BY RICHARD BEEMAN | Monday, September 17, brought a crystal clear sky that grew into a deep blue as the sun rose higher. The temperature—barely in the fifties—made it feel more like late fall. But it was a beautiful, invigorating day, and with the exception of the three holdouts—Virginia’s Edmund Randolph and George Mason, and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts—the delegates made their way to the Pennsylvania State House from their private homes and boardinghouses with feelings of anticipation, pride, and profound relief. Forty-one out of the original 55 delegates present at one time or another during that summer were in attendance.
The session began with the Convention’s secretary, William Jackson, reading aloud the full text of the Constitution. The preamble specifically affirmed that this was indeed a constitution—a statement of fundamental principles of government and not merely a collection of articles in a treaty defining the terms under which the sovereign states would enter into a union. By the standards of most constitutions, that of the United States is remarkably short. But after nearly four months, the task of listening to every word of every article, section, subsection, and clause—many of them debated and amended many times over—may have seemed an unnecessarily time-consuming one, clocking in at 32 minutes. Each of the delegates had his copy of the Report of the Committee of Style and, depending on his diligence over the course of the previous few days, could compare handwritten emendations with those read aloud.
That task completed, “Doctor Franklin rose with a speech in his hand,” which, James Madison [whose writings are the main primary source for the delegates’ deliberations] noted, “he had reduced to writing” in order that he could choose his words carefully. Franklin had spent at least some of the weekend composing the speech. His vanity—a minor vice cheerfully acknowledged in his autobiography—may have led him to hope that his would be the final words spoken at the Convention. Whatever his own impulses, it is also likely that Franklin’s Pennsylvania colleagues—especially James Wilson and Gouverneur Morris, but perhaps Virginia’s Madison as well—may have approached Franklin and encouraged him to give the Convention’s valedictory.
Franklin’s very presence at the Convention, along with Washington’s, had given the gathering a weight and legitimacy that it otherwise would have lacked. Washington, who had not delivered a single speech during the formal proceedings in the Assembly Room throughout the entirety of the summer, nevertheless played a crucial role as president of the Convention—guiding the deliberations and making important decisions about whom to recognize and whom to ignore in the give-and-take of debate. In spite of his poor health, Franklin had attended virtually every session from May 28 onward; he had been fully engaged with the proceedings and had spoken frequently. He had gone to the mat on several important occasions, as when on June 30 he presented a version of what would become the Connecticut Compromise, defending it with a wonderful combination of Franklinian insight and simplicity. But he had also allowed himself more than a few moments of self-indulgence, discoursing off the point or offering historical examples not always germane to the issue at hand. His fellow delegates respected and admired him, but at times they must have rolled their eyes heavenward as he launched into one of his digressions.
Sunrise in Philadelphia By Richard Beeman
Illustration by Pat Kinsella
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©2009 The Pennsylvania Gazette