Guest Essayist: James D. Best
Signing of the Constitution - Independence Hall in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787, painting by Howard Chandler Christy, on display in the east grand stairway, House wing, United States Capitol.

James Madison took extensive notes during the Constitutional Convention. Monday, September 17, 1787 would be his last entry because the signing ceremony would be the final act of the convention. Many had doubted that the day would ever arrive.

For four months, delegates had been locked in a hot, closed room full of sweaty overdressed men. Swarms of horseflies frequently added to the discomfort that had heightened disputes. Acrimonious would be a polite description of the proceeding. Despite the hardships and ill-temper, the delegates stayed and stayed until they eventually hammered out a compromise they could accept.

A reverential spirit suffused the assembly that Monday. The chamber remained hushed as the secretary read the engrossed constitution in its entirety. At the conclusion, Franklin gave a short speech before declaring, “I move the constitution signed.”

Washington formally called on the delegates to sign the Constitution. For this momentous occasion, the secretary had set out the Syng inkstand used to sign the Declaration of Independence. Washington walked around the green baize-covered table to sign first. He then called the states from north to south. The delegates remained silent and respectful as they approached the low dais to apply their signatures to a document they hoped would permanently bind the country. Ratification was far from a certainty. As one of the delegates pointed out, the country remained at May 25th while the delegates had evolved through endless debates until they reached a consensus. When revealed to the general populous, the Constitution would come as a surprise.

Two Benjamin Franklin anecdotes have symbolized the ceremony for countless generations. Both are documented. The first appears in Madison’s notes and the second is described in the diary of Dr. James McHenry, one of Maryland’s delegates to the Convention.

Despite his illness, Franklin had remained standing after he signed, shaking hands with delegates and whispering an occasional aside.

While the last members were signing, Franklin raised his voice. “Gentlemen, have you observed the half sun painted on the back of the President’s chair? Artists find it difficult to distinguish a rising from a setting sun. In these many months, I have been unable to tell which it was. Now, I’m happy to exclaim that it is a rising, not a setting sun.”

Once the last signature was in place, everyone was anxious to leave the chamber that had dominated their life for so many months. Besides, one of the delegates was hosting a celebratory dinner at the City Tavern.

Because of the momentous day, an enfeebled Franklin had abandoned his rented prisoners who normally carried him to and from the chamber. He insisted on walking out of the State House. Washington took a point position in front of Franklin, who was helped by delegates at each elbow.

As the sentries threw open the doors, the delegates were assaulted by bright sunlight and a deafening roar. Hundreds of people cheered, clapped, and whistled at the sight of General George Washington framed by the great double doors of the State House. The sentries had skipped down the three steps and joined arms to hold back the surge of people. A rambunctious session on Saturday had informed Philadelphians that the convention had concluded its business.

As Franklin followed in Washington footsteps, the people continued to cheer and applaud. A woman leaned in to yell, “Dr. Franklin, what is it to be? A republic or a monarchy?”

His answer came in a firm, loud voice. “A republic—if you can keep it.”

James Madison wrote, “The infant periods of most nations are buried in silence, or veiled in fable, and perhaps the world has lost little it should regret. But the origins of the American Republic contain lessons of which posterity ought not to be deprived.”

Throughout history, new nations have come into being because of conquering armies, internal rebellion, or the edict of a great power. Although the United States of America was conceived in revolt, our governing institutions were born in calm reason. Our Constitution comes from a convention and ratification process where reasoned debate eventually led to a decision by a large segment of the population to put a new government in place.

The Founding of this great nation was unique. Until 1776, with a few brief exceptions, world history was about rulers and empires. The American experiment shook the world. Not only did we break away from the biggest and most powerful empire in history, we took the musings of the brightest thinkers of the Enlightenment and implemented them. Our Founding was simultaneously an armed rebellion against tyranny, and a revolution of ideas—ideas that changed the world.

That is why we still care about America’s founding and the Framers of our Constitution.

James D. Best, author of Tempest at Dawn, a novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Principled Action, Lessons From the Origins of the American Republic, and the Steve Dancy Tales

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