Using the private and public writings of many of the figures involved with the framing of the constitution, Catherine Drinker Bowen’s historical novel Miracle At Philadelphia
(1966) relates the events with unusual vividness.
Bowen notes that it was extremely hot and humid in Philadelphia when the convention first met in May of 1787. She names some of the prominent and famous people who were sent as delegates to the convention, describing the delegates as uncertain of each other and proceeding with great care. She recounts the events leading to the necessity of the convention. At the time, the government was organized under the Articles of Confederation, adopted after the Revolutionary War. The main artery of this weak government was a congress that met in New York City. This congress called for a convention of all thirteen states to discuss the problems with the Articles of Confederation and to propose legislative changes to solve them.
George Washington arrives and is greeted as a hero and celebrity. He goes to the home of Benjamin Franklin, who is elderly and just as famous as Washington. The next day, the convention officially opens, but only two states are represented. It is two weeks before enough representatives arrive to officially begin working. The delegation from Virginia arrives with a much greater scheme in mind—a completely new constitution that proposes for the first time a federal government separate and distinct from the state governments.
George Washington is elected the president of the convention. As the heat bears down on everyone, deliberations begin. The Virginia delegation’s proposal is controversial, as many of the people in attendance had fought in the Revolutionary War and are suspicious of anything that would dilute the independence they died for; they see a federal government as just such a dilution. Every day, members of the convention or some portion of them gather to debate modifications to the existing Articles, the new constitution, and other matters. The heat continues to be stifling.
Edmund Randolph officially presents a version of the three-branched government described by the Virginia proposals. The debate is very heated. Massachusetts presents an alternative federal plan; as the two concepts are debated, delegations threaten to leave. A final Virginia proposal, creating a chief executive, is introduced. James Wilson suggests this be a single individual, alarming some of the delegates who believe they are legislating a new king. Another proposal, that the new congress be directly elected, is also hotly debated, as many representatives doubt that the common folks are capable of making these decisions. Bowen notes that at this time in history, property was widely considered a prerequisite for freedom; it was believed that without property people had no stake in society or government.
Noting the growing regional differences between Northern and Southern states, as well as large states versus small states, Bowen describes how Roger Sherman proposed tying representation to population, an idea initially dismissed that was later adopted. William Paterson of New Jersey presents a third federal government plan, complaining that the convention is overstepping by proposing a whole new government instead of modifications to the existing one. James Madison makes a speech in support of the Virginia plan, persuading
the convention to support it. The concerns of the smaller states are addressed by the proposal for a second chamber of congress with equal delegates for all states—the Senate.
Reviewing the writings of foreign visitors, Bowen offers an overview of what America was like at the time of the convention. He remarks that visitors routinely found Americans to be odd, alarming, or confusing, observing that differences from Old World European social traditions and thought would be reflected in the unique product of the convention, the U.S. Constitution, a document unlike any other in the world created by a government.
At the convention, the arguments over several issues threaten to end the meeting without any substantial progress. Debates over the Western Territory, slavery, and the composition and machinery of the new congress are all bitterly argued in the heat; many times it seems that one group of delegates or another will simply leave Philadelphia entirely.
In the end, the Constitution is formalized and ratified. On September 17, most of the delegates approve a final version. Benjamin Franklin states that while he is not happy with every aspect of the plan, he supports it because it is the best that can be expected. He encourages the others to put aside their doubts and grudges to support it as well or else the country might fail. The Constitution is signed and goes to the states for ratification.
The American people are shocked at this turn of events. A flurry of articles is published both for and against it, but, eventually, the Constitution is ratified and a new government established.