Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Delegates to the Convention - Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government
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The Delegates to the Convention - James McClellan, Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government 
Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government (3rd ed.) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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The Delegates to the Convention
The eighteenth-century gentlemen who drafted the Constitution did not outwardly resemble the members of Congress or the State legislatures today, because they wore knee breeches and long coats. Many of them also had short wigs on their heads. They looked very much like English gentlemen at a London assembly-room or in a London club, and very unlike the “tradesmen” or “mechanics” who thronged the narrow streets in the neighborhood of the old State House at Philadelphia. In addition, not many years earlier, some of these gentlemen politicians had worn swords at their sides.
Of the fifty-five delegates, twenty-one had fought in the Revolution (some as high officers), forty-six had served in colonial assemblies or State legislatures, twenty-four had been members of the Continental Congress, thirty-nine had served in the Congress under the Articles, ten had taken a hand in drafting State constitutions, six had signed the Declaration of Independence, and four had signed the Articles of Confederation. Twenty had been, were then, or later would be, governors of States, and twenty were at one time or another United States Senators.
Almost all were men of some property. A half-dozen were American aristocrats of great family and possessions, thirty-five were slaveholders, and some were prosperous merchants. Not all were rich. The two among them who in 1787 were the most prosperous, Robert Morris and James Wilson, would later die bankrupt, while the delegate of the smallest means, William Few, a Georgia frontiersman, ended his days as the well-to-do president of the City Bank in New York.
More than half the members of the Convention had been, or were, judges or lawyers. A good many Framers had been teachers at one time or another, and most were well educated. Many had studied at American colleges, at Oxford or Cambridge, or at the Scottish and Irish universities.
The spirit of religion and the spirit of a gentleman, an Irish statesman named Edmund Burke wrote in 1790, had sustained European man- ners and civilization. What, then, was the religion of these gentlemen-politicians meeting at Philadelphia? At least fifty of the Framers would have subscribed to the Apostles’ Creed. Among them were some twenty-three Episcopalians, ten Presbyterians, seven Congregationalists, two Catholics, two Lutherans, two Quakers, and at least one Methodist. Two of the Framers professed a belief in the Almighty but did not belong to any religious sect.
Such were the common elements among the fifty-five Framers. In general, they got on uncommonly well with one another. Despite their differences on political questions, the Framers formed almost a club of gentlemen that was united to secure an enduring social order. The civility of the debates and the reasonable acceptance of compromises contrasts that Great Convention with all other grand attempts, ancient or modern, to form a new constitution. In an era of duelling, not one delegate “called out” any other delegate to an encounter with pistols—though two of them (Alexander Hamilton and Richard Dobbs Spaight) were in later years killed in duels with enemies.
The first article of the Constitution provided that the United States might grant no title of nobility, and that no office-holder should accept a foreign title without the consent of the Congress. But the men who framed that article were not opposed to the idea of a gentleman. What they opposed were hereditary titles and special privileges based on birth. Some of the Framers, especially the Episcopalians, had read Thomas Fuller’s essays on the “True Gentleman” and the “Degenerous Gentleman,” published in Fuller’s big book, The Holy State and the Profane State (1642). “He is courteous and affable to his neighbors,” Fuller wrote of the True Gentleman. “As the sword of the best tempered metal is most flexible, so the truly generous are to their inferiors.” The gentleman should be a man of honor who would not lie or cheat. He should be a man of valor who would serve the commonwealth as magistrate or member of an assembly, and a man of charity, both spiritual and material. No doubt a few of the Framers were what Fuller called Degenerous Gentlemen, that is, selfish and cunning opportunists. But most lived by gentlemen’s rules as best they could. And some of them—Washington, George Mason, John Dickinson, Gouverneur Morris, Alexander Hamilton, C. C. Pinckney, Rufus King, John Rutledge, James Madison, Daniel Carroll, and others—fulfilled throughout their lives the gentleman’s obligations of manners, honor, valor, duty, and charity.
The Constitutional Convention was therefore often more like a gathering of polite friends than an assemblage of angry political zealots. Under the influence of gentle manners, the Convention was conducted with a decorum not since encountered in these United States, as delegates of differing views observed with one another the old traditions of civility. Temperate speech led to moderation, and moderation made it possible for the Framers to resolve their differences peaceably and to achieve a lasting consensus.
Such was the general tone of things at Independence Hall in the summer of 1787. Of course in any legislative body, or large council or committee, most of the work is accomplished by a minority of the members. So it was at the Convention of 1787. A score at least of the delegates were very active, while the others, quiet enough, approved or disapproved developments. With that understanding let us examine the character and ideas of the Convention’s leading men.