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Origins of U.S. Constitution Along Tri-City Trail

January 25, 1987|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

NEW YORK CITY — One travel trail this year leads to the origins of our nation as a constitutional democracy.

Tri-city celebrations are already under way in Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C. commemorating the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution.

A yearlong schedule of events will reach its crescendo in Philadelphia, where the Constitutional Convention was held from May 25 to Sept. 17, 1787. New York and Washington, D.C. will also play major roles in a 200th birthday party that will involve the entire nation.

We began exploring the Bicentennial trail here in New York City, then drove to Philadelphia and on to Washington, D.C.

His 80th Birthday

Former Chief Justice Warren Burger resigned from the U.S. Supreme Court last June to devote his time to being chairman of the national Commission on the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution. He regards this as the crowning work of his life and he'll mark his 80th birthday on Sept. 17, the 200th anniversary of the date the Constitution was signed in Philadelphia.

Under his leadership a supporting network of bicentennial commissions has already been formed in 45 states and many cities.

The momentum generated by New York's centennial celebrations of the restored Statue of Liberty last year has helped bring nationwide attention to the launching of the city's Bicentennial tribute to the Constitution. As many as 20,000 visitors each week have been making pilgrimages to Lady Liberty on Liberty Island.

On Sept. 19, 1787, Secretary William Jackson of the Constitutional Convention arrived in New York by horse-drawn carriage with printed copies of the Constitution as it had been finalized two days earlier in Philadelphia. On Sept. 28 the Continental Congress meeting in New York sent copies to the legislatures of the 13 original states for consideration and ratification.

Exhibits and special preparations for the Bicentennial commemoration in New York spotlight some all-but-forgotten stories about what happened during those months of 1787.

One of the least known is the story of Gouverneur Morris. Gouverneur was the first name of the gifted man who is credited with much of the final drafting and editing of the Constitution into the format that was adopted by the Philadelphia convention. He grew up on the Morrisania estate of his wealthy and landed family in New York's Westchester County.

Admitted to the Bar

Morris finished his legal education and gained admission to the bar in New York City by age 20. Four years earlier he had lost a leg in a carriage accident, but still managed to serve in the revolutionary militia. He became a New York congressman in the Continental Congress in 1778; one of his assignments was to draft instructions for Benjamin Franklin in Paris.

Shifting his legal practice to Philadelphia in 1779, he was a close associate of financial entrepreneur Robert Morris, not related, who helped raise funds to finance George Washington's army. As a Pennsylvania delegate to the Constitutional Convention, Gouverneur was one of the most articulate, with 173 recorded addresses during the four months of sessions.

His gift of expression and conciseness made him the key writer in the final drafting of the document, helping to reduce it from seven to four pages and putting it into the words we know today, beginning with the preamble: "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union. . . ."

Return to Serve

After a decade in Europe that included appointment by George Washington as Minister to France, then a return home to serve in the U.S. Senate, Morris went back to New York and his Morrisania estate for the last and some of the happiest years of his life. Morris was buried at St. Episcopal Churchyard in the Bronx.

Threads of this story weave through several New York presentations for the 1987 Bicentennial commemorations. From permanent collections in its library and museum, the New York Historical Society is setting up an exhibit entitled "Government by Choice: Inventing the United States Constitution." It will be on display at 170 Central Park W. at 76th Street from Sept. 17 through Jan. 17. Included in it will be documents, letters, manuscripts, portraits and decorative arts connected to the principal figures of the 1787 convention in Philadelphia.

Correspondence With Founders

Handwritten minutes of secret debates in Philadelphia will be shown as they were kept by Rufus King, one of the participants. King Street in Greenwich Village bears his name. Another exhibit highlight will be James Madison's correspondence with other founders as they "agonized over the issue that divided Federalists and anti-Federalists."

The first Federalist essays discussing the new Constitution began appearing in New York City newspapers on Oct. 27, 1787. They became a series of 85 written by Alexander Hamilton, New York signer of the document, and by James Madison and John Jay.

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