THE BIRTH OF OUR CONSTITUTION
(This story is a compilation/interpretation of two great kids’ books: “If You Were There When They Signed the Constitution” by Elizabeth Levy, and “Shh! We’re Writing the Constitution” by Jean Fritz)
In 1787, a Constitutional Convention was called for to determine how our new government would work. Delegates from all 13 states were to attend the Convention in Philadelphia to hammer out a document to guide the new United States of America.
It had been the rainiest spring in history and all the roads were rutted with deep mud. It took a long time for enough delegates to arrive to get the show on the road. On opening day, only a few neighboring Virginians and the men who lived in Philadelphia were there. George Washington finally arrived on Sunday, May 13, the day before the Convention was to start. The sun came out for the first time in weeks.
The early arrivals had to wait until enough delegates arrived to have a quorum, so they needed people from at least 7 states to begin. Every day, the delegates would show up at the Pennsylvania State House, which people began calling Independence Hall. And every day they would have roll call, see that a quorum was not yet present, and adjourn for the day to try again the following day.
Finally, eleven days later on Friday, May 25, 1787, enough delegates from the 13 states had arrived to begin the process of writing our Constitution. The most colorful arrival was Benjamin Franklin, 81, who was the oldest delegate. Because of health issues, he was delivered to the Convention in a Chinese sedan chair carried by four prisoners from the Philadelphia jail!
Altogether, there would be 55 delegates, but because they had businesses and plantations to run, they would come and go, so there were seldom more than 30 delegates there at the same time.
By this time, it had gotten HOT and muggy. It was a blistering summer, especially for the delegates from New England who wore their wool suits since they weren’t used to being in such heat and had nothing cooler to wear. Huge flies bombarded the city, flinging themselves at the windows of Independence Hall, attacking the delegates when they went outside, buzzing loudly all night when people were trying to sleep with their windows open because of the heat. They made everyone miserable.
To make matters more uncomfortable, there was a 4-story prison standing right in front of Independence Hall so every time the delegates came out of the Hall, the prisoners would crowd around their windows and push “begging poles” through the iron bars, pleading with the delegates to put money into the bags attached to the poles. If the delegates were not “generous” enough – and how could they be generous enough every single day? – the prisoners would call them terrible names and jeer at them.
The delegates also decided early on that they wanted their debates to be private, they didn’t want news to leak out and be misinterpreted by people who would start untrue rumors. They wanted to have the privacy to argue among themselves without the whole country listening in and taking sides. They decided to keep the proceedings a secret, so before every meeting the door was locked and a sentry posted outside in the hall. And, even though it was a scorcher of a summer, they closed and nailed the windows shut and posted guards outside so no one outside could eavesdrop. They agreed to keep their discussions secret when they left the Hall each day and not write gossipy letters home. They agreed not to discuss their business with any outsiders.
For 55 men to keep a secret for four months while writing our Constitution was a miracle in itself but they did!
So picture this: 55 delegates from the 13 states get together in the hottest summer in years in muggy Philadelphia, wearing their best suits (some made of wool, so it would be like wearing your winter clothes in the summer), constantly swatting at big fat, noisy flies everywhere, and holing up in a room (no air-conditioning or electric fans back then) where they nailed the windows shut and locked the door to keep their debates secret. Every time they went outside for a break, the flies would attack them and the prisoners would be begging for money or calling them names! And they did this for four months without getting paid!
When it was all over, and all had signed their names to the document, they adjourned for the last time. A woman waiting outside, asked of Benjamin Franklin, “Sir, what form of government will we have?” He replied, “A republic – if you can keep it.”
Why is the United States Constitution called a miracle? Because the men who wrote it, who sweated over it and fought about it and voted over and over on each clause until the majority agreed with it, believed in and respected the need for individuals to be able to control and change their government if they so desired. That’s why it starts “We, the People . . “
“We, the People . . “ . . the three most powerful words in the history of mankind. It was the promise of a new way of governance, something profoundly unique born in the colonies and defended by the blood of Patriots. Six long years of bloodshed, death, destruction, misery and deprivation paid the price for this opportunity for FREE men to govern themselves. And it was farmers, shopkeepers, fishermen, common men who took on the greatest military of the time, the British military machine, to make the dream live.
FOOTNOTE: The entire Constitution is displayed at the National Archives in Washington, DC only once a year – on September 17, the anniversary of the date on which it was signed. On other days, the first and fourth pages are displayed in a bulletproof case. At night they are lowered into a vault strong enough to withstand a nuclear explosion! ~ from Essentials of American History by John McGeehan