Constitutional Journal. A reporter covers the Philadelphia story of 1787
GEN. GEORGE WASHINGTON arrived in Philadelphia on May 13, 1787, to a thunderous reception by the people of the city where the United States Constitution was to be born. The hero of the American War of Independence became visibly annoyed when he discovered that not all the other delegates had arrived for the official opening of the Constitutional Convention the next day. A series of spring storms had turned all roads to Philadelphia into rivers of mud. James Madison of Virginia and his allies made full use of the 11-day delay before the actual opening session on May 25. They sounded out delegates and refined a strategy to pass a revolutionary plan for strong central government. It would sweep away the existing Articles of Confederation, although the mandate of the 55 delegates, elected by their state legislatures, was only to revise the Articles - the ``League of Friendship'' that had determined the political and commercial relationships among the 13 states since 1781.
General Washington became furious when Rhode Island announced it would not even send a delegation to Philadelphia. He was already alarmed that his friend and fellow Virginian, Patrick Henry, had refused to serve as an elected delegate. Henry bluntly said of the convention that he ``smelt a rat.'' Behind that comment lay a concern by Henry that any revisions of the Articles of Confederation would be at the expense of the states and of local liberties.
Earlier, the Continental Congress in New York had designated May 14, 1787, as the date for the Constitutional Convention to convene in Philadelphia, the largest city in the 13 states. Two of the most prominent critics of the Articles of Confederation were advocates of the Philadelphia conclave: Madison of Virginia and Col. Alexander Hamilton of New York. They had been instrumental in engineering two state meetings on commercial cooperation: a meeting of two states at George Washington's plantation in March 1785 and a meeting of five states at Annapolis, Md., in September 1786. Each ended inconclusively.
An explosion of mob violence, however, triggered by debt-ridden farmers in western Massachusetts, sent shock waves throughout the states, and the Continental Congress reluctantly approved the Philadelphia convention. The purpose was to discuss ways to strengthen the Articles so that the confederation could deal with problems of commerce, the threats of revolt, and other mutual interests. General Washington's particular concern about maintaining a hard-won peace forced him out of retirement to attend the convention and to serve as its president.
Shays' Rebellion, named after Capt. Daniel Shays, who had served under General Washington, was aimed principally at the Massachusetts state courts to delay farm foreclosures for debts and back taxes. Shays' short-lived revolt and lesser violence in five other states convinced General Washington and others that a strong national government was needed to deal with any possible future disorders.
Shays' Rebellion prompted a stampede of support for the Philadelphia convention. It also gave Madison additional justification for submitting to the convention the Virginia Plan for powerful central government. Madison shrewdly secured General Washington's approval before the general's departure for Philadelphia.
Madison was the first to arrive in Philadelphia, bringing with him a trunkload of books shipped from Paris by Thomas Jefferson, United States minister to France. The works consisted primarily of the histories of the ancient world and of failed republics; the Virginia scholar and legislator planned to use them in the convention debates to bolster his radical arguments for a strong national government.
By contrast, Patrick Henry, known as the ``Trumpet of the American Revolution,'' was convinced that the severe economic problems that confronted the country in 1787 could best be solved by industry and a prosperous economy, not by new political rules and a national structure. Henry was alarmed because Imperial Spain had closed the Mississippi River to American trade, and he feared a sellout to Spain by Northern states with their shipping interests, which might compromise the commercial interests of Virginia and the South.
The delegates were asked to resolve a tangle of thorny political and economic problems: swollen state and national debts, a shortage of hard currency that made commercial transactions a nightmare, inflated paper money issued by the individual states, commercial conflicts among the states, repeated violations of treaties by the separate states, a depression in foreign trade, and a flood of imports.
All of these issues, however, would become subordinate to the explosive problem of what role the states might play in any new national government. Most of the delegates had arrived in Philadelphia expecting to revise the Articles of Confederation, only to have word of Madison's Virginia Plan leak out. The small states were alarmed that the large states (Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia), favoring the Virginia Plan, would dominate in any new national Congress. The issue of equal versus proportional representation nearly wrecked the convention.
The 55 delegates representing 12 states (Rhode Island never did send a delegation) thought of themselves as envoys from sovereign nations, tied together by the Articles of Confederation solely for purposes of commerce, defense, and foreign diplomacy.
More than half the delegates were lawyers, and 44 of the 55 were or had been in the Continental Congress. Eight had signed the Declaration of Independence, and six had signed the Articles of Confederation. Six had served, or were serving, as governors of their respective states. The totality of their experience was immense, even though their average age was 43. The oldest delegate was Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, 81; the youngest was Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey, 26. As a group they represented the educated, wealthy merchant, planter, and professional classes, and were respected leaders in the states.
James Monroe, himself only 29 and just beginning his political career in the Virginia House of Delegates, wrote Madison shortly before the opening session:
``We all look with anxiety to the results of the Convention in Phil. Indeed it seems to be the sole point on which all movements will turn.... Yet it may, by some be thought doubtful ... to adopt any plan that will make concurrence of all the States.''
The long summer of political, intellectual, and emotional struggle toward that concurrence begins below.