Constitution Day honors the anniversary of the adoption of the document (both democratic and republican) on September, 17, 1787, by members of the Constitutional Convention, in the Pennsylvania State House (now known as Philadelphia’s Independence Hall).
David O. Stewart’s The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution (2007) deftly details and charmingly clarifies four months of alliances, arguments, and altercations among the fifty-five delegates (including thirty-five lawyers, five of who would become Justices of the United States Supreme Court).
The sometimes-day-by-day account provides not only (both literal and figurative) portraits of leading delegates, but also many lessons on the evolution, collaboration, management, and productivity of a group whose members have a range of experiences, personalities, perspectives, and skills (and which is diverse geographically, if not necessarily demographically).
● Committees, and the composition and functions.
In “a parliamentary fiction” employed “to encourage open discussion,” the collection of delegates constituted a “Committee of the Whole” that “could only make recommendations to the Convention, at which point exactly the same delegates would reconstitute themselves as the Convention to consider the recommendations they had made to themselves.”
Specialized subsets of the group included: an initial three-person, committee that created the Convention’s procedural rules; several Committees of Eleven formed for specific purposes; a five-member Committee of Detail (which wrote the first draft of the Constitution, a task which demanded “balanced judgment to apply the compromises embodied in the nineteen resolutions adopted by the Convention; vision and imagination to extend those skeletal resolutions to a genuine plan of government; a lawyer’s facility with words to achieve precision where agreement was clear, [and] equivocation where it had been elusive”); a five-member Committee of Style (to produce the final draft); and, a six-person Committee on Postponed Parts (which “comprehensively reworked the presidency”; and addressed, among other issues, “Congress’s powers to impose taxes and to make war”).
Late in the Convention, a committee of “the five oldest delegates” was constituted to consider the adoption of English-style “sumptuary regulations” that would restrict what Virginian George Mason condemned as “the extravagance of our manners, [and] the excessive consumption of foreign superfluities.” Stewart observes that, “Wisely, this committee never reported to the Convention, nor is there a record that it ever met.’
Early on, the delegates agreed not to divulge to outsiders any information about the proceedings. “To enforce the rule, the East Room’s windows remained closed through the steamy summer and sentries were posted outside, at Virginia’s expense, lest the delegates’ exchanges be overheard and misunderstood.”
(One month into the Convention, a proposal by Pennsylvania’s Benjamin Franklin that sessions begin with a prayer met opposition from New York’s Alexander Hamilton, on the grounds that it could create “unpleasant animadversions” in the public’s mind about the delegates’ progress.)
This rule of secrecy, along with one that enabled members to reopen for discussion previous decisions, “allowed the delegates to revise their views upon wider consultation and deeper reflection, a luxury both previous and not often afforded to public officials, even in the slower pace of the eighteenth century.”
● Contemporaneous Chronicling.
Spurred by the absence of historical records on the creation of constitutions for republics, Virginia’s James Madison assiduously prepared daily notes of the Convention’s proceedings, and revised them over succeeding decades. “When he died in 1835, almost fifty years after the Convention, he had outlived all the other delegates. No one was left to challenge his version of events when it was published five years later.”
“Fully aware that Madison was creating this unofficial official record, the other delegates evidently trusted his discretion and fair-mindedness to do so faithfully. Still, four of them, including the experienced [Pennsylvanian, Benjamin] Franklin) took the precaution of giving Madison the text of their speeches, sending their remarks to posterity unmediated by the Virginian.”
Stewart also refers to entries in the diary of Virginia delegate George Washington. For instance, “Washington records so many occasions on which he ‘drank tea’ with Philadelphia hosts that one hopes the term was a euphemism for a sturdier beverage.”
(According to the book, the widely-shared assumption among the other delegates that Washington would be the country’s first president led to some awkwardness when discussing in his presence issues concerning that office.)
● Collegiality and Conviviality.
The interactions of the delegates outside of the East Room may have been at least as important as those within in. “After sweater summer days in the Conference, the delegates naturally congregated at taverns to slake their thirsts. . . . Much politicking occurred at such occasions—Washington’s diary reflects at least a dozen of them—though no record remains of their substance.”
In addition, “[a] bond grew among those delegates who shared an inn for lodging or dinner. A Delaware delegate wrote that one group established a regular ‘table’ at the City Tavern for every night except Saturday.”
Moreover, “Throughout the summer, Franklin hosted dinner gatherings at which he encouraged goodwill across the state delegations.”
Franklin, “perhaps the subtlest politician” of the group, also notably lowered tensions by telling jokes and stories. Stewart concludes that “with his disarming wisdom, cheerful countenance, and benign age, Franklin contributed as much as anyone to the Convention’s success.”
● Conciliation and Compromise.
The Summer of 1787 identifies as “the basic rule” of the Convention that “no one would get everything he wanted.”
As Pennsylvania’s Gouverneur Morris, who as a member of the Committee on Style prepared the final draft of the Constitution, stated in a letter transmitting that document to the Confederation Congress, “Each state [was] less rigid on points of inferior magnitude than might have been otherwise expected. And thus the Constitution which we now present is the result of a spirit of amity and of that mutual deference and concession which the peculiarity of our political situation rendered indispensable.”
At the conclusion of the Convention, Franklin, then eighty-one years old, addressed his fellow delegates in what biographer Walter Isaacson characterizes as “the most eloquent words Franklin ever wrote—and perhaps the best ever written by anyone about the magic of the American system and the spirit of compromise that created it”:
“I confess that I do not entirely approve this Constitution at present; but sir, I am not sure I shall never approve it: For, having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that, the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment and pay more respect to the judgment of others. . . .
“. . . I agree to this Constitution with all its faults—if they are such—because I think a general governnment necessary for us. . . I doubt, too, whether any other convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution. . . .
“. . . I consent, sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best.”