“The Founders, The 39 Stories behind the U.S. Constitution” by Dennis Brindell Fradin, Illustrations by Michael McCurdy. Amazon.com, $4.00
Quotes of short, easy to read biographies of the 39 men who signed the Constitution on September 17, 1787. This book does not include the other 16 delegates at the Constitutional Convention who either left early, for personal or business reasons, or refused to sign the Constitution because they did not approve of it, but never the less contributed something to our Constitution. Note: Most of our Founding Fathers were wealthy, well educated, lawyers, elected officials or both. Today we would call them the elite of society. Not one working class man or small farmer among them. And of course, for the times, all were white males.
….when Americans of the 1770’s and the and the 1780’s wrote letters or newspaper articles, they usually wrote the country’s name as “united states” or “united States.”
On the other hand, when writing about individual states, Americans of that era almost always used a capital S, such as the “State of Pennsylvania,” the “State of South Carolina.” or the “State of Virginia.”
There was a reason that the new country’s citizens capitalized “States” when referring to individual states but wrote “united states” or “united States” when referring to the entire nation….In fact, they didn’t exactly think of the United States as being a country. Although all thirteen states had worked together to break free of Britain, most Americans viewed this as a temporary necessity to win the Revolution and considered their states more important than the nation as a whole. Americans also feared that a strong federal government would tax them relentlessly and exert too much control over their lives. The Articles of Confederation pleased most Americans by creating a weak central government, saying that the “united states” was merely a “League of Friendship” between the “States.” [Somewhat similar to the European Union today.]
[A good example of this was in 1861. At the start of the Civil War president Lincoln offered the command of the entire U.S. army to Robert E. Lee, but he turned it down. Why? Because his loyalty to his state was greater then his loyalty to his country and he felt he could not take up arms against his own state of Virginia. It wasn’t until after the Civil War that this attitude changed and Americans felt greater loyalty to their country than to their state, as is still the case today.] (source needed) [With the possible exception of Texas.]
Gouverneur Morris (Pennsylvania) We the people of the United States
Gouverneur Morris was born at Morrisania, an estate in what is now New York City, on January 31, 1752. His unusual first name honored his mother, whose maiden name had been Sarah Gouverneur. His father was a judge whose family had long been among the wealthiest and most prominent New Yorkers.
While attending the academy Benjamin Franklin had helped establish in Philadelphia, Gouverneur exercised his lifelong love of jokes and pranks. He and his classmates would close their classroom shutters, lock their Latin teacher in with them, and in the darkened room shout and throw books at him. The teacher had to hide beneath a desk repeatedly before school authorities discovered what was going on and put a stop to it.
Morris was a student at King’s College (now Columbia University) in New York City when he suffered a terrible accident. He scalded his right arm so badly that he had to take a year off from his studies. Still, he manged to graduate in 1768 at the age of sixteen. He then studied law and was admitted to the bar when he was only nineteen. [In those days to become a lawyer you did not go to law school. Instead you worked and studied under a professional lawyer.]
His disfigured arm prevented Morris from fighting for independence, so instead he served in New York’s revolutionary government, surprising many people with his democratic ideas. Morris helped craft a new constitution for New York that offered a great deal of religious toleration for its time. He also tried to abolish slavery in New York, arguing that “every human being who breathes the air of the State should enjoy the privileges of a freeman.” Unfortunately, New York didn’t outlaw slavery until 1827.
Although he was only in his mid-twenties, Morris was sent to represent New York at the Continental Congress in 1778-79. He wrote many papers for Congress, predicting in one that the Untied
States would be a refuge “to mankind; America shall receive and comfort the oppressed, the miserable, and the poor of every nation.”
Defeated for reelection to Congress in 1779., Morris moved to Pennsylvania and began practicing law in Philadelphia. Not long after the move he was driving his carriage when his horses went out of control, and he was suddenly thrown from the vehicle. The doctors of the time couldn’t save his severely injured left leg. They amputated it, and Morris was fitted with a wooden leg. [The author left out that the reason for the accident was that Morris was fleeing the irate husband of his girlfriend.]
The fact that he had an artificial leg and a damaged arm didn’t stop Morris from enjoying an active and full life. Well over six feet in height and very strong, the “Tall Boy,” as he was nicknamed, enjoyed horseback riding, fishing, canoeing, and taking walks of up to ten miles.
Pennsylvania elected the transplanted New Yorker to attend the Constitutional Convention. There he made 173 speeches-the most of any delegate-yet often wound up on the losing side. For example, he preferred that the president and senators hold their offices for life, but their terms were made four and six years, respectively.
He also spoke eloquently against slavery at the convention. It was evil, he declared, for “the inhabitant of Georgia or South Carolina to go to the coast of Africa and tear away his fellow creatures from their dearest connections and damn them to the most cruel bondage.” The convention decided to allow the slave trade to continue until 1808 or later,however.
Gouverneur Morris was named to the five man committee on Style assigned to write the Constitution. Morris did most of the writing, and was largely responsible for the magnificent fifty-two word preamble in which the nation received the name we know it by, with an uppercase U. and S.
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish the Constitution for the United States of America.”
The new framework of government was not perfect, Governeur Morris said after it’s completion. But despite its faults, he believed it was “the best ‘[constitution]’ that was to be attained.”
The year after the Constitutional Convention, Gouveneur Morris sailed for Europe. He spent nearly a decade overseas, serving part of the time as U.S. Minister to France. He returned to his old home, Morrisania, in January 1799. The next year he was elected as one of New York’s U.S. senators. In the Senate he supported the Louisiana Purchase-the deal with France by which the United States obtained territory that later became fifteen states.
On Christmas Day of 1809 Gouverneur Morris married Anne Cary Randolph of Virginia. The bride was thirty-five and the groom almost fifty-eight years old. He and Anne had one child, a son named Gouverneur Morris, Jr., who was born in 1813 when Morris was sixty-one. Gouverneur Morris lived only three more years. He died at Morrisania on November 6, 1816, about three months before what would have been his sixty-fifth birthday. The man who had written the Constitution reportedly said on this deathbed, “Sixth-five years ago it pleased the Almighty to call me into existence here, on this spot, in this very room. And how shall I complain that He is pleased to call me hence?”
James Wilson The Best Form of government
James Wilson was born in Scotland on September 14, 1742. His parents intended Jamie for the ministry, but his father’s death forced him to withdraw from divinity school. Over the next several years Jamie worked as a tutor, but he disliked the job. Next he studied to become an accountant with little enthusiasm. Finally, Jamie decide that he needed a fresh start in life. His mother reluctantly gave her consent, and he sailed to America in 1765.
The young man from Scotland settled in Philadelphia, where he studied under eminent attorney John Dickinson. In 1767 Wilson became an attorney himself, and three years later he mover to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to practice law. The next year, 1771, he married Rachel Bird, a wealthy young Pennsylvanian. James and Rachel had six children, including a son who was given the unusual name Bird Wilson.
James Wilson sided with his adopted country in its struggle with England. In 1774 he published a pamphlet in which he asserted that “all power is derived from the people-their happiness is the end of government.’ Since the Americans didn’t want to be ruled by Britain any longer, Wilson had the honor of signing the Declaration of Independence for Pennsylvania.
But his greatest achievement occurred at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Wilson spoke on 168 occasions at the gathering, more than any other delegate except Governeur Morris. Early in the convention he compared the government to a pyramid, which must rest on the broadest base possible; the American public. “No government can long subsist without the confidence of the people.” Wilson declared.
Some delegates wanted future states in the West to have less of a say in government than the thirteen original states. That was unfair, argued Wilson, whose colleagues agreed. Some delegates wanted the national legislature to elect the president. No, said Wilson, the people should elect the president. […But the Electoral College was created to decide presidential elections instead.]
…Wilson argued in vain that the people should [also] elect both houses of Congress. The people would elect the House of Representatives, the convention decided, but the state legislatures would select the Senate. Only after the Seventeenth Amendment was ratified in 1913 did Americans begin to elect their U.S. senators, as Wilson has wanted.
Following the convention, Wilson worked for Pennsylvania’s ratification. In one speech the tall Pennsylvanian with the thick glasses called the new constitution “the best form of government which has ever been offered to the world.” Wilson’s efforts are instrumental in Pennsylvania’s early approval of the Constitution.
In 1789 the first president, George Washington, appointed Wilson to be one of the country’s first Supreme Court justices, a position he held for the rest of his life. His last years were troubled. Rachel Wilson died in 1786 at the age of thirty-nine. In 1793 Wilson married Hannah Gray. They had one son, but he died in infancy. During the 1790’s Wilson also made unwise business deals [speculation in Western lands]. As happened to many people, who owed money in those days, he was imprisoned for debt, first in New Jersey and then in North Carolina [where he was trying to hide from the sheriff]. James Wilson died in poverty at the age of fifty-five on August 21, 1798, in Edenton, North Carolina. [His body was later moved to Christ Church in Philadelphia in 1906].
James Madison (Virginia) The “Father of the Constitution”
The oldest of twelve children, James Madison was born on March 16, 1751, at the home of his mother’s parents in Port Conway, Virginia. He grew up at Montpelier, his family’s plantation in Virginia’s Orange County, which remained his lifelong residence.
James, who tended to be a sickly and frail youth, was sent to a boarding school at the age of eleven. After five years there and two years studying at home with a tutor, eighteen-year-old James Madison journeyed three hundred miles northward to attend what is now Princeton University in New Jersey. An outstanding student, he graduated in 1771 after just two years of study.
Madison considered becoming a minister, but his voice was too soft for him to preach. He tried to study law but disliked it. What interested him most was politics. During the 1770’s he served in Virginia’s Revolutionary government, helping to write its first state constitution and becoming friends with Thomas Jefferson.
At the age of twenty-eight, Madison was elected to represent Virginia in the Continental Congress. While serving there from 1780 to 1783, he helped organize the U.S. government under the Articles of Confederation. Back home in Virginia, Madison served in the state legislature from 1784 to 1786.
In 1786 Virginia sent Madison to the Annapolis Convention. There he worked to bring about the Constitutional Convention, at which he also represented his state. Madison impressed his fellow delegates in Philadelphia with his enormous knowledge of government. On May 29, The Virginia delegation presented the Virginia plan, which was mostly Madison’s creation. Many of its proposals were incorporated into the Constitution, and even those that weren’t provided a starting point for debate.
Despite being a poor speaker, Madison addressed the convention more than 150 times as he argued for a strong federal government. Only Governeur Morris and James Wilson spoke more often. Madison also kept notes that provide the best record we have of the proceedings. for all his contributions, Madison is remembered as the “Father of the Constitution.”
To help the Constitution gain acceptance, Madison and two New Yorkers, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, wrote a series of essays in its defense. These eighty-five Federalist Papers, of which fifty-one were written by Hamilton, twenty-nine by Madison ,and five by Jay, were published in newspapers beginning in 1787 and also appeared as a book called the The Federalist. The essays helped win approval for the Constitution throughout America and are still considered the clearest explanation of the document’s principles.
James Madison played a major role in convincing leaders in his home state to approve the Constitution by a close vote on June 25, 1788. A big objection of the Constitution’s foes was that it had no bill of rights to protect such basic rights as freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Madison did something about this, too. In the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served from 1789 to 1797, he drafted and fought for approval of what became the first ten amendments to the Constitution, also known as the Bill of rights.
James Madison remained a bachelor until middle age. In May 1794 the forty-three-year-old congressman was introduced to Dolly Payne Todd, a twenty-six-year-old widow who had been born in North Carolina but grew up in Virginia. The two were married on September 15, 1794. James and dolly Madison had no children together, but a son from her first marriage, Payne Todd, became James’s stepson.
In 1801 Thomas Jefferson became the third president and appointed his friend James Madison secretary of state. Jefferson’s wife had died, so Dolly Madison often served as hostess at the president’s White House events. James Madison then followed Jefferson in the nation’s highest office, serving as our fourth president from 1809 to 1817.
During Madison’s presidency, the United States and Britain fought a second war, called the War of 1812, from that year until 1815. In August 1814, the British invaded Washington, D.C., burning the U.S. Capitol, the White House, and other government buildings. President Madison was away during the skirmishing. Dolly Madison gathered up and rescued numerous documents as well as a portrait of George Washington before fleeing the White House at the last moment.
After Madison left office, he and Dolly retired to Montpelier. For the last ten years of his life, Madison, who once said that “a well-instructed people alone can be a permanently free people,” served as rector, or president, of the University of Virginia. The Father of the Constitution was the last surviving signer of the great document when he died at Montpelier on June 28, 1836, at the age of eighty-five. (2629 words)