The Framers: Standout delegates attended Constitutional Convention

Second in a series

In 1913, historian Max Farrand wrote, "Great men there were, it is true, but the convention as a whole would be appointed to a similar men (sic), business men, and gentlemen of leisure; patriotic statesmen and clever scheming politicians ..."

They numbered fifty-five.

Patrick ("I smell a rat") Henry and the state of Rhode Island did not attend.

On the minds of many of the delegates was the Shays Rebellion of 1786, where farmers and small-business men, under the leadership of a former Army Revolutionary War captain, Daniel Shays, revolted, seeking relief from lawyers and state governments trying to take their properties to satisfy debts incurred because they had never been paid for their service in the war.

George Washington had written to fellow Virginian James Madison after the rebellion that the current government may fail because "all the tugging at the federal head will soon bring ruin on the whole."

The Articles of Confederation were weak. A convention to change them was necessary.

Who were the standout delegates? They selected Washington as president of the convention. He ensured that agreed-upon rules were adhered to and that a true deliberative body of debaters would rise to speak no more than twice on each issue, while fellow delegates would agree not to pass notes, have side conversations, read books or documents, all while keeping compromise in mind.

All business would be conducted in secret, and at least seven states had to be present to meet officially and vote on any actions. Upon being recognized to speak, the delegates would only address the president.

William Patterson introduced the New Jersey Plan - one house, an executive branch appointed by Congress, and a limited supreme court that would also collect taxes.

James Madison, the greatest influence, and only 37 years old, championed a Virginia Plan that eventually dominated the final document. He had prepared for the convention the previous winter by studying ancient and modern political theories.

Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania spoke most often, took extensive notes, and led the drafting of the document. Roger Sherman of Connecticut championed a Great Compromise, which solved the issue of how representatives in the legislative branch would be apportioned.

Other prominent delegates included Benjamin Franklin, now age 81; the fiery Alexander Hamilton, who walked out once when he felt he was right and everyone else was wrong about an issue; James Wilson of Pennsylvania; and Edmond Randolph of Virginia - all stressing the need for a strong federal government.

These men offered many important suggestions on terminology, the distribution of power among the branches, and even what to name the new chief executive officer of this new Democratic Republic.

Two of the nation's most influential "Founders" were not present. Thomas Jefferson was in Paris as U.S. minister to France and John Adams was serving as ambassador to Great Britain. He had been the principal architect of the 1780 Massachusetts constitution.

Eventually, Jefferson would weigh in on the final document, criticizing what was, in his mind, a too powerful judiciary and suggesting a constitution should be written every few generations. He wrote Adams in London that he felt the convention was "an assembly of demigods."

But an unnamed French diplomat in America at the time proclaimed that even Europe's established nations had never seen "an assembly more respectable for talents, knowledge, disinterestedness, and patriotism."

After over 230 years, it appears his observation was quite accurate.

• Bruce Simmons of Aurora is a former teacher with more than 25 years experience teaching social studies and humanities. This is one in a series of essays describing the history and meaning of the U.S. Constitution. The next installment will discuss Article I - The Legislative Branch and will feature the Great Compromise and the 3/5ths Clause.

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