Philadelphia in 1787: The Making of the Constitution of the United States

Philadelphia, the capital of Pennsylvania, was in 1787 a city of a little over 40,000 people. The city had been founded a century earlier by Quakers and it still had a strong Quaker presence. Philadelphia was the cultural and intellectual center of the new United States of America. The College of Philadelphia, now the University of Pennsylvania, was one of the top colleges in America in 1787. The most important scientific society, the American Philosophical Society, met in Philadelphia. And America’s greatest thinker, Benjamin Franklin, lived in Philadelphia. In 1787 Ben Franklin was an old man, at 81 years. But he remained active intellectually and politically. Franklin was the President of Pennsylvania. He had only a few years before returned from spending over a decade in Europe where he served as a United States envoy to France. When the American War for Independence broke out in 1775, the Continental Congress, directing the American war effort, sent Franklin to Paris to try to convince the French to support the United States in their rebellion against England. Franklin had been very popular in France. He was a favorite at the French court and in French intellectual and cultural circles. He often donned a coonskin cap and made himself out to be an American backwoodsman. At the same time the French knew Franklin to be a world famous scientist, the man who had discovered that lightning from clouds was made of, in Franklin’s words, “the electric fluid.” Partly because of his popularity Franklin was able to convince the French to support America’s cause against the English.

Ben Franklin living on Market street in Philadelphia in 1787 opened his home to scientists and intellectuals who visited Philadelphia. In the spring of that year Franklin was expecting some visitors who were coming to Philadelphia for a particular reason. Philadelphia had been agreed upon by the thirteen United States to be the rendezvous for delegates or representatives of the states who were especially chosen to meet to discuss the problems of government. The United States in 1787 was governed by the Articles of Confederation, a government created during the war. Philadelphia had been the place where the Continental Congress met at the beginning of the War. At Independence Hall, down the street from Franklin’s house, delegates from the thirteen states had met and signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. After independence had been declared, it was thought necessary to have a central government to direct the war against England. The Articles of Confederation created that government, one that had a one-house congress and a weak executive. The Congress had appointed George Washington of Virginia to be the Commander in Chief.

Years later in 1787, the war having reached a successful conclusion, the United States was still governed by the Articles of Confederation. But there were problems. The United States economy was burdened by high inflation. There was no common currency–indeed each state could print and issue their own currency. There was no unified trade policy. At the conclusion of the war in 1783 the American army and navy disbanded; the only military forces in the United States in 1787 were state militias, and they were inadequately supplied and ill-prepared for conflict. Even with the conclusion of the war, and American Independence, the United States was threatened by other countries. Great Britain ached for revenge and kept troops on America’s northern borders, even maintaining a presence in in old forts on American soil, such as at Detroit. The Spanish, interested in seeing the United States lose control of its western territories–the lands of Kentucky and Tennessee, for example–closed the port of New Orleans to American shipping. The Congress, however, without an army and navy and without the funds to create a viable military force, could do nothing.

Those who had led America during the war looked upon the weakness of the United States with dismay. George Washington, having retired as commander of American forces and living at Mount Vernon on the Potomac River, wrote anguished letters to his friends, men such as Alexander Hamilton, complaining of the ineffectiveness of the Articles of Confederation. Washington was afraid that the United States would be taken over by foreign countries, or that the thirteen states would split apart into aggressive dominions. He believed the only solution was a stronger central government.

To this end George Washington traveled to Philadelphia in May 1787 as a delegate from Virginia to meet with other delegates to discuss the future of the United States and what could be done to reform the Articles of Confederation. Washington visited the home of Ben Franklin. He learned of others who had arrived at Philadelphia. Already there was the young James Madison of Virginia, a brilliant political thinker. Also arrived was Alexander Hamilton of New York, ambitious, vain, and also brilliant. John Langdon, a wealthy merchant who lived at Portsmouth on the Piscataqua River, arrived from New Hampshire. In all, about fifty men met at Philadelphia the spring and summer of 1787 to discuss the Articles of Confederation. They styled themselves a Convention. Their commission from the thirteen states was vague: to discuss ways to amend the Articles of Confederation to make it a stronger government to cure some of America’s ills. The delegates met at Independence Hall, where many of them had stood eleven years earlier to sign the Declaration of Independence. Indeed the men who formed the Philadelphia Convention were experienced statesmen, diplomats, soldiers, lawgivers, merchants, and farmers. They were generally young–many of them were in the Thirties. Quite a few of them owned slaves. They were all educated. And they were the cultural and political elite of their respective states. Wealthy and powerful, they were conservative as well. They had welcomed the changes of the American Revolution that brought about independence from England. But they feared too much change. Hence most of the delegates at Philadelphia the summer of 1787 sought to create a stronger, more centralized government that could bring order to a society that seemed to be becoming more disorderly. They met at Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence had been signed in 1776.


Independence Hall, Philadelphia
These fifty some men had faults to be sure. They were not saints. However they did share one gift that set them apart from others, both of their time and even now. These men possessed a certain political wisdom, an ability to understand what precisely is the relationship between government and society, how best to grant the most liberty and freedom while at the same time maintaining order and security. Their greatest gift was an awareness of the needs of their own time and what might be the needs of posterity. Their creation, the United States Constitution, is a government that has lasted for over 200 years precisely because it is a government of order and security that is flexible enough to allow for change and the new and unexpected needs of each generation.

As Alexander Pope wrote in Essays on Man:

“For forms of government, let fools contest,

That which is best administered is best.”

About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
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