The Miracle at Philadelphia

Last month we discussed the Founder's preparation for the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the miraculous results of that preparation. But it was not without effort. During that long hot summer, the delegates engaged in heated debates, saw tempers nearly out of control, sometimes expressing the thought that this just might not be possible to accomplish, and even saying they would just as soon go their own way rather than unionize. But isn't this the way with miracles? The Designer of freedom often lets His children struggle till they have exhausted themselves and nearly every possibility before He seems to say they are now ready to receive and appreciate the answer. And so it was in the Convention of 1787. Dr. Skousen details the highlights of the Convention in The Making of America, pages 154-162, where he provides the documentation for the following summary.

What Kind of a Constitution Should We Have?

All of the delegates came to the convention determined to restructure the Articles of Confederation. Scarcely any, however, except James Madison, had given thought to the possibility of scrapping the Articles and setting up a completely different type of constitutional structure. Madison himself was not certain about the details, but he had a strong conviction that no amount of patching could remedy the defective Articles of Confederation.

The Virginia delegation finally agreed with Madison that no amount of patchwork on the Articles of Confederation would salvage the system sufficiently to provide the kind of national government they needed. They therefore decided to recommend to the convention a much more sophisticated structure. The next task was to decide how to structure the new system. Gradually, they formulated fifteen resolutions describing some of the things they thought the new system should contain. These became known as Virginia's "Fifteen Resolves." They later formed the basic agenda for the Constitutional Convention. After two months of debates the list had grown to twenty-three "resolves." Eventually, out of the 41 specific proposals in Virginia's "Fifteen Resolves," there were 12 outright rejections and 2 half rejections. It is obvious that this was no "rubber stamp" convention.

The Convention Opens

With George Washington chosen as president and James Madison as the unofficial secretary, the Convention officially opened on May 25, 1787 and adopted some interesting rules of procedure:

  1. The proceedings were to be conducted in secret. This was to prevent false rumors or misinformation from spreading across the country while the Founders were still threshing out the formula which would solve the problems plaguing the nation. Guards were posted at the doors, and no one was admitted without signed credentials.
  2. Each state was to be allowed one vote, and the majority of the delegation from a state had to be present and in agreement in order to have its vote counted.
  3. Many times during the proceedings a poll was taken of the individual delegates to see how they stood, but the rule was adopted that none of these votes were to be recorded lest delegates be embarrassed if they later changed their minds as the discussion progressed.
  4. Each delegate could speak only twice on each issue until after everyone else had been given the opportunity to speak. And no one could speak more than twice without special permission of the convention members.
  5. Everyone was expected to pay strict attention to what was being said. There was to be no reading of papers, books, or documents while someone was speaking.
  6. All remarks were to be addressed to the president of the convention and not to the members of the convention. This was to avoid heated polemics between individuals engaging in direct confrontation.

Striving for Consensus

The Founders were most anxious to get general agreement whenever possible, rather than merely a majority vote. In the Anglo-Saxon meetings the freemen did not take a vote, but kept "talking it out" until everyone or practically everyone felt satisfied. This method of trying to "talk it out" until a substantial agreement could be attained was followed in the Convention.

Before the Convention was over, the members had reached general agreement on all the major issues except three. These issues included slavery, the regulation of commerce, and the apportionment of representation for each state. All three of these problems were worked out on the basis of genuine compromise, since a consensus or general agreement could not be reached. On June 14, the proceedings were suddenly interrupted by William Paterson of New Jersey, who asked to have the day free for the preparation of a new plan which the smaller states wished to present the following day. This plan, known as the New Jersey Plan, favored the smaller states. While the Convention was contemplating the two different plans, Alexander Hamilton suddenly arose and presented an entirely different plan of his own. He said it was too dangerous to tread untried waters. It would be best to go back to the British pattern. Madison noted that Hamilton's plan was "approved by all and supported by none." It was not even discussed, let alone voted upon. On June 19, a moving speech was given by James Madison, in which he said the convention must come up with a "Constitution for the Ages" and only the Virginia Plan would stand the test of time. Immediately afterwards, the New Jersey Plan was voted down and Hamilton's plan was abandoned. Hamilton even abandoned it himself and returned to New York soon after. However, he came back before the Convention adjourned. After June 19, the Convention tried to probe some of the more delicate questions which had previously been postponed. This is known as the crisis period and lasted until July 26.

Benjamin Franklin's Plea for Prayer

It was during the quarreling and heated debating on June 28 that 81-year-old Benjamin Franklin made his famous plea for prayer. Said he:

"In the beginning of the contest with Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayers in this room for divine protection. Our prayers, sir, were heard; and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending Providence in our favor. To that kind Providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful Friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need [His] assistance? "I have lived, sir, a long time; and the longer I live the more convincing proofs I see of this truth -- that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid? We have been assured, sir, in the sacred writings, that 'except the Lord build the house they labor in vain that build it.' I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without His concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel; we shall be divided by our little partial, local interests, our projects will be confounded and we ourselves shall become a reproach and a byword down to future ages. And, what is worse, mankind may hereafter, from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing government by human wisdom and leave it to chance, war, or conquest. "I, therefore, beg leave to move: "That hereafter prayers, imploring the assistance of Heaven and its blessing on our deliberations, be held in this assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the clergy of this city be requested to officiate in that service." Franklin's motion to invite in a minister to serve as the chaplain and offer daily prayers did not pass for the simple reason that the professional ministers required payment for their prayers, and the Convention had no money to pay for the same. Nevertheless, his plea had a sobering effect on the quarreling delegates and they set about their task with greater determination.

George Washington Begins to lose Hope in the Convention

Another valley of shadow enveloped the Convention between July 10 and July 16. Just trying to decide how the President should be elected required over 60 ballots. During this dark period Washington wrote:

"I almost despair of seeing a favorable issue to the proceedings of the Convention, and do therefore repent having had any agency in the business."

The Connecticut Compromise

Nevertheless, a big breakthrough came on July 16 when the Convention finally agreed to a formula for the allocating of representation in Congress. Both sides finally agreed to accept the suggestion of Roger Sherman of Connecticut that each state have equal representation in the Senate but that the House of Representatives should be apportioned to each state according to population. This suggestion was made three separate times during the heated debates before it was finally accepted.

Committee on Detail

Finally, by July 26, the principal issues had been sufficiently settled to put the Constitution into rough form. A Committee on Detail was therefore appointed with instruction to have its report completed by August 6.

From August 6 to September 8, the Convention hammered out many more important details which needed refining.

Committee on Style

On September 8, the amended rough draft from the Committee on Detail was turned over to a special Committee on Style to do the final rewrite. Most of the rewrite was done in four days by a highly skilled lawyer and writer who was a delegate from Pennsylvania. His name was Gouverneur Morris. He also rewrote the Preamble.

When the new draft was read to the Convention, some of the delegates raised 18 new issues during the next three days. However, the vast majority of the delegates were satisfied with the draft as written, and therefore the Constitution was turned over to a skilled penman to be inscribed in its final form.

Signing the Constitution

On Monday, September 17, 1787, a total of 41 of the original 55 delegates solemnly met in the east room of Independence Hall for the signing. Because a few delegates still had some significant reservations, Franklin asked that the Constitution be signed by the majority of each delegation so they could say it was by "unanimous consent" of all the "states" represented. This was done. Three delegates, however, did not sign. These were: 1) Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, 2) George Mason of Virginia, and 3) Governor Edmund Randolph of Virginia. Their main objection was that the Constitution did not include a Bill of Rights.

The other delegates came forward, however, and affixed their names. It is recorded that when Franklin signed, "The old man wept." Later, as the last delegates were signing, Franklin referred to a picture of the sun on the back of George Washington's chair. He said: "I have ... often, in the course of the session ... looked at that [sun] behind the president without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun." As the famous Convention came to a close it was as though a great battle had been won. But the Constitution still had to go to the Congress and the people. This meant that the great intellectual battle to get the American charter of liberty established in the hearts and minds of the American people still had to be fought.

A Needed Commitment 217 Years Later

As the nation celebrates Constitution Week (September 17-23), let us keep in mind the plea of James Madison when he urged every future generation to remember the incredible formula for freedom resulting from the Miracle at Philadelphia:

"Happily for America, happily we trust for the whole human race, they pursued a new and more noble course. They accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society. They reared the fabrics of governments which have no model on the face of the globe. They formed the design of a great Confederacy, which it is incumbent on their successors to improve and perpetuate." ( Federalist Papers , No. 14)


Earl Taylor, Jr.

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