University of Wisconsin–Madison

Assessments of Individual Delegates

Delegates to the Constitutional Convention attracted attention both during and after the Convention. Many 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 appeared frequently in the press. What was originally known about less prominent men attending the Convention was a result of the efforts of Georgia delegate, William Pierce. Pierce recorded his observations on the character and personalities of nearly all of his colleagues. These “sketches” from his Convention notes were not published until 1828. Much of what is now known about the delegates is the result of modern scholarship.

As the elections of state ratification conventions commenced, there was discussion as to whether delegates from the Philadelphia Convention should be elected to state conventions. Some, like James Madison, believed that those who drafted the Constitution should not determine whether or not it should be adopted. Others thought that former delegates could provide valuable insights into the proceedings of the Federal Convention. Eventually, thirty delegates from the Philadelphia Convention were elected to state ratification conventions (pdf).

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. For Antifederalists, the treatment of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin proved especially problematic. Since there was virtually universal admiration for both, Antifederalists countered that these statesmen had been duped – Franklin being a dotard and Washington being a military man and not a legislator.

Benjamin Franklin

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, often alleviating tension among the delegates. Franklin’s last speech delivered on 17 September 1787 became fodder in the ratification debate. In the speech, Franklin noted that although they 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 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 and his concerns about the Constitution should be a warning to the public as well.

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 1787, Gerry submitted his objections to the Constitution in a letter to the Massachusetts legislature. These objections were published on 3 November 1787 and caused controversy in Massachusetts and factored into Gerry’s decision not to seek election to the Massachusetts Ratifying Convention. Antifederalists in the state 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 at the Federal Convention. His attendance at the Convention was spotty. Additionally, after fellow delegates John Lansing, Jr. and Robert Yates left the Convention on 11 July 1787, Hamilton found himself the only delegate from New York and thus unable to vote because two delegates were needed to make an “official” delegation. Consequently, his critics denounced him for signing the Constitution as the sole delegate for New York on 17 September.

The altercation between Alexander Hamilton and John Lansing, Jr. in the New York ratifying convention over Hamilton’s views at the Philadelphia Convention

Luther Martin

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

George Mason

Among those who had originally advocated a stronger national government, George Mason eventually refused to sign the Constitution on 17 September. Among his reservations was 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 an informal set of objections, which would later become a critical reference point for opponents of the Constitution. In the fall of 1787 Mason revised and expanded his objections to the Constitution. Although manuscript copies of his objections were widely circulated, they were not published until 21 November 1787 after which Federalist responses abounded.

George Washington

The mere presence of George Washington at the Philadelphia 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’s support for the new Constitution appeared in Federalist polemics. Federalists pointed to Washington’s 17 September letter 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 of the Federal Convention. Wilson willingly inserted himself into the fray on 6 October 1787, 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, he defended and outlined the work of the Federal Convention explaining the merits of the proposed Constitution. Wilson’s explanations received national circulation and became the unofficial Federalist defense of the Constitution. Consequently, Antifederalists singled him out for criticism.