On this day (Aug. 6) in 1787, John Rutledge, chairman of the Committee on Detail, delivered the committee’s final report to the Constitutional Convention, then meeting in Philadelphia.
On Tuesday, July 24, “On a ballot for a Committee to report a Constitution conformable to the Resolutions passed by the Convention, the members chosen were Mr. Rutlidge (sic), Mr. Randolph, Mr. Ghorum (sic), Mr. Elseworth (sic), Mr. Wilson.”
Thus this important committee wrote the first draft of what would become the U.S. Constitution.
Its five members were among the most influential, knowledgeable, active and compromise-minded delegates at the “Grand Convention.” Chairman John Rutledge of South Carolina was described by fellow Southern delegate William Pierce of Georgia as “one of those characters who was highly mounted at the commencement of the late revolution; his reputation in the first Congress gave him a distinguished rank among the American Worthies ... He is undoubtedly a man of abilities, and a Gentleman of distinction and fortune.”
The Randolph elected to this committee was the proud, urban, self-confident 33-year-old governor of Virginia, Edmund Randolph, who was described by the observant French charge d’affairs Louis Otto as “one of the most distinguished men in America due to his talents and influence.”
The third member of this distinguished committee was the Massachusetts merchant Nathaniel Gorham.
In recognition of and perhaps a reward for being “high in reputation,” for his being “much in the esteem of his Country-men,” and for his “agreeable and pleasing manner,” the affable Gorham had been, on May 30, elected chairman of the Committee of Whole and as such exerted considerable influence at the convention, especially regarding matters of trade and commerce (the Committee of the Whole was used as a ploy to enable the delegates to meet informally – often over a “convivial glass” – and to debate without having speeches and votes recorded).
The fourth committee member, Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, was one of the most active participants at the convention. Widely respected for his legal acumen, Ellsworth later would be appointed by President George Washington, in 1796, to be the second chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The fifth member of this talented group was the scholarly (a graduate of the highly respected Scottish University of St. Andrews) James Wilson of Pennsylvania, who was described by the French charge d’affairs as a “distinguished legal consultant.” He is, Otto went on to say, a “haughty man, intrepid aristocrat, active, eloquent, profound, secretive, known under the name of James the Caledonian.”
However, fellow delegate Pierce was more fulsome in his portrayal of Wilson. “Mr. Wilson,” Pierce wrote, “ranks among the foremost in legal and political knowledge. He has joined to a fine genius all that can set him off and show him to advantage ... No man is more clear, copious, and comprehensive ... He draws attention not by the charm of his eloquence, but by the force of his reasoning.”
Wilson was recorded to have made 168 speeches in the Convention, a number second only to fellow Pennsylvania delegate Gouverneur Morris’ 173.
Although all five members of this all-important Committee on Detail made significant contributions to the drafting of what will become, with minor post-Aug. 6 additions, subtractions, and amendments, the revered U. S. Constitution, there is credible evidence that Wilson was the principal author of the committee’s report, and therefore could well be considered, along with Virginian James Madison, as a “father” of the country’s second constitution.
• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University and author of “The American Revolution” and “Shapers of the Great Debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.” He is available for tutoring, talks and workshops on American History. Email him at email@example.com.