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We the People: THE AMERICAN CONSTITUTION AFTER 200 YEARS : 'The Miracle in Philadelphia' : Torn by differences, 13 states find common ground and produce the Constitution.

September 13, 1987|RUDY ABRAMSON | Times Staff Writer

Befitting the lofty aspirations of the grand "foederal convention," Philadelphia--a metropolis with cobblestone streets, sidewalks and a population of about 40,000--fancied itself the pre-eminent American city in 1787.

And it was. While pale in comparison to London or Paris in size and sophistication, it boasted of its libraries, eight newspapers and an impressive list of learned societies and energetic benevolent organizations. It counted painters, writers and scientists among its residents. Far-wandered travelers found hospitality and relative comfort in more than 100 inns and taverns. Its shops were increasingly stocked with consumers' dreams from Europe.

Philadelphia was at once a bastion of the American gentry, now in its third and fourth generations, and a raw, smelly, vibrant river town in some ways physically and spiritually wedded to the frontier in an agricultural country of 4 million people. Even for a seaport, its streets and markets collected an extraordinary human menagerie: Quakers in their broad-brimmed black hats, German farmers, Delaware and Shawnee Indians, woodsmen in buckskins, businessmen and diplomats from across Europe and merchant seamen from around the world.

At the Crossroads

The birthplace of the Declaration of Independence, the near-geographical-center of a nation reaching no more than a few hundred miles inland but stretching all the way from Maine to the northern border of Spanish Florida, Philadelphia sat at the crossroads of a turbulent new nation still seeking to right itself in the wake of the Revolution.

In dramatic evidence of the city's growing importance, a new coach service was introduced in the spring of 1787, making it possible to travel all the way from New York to Philadelphia in a single day--as long as none of the horses fell dead or pulled up lame.

Late in the afternoon of May 3, 1787, the fast coach from New York arrived more or less on time with 36-year-old James Madison as one of its passengers.

Less than a year earlier, the slight, balding Madison had been one of a dozen delegates from five states who had met in Annapolis, Md., to grapple with a host of threatening economic problems that descended upon post-Revolutionary America. The conference failed, but it produced a call for a Philadelphia convention to address both the troublesome issues and the manifest shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation, the governmental charter adopted by the 13 newly independent states in 1781.

Thereafter, Madison had set about persuading his own state of Virginia to take the lead by selecting a slate of delegates. He had also worked furiously at an exhaustive examination of political systems down through history, writing in detail his ideas for a new government in America.

Hero of the Revolution

More important still, he had set out to persuade a reluctant George Washington to leave retirement at Mount Vernon, his estate on the Potomac River in Virginia, and come to Philadelphia as a delegate. The hero of the Revolution was still--six years after Lord Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown--the most revered man in America and indisputably the crucial figure in the planned conclave. He was the only man in the country with the stature to calm fractious delegates riven by disparate interests.

Initially, he had been ambivalent about the Philadelphia venture. Yet not even Madison felt more deeply than Washington the ineffectiveness of Congress, the lack of provision for common security and the debilitating conflicts between the states. By the time Madison arrived in Philadelphia, the general, then 55 years old, was preparing to leave Virginia for the convention.

Washington's Welcome

He set out before dawn on the morning of May 9, traveled through bone-chilling spring rains and arrived in the Pennsylvania capital on Sunday afternoon, May 13. Escorted into the city by officers of his wartime staff and outriders surrounding his carriage, he was welcomed by ringing church bells, booming cannons and cheering crowds that filled streets ordinarily vacant on the Sabbath.

Madison's scenario called for the general to be promptly elected chairman of the convention, where Gov. Edmund Randolph of Virginia would put forth a detailed plan Madison and his fellow Virginia delegates were busy crafting--a plan that would replace the Articles of Confederation with a substantially new system of national government.

That scenario appeared a long way from reality the next morning when Washington and Madison walked to the State House; a more likely prospect was that the most admired man in America had made a long journey for nought. Few other delegates had arrived, and 11 days of waiting would go by before the convention could even muster a quorum.

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