Great dramas always begin in a cloud of obscurity. So must this one. In the months preceding that grand performance known as the Constitutional Convention of 1787, life gave no hint of coming drama. To the farmers and the store clerks, the bankers and the shoemakers, life in the spring of the year was nothing out of the ordinary, unless you consider the growing frustrations that were brewing.
Talk at the corner taverns, outside the local cobbler's shop, and just about anywhere else that people gathered often turned to politics. Generally, the tone was angry. It had only been six autumns prior that they had celebrated the news that the British regulars had surrendered to General Washington on the fields of Yorktown, Virginia. Yet the excitement of that moment was quickly forgotten in the growing realization that they had exchanged the shackles of foreign government tyranny for the cackles of their own government's incompetence. The new national government, under the Articles of Confederation, seemed incapable of doing anything right. It seemed that everyone had their own story of government ineptitude that they couldn't wait to share. Each of them could have given a different reason why the document didn't work, but almost everyone agreed that the governing system contained in the Articles of Confederation was a poor way to run a country. As a result, you could often hear a mixture of angry shouting and roars of laughter as the townsfolk and farmers took turns telling their tales. It didn't seem like a script from which great dramas could unfold.
So what was the problem with this first attempt at governing ourselves as a new nation? Perhaps a little background is in order to understand the strong feelings Americans held in the spring of 1787.
Once America announced its "independence" on the steps of what is now called Independence Hall, we had immediately launched ourselves into the deep water. Severed from the governing authority of Britain, we had no national government of our own. We stood on the threshold of liberty, proclaiming great and historic truths, but we stood ill equipped, with no constitution. Nationally, you might say we were in over our heads.
Hence, work was commenced in earnest to create a ship of state without too many leaks. John Dickinson had the honor of drafting our first governing document, and in fairness, he did an admirable job. But the Continental Congress felt it was too strong. Over the course of several months, they commenced to haggle, argue, and wrestle with the proposed Articles of Confederation, weakening them with each modification they made. Their final version was so watered down that it practically ensured a leaky future.
The confederation between colonies was little more than a league of friendship necessitated by our need for national cooperation to win the War for Independence. It provided for a central government and emphasized "perpetual union," but it allowed for the 13 colonies to be mostly independent and separate. It ensured that the national government would have little power or authority to enforce its laws over the individual states, one of many fundamental flaws which became apparent in those crucial years during our fight for liberty from Great Britain.
These flaws all pointed to a fatal lack of national power. The framers of the Articles were fearful of centralizing power in a chief executive or national legislature such as they had experienced under King George III and Parliament. Both were tyrannical and oppressive and did not respect their inalienable rights. Therefore, the Articles made each state legislature supreme in authority and gave no power to the Continental Congress to levy a tax, raise a soldier, control commerce, or enforce its policies on the states short of going to war with them. It had no executive or judicial branch whatsoever. In short, it was a ship of state with many leaks.
No one recognized these deficiencies more than General George Washington and the Continental Army that he commanded. He was convinced that the war might have been won much sooner had there not been a lack of supreme national authority. Many of the hardships experienced at Valley Forge in particular, and throughout the war effort in general, were a result of this flaw. The army's lack of weapons, food, clothing, and pay was in large measure the result of the refusal of various states to comply with the requisitions of Congress. When they did comply, it was often only on a partial basis, and even then usually quite late. The Continental Congress could do nothing to enforce state cooperation under the Articles of Confederation, even during a time when the nation's existence depended on it. Indeed, the Congress was so powerless that heads of foreign governments frequently bypassed it and went straight to General Washington!
It was a period of immense national humiliation that only an eyewitness can describe. Alexander Hamilton, a loyal patriot to America's cause, had reached the zenith of his tolerance when he let loose with a long and abusive criticism of the Articles of Confederation. Only the first portion of his invective is quoted here.
We may indeed with propriety be said to have reached almost the last stage of national humiliation. There is scarcely anything that can wound the pride or degrade the character of an independent nation which we do not experience.
Such humiliation was causing many people to realize the need for a stronger national government. Something had to be done to either strengthen or replace the Articles of Confederation. Alexander Hamilton did his part. In a forceful 17 page letter written in 1780, he was one of the first to assert that the only remedy for such a weak confederation was to call a convention of the states. Despite the wisdom of his suggestion, the "half-formed American Union" was not ready for it. The angry shouting and roars of laughter down at the comer taverns would continue for a while longer.
Although ultimately successful in winning our independence on the battlefield, after the war the Continental Army and its officers were still very frustrated by the federal government's inherent weaknesses. Many of them had not yet been paid for their military service. Some officers believed the desperate times justified desperate measures. Thus, Colonel Lewis Nicola wrote a letter to General Washington in May, 1782, endeavoring to persuade Washington to become king, by the voice of the army, as a necessity of national survival. Their proposal was akin to a military dictatorship, by way of a military coup, and some of the soldiers who fought for independence saw it as their only hope.
Other nations, past and present, have fallen for this temptation, only to regret it later. Fortunately for America, God made sure that a man of Washington's character would receive such a request, for few men could sniff the aroma of power such a proposal offered and respond as unselfishly and admirably as did Washington. His response to Colonel Nicola was unequivocal.
[N]o occurrence in the course of the war has given me more painful sensation, than information of there being such ideas existing in the army... I am much at a loss to conceive what part of my conduct could have given encouragement to an address, which to me seems big with the greatest mischiefs, that can befall my country. If I am not deceived in the knowledge of myself, you could not have found a person to whom your schemes are more disagreeable. At the same time... no man possesses a more sincere wish to see ample justice done to the army than I do... [but only] in a constitutional way.
Washington had indeed sniffed at the tempting and selfish aroma of power and fame, yet chose what he knew was best for the country. Had it not been for Washington's noble response, America's heritage today might be like that of many other nations - government instability from rule by successive military coups.
Our country was sitting in a precarious position at this time in its history, and the danger was not over. Again in 1783, the continued irritation of the soldiers over lack of pay and other grievances led some officers to propose an outright military coup, only this time without Washington's support. A letter to that end was circulating within the army. When Washington caught wind of the idea, he again intervened to halt the insurrection.
Wisely, he called for a meeting of all his officers at Newburgh, New York for the 15th of March. At that meeting, he listened to their grievances and, in a "most eloquent and touching speech," expressed his earnest desire to help them in any means other than civil discord, but he also made it clear that he was opposed to anyone who attempted to "deluge our rising empire in blood." When he was through, he looked out upon the many loyal officers he had led into battle. He saw that they remained sullen, quiet, and unconvinced. At this point Washington may have been the only person standing between military revolt and the swift ending to our experiment in liberty. The admiration from his fellow officers was considerable, and the fact they all knew he had refused to take any pay himself gave his words added credibility. Still, it is not an exaggeration to say that our constitutional future hung in the balance. The drama of the moment was worthy of a Hollywood script.
He tried one more approach. He told his officers that there were many Congressmen who understood their frustrations and were willing to help. He pulled out a letter from one of those concerned Congressmen and offered to read it to them. The General stood there looking at the sheet of paper, yet reading nothing. He seemed hesitant, uncertain and ill at ease. At last, Washington began to fumble in his waistcoat pocket for something, something none of them had ever seen him wear - a pair of eye glasses. His failing eyesight prevented him from reading the letter unaided. In all the years his soldiers had known him, few had ever seen him wear glasses, yet now, as an aging warrior and patriot, he needed them to read a simple letter. As he pulled out that pair of spectacles for the first time in public, he seemed embarrassed. In humble apology he tried to explain.
Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.
Truly no one had even come close to patiently sacrificing the way their Commander had. The officers were instantly overcome with tears by their Commander's strength of character and unselfish devotion to his country. They knew that what he said was true. After quietly reading the letter, he walked out of the hall, mounted his horse, and disappeared from view. That was all it took. The officers voted unanimously to support Washington for a peaceful, constructive solution.
On June 3, 1783, as Washington was preparing to retire from public life, he drafted a letter to the governors of the thirteen states describing fully what he thought needed to be done. He called this letter his "Legacy," mistakenly thinking it would be his final public act. In his letter he said that "[t]hirteen sovereignties pulling against each other, and all tugging at the federal head, will soon bring ruin on the whole.... I do not conceive we can exist long as a nation without having lodged somewhere a power which will pervade the whole union." Unless adequate authority were granted to a national government, he said, "it will become a matter of regret that so much blood and treasure have been lavished to no purpose, that so many sacrifices have been made in vain." His lengthy 4,000 word letter continued:
In less time, and with much less expense than has been incurred, the war might have been brought to the same happy conclusion, if the resources of the continent could have been properly drawn forth. The distresses and disappointments, which have very often occurred, have, in too many instances, resulted not from a deficiency of means in the particular States, but more from the want of an adequate authority in the supreme power, or from a partial compliance with the requisitions of Congress in some of the States, and from a failure of punctuality in others;.... If, after all, a spirit of disunion, or a temper of obstinacy and perverseness should manifest itself in any of the States; if such an ungracious disposition should attempt to frustrate all the happy effects that might be expected to flow from the Union; if there should be a refusal to comply with the requisition for funds to discharge the annual interest of the public debts;... [then] Congress... will stand justified in the sight of God and man; and the State alone which puts itself in opposition to the aggregate wisdom of the continent, and follows such mistaken and pernicious counsels, will be responsible for all the consequences.
As persuasive and admired as Washington's opinions were, they were not received favorably this time. His warnings would go unheeded by the states, which were still suspicious and fearful of the centralization of power.
It was not long before prejudices, ambitions and selfishness in these thirteen little "nations" began to rear their ugly heads. The war debts caused much inflation and taxation, and, without an authority to regulate commerce between states, there was no common standard of monetary exchange. Seven states began to print their own paper money, as did Congress, and a money crisis ensued. Nine states retained their own navies, and the rivalry and animosity between the states was like that of several quarreling foreign nations. It was a dangerous time. The thin thread of liberty, won at such great hardship, was unraveling, and many of the founders knew it.
Reflection upon this period in our history leads many historians to realize how much God's hand was upon our nation at this time to preserve the flickering light of liberty He wanted to flame across the world. The thirteen states were on the brink of going their separate ways. Had they done so, they would have been too weak to withstand the opportunistic invasions from European nations that would likely have occurred. Spain, England, and France were all waiting in the wings, waiting for the right moment to pounce. Even those leaders who did understand the importance of maintaining a union, could not agree on the form that union should take. Centralized power in a federal government was seen as dangerous.
The anti-federal sentiment was so strong at this time that it was miraculous that we ever had a Constitutional Convention at all. The states were weary from six years of fighting to rid themselves of a powerful Parliament that burdened and oppressed them to the point of war. It made no sense to win their freedom from such bondage at the heavy price of blood and life, only to voluntarily relinquish that freedom to a new federal power that could control their lives. They wanted most of all to govern themselves. Typical of their feeling at that time was the proclamation voted back in 1776 by the town of Ashfield, Massachusetts that stated, "we do not want any Governor but the Governor of the universe." Which was worse, being governed oppressively by the British Parliament, or governing themselves? The answer wasn't clear. While the colonies understood the sin of too much centralized power, they still needed convincing of the sin of anarchy which results from too little centralized power.
Most of the bickering between the states was based on commercial trade differences. Virginia and Maryland had particular difficulties resolving these issues. Especially the conflict over which one possessed the navigation rights to the Potomac River. Once again, George Washington attempted to reconcile the situation. Seeing an opportunity to encourage union, he arranged for delegates from the two states to have a conference at his home in Mount Vernon on March 28, 1785. His idea blossomed! These delegates called for another conference to be held in Annapolis on September 11, 1786. At this convention, three more states sent delegates, including James Madison from Virginia and Alexander Hamilton from New York. This convention proposed yet another which would involve every state in order to solve their common commercial problems and regulate trade relations.
While momentum was clearly gathering for a federal convention, the Continental Congress refused to endorse the idea just yet. One more incident would be required to trigger their change of mind. That incident was an armed rebellion of eleven hundred farmers in western Massachusetts led by Daniel Shays in January, 1787. The rebellion was sparked by the monetary crisis, heavy taxation, and the inability of the Continental Congress to repay debts it owned to its citizens.
Actually, in hindsight, that rebellion served a heavenly purpose. It forced Americans to consider the reality that many were fearful of—a civil war between the states over differences in trade and commercial relations. That fear, in turn, finally induced the Continental Congress to call for a Federal Convention on February 21, 1787. Remarkably, even through all of this, the Congressional call for change was a very limited one. Their vote to hold a Federal Convention in Philadelphia was "for the sole and express purpose" of revising, not doing away with, the Articles of Confederation. This modest, cautious step towards a stronger federal system was made with the still clear recollection of British abuses of centralized power.
Men may plan one thing, but Providential purposes and timing determine the outcome. Among the many gems of wisdom contained in the book of Ecclesiastes is this one: "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven." It was certainly true in this case, for the timing of this Convention could not have been more Providential. Had it been held five years earlier, the states would still have been unconvinced of the need for a stronger federal union and never would have risked making substantial changes to the Articles of Confederation. Had the Convention been held five years later, news of the bloody anarchy of the French Revolution would probably have made them equally fearful of changing anything in their present system. Many leaders of the day were beginning to sense God's hand in the coming drama. Though invisible, it was clearly felt.
Preparations began for this historic gathering, although no one anticipated just how historic it would be. After all, the original purpose of this Convention was not to write a whole new Constitution, but merely to amend what they already had. Twelve states proceeded to appoint a total of seventy-four delegates. Rhode Island was the only hold-out, refusing to appoint or send any delegates. Of those attending, most delegates had to personally finance their trip to, and stay in, Philadelphia, since their home states did not have sufficient funds in their treasuries to pay for the endeavor. Given the long duration of the convention, this financial burden was not a light one. Little wonder, then, that only fifty-five delegates actually arrived at the Convention.
While this group of fifty-five delegates was relatively small, their selection was no act of mere coincidence. It was apparent that God also played a role in the selection of this particular group of men for this particular event in history. He alone knew what was necessary for success, and it seems God made sure the players were ready for the task at hand. There are several pieces of evidence to support this conclusion of Providential involvement.
First, they were extremely well educated. Twenty-nine of the men were university trained, graduates of Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, William and Mary, Oxford, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. Among the men who were not university trained were the likes of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Half of the delegates were lawyers by profession. Of these, there was James Wilson of Pennsylvania, born and educated in Scotland, and "one of the most learned jurists this country has ever seen." Likewise, Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, who later became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, "was one of the ablest lawyers of his time."
A second fact which demonstrated these men were prepared for the task at hand was that they had strong experience in serving their country. Seven delegates had been state governors, eight had signed the Declaration of Independence, twenty-one had fought in the War for Independence with the Continental Army, and almost three quarters of them had already served in the Continental Congress.
Third, they had extensive experience in writing legislative documents. Many had helped to write their own state constitutions in the five years following independence from Britain. Virtually all served in their state legislatures. These men were proven leaders who were willing to serve their country. Even the names of the participants read like a Who's Who of American History. Most people are aware of the likes of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. Indeed, one historian said of the thirty-six year old Madison and the thirty year old Hamilton that "these two men must be ranked in the same order with Aristotle, Montesquieu, and Locke" as the most profound and original thinkers. God had truly brought together an impressive group for an awesome task. After reading the list of delegates attending the Convention, Thomas Jefferson remarked in a letter to John Adams, "It is really an assembly of demigods." He would later write, "A more able assembly never sat in America." Many believe that a more able assembly has never met since.
However, their most important quality was that they were well-versed in Biblical principles. All but two were regular members of Christian churches, and three were active clergy. Reverend Hugh Williamson was a licensed preacher of the Presbyterian Church who conducted regular church services in North Carolina. Reverend W. Samuel Johnson of Connecticut was the President of Columbia University when he was appointed to the Convention. Finally, the third member of the clergy, Reverend Abraham Baldwin, was a typical colonial clergyman who combined religion and politics: he was a lawyer, a chaplain in the war, a member of the Georgia legislature, and a member of the Continental Congress before becoming Georgia's delegate to the Convention. Afterwards, he was elected to the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate, and founded the University of Georgia.
The faith of these men would prove important for many reasons. The significance of George Washington's faith alone was apparent to Isaac Potts, Washington's temporary landlord during the ordeal at Valley Forge ten years earlier. After he came upon Washington at prayer in the woods, he told his wife, "If George Washington be not a man of God, I am greatly deceived–and still more shall I be deceived, if God does not, through him, work out a great salvation for America." This was a critical time in our young nation's history. A wrong turn at this point, and union might never have been achieved. Even a cursory review of this period is enough to show that America stood at a precipice. God's hand of protection was busy shielding us from imminent destruction during this time of national weakness and vulnerability. The faith of these men that God would get them through, the faithfulness of God to direct them and the events surrounding them to preserve the delicate liberty that had been forged, would make the difference between the outcome of America's Constitutional Convention and the outcome of all other similar conventions of other nations throughout history. All the nations had brilliant and talented leaders, but no other nation's leaders sought God's aid in drafting their constitutions to the degree evidenced by America's founders.
Considering all the fears and animosities that had to be overcome just for the delegates to agree to meet at such a Convention, the mere efforts of mortal men could not have accomplished such a feat. Even the great stature and persuasive skills of men like Washington, Madison and Hamilton had proven to be insufficient. The events that transpired to bring fifty-five delegates to Philadelphia with one common purpose required more than what men could provide. Too many things had to come together at the proper time and in the proper manner to chalk up the explanation to coincidence. Had it not been for the obvious intervention of God Himself, the Federal Convention of 1787 might never have met at all. God did His part.
Thanks to God, all was Providentially set in place to raise the curtain on the drama that was soon to transpire. But you would never have known it in the spring of 1787. Life seemed ordinary to the farmers and the store clerks, the bankers and the shoe makers. There was no hint of coming drama; but then, why should there be? After all, great dramas always begin in a cloud of obscurity.