruit his army. This he could not do without money for bounties, good hard money in coins of gold and silver. Morris had been made financial agent of the United States, and to him Washington appealed to raise the sum needed. Morris felt that he must do it—but could he? The story is told that he was walking away from his office, wondering how to get that money, when he met a wealthy Quaker and told him of the trouble. "Robert, what security canst thou give?" the Quaker asked. "My note and my honor," Morris replied. Both stood high, and the Quaker said cordially, "Thou shalt have it." The following morning, $50,000 went to the anxious commander-in-chief. So it was that Robert Morris pledged his wealth and his honor for the cause of the States.

One day some five years later three men with troubled faces and troubled hearts stood talking together. They had just heard that the French fleet could not leave the West Indies, and without the fleet the proposed campaign against the British in New York would fail. But a campaign against Cornwallis could be entered upon "if—" They all knew what that "if "meant. "What can you do for me?" Washington asked, and the secretary of the board of war replied gravely, "With money, everything; without it, nothing." "Let me know what you want," said Morris. The result of this little talk was that thousands of barrels of flour and everything else needed were supplied, and Morris gave his own notes for $1,400,000. It was because of these supplies that Washington was able to pursue Cornwallis, and it was Cornwallis's surrender that practically put an end to the war. How much Morris and Washington must have had to talk over that Sunday evening in Morris's home in Philadelphia!

Benjamin Franklin was then president of Pennsylvania, and of course Washington had called on him as soon as he reached town. Franklin's life, like Washington's, had been devoted to his country, but in an entirely different way. It is true that he went into the field, and was urged to let himself be made commander of an expedition; but he was wise enough to see that he could do more for the colonies in other ways than by using his sword. Indeed, what the country would have done without him is a question. Some one has called him "the incarnated common sense of his time." He founded the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Library. He was the first postmaster-general. He published the famous Poor Richard's Almanac, full of wise advice put so amusingly that people remembered it and followed it whether they meant to or not. "The sleeping fox catches no poultry," was a better argument for early rising than the time-worn advice to "get up early." "Help, hands, for I have no lands; or if I have, they are smartly taxed," would catch every one's attention at a time when every one was groaning over taxation.

As a scientist, nothing was too large and nothing was too small to interest him; and just as soon as he discovered a new fact, he set to work to make it useful. He invented the Franklin stove, which, he said, "kept him twice as warm with one-fourth as much wood." He studied the Gulf Stream, and when he was postmaster-general, he arranged to send mails by the routes which took advantage of it. He was equally interested in how to cure smoky chimneys and in the effects upon the waves of the ship cook's greasy water thrown out through a porthole.

The discovery that brought him most fame was that lightning and electricity are one and the same. So little was known of electricity in those days that it was quite an exciting experience to "take a shock." Six young Germans called on Franklin one day. They had not much confidence in the reports of the power of electricity, and they had "come to see whether there was anything in it." "Give us a thumper," they said, and he did. In a moment they lay side by side on the floor like so many ninepins. They admitted that there was "something in it."

Franklin was famous throughout Europe for his scientific discoveries. Indeed, he had been famous before the majority of the delegates could remember. Twenty years before the Revolution, he had received honorary degrees from Oxford and St. Andrews. He had been made a member of the Royal Society, and the greatest men of Europe were proud to be counted his friends.

It was this wise, shrewd, famous American who had been sent to England to speak for the colonies, and to France to win friends and money for them. Wherever he went, he was always the same sensible, level-headed man. No amount of praise could sweep him off his feet, and no blame ever made him lose his bearings. When he was to be formally received at the court of France, he did not think it proper for a plain American citizen to follow the elaborate French fashions in dress. Then, too, it was cold weather, and it would be somewhat dangerous to change his woolen stockings for fine silk. On this momentous question King Louis himself was consulted. He replied that Dr. Franklin was welcome to come to court in any dress he pleased. So the blue yarn stockings made their appearance at the sumptuous court of France; and the conversation of their wearer was so brilliant that the courtiers forgot to look at them. Paris ran wild over him, his learning, his charming talk, his simple, independent ways, and his perfect tact. Wherever he went, he was followed by crowds of admirers. He was both witty and dignified, and not in the least elated by his glory. He was so popular in France that even if King Louis had been inclined to refuse aid to America, he would hardly have ventured to arouse the wrath of his people by refusing it to Franklin.

When the time came for a treaty to be made between England and the United States, Franklin was at his best. With apparent expectation of getting just what he wanted, he calmly proposed that, since England had injured the colonies by the war, the Mother Country should cede Canada and Nova Scotia to the United States by way of reparation. This would pay the American losses, he said serenely, and it would enable the United States to make good the property of the Tories which had been confiscated. Of course Franklin knew fully as well as King George and his friends that this would never be agreed to; but the bold stand of the American commissioner gave the Americans something to bring forward by way of compromise when the English commissioners with equal coolness requested compensation for giving up several American cities then in the hands of the British troops. There were many complications in making this treaty, but the tact and clear-sightedness of Franklin and the ability of his two associates made it a great success.

In 1785, Franklin returned to America, almost eighty years of age. Like Washington, he would gladly have had a little time of quiet, but Pennsylvania at once demanded him as president of the State; and he held this position for three years. It was during his third year that he was made delegate to the convention.

These delegates were what Daniel Webster would have called a "respectable "[that is, worthy of respect] body of men. Six of them had signed the Declaration of Independence. Out of fifty-five, more than half were graduates of either American or English universities. There were lawyers, financiers, clear-headed thinkers, men of genius, men who could make masterly speeches, and men who only listened, thought, and voted. Some had been officers in the army, governors of States, or congressmen. Some were plain, honest men with no brilliant record behind them, but with a sincere love for their country and a strong resolution to do for her the very best that was in them.

Not many of the delegates were so punctual as Washington. Some had been delayed by storms. Some had been slow in starting. Some were not even appointed until it was too late for them to reach Philadelphia on time. The delegates from Virginia and Pennsylvania, however, were all on the minute. Indeed, some of them arrived several days earlier than Washington. It was eleven days before a quorum of States was present. There had been no waste of time, however, for the hours were filled with informal talks in little groups of two or three; and every afternoon all who had reached the city met for a general discussion. The Virginia delegates were especially glad to have this time together. The suggestion of the convention had come from their State, and so her delegates felt themselves bound to have a definite plan to propose to the others. These conversations enabled them to learn the point of view of one another and made it possible for them later to vote as a unit.



The leader of the Virginians was James Madison, a man whose knowledge and thoughtful opinions had come to be looked upon with great respect. He had been a quiet, scholarly boy, so fond of study that, after Princeton had given him a diploma, he stayed at college another year in order to work on Hebrew. He came home, and still he studied—history, law, theology, constitutional law—everything was grist that came to his mill. When he was in college, he had once for several months given only three hours out of the twenty-four to sleep; and it is hard to see how he could have been much more generous with himself at home, for he had eleven brothers and sisters, and he acted as their tutor. He was only twenty-two years old, but probably they looked upon him with the utmost veneration, and supposed he was at least a hundred.

In 1774, when people began to see that there would be trouble with England, the student was aroused. Even if he had spent his twenty-three years apart from public affairs, he was a true American, and when he was put on the committee of safety—possibly because of his father's reputation—he accepted promptly. Some of his neighbors had declared that he was too much of a student to be of any value on the committee; but evidently his neighbors were mistaken, for although he was the "baby member," he was made a delegate to the State convention two years later. He was pale and slender. His light hair was combed straight back and braided in a queue tied with a black ribbon. He looked like a particularly shy young minister, rather alarmed at the possibility of having to preach before so many older folk. Indeed, he made a motion only once, and then he did not venture to make a speech to support it.

Everybody knew that the quiet young man had knowledge, and somehow they must have found out that he had ability and statesmanship, for he was made a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1780. He attended strictly to the business of being a delegate, whether this agreed with his convenience or not. It was hardly a paying occupation, for although Virginia voted her delegates a generous allowance for their maintenance, it was, in the lack of money, seldom paid. They made common cause, and when any one of them was so lucky as to receive a check, he shared it with the others. Checks came seldom, however, and at length Madison found himself so deeply in debt that he had to borrow money of a broker, a Polish Jew. This Jew was a good American, for when his debtor spoke about the interest, he said, "But I take no interest from any member of Congress."

Madison held one public position after another, doing excellently well in all, and showing such wisdom and sound judgment that people began to call him "Colonel," which was used as a title of supreme respect fully as often as one of military distinction. It was quite to be expected that he would be one of the delegates from Virginia to the convention at Philadelphia. Indeed, he was the leader of the delegation. He no longer appeared the "shy young minister "of his earlier years. He had become accustomed to people, and they liked him and respected him. He had a keen sense of humor and was an agreeable companion.

The eleven days were also useful socially, if all the delegates were as much sought after as Washington. He ate a "family dinner" at Mr. Morris's and "drank tea in a very large circle of ladies." On one day he was present at a wedding feast, and on another he dined "in great splendor," as his diary declares. In short, he was invited somewhere every day, and apparently enjoyed himself everywhere.

By the 25th a quorum had arrived, and the delegates came together. Washington was unanimously elected president. A committee was chosen to prepare rules of order for the convention, and the meeting was adjourned until Monday, the 28th.

When Monday came, delegates from two other States had reached the city. At the appointed hour, they all assembled in a simple, dignified brick building on Chestnut Street, the State House, but now known as Independence Hall. In this building, the Second Continental Congress had held its meetings. Here Washington was elected commander-in-chief of the Continental forces. Here the Declaration of Independence was adopted and signed, and in the belfry overhead hung the bell that had rung out the news of freedom to the waiting city. Many of the delegates had been present on some of these occasions, and they must have realized that the work in which they were about to engage was quite as important as any that had been done within those walls. What they were to accomplish during the next four months would show to the world whether the freedom for which they had risked their lives was freedom indeed or only the beginning of anarchy. They entered the house and the doors were shut. Fifty years were to pass before the discussions that went on behind those closed doors were to become known.