On this day (Sept. 17) in 1787, 38 of the 41 exhausted delegates in attendance in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall affixed their signatures to the final draft of what, when ratified by at least nine state ratifying conventions, would become the U.S. Constitution.
Delaware delegate George Read signed for himself and for his Delaware colleague, John Dickinson, who had taken sick a few days earlier and gone home. Dickinson, however, had left a letter authorizing Read to sign for him – making 39 signatures in all.
Part of this Monday’s convention proceedings was taken up with trying to convince three diehard delegates (Virginia delegates George Mason and Edmund Randolph and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts) that they should, in the spirit of unanimity, sign the draft.
They all three had repeatedly declared, in convention, that they could not, in good conscience, sign the document unless there were drastic changes, especially in the composition and powers given to Congress.
In an attempt to appease these malcontents, Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts offered one final amendment, which passed without opposition. It lowered from 40,000 to 30,000 the population ratio for determining the number of representatives for each state in the House of Representatives.
Surprisingly, Convention President George Washington then stood and gave his one and only official speech of the entire 116-day Convention. In support of Gorham’s motion, Washington told the delegates: “... It was much to be desired that the objections to the plan recommended might be made as few as possible – The smallness of the proportion of representatives had been considered by many members of the convention” (especially Mason, Randolph and Gerry) “an insufficient security for the rights and interests of the people.”
Even with the passage of this conciliatory motion, the three obstreperous diehards refused to sign the drafted document. Interestingly, while two of the dissidents (Mason and Gerry) worked to defeat ratification in their states, Randolph supported ratification in Virginia of the document he had earlier refused to sign.
Before the convention dissolved itself by adjournment, senior delegate Benjamin Franklin gave his most famous and longest convention speech (actually delivered by Pennsylvania colleague James Wilson). In this often-quoted speech, Franklin confessed “that there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them; For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise ... Thus I consent, sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good – I have never whispered a syllable of them abroad – Within these walls they were born, and here they shall die.”
Shortly after the 4 p.m. adjournment, Franklin was heard to have remarked to a colleague that he noticed on the back of the convention president’s chair a carved replica of a sun. During the long weeks of deliberations, he said he could not determine the sun’s movement. However, on that last day he had come to the conclusion “that it is a rising and not a setting sun.”
That evening (Monday, Sept. 17, 1787), Washington wrote in his diary that shortly after adjournment, the delegates gathered at “the City Tavern, dined together and took a cordial leave of each other.”
• 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.