“The members then proceeded
to sign the instrument”

With those simple words, Madison recorded the epochal event of the Constitutional Convention. At about three in the afternoon, beginning with the New Hampshire delegates, moving southward to Massachusetts, then progressing down the eastern seaboard, and ending with Georgia, the delegates moved to the table at the center of the east wall of the Assembly Room where Washington had presided, picked up the goose quill pen, dipped it in ink, and signed their names to the document. All of those who stepped forward to sign the fourth of the parchment sheets shared in varying degrees the same tentativeness and diffidence so eloquently (and cleverly) described by Franklin in his speech earlier in the day. They all believed they had framed a document that would create “a more perfect union,” but no one believed that they had achieved perfection.

Among the ardent nationalists, Gouverneur Morris still believed that too much authority had been left with the state governments and too much power within the new government had been given to the small states. Alexander Hamilton was of much the same mind. He no doubt thought the Constitution too republican and insufficiently British in its inspiration.

The two Connecticut delegates still present at the Convention, Roger Sherman and William Samuel Johnson, had considerable cause for pride. Their intervention helped produce the compromise between large and small states, and they had successfully moderated some of the more extreme impulses of the most zealous nationalist delegates. For better or for worse, they had played a key role in brokering the compromise that provided protection for the slave states of the lower South. Yet Sherman, who had consistently argued for an executive authority that would merely be the agent of the legislature, must have still harbored fears about the overly powerful presidential role created by the Constitution.

William Paterson had left the Convention on July 23, and in spite of entreaties by his fellow New Jersey delegates to return, he had resolutely refused. He managed, however, to summon up the energy to make the short trip across the Delaware River from Trenton to Philadelphia in time to sign the document on September 17. Although he had grudgingly abandoned his attachment to his own New Jersey Plan and voted in favor of the Connecticut Compromise, he was still not wholly reconciled to the diminution of state equality and power inherent in the Constitution. As a testimony to how time, and success, can change one’s perspective, Paterson would deliver orations just a few years later in which he would take pride in his role in drafting the Constitution and praise it as “the ark of safety and the palladium of our liberties.”

As the delegates from the slave-owning states moved forward to the president’s table, they were hardly of one mind about the virtues and imperfections of the Constitution. Many delegates from both the upper and lower South continued to worry that Congress’s power to regulate commerce by a mere majority vote would work to the disadvantage of the agricultural-staple-producing states. But whatever misgivings individual delegates from the slave-owning states may have harbored, most of them had spoken consistently on the side of a stronger federal union. Moreover, the South Carolina and Georgia delegates—with help from some of their colleagues to the North—had managed to write into the Constitution protections for slavery that would work decisively to their advantage for years to come.

The two most prominent Virginia signers—James Madison and George Washington—were reserved in their assessments of the finished product. At the end of his life, looking back on the events of that summer, Madison would characterize the conduct and outcome of the Convention in extravagant terms, claiming that “collectively and individually … there never was an assembly of men, charged with a great and arduous trust, who were more pure in their motives or more exclusively or anxiously devoted to the object committed to them than were the members of the Federal Convention of 1787.”

Yet at the moment Madison stepped forward to sign the Constitution, his pride in his accomplishment was almost certainly tempered by the sting of at least a few defeats. He was disappointed that the feature giving the federal government a negative on state laws had been deleted from the Constitution, and he continued to feel deeply aggrieved about the compromise that had given the smaller states equal representation in the Senate. He persisted in believing that the Connecticut Compromise was a serious blow to the fundamental principle that the new government was to be directly representative of the people of the nation and not of the states. He was acutely aware that he had not achieved all that he had wished when he first set out to launch his revolution in government. But those misgivings notwithstanding, the real wonder is that he had achieved as much as he did.

George Washington, though a member of the Virginia delegation, had, as president, been the first to sign. His diary entry for September 17 tells us less about his feelings about the Constitution itself than about the arduousness of the process. After the Convention adjourned, he dined with the delegates at City Tavern and then returned to his lodgings, where, after receiving the Convention papers from William Jackson, he “retired to meditate on the momentous work Which had been executed, after not less than five, for a large part of the time six, and sometimes 7 hours sitting every day [except] Sunday … for more than four months.”


Dr. Franklin would, after all, have the last word. As the line of delegates waiting to sign the Constitution was nearing its end, the old philosopher-statesman looked up at the Chippendale-style chair Washington had occupied during that summer. Fashioned by a local cabinetmaker, John Folwell, it had a red leather seat and a high back—on the center of which was carved a half-sunburst—and was topped by a Phrygian Liberty cap on a pike, an ancient Roman symbol of freedom. As the final delegate—Abraham Baldwin of Georgia—added his name to the list of signers, Franklin’s attention turned to that sunburst.

Although too frail to rise from his chair, Franklin spoke in his own words on this occasion. He confided to the delegates that he had, “in the course of the session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue,” gazed at the sunburst on the back of the president’s chair “without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting.” With a note of deep satisfaction, Franklin announced that “now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.”


Excerpted from Plain, Honest Men by Richard Beeman. Copyright © 2009 by Richard Beeman. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc.

 

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