September 17, 1787 witnessed a crescendo of the Constitutional Convention that conceived the greatest nation to have ever been birthed. Is the sun on America still rising or is it now setting? What informs your conclusion?
George Washington used a specific chair, shown in the photo above and the painting below, for the Constitutional Convention’s continuous sessions. Benjamin Franklin is credited with immortalizing the chair at the close of the convention, observing, “I have often looked at that picture behind the president without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.”
It took the thirteen colonies seven long years of war, from 1776 to 1783, to win independence from Great Britain. The war officially ended September 3, 1783. The united colonies had adopted Articles of Confederation in March of 1781. It was a shallow compact of thirteen states that retained their full and independent sovereignty. Absent a full union in all matters, one state could nullify or unilaterally make decisions.
This proved to be a very thin document on the world stage two years later as they tried to create unity and credibility. There was no executive to carry out orders with an enforcement power. There was no federal judiciary to mediate disputes, piracy, or crimes. There was no provision for regulating trade. There was no power to tax to pay for their soldiers except by each state voluntarily meeting their commitment. After several years of struggle with these challenges they came together in late May of 1787. What emerged was a miracle of minds meeting and coalescing around forging a stronger document on which to build a nation.
The difficult and hard work of finding agreement began on May 25, 1787. After frustrations began to mount, Benjamin Franklin described it this way:
The small progress we have made after 4 or five weeks close attendance & continual reasonings with each other — our different sentiments on almost every question, several of the last producing as many noes as ayes, is methinks a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the Human Understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own want of political wisdom, since we have been running about in search of it. We have gone back to ancient history for models of government, and examined the different forms of those Republics which having been formed with the seeds of their own dissolution now no longer exist. And we have viewed Modern States all round Europe, but find none of their Constitutions suitable to our circumstances.
In this situation of this Assembly groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings? In the beginning of the contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the Divine Protection. — Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor. To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need His assistance.
I have lived, Sir, a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without [H]is notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without [H]is aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings that “except the Lord build they labor in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without [H]is concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall be become a reproach and a bye word down to future age. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human Wisdom, and leave it to chance, war, and conquest.
I therefore beg leave to move — that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that service.from Albert Henry Smyth’s The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, Volume 9
As this Providential convention ended on September 17, 1787, forty-one delegates signed the document. When Franklin came forward to sign, it was recorded that “the old man wept.” (Bowen, Catherine Drinker. Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention, May to September 1787. Blackstone Audio, 2012.)
Many realized a great battle had been won, but even bigger battles in Congress, and in the hearts and minds of the people, were yet to come. And from this great work what did they conceive?
As the story was told and retold on the House floor, Franklin was walking out of Independence Hall after the Constitutional Convention in 1787 when someone shouted out, “Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” To which Franklin reportedly responded, with a rejoinder at once witty and ominous: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Top image attribution: By unidentified NPS photographer – National Park Service website, Public Domain.