Excerpt from The Summer of 1787 by David O. Stewart, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Summer of 1787

The Men Who Invented the Constitution

by David O. Stewart

The Summer of 1787
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2007, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2008, 368 pages

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All eight Pennsylvanians worked at city-based pursuits like trade and law. Only a week before, six of them had been at Dr. Franklin's for a session of the Society for Political Inquiries. The presentation was on American trade and manufacturing, matters of less than the first moment to Virginia planters, but central to the national future.

At the Convention, the most prominent Pennsylvania delegates were the ones chosen last. When the state Assembly voted, James Wilson and Gouverneur Morris trailed less-distinguished colleagues by a wide margin, while Franklin was omitted altogether because he was thought too ill to serve. He was later unanimously added to the delegation when his health proved adequate to the task. Each of those three brought noteworthy qualities.

None could match Dr. Franklin for political theater, beginning with his universally recognized title of "Doctor." The title dated from his honorary degree from St. Andrews in Scotland, granted for his scientific achievements (as were his honorary degrees from Oxford, Harvard, Yale, and William and Mary -- not bad for a man who left school at the age of ten).

When attending diplomatic soirées in Paris, his theatrical instincts had draped him in American homespun and crowned him with fur caps. Now he challenged American rusticity by traveling in a glass-windowed sedan chair from France, borne by four husky prisoners from the nearby Walnut Street jail. As Dr. Franklin progressed through Philadelphia's republican streets, his regal trappings drove home the message that honor in America grew from talent, not birth. Yet the swaying procession also must have brought a smile to those it passed, and to the doctor himself.

At eighty-one, Franklin most nearly contended with Washington for celebrity among Americans. His gifts and achievements defied summary. From humble beginnings, he found success as a businessman, inventor, publisher, scientist, writer, and statesman. His curiosity and creativity produced the lightning rod, the Franklin stove, and the first urinary catheter developed in America. His gentle wit would charm generations after his death, obscuring the pronounced aloofness of his family and personal relationships. Those meeting him in 1787 noted the contrast between his titanic reputation and his mundane appearance -- in the words of one, he was a "short, fat, trunched old man."

Most important for the Convention were Franklin's decades of political experience. More than thirty years before, in 1754, he had drafted the Albany Plan of Union for the thirteen British colonies (which was never adopted). He served in the Stamp Act Congress of 1765 and in the Revolutionary Congresses of 1774, 1775, and 1776, during which he edited the Declaration of Independence. He negotiated the crucial alliance with France during the Revolution, and then the peace treaty with Britain. Despite protestations of age and infirmity, which would cause him to skip sessions through the summer, Franklin's talent for compromise would help the Convention over its roughest patches.

Over the summer, Franklin at times had something to say but did not feel strong enough to give a speech. He relied on James Wilson to read his remarks on those occasions, untroubled that they were delivered in Wilson's distinctive Scottish burr. Being the doctor's confidant and spokesman no doubt enhanced Wilson's stature, though his standing as a lawyer and statesman was already considerable. Sharing with Washington and Madison the view that the national government must be stronger, he would play a far larger role in the coming Convention than anyone expected.

Born into a farm family in Fifeshire, Scotland, Wilson won a classical education through a scholarship to St. Andrews University. Pious parents marked him for the clergy, but the ambitious son threw over their plans and sailed to America at the age of twenty-four. His gifts earned him a coveted place in the Philadelphia law offices of John Dickinson (who would attend the Convention as a delegate from Delaware). Wilson dove into the life of his adopted country and never looked back, despite nagging from family members he left behind. (Two years before the Convention, his mother wrote, "I am ashamed of your unconcerned and unnatural like behavior to us.")

Copyright © 2007 by David O. Stewart

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