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The Constitutional Convention Opens: May 25, 1787

This text comes from our book, The American Venture.

“How are you today, my dear General!”

With these words, Gouverneur Morris greeted General George Washington, after slapping him genially on the back. Morris, a Pennsylvania delegate to the Constitutional Convention, had said that, though he respected Washington, he was not in awe of the great man. James Madison, however, believed none of it. He bet Morris a dinner that he would not walk up to Washington, slap him on the back, and say, “How are you today, my dear general.” And Morris took up the bet.

The Pennsylvania state house, Philadelphia, where the constitutional convention was held
The Pennsylvania state house, Philadelphia, where the constitutional convention was held

Afterward, over the dinner that Madison provided, Morris confessed that, if he had felt no awe for Washington before, he did now. Washington’s cold stare following the familiar greeting, Morris said, had thoroughly shaken him. He would never repeat such a familiarity again, not for a thousand dinners!

George Washington’s reaction to Gouverneur Morris’ friendly greeting might seem a tad prickly—but given the customs of the time regarding personal honor, it made perfect sense. After all, this was the great Washington, the man who had preserved the Continental Army through the long years of the revolution! A man who had become the symbol of the unity of the nation! And who was this Gouverneur Morris to treat the General in so chummy a way? Only a congressman from Pennsylvania, and younger than Washington by 20 years. (Morris was only 35 years old at the time of the convention.) No wonder Washington gave him that cold stare!

Thus did Gouverneur Morris learn the sentiment animating all his colleagues at the Constitutional Convention: awe for Washington. This awe was to serve the convention in good stead, for it was Washington the delegates chose to serve as president over the convention. As president, Washington could not engage in any of the discussions or debates; but he would prove to be the force that united the convention.

It may have seemed at first that this convention, like the previous one at Annapolis, would not come off. Though it was set to open on May 14, 1787, by that date only a few delegates had arrived in Philadelphia. Eleven days passed, and the convention opened with delegates from only seven out of the 13 states. Over the next few months, delegates from other states trickled in. Rhode Island’s delegates never arrived.

George Washington (standing by the desk at right) presides over the constitutional convention.
George Washington (standing by the desk at right) presides over the constitutional convention.

The convention’s delegates could be divided into two general groups. The first group, the nationalists, favored a strong central government that would be able to dominate the state governments and keep them in check. They wanted no mere revision of the Articles of Confederation, which they thought could never provide a strong, centralized, national government; the nationalists favored a complete and total overhaul of the Articles—really, an entirely new constitution. Nationalist delegates tended to come from the “large states” (those with a larger population) such as Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts—as opposed to the small states, those with fewer inhabitants (like Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Georgia).

The second major group among the delegates included those who favored a weak central government and the preservation of state sovereignty. These delegates wanted to keep to the stated purpose of the convention—a simple revision of the Articles of Confederation. Representing the small states, these anti-nationalists wanted to preserve one of the most important features of the Articles: equal representation—one vote per state in Congress. The nationalists, on the contrary, favored proportional representation—more votes in Congress for the larger states; fewer votes for the smaller states.

With such seemingly irreconcilable divisions among the delegates, the Constitutional Convention would have to weather many hard days ahead. It would need someone with the stature of Washington to hold it together.

Washington and Song

The American Revolution gave rise to songs that celebrated the cause of independence. Like other such ditties, “The Liberty Song” was a setting of new words to an older tune. Despite his awe-inspiring demeanor, George Washington could at times relax and enjoy songs (his favorite was the old English folk tune, “Barbara Allen”). “The Liberty Song” no doubt would have resonated with the old general.

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