The Constitutional Convention of 1787

From the Lecture Series: America's Founding Fathers

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph. D., Gettysburg College

The delegates of the Constitutional Convention finally convened in the Assembly Room, with its 14 large tables—including the table on which the Declaration of Independence had been signed. Their first working session was on a rainy Friday—May 25, 1787. Despite all the differences and agendas, no one expressed any hesitations about the authority with which they proposed to act.

A photograph of a conference room with lots of chairs and tables covered with green table covers.
The first working session of the Constitutional Convention was on May 25, 1787. (Image: Rdsmith4/Public domain)

Presidency of the Constitutional Convention

The session began with the issue of the presidency of the Constitutional Convention. It was perceived by Robert Morris and the Pennsylvania delegation as the first trick, and they were determined that it should be won by George Washington.

Originally, the plan had been for Benjamin Franklin to make the nomination of Washington; and since Franklin was the only other American who had a hope of rivaling Washington in stature, that ought to have settled the matter.

Unfortunately, however, Franklin’s gout was acting up and kept him within doors at his house on Market Street, and so it was Robert Morris who was on his feet and, “by the instruction and in behalf, of the deputation of Pennsylvania, he proposed George Washington Esquire, late Commander in chief for president of the convention.”

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Washington Elected Unopposed

Morris was at once seconded by John Rutledge of South Carolina, who had hoped that the choice would be unanimous. It would be difficult to imagine any American rising to object to Washington, much less to propose an alternative candidate, and so Washington was unanimously elected, and conducted to the chair on the dais by Morris and Rutledge.

The convention then needed to select a secretary, and, since the secretary was not required to be an actual delegate, and perhaps as a gracious nod in old Franklin’s direction, James Wilson made another Pennsylvania nomination, this time of Temple Franklin, the old leather apron printer’s grandson.

This time, though, there was a competitor: 28-year-old Major William Jackson, who was one of the inner ring of Washington’s old staff. He had made no secret of wanting the job as secretary, and Alexander Hamilton, who was the most prominent member of that inner ring, popped up to  nominate Jackson instead.

Learn more about the Constitutional Convention.

The Decision on the Secretary

The tables had began to buzz, and in short order the vote came out five to two among the seven delegations for Jackson. Temple Franklin might have been the grandson of ‘the greatest philosopher of the present age’, but he also had an unendearing reputation as a prodigious goofball and show-off.

Alas, William Jackson turned out to be but a poor secretary; he did little more than make brief jottings rather than keeping an exhaustive journal. And when the publication of the convention’s proceedings was called for in 1818, the then-Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, complained that Jackson’s papers were very loosely and imperfectly kept, sometimes nothing but loose sheets of yeas and nays.

James Madison, the Self-appointed Secretary

A portrait of James Madison.
James Madison took meticulous notes on the convention’s proceedings. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Not that, in the long run, it would matter, because, without taking the  permission of anyone in particular, James Madison had pulled up a chair at the secretary’s table rather than at the Virginia table, “A seat in front of the presiding member, with other members on my right and left hands.”

There, in no capacity except his own self-appointed one, Madison proceeded to take, day in and day out, meticulous notes on the convention’s proceedings, notes which he would not allow in print until after his death, so that no one could easily challenge his claim that:

In this favorable position for hearing all that passed, I noted in terms legible and in abbreviations and marks intelligible to myself what was read from the Chair or spoken by the members; and losing not a moment unnecessarily between the adjournment and reassembling of the convention I was enabled to write out my daily notes every evening.

Creation of Rules Committee

There was one other item of business, and that was to create a rules committee, once again safely confided to the hands of Hamilton, the South Carolinian Charles Pinckney, and the Virginian George Wythe. In fact, there was only one sour note to disturb the entire first day’s proceedings.

As the credentials of each of the state delegations was officially read into the record, George Read of Delaware added the proviso that the Delaware legislature had tacked on to the credentials, “that those from Delaware were prohibited from changing the article in the Confederation establishing an equality of votes among the states.”

Learn more about George Washington’s doubts about the American experiment.

A portrait of John Dickinson.
John Dickinson was the original architect of the Articles of Confederation. (Image: Charles Willson Peale/Public domain)

Equal Standing for Delaware

George Read did not mind revising the articles to award stronger powers to Congress, but he did not want his little state, with only 60,000 people, to lose the equal standing it had with every other state in the Confederation Congress. “I conceive our existence as a state will depend upon our preserving the fifth article of the present Confederation, which gives each state one vote in determining questions in Congress.”

Lack of Faith among Delegates

Read had written to his fellow delegate from Delaware, John Dickinson, the original architect of the Articles of Confederation: “Such is my jealousy of most of the larger states, that I would trust nothing to their candor,  generosity, or ideas of public justice in behalf of this state.”

Hence, Madison, Morris, and Washington might have won the brief first round of the convention, but Read’s words were an ominous reminder that the way ahead was liable to be filled with longer and more difficult rounds. Their only hope, and the man to take the point in facing those challenges, was now Edmund Randolph.

Common Questions about the Constitutional Convention of 1787

Q: What was the original plan regarding the presidency of the Constitutional Convention?

At the Constitutional Convention, originally, the plan had been for Benjamin Franklin to make the nomination of George Washington since Franklin was the only other American who could rival him.

Q: Who were competing for the position of secretary at the Constitutional Convention?

At the Constitutional Convention, James Wilson nominated Temple Franklin for the post of secretary whereas Alexander Hamilton nominated Major William Jackson.

Q: Who was entrusted with the task of creating a rules committee during the Constitutional Convention?

The task of creating a rules committee during the Constitutional Convention was confided to the hands of Alexander Hamilton, Charles Pinckney, and George Wythe.

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