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The Delegates Previous Next
Digital History ID 3233

 

From Paris, where he held a diplomatic post, Thomas Jefferson described the delegated who convened in Philadelphia to draft the U.S. Constitution an "assembly of demigods."

Yet the Constitution was not handed down from on high. It was the product of the painstaking, halting and often argumentative application of intelligence and experience to problems of governance. The new Constitution was the product of four months of secret negotiations and dozens of compromises.

The framers of the Constitution were all white males. Most were wealthy but not all had started out that way. There were the sons of cobblers, clothiers, blacksmiths, and farmers as well as the sons of wealthy planters. One was Roman Catholic. Thirty had participated in the drafting of state constitutions. Thirty-two were lawyers, though few had attended law schools. Two were college presidents, five were planters, eight were merchants or traders, and three were physicians. About twenty-five owned slaves. Six had served or were serving as governors. Of the fifty-five delegates; two became president; one became vice president; four served in the cabinet; fourteen became senators and five became representatives.

The average age of the delegates was 43. The oldest delegate was Franklin, 81; the youngest, Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey, 26. James Madison was 36 and Alexander Hamilton just 32. A third had fought in the Revolution. Eight had signed the Declaration of Independence and six had signed the Articles of Confederation. Forty-four of the fifty-five had served in the Continental Congress or in the weak Congress established under the Articles of Confederation.

Most of the delegates were highly educated men, who were fluent in Latin and Greek and knowledgeable about history and philosophy. Washington was embarrassed because he had only five years of formal schooling. But the delegates were also highly practical politicians who knew how to maneuver. Those who opposed the idea of a stronger central government, such as Virginia's Patrick Henry, who said he "smelt a rat," mostly stayed away.

Most of the delegates took a skeptical, realistic view of human nature. They considered self-interest and the lust for power universal human characteristics, which could be controlled but not eliminated. They believed that even good people in government cannot be trusted with unchecked power and that governmental authority must be hedged with structured limitations. They saw society as permanently conflict-driven.

The framers of the Constitution had a profound respect for history. In contrast to Jefferson, they looked to history and experience as a guide, not to reason or nature. They combed history for lessons about the rise and fall of great nations. They were especially interested in the history of the early Greek and Roman republics. Looking at history, they were convinced that a loose confederation would inevitably become weaker and would degenerate into monarchy or tyranny. Weak confederations tended to emphasize the differences among their constituent units and minimize their similarities and common interests.

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