Assessments of Individual Delegates

Delegates to the Constitutional Convention attracted attention during and after the Convention. Most delegates were well known within their respective states, but few had national reputations. Fueled in part by a rule of secrecy, speculation about the Convention’s agenda and the roles played by particular individuals occasionally appeared in the press.

As the elections of state ratifying conventions commenced, there was discussion about whether delegates from the Constitutional Convention should be elected to state conventions. Some people, such as James Madison, believed that those who drafted the Constitution should not determine its adoption. Other people thought that former delegates could provide valuable insights into the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention. Eventually, thirty delegates from the Constitutional Convention were elected to state ratifying conventions.

As Federalists addressed Antifederalist qualms about the Convention, they noted that George Washington’s 17 September letter to the president of Congress, which was part of the Convention’s report to Congress, illustrated his support for the Constitution. Antifederalist treatment of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin proved especially problematic. Since there was virtually universal admiration for both men, Antifederalists countered that these statesmen had been duped—Franklin being a dotard and Washington being a military man and not a legislator.

The following documents provide contemporary assessments of individual delegates and their role in the Convention.

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN

Benjamin Franklin’s reputation as a scientist and statesman lent considerable credibility to the Convention. His speeches, though infrequent, were often couched in anecdote and humor, alleviating tension among the delegates. Franklin’s last speech delivered on 17 September 1787 became fodder in the ratification debate. Franklin noted that, although the delegates could not produce a perfect system, he would consent to it and urged all of the delegates to sign the Constitution. Subsequently, two delegates printed Franklin’s final speech in Massachusetts and Maryland newspapers from which it was reprinted throughout the country. Federalists suggested that Franklin’s deference to the collective wisdom of the Convention should be an example to the public as they considered the new Constitution. Antifederalists saw Franklin’s acquiescence as the resignation of an old man; his concerns about the Constitution should be a warning to the public.

ELBRIDGE GERRY

On 17 September 1787, Elbridge Gerry was one of three delegates who refused to sign the Constitution. Writing from New York City on 18 October, Gerry submitted his objections to the Constitution in a letter to the Massachusetts legislature. These objections were published in the Massachusetts Centinel, 3 November 1787. Although Gerry decided not to seek election to the Massachusetts ratifying Convention, Antifederalists in the Convention pushed to invite Gerry to attend as a visitor. Federalists originally opposed such a move, claiming that Gerry’s well-known objections would be amplified in the Convention and sway opinions against the Constitution. After considerable debate, Federalists relented and Gerry was allowed to attend. When restricted to answering specific questions in handwriting, Gerry angrily left the Convention.

ALEXANDER HAMILTON

Although an advocate of a stronger national government throughout the 1780s, Alexander Hamilton found himself in the minority among the New York delegation to the Constitutional Convention. On 18 June 1787 Hamilton delivered a lengthy speech in the Convention in which he argued in favor of a powerful central government. Hamilton left the Convention twice but returned later to participate in the debate. However, after fellow delegates John Lansing, Jr., and Robert Yates left the Convention in mid-July Hamilton was unable to vote. (At least two delegates were needed to make an “official delegation.”) His critics denounced him for signing the Constitution as the sole delegate from New York on 17 September.

The following documents cover the altercation between Hamilton and John Lansing, Jr., in the New York ratifying Convention over Hamilton’s views during the Constitutional Convention.

LUTHER MARTIN

Luther Martin arrived late at the Constitutional Convention and immediately caused concern because of his excessive drinking and long-winded oratory. He left the Convention early and reported adversely to the Maryland Assembly. His “Genuine Information” and other prolix writings, printed in newspapers and pamphlets and circulated throughout the country, attracted a great deal of attention.

GEORGE MASON

Among those originally advocating a stronger national government, George Mason refused to sign the Constitution. His reservations included the lack of a bill of rights. Late in the Convention on 12 September he called for a committee to draft a bill of rights. The motion was unanimously defeated. In the final days of the Convention, Mason sketched out his objections, which later became a critical reference point for opponents of the Constitution. In the fall of 1787 Mason revised and expanded his objections to the Constitution. Manuscript copies of his objections circulated widely, but they were not published until 21 November 1787 after which Federalist responses abounded.

GEORGE WASHINGTON

The mere presence of George Washington at the Constitutional Convention lent legitimacy to the proceedings. Among the first decisions delegates made was to elect him unanimously as the Convention’s president. Throughout the ratification debate Washington refrained from actively supporting the Constitution, but Federalists regularly referred to Washington as a strong advocate of the new Constitution and as the likely first president. Federalists pointed to Washington’s 17 September letter as president of the Constitutional Convention to the president of Congress in which he advocated ratification of the Constitution because “it may promote the lasting welfare of that country so dear to us all.”

JAMES WILSON

James Wilson was perhaps the most vilified delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Wilson inserted himself into the fray on 6 October 1787, nearly three weeks after the Convention’s adjournment, when he publicly addressed the citizens of Philadelphia in the courtyard of the Pennsylvania State House. In this address and in his 24 November speech in the Pennsylvania ratifying Convention, Wilson outlined and defended the work of the Constitutional Convention, explaining the merits of the proposed Constitution. Wilson’s explanations received national circulation and became the standard Federalist defense of the Constitution. Consequently, Antifederalists singled him out for criticism.