Thomas Jefferson, in describing the 55 men sent to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, called the convention "an assembly of demigods." Indeed, the world had never seen such a collection of minds before in one location. Though they may not all have been equally qualified to attend the convention, in general the delegates were a snapshot of the 18th century upper crust. Statistics prove this; All were white men, mostly protestant with one or two Catholics and Quakers. Professionally, lawyers composed over a half of the group (34 out of the 55 delegates), while another quarter were planters owning 1,000 acres or more. Political life was also common to the delegates; all had held public office of some variety. Eight had been judges, three were governors of their respective states (four were former governors), 42 had served in Congress, and a handful were speakers of their state legislatures. These men had the history to back up their reputations as well: Eight had signed the Declaration of Independence, 30 had served in the Continental Army during the war, fifteen had survived true combat situations, and four had been on Washington's personal staff.
Enough with numbers; let's meet some of the real people who attended the convention.
George Washington -- Virginia
Besides being the greatest hero of the Revolutionary War, he also served as the president of the Philadelphia Convention. At first, he did not even want to attend the convention; but since he was a national figure, he did not want the public to think he had lost faith in government. His presence helped the new constitution's ratification, as it was understood that Washington would become the first President.
James Madison -- Virginia
Though his name is not as well known as others, Madison probably had the most influence on the arrangement of the Federal government. Madison was the creator of the Virginia Plan, the system used as a basis for the structure of the national government. His meticulous notes tell us much of what we know today about the convention. Finally, Madison collaborated with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay in the writing of a series of articles in support of the new constitution. They were later collected in a book called The Federalist, the most comprehensive source of knowledge of the principles driving our nation.
Benjamin Franklin -- Pennsylvania
Franklin didn't let old age and ailing health stop him from attending the convention. Like Washington, his tremendous reputation as a scholar and inventor gave an air of prestige to the convention. Near the end of the convention a speech written by Franklin was read aloud by James Wilson, as Franklin was too weak to read it himself. Though it did not convince all the delegates to sign the Constitution, its eloquence did have an effect on the delegates.
Alexander Hamilton -- New York
An exercise in frustration is the best description of Hamilton's experience at the convention; the other New York delegates were directly opposed to him. When they left the convention, Hamilton was the only New York delegate left. With at least two delegates needed from New York for that state to have a vote, Hamilton no longer had a purpose. He left as well, but returned later to sign the Constitution.
James Wilson -- Pennsylvania
A rather talkative gentleman, James Wilson delivered 168 speeches to the assembly. He was originally from Scotland, and thus spoke with an accent. Wilson was one of the best lawyers in the nation, and his defenses of a strong national government were unequaled. Having a strong influence on the course of the Constitution, President Washington later appointed him a justice of the Supreme Court.
Other important delegates include:
Elbridge Gerry (Massachusetts)
George Mason (Virginia)
Gouverneur Morris (Pennsylvania)
Robert Morris (Pennsylvania)
Edmund Randolph (Virginia)
Roger Sherman (Connecticut)
Copyright © 1997 Jonathan Chin & Alan Stern