Early Settlers of
Their Descendants...Their Stories...Their Achievements
Lifting the Mists of History on Their Way of Life
By: Ethelene Dyer Jones
Do you ever wonder how it might have been to participate in the forming of the United States Constitution in May, 1787?
That auspicious gathering intrigues me. I search for writings or records of how those men from every state then (formerly colonies) except Rhode Island (which chose not to send delegates) might have managed during those long months from May through September, 1787 when debate was rife and “think tanks” worked out details of the Constitution. Finally enough states ratified the document and it became operational in June, 1788 when New Hampshire became the ninth state to sign for its adoption.
How did the Constitutional Convention of May, 1787 come about?
By late 1786, almost three years after the close of the Revolutionary War, the discovery was made that the Articles of Confederation that then guided the new nation were too weak to deal with all the problems of economy, politics and diplomatic relations of the new nation. Attempts to revise the Articles of Confederation had met with stalemates and non-approval from state legislatures. America, the new nation, seemed to be at a crossroads. Then, in February, 1787, the Continental Congress made this resolution and sent out notices to all the state governments. The memo read:
“It is expedient that on the second Monday in May next a Convention of delegates who shall have been appointed by the several states be held at Philadelphia for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.”
This called convention met, beginning on May 14, 1787 in Statehouse in Philadelphia where the Continental Congress had been meeting. However, it went slowly at first, with delegates from states “dribbling in” for representation. A quorum was not reached until May 25, 1787. A total of 70 men had been appointed as delegates to the Convention, but only 55 ultimately attended during the months from May through September 17, 1787. They examined the Articles of Confederation and found them inadequate for the new nation. A new document was needed. It took the delegates four months to reach an agreement and sign the document that became the Constitution of the United States when enough states ratified it in June, 1788. And further, of those 55 attending; only 39 of them actually signed the important document when it was ready for approval by the delegates.
Those appointed to represent the state of Georgia were Abraham Baldwin, William Few, William Houstoun, and William L. Pierce. However, only two of Georgia’s delegates, Abraham Baldwin and William Few, placed their signatures on the document on September 17, 1787. Abraham Baldwin, in particular, was an important and very active member of the Constitutional Convention as the work proceeded. A native of Guilford, Connecticut, he had migrated to Georgia after the Revolution, in which he had served as a chaplain. He had also studied law, and in 1784 had been admitted to the Georgia bar. In the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he was appointed to the committee to resolve the question of representation in House of Representatives and Senate. His vote broke the deadlocked tie, and he stands out as the one who made the determining vote that the Senate would have two elected from each state, and the House of Representatives would be based on the quota of population of each state. The compromise bill was adopted concerning representation, and Abraham Baldwin was most influential in its passage. Not only was he outstanding in the U. S. Constitutional Convention, but earlier, as he served in the Georgia Legislature, he wrote the charter for Franklin College that became the University of Georgia. We as Georgians have much to be grateful for in Abraham Baldwin’s leadership in the US Constitutional Convention.
In a letter that has been preserved written by George Mason, representative from Virginia, to his son, we glean some interesting insights into some of the events of those long months from May to September when debates raged and committees met and thrashed out differences. He writes about common concerns and practical matters: “We found traveling very expensive—from eight to nine dollars per day. In this city the living is cheap. We are at the old Indian Queen in Fourth Street, where we are well-accommodated, have a good room to ourselves, and are charged only twenty-five Pennsylvania Currency per day, including our servants and horses, exclusive of extra charges, so that I hope I shall be able to defray my expenses with my public allowance, and more than that I do not wish.” (from David Colbert’s “Eyewitness to America,” Pantheon, 1997, p. 99). Whether Georgia’s Baldwin and Few, and the others from the twelve states represented had similar “public allowance” for representing their state at the Convention, I know not, but perhaps it would be safe to assume they did have some remuneration for travel expenses, room and board, horses’ keep, and other expenses.
The convention in Philadelphia drew up one of the most influential documents of Western world history. James Madison, a delegate from Virginia, was a definite leader and responsible for much of the substance of the constitution. But it was to the flair and pen of Gouverneur Morris from Pennsylvania that the task of writing the final document was given.
We’ve seen artists’ renderings of the signing on September 17, 1787 and thrilled to the sight of reproductions of the document with all the signatures. Then came the document’s travel to each of the states during the next months. Delaware was the first to ratify it on December 7, 1787 and finally by June of 1788 the nine required had signed and the document was officially adopted. Finally all the thirteen states but Rhode Island and North Carolina ratified it. The majority clause caused the Constitution to be adopted. Later, the two declining states did accept it and took their place in the Union.
Reticence of some states to sign was based on what was considered a need for a Bill of Rights. James Madison, true to his word, promised to work on this issue, and in September of 1789 the Bill of Rights was proposed in Congress. It was adopted in December, 1791. The original ten have been added to throughout the years since our national government’s struggle following the Revolution.
As a high school student in Civics class, I was required to memorize the Preamble to the Constitution. Throughout my life, since then, I have thrilled to the words that have helped to hold our nation together in unity. It would be well that we read and heed seriously what our national leaders in 1787 used as the lofty introduction to our Constitution:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Jones; published May 19, 2011 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville,
Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
[Ethelene Dyer Jones is a retired educator, freelance writer, poet, and historian. She may be reached at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; phone 478-453-8751; or mail 1708 Cedarwood Road, Milledgeville, GA 31061-2411.]