Constitutional Convention of 1787, The,

Constitutional Convention of 1787, The, was attended by more alumni of Princeton than any other American or British institution. Representing their states were nine men who had studied under Presidents Burr, Finley, and Witherspoon:

Alexander Martin 1756 (North Carolina)
William Paterson 1763 (New Jersey)
Oliver Ellsworth 1766 (Connecticut)
Luther Martin 1766 (Maryland)
William C. Houston 1768 (New Jersey)
Gunning Bedford, Jr. 1771 (Delaware)
James Madison 1771 (Virginia)
William R. Davie 1776 (North Carolina)
Jonathan Dayton 1776 (New Jersey)

Five of the college alumni at the convention had attended William and Mary, five Yale,* three Harvard, three Columbia, two the University of Pennsylvania, one Oxford, one Glasgow, and one had studied at three universities in Scotland. (Twenty-five of the fifty-five members of the convention, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, had not attended college. ) The large number of graduates of Nassau Hall at the convention reflected the wide geographic distribution of its graduates generally. Princeton's alumni were delegates from six states, while Yale (which stood next in this respect) were from four, and all of Harvard's were from Massachusetts. Three of the Princetonians represented New Jersey, two North Carolina, and one each Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia.

Outstanding in the New Jersey delegation was William Paterson, described by William Pierce (a Georgia delegate whose notes include interesting character sketches of convention members) as a man of great modesty who always picked the right time and the right way to enter a debate and never spoke ``but when he [understood] his subject well.''+

William Churchill Houston, previously professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Princeton, was, at the time of the convention, clerk of the Supreme Court of New Jersey.

Jonathan Dayton, son of a storekeeper in Elizabethtown, had served with distinction in the Revolution, and, at twenty-six, was the convention's youngest delegate. Pierce, an army comrade, said that Dayton had ``an impetuosity in his temper'' that was injurious to him, but that he also had an ``honest rectitude.''

Alexander Martin, who headed the North Carolina delegation, had been a colonel in the Revolution, but after having been cleared of court-martial charges of cowardice in the battle of Germantown, had resigned his commission. He was later governor of his state -- ``a Man of sense,'' Pierce said, but ``no Speaker.''

The other Princetonian from North Carolina, William Richardson Davie, a tall and elegant figure, was only thirty. A daring officer in the Revolution he had since become an accomplished lawyer.

Oliver Ellsworth, tall, dignified, and commanding, was an able member of the Connecticut delegation. A supreme court judge in that state, he showed himself ``a Gentleman of a clear, deep, and copious understanding; eloquent . . . in public debate; and always attentive to his duty.''

Gunning Bedford, Jr., who had been class valedictorian in 1771, was attorney general of Delaware. Slender and handsome as a student, he was by 1787, according to Pierce, ``very corpulent.'' He was an impressive speaker, but a nervous one, apt to be hasty and impetuous.

Luther Martin, attorney general of Maryland, was an acknowledged leader of the bar with a prodigious memory that enabled him to win his cases more by weight of precedent and knowledge of law than by his powers of expression. Pierce found him ``so extremely prolix, that he never speaks without tiring the patience of all who hear him.''

James Madison was an influential member of the distinguished Virginia delegation. ``Every Person,'' Pierce wrote, ``seems to acknowledge his greatness. He blends together the profound politician with the Scholar . . . and tho' he cannot be called an Orator, he is a most agreeable, eloquent, and convincing Speaker. . . . [He is] a Gentleman of great modesty, with a remarkable sweet temper.''


Three major proposals were considered by the convention. The Virginia Plan was generally favored by the large states and those laying claim to western land. It sought a strong national government with two legislative houses elected on the basis of population. The New Jersey Plan, favored principally by the small states, called for equal representation of the states in a single legislative body. The Connecticut Compromise, which broke the deadlock, proposed a lower house, elected in proportion to population, and an upper house, in which each state, regardless of size, would have equal representation.

A Princetonian was influential in the formation of each of these proposals. The Virginia Plan was outlined in resolutions presented by Governor Edmund Randolph, but ``internal evidence,'' Yale professor Max Farrand (Princeton 1892) found, ``shows much of Madison's handiwork in forming these resolutions.''++ The New Jersey Plan was presented and vigorously defended by William Paterson. Although each of the three delegates from Connecticut has been credited by one writer or another with bringing about the compromise, it was Oliver Ellsworth who made the motion that ``in the second branch . . . each State shall have an equal vote,'' and during the debate he seems to have borne the brunt of the attack on the compromise by the large-state men.

Paterson was supported in his advocacy of the New Jersey Plan by Jonathan Dayton, the junior member of his delegation, Gunning Bedford of Delaware, and Luther Martin of Maryland, all of whom spoke ardently -- and sometimes immoderately -- on behalf of the small states. At one point Dayton called the Virginia Plan ``an amphibious monster.'' At another, Bedford said that if the large states persisted in the Virginia Plan, the small ones would ``find some foreign ally of more honor and good faith,'' who would ``take them by the hand and do them justice.'' Luther Martin, during a spell of extremely hot weather, delivered a two-day harangue in defense of state sovereignty ``with much diffuseness & considerable vehemence,'' Madison observed in his record of the debates. Martin refused to sign the Constitution and later campaigned unsuccessfully in Maryland against its ratification.

At the conclusion of the convention Madison sent a copy of the Constitution to Thomas Jefferson in Paris. It was impossible, he wrote Jefferson, ``to consider the degree of concord which ultimately prevailed as less than a miracle.'' Madison's own contributions to this successful outcome were considerable. An important participant in the debates, respected by both allies and opponents as the leader of those favoring a strong national government, he was, in Professor Farrand's words, the ``leading spirit'' of the convention and the ``master builder'' of the Constitution.

All of the Princeton delegates except William Churchill Houston (who died of tuberculosis a year after the convention) went on to eventful careers, either in the federal government they had helped to create or in their own states. Most conspicuous, of course, was James Madison, who served the federal government twenty-four years as a member of the House of Representatives, secretary of state, and president. Although he had once said that his labors at the convention had ``almost killed,'' him, he outlived all the other delegates and spent his last years, in his eighties, at Montpelier, receiving visitors and answering letters, still explaining and expounding the Constitution.

*Including Oliver Ellsworth who studied there, 1762-64, before coming to Princeton.
+Notes of Major William Pierce on the Federal Convention of 1787, in American Historical Review, January 1898.
++The Framing of the Constitution of the United States (Yale University Press, 1913).

From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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