Miracle at Philadelphia

Published September 17, 2014

Commentary Magazine

On this day in 1787, delegates to the Federal Convention voted to approve a new Constitution, which was submitted to the states for ratification (which occurred on June 21, 1788).

How this event came to pass is among the most extraordinary stories in human history. “It appears to me, then, little short of a miracle,” Washington wrote to Lafayette on February 7, 1788, “that the Delegates from so many different States (which States you know are also different from each other), in their manners, circumstances, and prejudices, should unite in forming a system of national Government, so little liable to well founded objections.”

Catherine Drinker Bowen’s 1966 book Miracle at Philadelphia is among the best accounts of what occurred. She captures the drama and suspense, the intense arguments and the despair, and the moments of high purpose and nobility. She also captures superbly well the voices of the delegates–including some of the most notable names in American history (Washington, Madison, Hamilton, Franklin, Dickinson, Wilson, and Morris)–who gathered in secret sessions from May through September, not to revise the Articles of Confederation, which was the stated purpose, but to write a new constitution. “The situation of this Assembly, groping as it were in the dark to find political truth,” is how 81-year-old Benjamin Franklin described it.

And what a political truth they found. The governing charter they created has become the oldest written national constitution in the world and among the greatest political achievements ever.

But it was not just human intellect that carried the day in Philadelphia; it was the product of a certain kind of human character. Ms. Bowen describes it this way:

The Federal Convention, viewed from the records, is startlingly fresh and “new.” The spirit behind it was the spirit of compromise, seemingly no very noble flag to rally round. Compromise can be an ugly word, signifying a pact with the devil, a chipping off of the best to suit the worst. Yet in the Constitutional Convention the spirit of compromise reigned in grace and glory; as Washington presided, it sat on his shoulder like the dove. Men rise to speak and one sees them struggle with the bias of birthright, locality, statehood – South against North, East against West, merchant against planter. One sees them change their minds, fight against pride, and when the moment comes, admit their error. If the story is old, the feelings behind it are new as Monday morning. “If all the tales are told, retell them, Brother. If few attend, let those who listen feel.”

The Founders were imperfect men and the Constitution an imperfect document. But all things considered what happened at Independence Hall was little short of a miracle. And for a group of fiercely proud and independent individuals to rise above such deep difference for the sake of the public good, to comprise in order to advance justice and human dignity, was a rare and wonderful thing. It’s something worth aspiring to in our time, when excellence and high-mindedness in public life seem to be hidden away on distant hills.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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