The Signing of the Constitution

1. Is it disappointing or a relief that the Framers signed a “more perfect” Constitution rather than a perfect Constitution? Do you agree with Franklin that with the closure of the debates there are serious reasons for optimism rather than pessimism regarding the future of the country? Why did Washington attempt to reconcile Randolph? What are we to make of the phenomenon of “signing” that permeates the American experience?
2. What would (1) Madison, (2) Randolph, (3) Patterson, and (4) Hamilton consider to be an even more perfect union than the Constitution? Use any of the following documents to answer the question:

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The delegations unanimously agreed to sign the Constitution, although three prominent delegates – Randolph, Gerry, and Mason – refused to sign, despite an eloquent plea from Benjamin Franklin for unanimity. Before the signing, George Washington spoke for the first time at the Convention. He supported a proposal to increase the size of the representative branch from 1 for 40,000 to 1 for 30,000, which the delegates accepted. After the signing, Washington noted in his diary, “the members adjourned to the City Tavern, dined together and took a cordial leave of each other.”

Franklin’s speech echoed the Constitution’s preamble by asking the delegates and all those for whom they worked, in effect, is not “a more perfect union” better than “a less perfect union?” Is not “a more perfect union” also achievable, whereas “a perfect union” would be achievable only in speech?

—Gordon Lloyd

Source: Gordon Lloyd, ed., Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 by James Madison, a Member (Ashland, OH: Ashbrook Center, 2014), 546–52, 564.

Monday, September 17

In Convention. – The engrossed[1] Constitution being read, –

Doctor FRANKLIN rose with a speech in his hand, which he had reduced to writing for his own convenience, and which Mr. WILSON[2] read in the words following: –

“Mr. President:

“I confess 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. It is therefore that, the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others. Most men, indeed, as well as most sects in religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them, it is so far error. Steele, a Protestant, in a dedication, tells the Pope, that the only difference between our churches, in their opinions of the certainty of their doctrines, is, ‘the Church of Rome is infallible, and the Church of England is never in the wrong.’ But though many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain French lady, who, in a dispute with her sister, said, ‘I don’t know how it happens, sister, but I meet with nobody but myself that is always in the right – il n’y a que moi qui a toujours raison.’

“In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution, with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a General Government necessary for us, and there is no form of government, but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered; and believe further, that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other. I doubt, too, whether any other Convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution. For, when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded, like those of the builders of Babel; and that our states are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats. 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. If every one of us, in returning to our constituents, were to report the objections he has had to it, and endeavor to gain partisans in support of them, we might prevent its being generally received, and thereby lose all the salutary effects and great advantages resulting naturally in our favor among foreign nations as well as among ourselves, from our real or apparent unanimity. Much of the strength and efficiency of any government, in procuring and securing happiness to the people, depends on opinion, – on the general opinion of the goodness of the government, as well as of the wisdom and integrity of its governors. I hope, therefore, that for our own sakes, as a part of the people, and for the sake of posterity, we shall act heartily and unanimously in recommending this Constitution (if approved by Congress and confirmed by the Conventions) wherever our influence may extend, and turn our future thoughts and endeavors to the means of having it well administered.

“On the whole, Sir, I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention, who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion, doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.” He then moved, that the Constitution be signed by the members, and offered the following as a convenient form, viz.: “Done in Convention by the unanimous consent of the States present, the seventeenth of September, etc. In witness whereof, we have hereunto subscribed our names.”

This ambiguous form had been drawn up by Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS,[3] in order to gain the dissenting members, and put into the hands of Doctor FRANKLIN, that it might have the better chance of success.[4]

Mr. GORHAM[5] said, if it was not too late, he could wish, for the purpose of lessening objections to the Constitution, that the clause, declaring that “the number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every forty thousand,” which had produced so much discussion, might be yet reconsidered, in order to strike out “forty thousand,” and insert “thirty thousand.” This would not, he remarked, establish that as an absolute rule, but only give Congress a greater latitude, which could not be thought unreasonable.

Mr. KING[6] and Mr. CARROLL[7] seconded and supported the ideas of Mr. GORHAM.

When the President[8] rose, for the purpose of putting the question, he said, that although his situation had hitherto restrained him from offering his sentiments on questions depending in the House, and, it might be thought, ought now to impose silence on him, yet he could not forbear expressing his wish that the alteration proposed might take place. 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 an insufficient security for the rights and interests of the people. He acknowledged that it had always appeared to himself among the exceptionable parts of the plan; and late as the present moment was for admitting amendments, he thought this of so much consequence, that it would give him much satisfaction to see it adopted.[9]

No opposition was made to the proposition of Mr. GORHAM, and it was agreed to unanimously.

On the question to agree to the Constitution, enrolled, in order to be signed, it was agreed to, all the States answering, aye.

Mr. RANDOLPH[10] then rose, and with an allusion to the observations of Doctor FRANKLIN, apologized for his refusing to sign the Constitution, notwithstanding the vast majority and venerable names that would give sanction to its wisdom and its worth. He said, however, that he did not mean by this refusal to decide that he should oppose the Constitution without doors. He meant only to keep himself free to be governed by his duty, as it should be prescribed by his future judgment. He refused to sign, because he thought the object of the Convention would be frustrated by the alternative which it presented to the people. Nine States will fail to ratify the plan, and confusion must ensue. With such a view of the subject he ought not, he could not, by pledging himself to support the plan, restrain himself from taking such steps as might appear to him most consistent with the public good.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS said, that he too had objections, but considering the present plan as the best that was to be attained, he should take it with all its faults. The majority had determined in its favor, and by that determination he should abide. The moment this plan goes forth, all other considerations will be laid aside, and the great question will be, shall there be a National Government, or not? And this must take place, or a general anarchy will be the alternative. He remarked that the signing, in the form proposed, related only to the fact that the States present were unanimous.

Mr. WILLIAMSON[11] suggested that the signing should be confined to the letter accompanying the Constitution to Congress, which might perhaps do nearly as well, and would be found satisfactory to some members who disliked the Constitution. For himself, he did not think a better plan was to be expected, and had no scruples against putting his name to it.

Mr. HAMILTON[12] expressed his anxiety that every member should sign. A few characters of consequence, by opposing, or even refusing to sign the Constitution, might do infinite mischief, by kindling the latent sparks that lurk under an enthusiasm in favor of the Convention which may soon subside. No man’s ideas were more remote from the plan than his own were known to be; but is it possible to deliberate between anarchy and convulsion on one side, and the chance of good to be expected from the plan on the other?

Mr. BLOUNT[13] said, he had declared that he would not sign so as to pledge himself in support of the plan, but he was relieved by the form proposed, and would, without committing himself, attest the fact that the plan was the unanimous act of the States in Convention.

Doctor FRANKLIN expressed his fears, from what Mr. RANDOLPH had said, that he thought himself alluded to in the remarks offered this morning to the House. He declared, that, when drawing up that paper, he did not know that any particular member would refuse to sign his name to the instrument, and hoped to be so understood. He possessed a high sense of obligation to Mr. RANDOLPH for having brought forward the plan in the first instance, and for the assistance he had given in its progress; and hoped that he would yet lay aside his objections, and, by concurring with his brethren, prevent the great mischief which the refusal of his name might produce.

Mr. RANDOLPH could not but regard the signing in the proposed form, as the same with signing the Constitution. The change of form, therefore, could make no difference with him. He repeated, that, in refusing to sign the Constitution, he took a step which might be the most awful of his life; but it was dictated by his conscience, and it was not possible for him to hesitate, – much less, to change. He repeated, also, his persuasion, that the holding out this plan, with a final alternative to the people of accepting or rejecting it in toto, would really produce the anarchy and civil convulsions which were apprehended from the refusal of individuals to sign it.

Mr. GERRY[14] described the painful feelings of his situation, and the embarrassments under which he rose to offer any further observations on the subject which had been finally decided. Whilst the plan was depending, he had treated it with all the freedom he thought it deserved. He now felt himself bound, as he was disposed, to treat it with the respect due to the act of the Convention. He hoped he should not violate that respect in declaring, on this occasion, his fears that a civil war may result from the present crisis of the United States. In Massachusetts, particularly, he saw the danger of this calamitous event. In that State there are two parties, one devoted to Democracy, the worst, he thought, of all political evils; the other as violent in the opposite extreme. From the collision of these in opposing and resisting the Constitution, confusion was greatly to be feared. He had thought it necessary, for this and other reasons, that the plan should have been proposed in a more mediating shape, in order to abate the heat and opposition of parties. As it had been passed by the Convention, he was persuaded it would have a contrary effect. He could not, therefore, by signing the Constitution, pledge himself to abide by it at all events. The proposed form made no difference with him. But if it were not otherwise apparent, the refusals to sign should never be known from him. Alluding to the remarks of Doctor FRANKLIN, he could not, he said, but view them as leveled at himself and the other gentlemen who meant not to sign.

General PINCKNEY.[15] We are not likely to gain many converts by the ambiguity of the proposed form of signing. He thought it best to be candid, and let the form speak the substance. If the meaning of the signers be left in doubt, his purpose would not be answered. He should sign the Constitution with a view to support it with all his influence, and wished to pledge himself accordingly.

Doctor FRANKLIN. It is too soon to pledge ourselves, before Congress and our constituents shall have approved the plan.

Mr. INGERSOLL[16] did not consider the signing, either as a mere attestation of the fact, or as pledging the signers to support the Constitution at all events; but as a recommendation of what, all things considered, was the most eligible.

On the motion of Doctor FRANKLIN, – New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, aye, – 10; South Carolina, divided.[17]

Mr. KING suggested that the Journals of the Convention should be either destroyed, or deposited in the custody of the President. He thought, if suffered to be made public, a bad use would be made of them by those who would wish to prevent the adoption of the Constitution.

Mr. WILSON preferred the second expedient. He had at one time liked the first best; but as false suggestions may be propagated, it should not be made impossible to contradict them.

A question was then put on depositing the Journals, and other papers of the Convention, in the hands of the President; on which, – New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, aye, — 10; Maryland,[18] no, – 1.

The President, having asked what the Convention meant should be done with the Journals, etc., whether copies were to be allowed to the members, if applied for, it was resolved, nem. con.[19] “that he retain the Journal and other papers, subject to the order of Congress, if ever formed under the Constitution.”

The members then proceeded to sign the Constitution, as finally amended, as follows: . . .

The Constitution being signed by all the members, except Mr. RANDOLPH, Mr. MASON,[20] and Mr. GERRY, who declined giving it the sanction of their names, the Convention dissolved itself by an adjournment sine die.[21]

Whilst the last members were signing, Doctor FRANKLIN, looking towards the President’s chair, at the back of which a rising sun happened to be painted, observed to a few members near him, that painters had found it difficult to distinguish in their art, a rising, from a setting sun. I have, said he, often and often, in the course of the session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the President, without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: but now at length, I have the happiness to know, that it is a rising and not a setting sun.

  1. 1. formally and neatly copied
  2. 2. James Wilson, Pennsylvania
  3. 3. Gouverneur Morris, Pennsylvania
  4. 4. This paragraph is Madison's comment.
  5. 5. Nathaniel Gorham, Massachusetts
  6. 6. Rufus King, Massachusetts
  7. 7. Daniel Carroll, Maryland
  8. 8. The President of the Convention, General George Washington
  9. 9. Madison provides the following footnote: “This was the only occasion on which the President entered at all into the discussion of the Convention.”
  10. 10. Edmund J. Randolph, Virginia
  11. 11. Hugh Williamson, North Carolina
  12. 12. Alexander Hamilton, New York
  13. 13. William Blount, North Carolina
  14. 14. Elbridge Gerry, Massachusetts
  15. 15. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, South Carolina
  16. 16. Jared Ingersoll, Pennsylvania
  17. 17. Madison provides the following footnote: “General PINCKNEY and MR. BUTLER disliked the equivocal form of signing, and on that account voted in the negative.”
  18. 18. Madison provides the following footnote: “This negative of Maryland was occasioned by the language of the instructions to the deputies of that state, which required them to report to the state the proceedings of the Convention.”
  19. 19. no one disagreeing
  20. 20. George Mason, Virginia
  21. 21. without specifying a day to reconvene
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