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Convention: A Daily Journal

Center for Civics Education

Convention: A Daily Journal

Convention: A Daily Journal is a day-by-day journal of the 1787 Constitutional Convention convened by twelve of the original thirteen states to amend the Articles of Confederation and create a “more perfect union.” It chronicles the daily activities of the Convention, profiles the delegates and their interactions with each other, and looks back to life in America in the 1780s. Writing in the first person, the story is told from an “observer” hearing events as told in contemporary newspaper accounts and delegates’ personal notes and letters.

Friday, May 4, 1787

May 04, 2020 - 4 minute read


Traveling in 1787 can be tiring and unpleasant at best and hazardous at worst.  Nevertheless, there three stage lines connect our country’s two largest cities, New York, and Philadelphia.  Even these are plagued by unpaved and rutted roads, unreliable bridges and delays brought on by inclement weather.  James Madison left New York yesterday morning and arrived in Philadelphia later in the day, making good time. He immediately checked in at Mrs. House’s boardinghouse at 5th and Market, known for a good reputation and being “upscale.”  He has stayed here before, in 1783, while serving his first term in the Confederation Congress.

Philadelphia already has a storied history in the life of our young nation.  Founded by William Penn in 1682, it hosted the first Continental Congress in the fall of 1774 and the Second Continental Congress in the spring and summer of 1776.  It was here in our State House on July 2 of that year when Caesar Rodney, a delegate from Delaware, thoroughly exhausted and suffering from cancer, stumbled across the threshold of the entrance of the meeting room to break the tie vote declaring the thirteen colonies independent from Great Britain.  Two days later, on July 4, the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence.  

Thomas Paine’s patriotic essay “Common Sense” was first published here, rousing patriots, and inspiring the Continental Army.  Much to our dismay the British Army occupied the city from the end of September 1777 to the end of July 1778. Meanwhile, General George Washington and his army suffered notoriously bitter cold weather and near-starvation conditions at Valley Forge, only twenty-two miles away.  Those were truly “the times that tried men’s souls.”

Today Philadelphia is a thriving city with a population approximating 40,000 residents and considered to be sophisticated and cosmopolitan.  Called the “Athens of America,” it is a major hub of trade and commerce.  Located at the confluence of the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, Philadelphia’s wharves and piers are bustling with dockworkers unloading hundreds of ships filled with an array of goods from Europe and sugar from the West Indies, then filling the empty bellies of ships with wheat, flour, lumber, barrel staves and other products for export to Europe and beyond.

The main thoroughfares through the city are paved and even lighted at night.  In the poorer sections of towns, poor sanitation is exacerbated by open sewers and the multifarious effects of horses, including the proliferation of flies.  The city is teeming with shops and artisans, seamstresses and dressmakers, blacksmiths, carpenters, and a myriad of other occupations.  More than 170 taverns, inns and beerhouses serve locally brewed rum and imported wines and spirits.  Bakers and grocers are sprinkled throughout the city where Philadelphians buy fresh bread every day.  Women in poorer households often make their own dough and pay a small fee to a baker to have it baked.  Grocers tend to sell dry goods such as tea, coffee grounds, flour, and sugar.  Surrounded by farmland, farm-fresh produce is available at twice-weekly open markets.  

At the north end of Market Street, luxury items are available from goldsmiths, watchmakers, perruquiers and others catering to the desires of our more affluent residents.  Perruquiers?  Yes, these are wigmakers.  Wigs, or ‘perukes,’ are very much in fashion as well as being a status symbol.  Some men, including George Washington, choose not to wear a peruke. Others sometimes style their own hair to resemble one.  Like all large cities, Philadelphia has its rough neighborhoods, the main one, known as “Hell Town” rambles along the waterfront above Market Street and is home to vagrants, run-away slaves, criminals, prostitutes and homeless counting for about ten percent of the city’s population.

As Philadelphians, we are particularly proud of our more than twenty-five printers keeping us informed and debating issues of the day.  The Library Company collection of books in Carpenter’s hall, just one block from the Statehouse, is the first lending library in the United States. Its founder, Benjamin Franklin, still lives here, just a few blocks away.

Among Philadelphia’s many attractions is Peale’s Museum with its array of portraits of Revolutionary War heroes, natural history specimens, fossils, life-size wax figures, native American artifacts, and archeological oddities.  John Bartram’s botanical gardens across the Schuylkill River, the first in the United States, is an incubator of native plants from Florida to the Ohio River.  Established by John Bartram and his sons, the company has sent seeds to Thomas Jefferson and made available their trees, shrubs, and other plants available for sale in Europe.  It is such an attraction that in 1784 the Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, adjourned specifically to visit the gardens.

This is a noisy city by day – but we love it. The sounds of coaches, wagons, horses, street hawkers selling their wares, church bells and construction permeate the air. Construction has just begun on Bishop White’s house. It will be the home of the first Episcopal Bishop of Pennsylvania, Bishop William White, rector of Christ Church and St. Peter’s. White is a well-known patriot who served as Chaplain of the Continental Congress. Rumor has it that he might eventually serve as Chaplain to the new government - if the convention succeeds.

Ours is a city on the move.  It is an historical city - and poised to make history once again.

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