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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.

Monday, May 7, 1787

May 07, 2020 - 4 minute read

The Colonies

Lodging for out-of-town visitors is becoming a challenge.  In the next few days delegates to the federal convention will begin arriving, adding to overcrowded inns and boarding houses.  The Pennsylvania Packet exuberantly reported the reasons for the congested streets and bustling sidewalks, “Perhaps this city affords the most striking picture that has been exhibited for ages.  Here, at the same moment, the collective wisdom of the continent deliberates upon the extensive politics of the confederate empire, a religious convention clears and distributes the stream of religion throughout the American world, and those veterans whose valor accomplished a mighty revolution, are once more assembled to recognize their fellowship in arms, and to communicate to their distressed brethren the blessings of peace.”

The religious convention is a gathering of Presbyterian leaders who have come together to consider major changes in the structure and organization of the Presbyterian church in America.  The gathering of veterans is the general meeting of the Society of the Cincinnati, a fraternal association of Continental Army officers. Founded in in May 1783, the Society was established, in part, as a response to an aborted mutiny.

The British had surrendered at Yorktown on October 19, 1781 and peace negotiations were underway in Paris when General George Washington ordered his army to set up winter camp along the Hudson River, about five miles from Newburgh, New York.  However, the British still occupied New York City, Charleston, and Savannah. Maintaining an intact, disciplined Continental Army was critical to assure the British would not be enticed to mount another campaign. To keep the troops occupied and battle ready, Washington ordered daily drills and construction of nearly six hundred log huts.  A chaplain recommended building a special, larger building to be used for chapel and other meetings, as well as a commissary.  It was duly dubbed “The Temple of Virtue.”

But the soldiers were restless.  They had not been paid in months. Promises of land and pensions had been broken. They had left their homes, farms, and business to serve the cause of liberty and independence, but Congress had failed to keep its word. Disgruntled, angry, feeling betrayed, some soldiers simply laid down their arms and went home. Others began to organize and formalize their demands.  On March 10, 1783, an anonymous letter circulated among the officers along with plans for an unauthorized meeting to be held the next day. Learning of these plans, Washington immediately forbade the proposed meeting, calling it “irregular” and “disorderly,” and scheduled a meeting of his officers for the 15th to receive a report from Congress.  The meeting was to be held in the Temple of Virtue. 

General Horatio Gates was chairing the meeting when Washington unexpectedly entered the hall.  Tension was high as he mounted the platform. “Gentlemen,” he began, “by an anonymous summons, an attempt has been made to convene you together…How inconsistent with the rules of propriety!  How subversive of all order and discipline.”  Pledging “to exert whatever ability I am possessed of, in your favor,” he exhorted them “not to take any measures, which viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity, and sully the glory you have hitherto maintained; let me request you to rely on the plighted faith of your country, and place a full confidence in the purity of the intentions of Congress.”

Then, in what became an extraordinary moment, he removed from his pocket a letter he said he had received from Congress.  He unfolded the letter, hesitated, and reached again into his pocket, fumbling to retrieve his spectacles.  In a halting voice, he added, “Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in the service of my country and now find myself growing blind.” The officers were stunned, tears filling many of their eyes. The content of the letter became irrelevant. Within minutes a vote was taken expressing support for the Congress and the country they represented.

After the opening salvo against the British at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, colonial militiamen had laid siege to British-held Boston.  A young Henry Knox abandoned his bookshop to looters and snuck out of Boston to join the new American army. He was immediately noticed by Washington and within months was charged with leading a group of 56 men through treacherous snow and ice to transport captured British artillery from Fort Ticonderoga in New York to Boston.  Completing a journey of 300 miles, the cannons were ordered by Washington to be placed atop Dorchester Heights, overlooking the city of Boston and harbor. Rather than face bombardment, the British withdrew on March 17, 1776.

Almost exactly seven years later, on March 15, 1783 as General Washington finished his emotional remarks and exited the Temple of Virtue, it was Knox who was the first to speak  and moved that the group thank the commander for his excellent address and assure him of the officers’ affections. Now ranking as General Knox, he had been mulling over the idea of creating a national organization of officers to protect the interests of those who had fought in the War and preserve the brotherhood of the Continental Army. Calling itself the Society of the Cincinnati after a Roman Consul who voluntarily returned to his farm after leading Rome through a war emergency, the Society held its first meeting in May 1783.  At its next meeting in June, General Washington was elected as its first President General.

Since then and even today, less than five years later, there are those who fear the Society will become a political force and  that it could become the nucleus of an American aristocracy or military dictatorship. It is a cause of concern for some that the meetings of the federal convention and the Society of the Cincinnati are taking place at the same time. 

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