Speeches, Motions, and Committee Assignments in the Constitutional Convention

Fifty-five of the most prominent men in America met in Philadelphia in the spring and summer of 1787 to correct the problems with the Articles of Confederation. Instead of amending the Articles, as they were instructed to do by the Confederation Congress and by their state legislatures, the delegates drafted a completely new form of government that they submitted to the American people to ratify. For a variety of reasons, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention chose to meet in secret. Consequently, as a self-contained body receiving no assistance from outside, the Convention served as a classroom in the science of government with some of the most learned instructors in the country. Much of this instruction was utilized by delegates during the year-long debate over the ratification of the Constitution.

Unfortunately, the Convention’s secretary kept but a skeletal journal of the proceedings and destroyed many of the Convention’s loose papers. Fortunately, however, half a dozen delegates took notes of the debates. By far, James Madison’s notes are the most extensive.

Relying on Madison’s notes, an anonymous piece appeared in the Historical Magazine in the 1860s that listed the number of speeches delivered by each delegate. Over the next 150 years the notes of other delegates surfaced. It was decided at the Center for the Study of the American Constitution to do another compilation to see how many speeches each delegate delivered. A total of 1,832 speeches were delivered. Six delegates delivered almost half of the speeches (881)—James Wilson of Pennsylvania (172), Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania (171), James Madison of Virginia (167), Roger Sherman of Connecticut (131), George Mason of Virginia (127), and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts (113). More than half of the delegates (28) delivered fewer than ten speeches (eight of whom failed to deliver even one speech). Ironically, the three non-signing delegates (Mason, Gerry, and Edmund Randolph of Virginia-79) were the fifth, sixth, and seventh most frequent speakers. Perhaps surprisingly, Alexander Hamilton only delivered twenty-five speeches, primarily because he was absent so much. George Washington, the president of the Convention, spoke but twice. Even though when the Convention sat as a committee of the whole, he was not presiding, Washington chose not to speak.

As a delegation, the delegates from the three large states of Virginia, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania were the most frequent speakers (382, 269, and 385, respectively). Georgia’s delegates spoke the least (only fourteen times), New Jersey’s thirty-two, New Hampshire’s twenty-five, and New York’s twenty-nine times.

What determined the frequency of speakers? Certainly, attendance was a factor. Those delegates who arrived late or left early obviously spoke less frequently.  Many lawyers attended the Convention and the two most frequent speakers were lawyers, but five of the most frequent speakers were not lawyers.  Except in one case, age does not seem to be a factor. Among the ten most frequent speakers, five were young, three were middle aged, and two were old. The one exception as to age is that all of the young men who served spoke frequently. Jonathan Dayton, the youngest delegate, spoke twelve times, the twenty-sixth most frequent. It seems if you made your mark young in your home state, you would not agree to the appointment to sit quiet. Every state except Georgia had at least one speaker in the top half of the list of most frequent speakers. All of the delegates from Connecticut, Massachusetts, and South Carolina were in the top half of the list of most frequent speakers. The other state delegates (North Carolina excepted) had a balanced mixture of frequent and infrequent speakers.  But, as in all legislative bodies, a few members took the lead and the rest followed silently as “back-benchers.”

Compiled by John P. Kaminski and Michael E. Stevens

List of Speechmakers

The Six Delegates Who Delivered Almost Half of the Speeches