The Convention Which Framed It (2 of 20)

The convention which produced the Constitution of the United States of America did so without the prior approval or authorization of the people of the country, or of the state legislatures which had selected the delegates to the convention, or of the Continental Congress which had called the convention.

The 55 men who assembled in Philadelphia beginning on the 14th day of May in 1787 had been selected to “revise the Articles of Confederation.” It was immediately apparent to them that no lasting good would accrue from their labors unless they disregarded their instructions, scrapped any thought of amending or changing the existing weak confederate government, and launched boldly forth on an entirely new political theory.

This they did. In secret, star-chamber sessions, where no records were kept of the voting on any propositions, and with armed sentries at the doors they proceeded to lay aside the Articles of Confederation, and introduce the various plans calling for an entirely new constitutional government.

They frankly determined that “a record of the opinions of the members would be an obstacle to a change,” and determined to keep no such record. However, both William Jackson, the secretary of the convention, and James Madison, one of the delegates, kept accurate and extensive minutes of all the discussions and debates.

Their proceedings were not revealed to the public nor divulged to the press. Early in the convention they adopted a resolution forbidding the “licentious” publication of the proceedings. During the entire period of their sessions they were completely free from public clamor or the influence of pressure groups. There was no lobbying and no persuasion other than that of reason and debate.

It is probable that there has never been in the history of nations a convention which proceeded with more dignity than this one. No single delegate ever arose to filibuster. Offensive expressions were not employed. All the debates and discussions, though often heated and emphatic, were sincere and dignified.

The rules of the convention were strict. Every delegate was expected to give his undivided attention to the discussions. The reading of newspapers or books was forbidden when any delegate was speaking, and no person was permitted to pass in front of the chairman while another delegate was speaking. The delegates sat in a semicircle three rows deep and Washington as chairman sat on a platform raised about six inches from the floor.

Each delegate was allowed to speak on every subject arising for discussion. But no delegate was allowed to speak a second time on the same subject until every other delegate desiring to speak on that subject had spoken or had had the opportunity to speak on it.

Those who have visited the senate and the house of representatives in solemn assembly in our nation’s capital will recognize no similarity between this description and the usual proceedings in those august bodies.

The convention met pursuant to the call of the Continental Congress on the 14th of May in 1787, but on that day only 28 delegates had arrived and only nine of the states were represented. It was not until the 25th of May that sufficient delegates had arrived and presented their credentials to constitute a quorum which could proceed to do business. new Hampshire did not send her delegates until July, and Rhode Island was never represented.

Of the 55 delegates who reported fewer than 20 shouldered the burden of the labor, although the average attendance is said to have been 73 per cent. Thirteen of the delegates became disheartened and left the convention prior to the 17th of September when the document was finally finished and signed by 39 of those who had endured to the end. Only 42 had attended the sessions with any degree of regularity.

Between the 25th of May and the 17th of September the delegates struggled through the 79 arduous work days of seven hours each exclusive of caucuses and committee meetings. To an individual whose soul was not imbued with a desire to perpetuate and make sure upon the earth those principles of freedom for which the revolution had been fought. the debates and discussions would have seemed interminable. It has been calculated that Gouverneur Morris made 173 speeches, Wilson 168, Madison 161, Sherman 138, Mason 136, and Gerry 119. George Washington delivered only one.

The debates and discussions in which they engaged have seldom if ever been equalled or approached. The document which they produced bears lasting testimony to their wisdom and inspiration. It was worth then all the labor and sacrifice required to create it. It is worth now all the blood and gold that may be necessary to re-establish its worth and perpetuate for free men the freedoms it guarantees.

This Article was serialized in 20 segments
which appeared on the editorial page (page 4) of
The Deseret News, 19 March 1945 through 10 April 1945.

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