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We the People: THE AMERICAN CONSTITUTION AFTER 200 YEARS : The Men Who Molded History : They played the crucial roles at the Constituional Convention.

September 13, 1987|DAVID SAVAGE | Times Staff Writer

"Though written constitutions may be violated in moments of passion or delusion, yet they furnish a text to which those who are watchful may again rally and recall the people; they fix too for the people the principles of their political creed.

"

THOMAS JEFFERSON

Letter to Joseph Priestly, July 19, 1802.

Fifty-five men attended the Federal Convention in Philadelphia. Thirty-eight of them were there on Sept. 17 to sign the final document. They ranged from wealthy plantation owners to small shopkeepers. Nearly two-thirds were lawyers, a ratio that has changed remarkably little in the legislatures since then.

Of necessity, government--its principles and structure--was much a part of their life. When he saw the names of those in attendance, Thomas Jefferson called it "an assembly of demigods."

And some of the young nation's brightest stars were not there. Jefferson was in Paris as America's ambassador; John Adams was in London on a parallel mission. Virginia's fiery patriot Patrick Henry refused to attend, saying he "smelt a rat."

By most accounts, the men described here played the most crucial roles during the summer-long convention.

ALEXANDER HAMILTON

Hamilton of New York was a strange, fascinating and ultimately disappointing figure at the convention. Brilliant but impetuous, Hamilton took to the floor to denounce the "excess of democracy" in America and express deep admiration for a British-style monarchy. The speech was a disaster for the 30-year-old Hamilton, one that haunted him throughout his life.

To that point in his career, Hamilton had risen like a flare. Born in the West Indies of a brutal father he never knew, he and his mother took up briefly with a protector named James Hamilton. His stepfather soon abandoned them, and his mother died a few years later, leaving the 12-year-old Alexander a penniless orphan. But the boy was so charming and bright that he attracted sponsors, one of whom sent him off to be educated at King College--later Columbia University--in New York. In 1774, he wrote several political tracts in behalf of the Revolution, and his exploits in the Army soon attracted another, even more influential sponsor--Gen. George Washington.

But Hamilton was so erratic, so belligerent at times, that he got the nickname "Little Mars." He would die in 1804 after a duel with Aaron Burr.

Hamilton represented New York at the convention, but had no particular loyalty to the state. He wanted a strong national government, the stronger the better. "The British government was the best in the world," he said at one point, which sounded to his colleagues too much like what they had revolted against.

Supported by no one, Hamilton left Philadelphia in late June, but returned in September to sign the final document. His most important contribution came the next year when he, along with Madison and John Jay, defended the Constitution in a series of newspaper essays which came to be known as the Federalist Papers. Today, Hamilton is regularly cited as an authoritative spokesman on the true meaning of the Constitution.

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN

Franklin represented Pennsylvania, but he was a man of the world. A publisher, scientist, diplomat and "the greatest phylosopher of the present age," according to one delegate, Franklin was then 81 years old and in declining health. He suffered from "gout and stones" and was pained by any jostling. So each day, the rotund "Dr. Franklin" was carried into the meeting hall in a sedan chair borne by four husky prisoners from the nearby Walnut Street jail.

Because of ill-health, Franklin participated little in the debates. On several occasions, he had a speech read for him, but they were rambling and ill-focused efforts.

Franklin's main contributionwas to add a touch of wit and humor during the most heated debates. And on Sept. 17, as the delegates took their turn in signing the final document, Franklin pointed out to those near him the design of a sun carved into the back of the President's chair. "I have often in the course of the session . . . looked at that behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting," Madison reported him as saying. "But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun."

GEORGE WASHINGTON

Washington of Virginia was, as one biographer put it, "the indispensable man." His attendance at the convention gave the gathering dignity and weight not only in the eyes of delegates but in the eyes of the people. The easiest decision the delegates made was to quickly elect Gen. Washington as the presiding officer.

Through the four months, he sat silently at the head of the room. Washington, 55, was known to favor a strong national government, but let others carry the debate.

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