“There are, every now and then, rooms where it all happens,” said David Stewart. “If we have a sacred space in this country, that’s it. That’s the room to see.”
Stewart, author of The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution, was referring to the room in the Pennsylvania state house where delegates in 1776 debated and signed the Declaration of Independence and then, again, where delegates in 1787 debated and signed the Constitution of the United States. Today, it’s Independence Hall.
During Friday’s morning session at the American Battlefield Trust’s Teacher Institute, Stewart treated us to a book talk called “Inventing America: The Constitutional Convention of 1787.”
“It matters who’s there, who’s in the room,” Stewart said. “The personalities were fascinating.”
Here are a few of my takeaways from Stewart’s talk, as I tried to listen and take notes:
Madison’s notes are the best source of what happened.
“The debate happened at such a sophisticated level. Most of them [the delegates] had participated in creating their state constitutions.” As a result, they had sophisticated understandings about government, and about what worked and didn’t and why.
“How do you have a strong government, but still have control? How do the people have control?”
“I didn’t understand how important slavery was to the convention. It’s something we didn’t talk about [when I was growing up].” It’s something that’s generally been overlooked by many modern historians.
“It’s a remarkable story. Not necessarily a heroic one.”
“The Articles of Confederation set up a very weak government. It’s hard to appreciate just how weak it was.”
“It was not a sure thing that America was not going to survive at all.”
“It was a long summer. They met for four months. It gets hot. They didn’t have very forgiving clothes.”
“They met in secret. You could speak freely if you knew it was going to be confidential. But that meant they kept the windows sealed and the doors locked.”
* * *
Stewart focused on “six all-stars who really made it happen, who were terribly important.”
“We have to start with the big guy. He was president of the convention. The indispensible man. There’s no other term. No one would have come. It never would have been written. No one would have signed it afterward if he hadn’t supported it.”
“He was almost entirely silent” but “He let people know what he wanted.”
“Everyone knew he was going to be the first president. He said to those people: ‘I trust you. Do the best you can. I’ll try to make it work.’ There is no more powerful message to get people to behave well.”
At 81, he was old enough to be Washington’s father, old enough to be Madison’s grandfather. He didn’t make it to every session.
“He was a wonderful, conciliatory force.”
“Everyone loved to be around him because he was funny. That always works. He would lower the temperature. He would crack jokes. He acted as an essential glue.”
The so-called Connecticut Compromise—state representation in the upper house and population representation in the lower house—was really Franklin’s idea.
“He was the consistent voice of reason at the convention.”
“He is often called the Father of the Constitution. I quarrel with that. The final constitution didn’t look much like he wanted it to.”
“He doesn’t change the conversation. He’s just this guy—short, kind of annoying. He’s just there. He doesn’t move the needle.”
“Another measure is the committees. The committees are where the work really happened. Until the last couple of weeks, he didn’t appear on any committees.”
He’s terribly important with the Virginia plan and in the run-up to the convention, though.
“He was called ‘The most imperious man in America.’”
He was “a steadfast supporter of slavery, an effective proponent for it.”
“He was important, and we ignore that at our risk.”
“After he speaks, the conversation changes.”
“Nobody was on more committees: he was on five. Nobody chaired more: he chaired three.”
Because of his advocacy, delegates entrenched slavery in the Constitution.
A delegate from Pennsylvania, an immigrant from Scotland, “a lawyer, a fine lawyer,” “about as unlovable as John Rutledge”
“Having an argument with Wilson was like being occupied by a foreign country”
He introduced “resolutions that make us cringe—but the nature of compromise is that they’re compromises.”
A central question of the convention: were slaves people or were they property. Wilson came up with the idea of counting them as 3/5 of a human being. “It makes us cringe today—and it should—but it got them past it.”
“Another issue was how to choose the president. He came up with the Electoral College. It broke down almost immediately, which required the twelfth amendment to get it to at least work badly.”
“Morris is fun. He loved to party. He was a New Yorker there as a Pennsylvania delegate.” Lost a leg in a carriage accident. Extremely rich.
Didn’t worry about making friends much.
Did a couple wonderful things.
“Morris objected to the pro-slavery elements. he gave what’s become known as the first abolitionist speech.”
He’s the one who actually wrote the Constitution. “He writes the constitution in two days. He simplifies and clarifies.”
“There needs to be a statue to him somewhere.”
“John Adams would’ve made a difference if he had been in the room. I’m not sure about Jefferson. He tended to be quiet, and it was a room full of noisy people.”