Gouverneur Morris: The Charming Nationalist

Gouverneur Morris was a delegate from Pennyslvania who participated in the Second Constitutional Convention. Richard Beeman introduces Morris in his book, Plain, Honest Men: The Making of The American Consitution, as an intelligent and oratorically gifted man. Born into wealth and prestige, Morris studied law as a young man and eventually found himself working for the wealthy and powerful Robert Morris. Gouverneur Morris was known for being a charmer and ladies man, whose eloquence, intelligence, and wit made him both a natural speaker and formidible opponent on the floor of the Convention (51).

Morris was one of the most vocal delegates and also one of the most opinionated. He argued tenaciously for a strong and supreme national government and emphasized the need for a single, powerful executive (56). Beeman claims that Morris was one of the men most instrumental in forming the executive branch that is the American presidency. Morris was a committed nationalist and was insistent that the Articles of Confederation be done away with as they were irreparably insufficient. He was unwavering in his views that a strong government be installed and that even a system of federalism would not be enought to adequately manage the new United States.

Beeman presents Gouverneur Morris in a way that I found curious. Beeman says that Morris was the second most vocal member of the Convention behind Madison, but he says comparably little about him. Beeman specifically notes that Morris was known for his “oratorical pyrotechnics” but also seems to imply that Morris was more of a conversational speaker and less of a logical, argumentative figure like Madison or Wilson (51). He describes Morris as tending towards “recklessness,” and describes him as having a “mercurial” temperment and cites William Pierce as describing him as “fickle and inconsistent” (48-9, 109). Beeman’s descriptions make it seem like Morris was vocal and opionated speaker, but that he didn’t have the kind of logic or genius ideas that Madison presented.

Frank Harmon Garver wrote an article entitled “The Constitutional Convention as a Deliberative Assembly” that paints Morris as a great orator who argued fiercely for his viewpoints. Garver make sit clear that Morris was adamant that the country must be united nationally, even threatening the smaller states on occasion (415). Morris was unhappy with the small states refusal to agree to proportional representation and did not hold back his opinions about them.

Benjamin Franklin: America’s Renaissance Man

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The eldest and arguably wisest of the delegates at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 was Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s greatest and most successful citizens.  His ventures into newspaper publishing, science, and diplomacy overseas, among others, prove that there was very little that Franklin was not capable of doing or achieving.  While his work on bifocals and electricity have become more legendary than his political contributions, the assistance that Franklin provided during the early formative years of the American government is undeniable.  Franklin was not one to waste words, a standard he lived by and made known in his Thirteen Virtues, and his relative silence during most of the Constitutional Convention made his statements, as peculiar as they sometimes were, greatly resonate with his fellow delegates.  The portrayal of Franklin as an elder philosopher and wise sage, especially in the reputation that preceded him upon his arrival at the Convention, created a great deal of respect and awe from the delegates, many of whom had never met him in person and were extremely courteous to him throughout the course of meeting at the State House.  His portrayal as a family man is one of indifference, however, as his many ventures into his various fields of interest created a great deal of separation away from those that were closest to him.  Nevertheless, the many experiences of Franklin overseas in Europe gave him a great deal of knowledge concerning the amount of power that should be given to the government and the ill effects that monarchies with too much control in the hands of rulers had on countries.  While Franklin was not a major contributor at the Constutional Convention in the way that James Madison was, his keen sense and his years of seasoning in the realm of public policy and government allowed for him to still make a considerable impact, a feat that Franklin had no problem achieving throughout the course of his incredible life.

Alexander Hamilton: Ideas on Human Nature

Alexander Hamilton played a slight, yet important, role in the Constitutional Convention in 1787. He was best known for his career as a financial role in the early American government. With a strong background in law, Hamilton approached the Constitutional Convention in 1787 with some fairly radical ideas. He was a scholar from Kings College in New York and a successful fighter from the Revolutionary War. And with this background, he presented his strong opinions to the delegates.

His most important role in the Convention occurred on June 18, when he delivered an extremely lengthy proposal for a new government. His focus was the conception of human nature and how it related to political science. He had a strong perspective, with an emphasis on liberty, nobility, philanthropy and power. His ideas display the tension between liberty and power. As stated in his article, Michael J. Rosana suggests that Hamilton believed “the tension between liberty and power require powerful government to defend liberty” (Rosano 64).   As Hamilton addressed the delegates, his speech was found to go against the new ideas of the New Jersey Plan.  He wanted to go as far towards monarchy as possible, with still maintaining the republican principles. Hamilton discussed politicians “love of power” (Beeman 167) and self interest. He understood that most politicians have a strong drive for personal gain, but that it is backed by the desire to do public good (Rosano 69).

Hamilton’s daylong presentation to the Convention delegates was an aggressive approach to their seemingly endless debate for the new constitution. He touched upon five main focal points; “an active and constant interest in supporting government,” “the love of power,” “the habitual attachment of the people” to what is close to them, “the coercion of laws or the coercion of arms,” and the influence of other models (Beeman 167).

The room listened intently as Hamilton presented his ideas. When he finally finished, the delegates were at a loss. His proposal had been radical. One delegate remembered that he had been “praised by every body, but supported by none” (Beenman 170).

Hamilton’s ideas for the new government were extreme.However, his ideas were not completely thrown from the making of the new government. The Convention did take his ideas into consideration and morphed some of them to use in the final outcome of the new US Constitution.

Elbridge Gerry: The Trusted Skeptic of the Constitutional Convention

Elbridge Gerry was an important figure in the Constitutional Convention, best known for his undying skepticism of centralized government power.  It was this skepticism that ultimately led him to not sign the Constitution on September 17, 1787. Gerry’s biographer even said that “suspicion was the weakest trait of his mind” and that he could “sniff the tyranny in every tainted breeze.” (Morison 10)

After attending Harvard and obtaining both a bachelors and a masters degree, Gerry returned home to Massachussets to be a part of the family fishery business but still managed to retain a hefty interest in politics. As a result,  Gerry was elected to the Massachussets Provincial Congress in 1774 where he used his merchant skills to supply the military with whatever they needed. In doing this, he rose to fame and was elected to the Continental Congress in 1776 where “he continued to collect military supplies, but now on a national level, acting in both a private and public capacity” (American National Biography).

Following Shay’s Rebellion, Gerry decided to attend the Constitutional Convention in 1787 believing that a strong federal government was necessary to prevent future civilian uprisings.  However, Gerry still feared a government that resembled the British monarchical system in any way.  Ultimately, Gerry did not sign the Constitution in 1787 believing that a Bill of Rights was a necessary addition that would secure the personal liberties of the American people. However, he also “believed ordinary citizens of America were too gullible, and that their votes could be too easily manipulated.” (Beeman 129) In this way, this made Gerry a very “middle of the road” politician favoring neither centralized power nor state sovereignty. “Gerry joined Madison in riducling the idea that state sovereignty was somehow sacred” (Beeman 182) as a result of his experience during Shay’s Rebellion in which he witnessed and ultimately feared mass uprising and general anarchy. He also believed that should the Constitution be put into effect, the central government would have too much military power. However, regardless of his skeptic attitude, he was a generally well-respected figure of the Constitutional Convention. While his physical presence could best be described as “nervous and birdlike”  he was still known as “a gentelman in principles and manners.” (Beeman 112) Whatever Gerry lacked in physical demeanor, he made up for with his perseverance in creating a newer, better government. Colleague John Adams notes that “if every man here was a Gerry, the Liberties of America would be safe against the Gates of Earth and Hell” (Morison 14).

William Paterson: Guiding Voice of the Small States

Courtesy of Wikipedia

One of the biggest advocates for the “small states” during the Constitutional Convention, William Paterson is most remembered for his stern opposition of Edmund Randolph’s proposed Virginia Plan which called for proportional representation in the “national” legislature. Born in Ireland, Paterson’s family immigrated to America and settled in Princeton, New Jersey. While his father was a moderately successful storekeeper, Paterson displayed his natural intelligence at an early age entering the College of Princeton when he was fourteen.  Paterson pursued his master’s degree and studied law following his graduation. From the beginning of the American Revolution, Paterson was a staunch Patriot. He lived by a strict moral code that was displayed in most aspects of his political and private life. Paterson saw his reputation and prestige ascend to new heights at the outbreak of war. His law practice became incredibly sought out after his appointment as Attorney General of New Jersey in 1776. 

Appointed as one of New Jersey’s delegates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Paterson remained relatively quiet during the first couple weeks except for his cryptic and sometimes animated note taking, especially during Edmund Randolph’s proposed Virginia Plan on May 29th. Paterson strongly believed that proportional representation in this new legislature would undermine the sovereign power of the states and the Articles of Confederation as a whole. On June 9th, Paterson spoke passionately in opposition, reminding the delegates not to overstep the boundaries that had brought them to the convention, to revise and enlarge the Articles of Confederation, not to completely scrap the document in its entirety. While Paterson supported a stronger central government, he felt that upholding the Articles of Confederation was the safest and maybe only way to ensure the equality of representation among the states. His proposed New Jersey plan protected the interests of the smaller states and directly countered the sweeping changes of the national government articulated in the Virginia Plan.

James Wilson: Father of the American Presidency

In Plain, Honest Men (2009), Richard Beeman claims that “Only one member of the Convention envisioned an American government, and a president, much like those we have today” (129).  That man, according to Beeman, was James Wilson.  Though he remains more obscure than Framers such as Madison, Franklin or Washington, Wilson was a pivotal figure in 1787.  A member of the Pennsylvania delegation, Wilson was originally from Scotland.  He came to the American colonies in 1765 at the age of twenty-three and soon found himself  studying under John Dickinson.  Wilson then settled in Carlisle where he worked as an attorney and became a participant in Pennsylvania politics.  He relocated to Philadelphia in the late 1770s and by the time of the Constitutional Convention he had become a prominent lawyer and advisor to Robert Morris and other leading figures in the Confederation government.  During the summer of 1787, Wilson argued strenuously for popular sovereignty and a single, strong president.  That is why Beeman identifies him as the most modern of the Framers.