In a Philadelphia meeting room 41 white men sat silently around wooden, felt-covered library tables where they had argued, compromised and argued again during four sweltering months.
The venetian blinds covering the Pennsylvania State House’s huge windows were slightly open. The delegates attending the final session of the Constitutional Convention on September 17, 1787, had a view of the crisp morning that had followed a hard night’s rain. The air flowing in was almost cool, with a hint of fall. Flies buzzed overhead.
Washington, the convention’s president, was a giant for his time — 6 feet 2 inches tall, 175 pounds and splendidly graceful on horseback or the dance floor. The control he wielded over his volcanic temper in public made him appear almost stoic.
The mere presence of this national hero inspired the delegates, even though he had addressed them only once. That was when he chastised one delegate who had compromised the secrecy of the proceedings by carelessly leaving notes at a nearby tavern.
With his back to Washington, Maj. William Jackson of Philadelphia ceremoniously unrolled four large pieces of parchment that bore an elegant, handcrafted script. At their first meeting in May, the delegates elected Jackson their secretary on the strength of his able service as assistant secretary of war during the Revolution. That war had been run by the Continental Congress a decade earlier in the same room where the delegates were sitting.
Calmly, steadily, Jackson began reading aloud: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union . . .”
Within the hour he had finished reading the Constitution’s 4,400 words, each finely placed.
A long pause followed. Perhaps the next step was too painful, too uncertain to consider quickly.
The delegates were facing a crucial decision: whether to sign this new charter, forever endorsing its provocative call for a strong central government undercutting the powers of the state legislatures that sent them there.
Of the Constitution’s 55 delegates, 14 had left Philadelphia and chose to keep their names off the document. Some were making plans to defeat its ratification by the states. Even those remaining were largely unhappy with their product, though convinced they could do no better.
Alexander Hamilton, about 32, sat alone at the New York table, his velvet coat open to show layers of white ruffles and his long reddish hair pulled tightly back. He was disgusted at the convention’s creation of a balance of powers between the legislative and executive branches.
A proud connoisseur of fine wines and elegant homes, the highly educated Hamilton favored having a powerful, even kingly president who would lord it over a cowering Congress. No fan of democracy, Hamilton considered the public “a great beast.”
Across the room sat James Madison, 36, in the Virginia delegation. Barely over 5 feet tall, this shy, pale, bookish man is now called the Father of the Constitution, but on this day he was quite depressed about the convention’s handiwork. Even though the delegates accepted his plan for a system of checks and balances, Madison had wanted the new charter virtually to eliminate state governments.
Later that day, Madison would express his mood in a private letter to Thomas Jefferson, who was serving in Paris as ambassador to France.
“The plan, should it be adopted,” Madison wrote, “will neither effectually answer its national object nor prevent the local mischiefs which everywhere excite disgust against the state governments.”
Although Madison kept his objections private, other delegates, such as George Mason, were quite vocal.
“I would rather chop off my hand than sign it,” Mason, 62, had announced two days earlier. The plain-spoken, rural Virginian was a passionate advocate of equality who had written his state’s Bill of Rights. On Sept. 17, he sat fuming at the delegates’ decision to leave the issue of slavery to the states.
Benjamin Franklin broke the silence. At 81, he was the oldest of the delegates and was quite frail. He rose slowly, with a cane planted in the ground by one hand and a lengthy speech held in the other.
Beloved for his devotion to liberty, Franklin feared that the new federal powers might allow government to tamper with individual freedoms. However, he was prepared to put his concerns aside and endorse the Constitution because he strongly believed in the need for a more unified nation with less bickering among the states.
His owlish glasses and plain brown coat made the plump Franklin an unassuming, eccentric contrast to Hamilton and other socially correct delegates.
Yet throughout their months of five-hour sessions six days a week with only one 10-day break, the delegates had turned to the affable Franklin in moments of stress.
Often racked with pain from gout and kidney stones, Franklin always obliged, offering a humorous tale or even throwing a lively party at his nearby home, where the wine flowed freely.
The delegates relished a visit to Franklin’s Market Street house, filled with hundreds of scientific oddities, mostly his own inventions. He would eagerly show them. The “glass machine,” for example, exhibited blood circulation through the use of a fluid- filled reservoir that supplied numerous tubes of glass.
In the courtyard, Franklin would sit under his favorite mulberry tree and offer the delegates conversational diversions from their often tedious business.
Although some of the younger delegates found Franklin a sentimental old fool prone to feeble-minded irrelevance, he was shrewd beyond their understanding. He knew that his approach would bridge the hostilities that threatened failure and would move the delegates toward a common goal.
Franklin showed this skill in the speech he wrote for the day of the signing. He had anticipated the apprehension that would envelop the delegates as they were about to reveal their Constitution to the people.
Yet, for the first time during the convention, Franklin curiously claimed to be too frail to speak. He asked fellow Pennsylvanian James Wilson, 45, to read the speech for him.
“I confess that there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve,” Franklin’s speech began, “but I am not sure I shall ever approve them. For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions.”
His speech went on to describe his complaints, but he promised not to raise them outside the convention hall. He consented to the Constitution “because I expect no better,” Franklin said, “and because I am not sure that it is not the best.”
He ended with a plea that delegates who still had objections “would with me on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility — and to manifest our unanimity, put his name to the instrument.”
Thirty-eight delegates filed to the front of the room to sign the document. The 39th signer, John Dickinson of Delaware, was too weary to attend that day and asked another delegate to sign for him. Jackson, the secretary, signed the document.
Three remained seated: Mason, Edmund Randolph of Virginia and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts.
As the last of the signers fetched a quill from the silver inkstand that also had been used in signing the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Franklin gazed at the sun carved in Washington’s chair and yielded to a bit of sentimentality.
He commented that painters always had found it difficult to show a distinction between rising and setting suns. He confessed that he wondered many times in which direction the sun on Washington’s chair was headed.
Franklin concluded that “now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.”
More than two centuries later three artifacts from that day survive: the silver inkstand, Washington’s chair and the Constitution of the United States.