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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.

Sunday, July 22, 1787

July 22, 2020 - 4 minute read

John Witherspoon

George Washington’s diary continues to be sparse, most entries providing no more information than what it discloses today: “Left town by 5 o’clock A.M. Breakfasted at Genl. Mifflin’s. Rode up with him and others to the Spring Mills and returned to Genl. Mifflin’s by dinner, after which proceeded to the City.” Accompanied by four other members of the Convention, according to the diary of Peter Legaux, they visited “in order to see our vineyard and bee houses. In this, they found great delight, asked a number of questions, and testified their highest approbation with my manner of managing bees.”

Oliver Ellsworth had a different, but no less interesting, experience. In a letter to his wife, Abigail, he disclosed he had “clasped the hand of a woman who died many hundred years ago.” Like many other delegates, Ellsworth admits his “curiosity and love of information knows no bounds.” In this case, the subject was “an art of the ancient Egyptians, which is now lost out of the world;” that of “embalming their dead so as to preserve the bodies from putrification, many of which remain to this day. From one of those, an arm has lately been cut off and brought to this city. The hand is entire. The nails remain…” and grossly so on.

Ellsworth was so bold to tell Abigail that “the flesh which I tried with my knife, cuts and looks much like smoked beef kept till it grows hard. This will be a good story to tell Dr. Stiles.” Fortunately for Abigail, this did not constitute the major part of her husband’s letter. Affectionately, with a touch of humor, Ellsworth mused that “the older men grow the more uneasy they are from their wives. Mr. Sherman and Dr. Johnson are both run home for a short family visit. As I am a third younger than they are, I calculate to hold out a third longer, which will carry me to about the last of August.”

From the letters delegates send home, or even across the Atlantic, we glean information about friendships, frustrations, and insights into the men themselves. Today Hugh Williamson wrote to James Iredell, a political leader in North Carolina, “after much labor, the Convention have nearly agreed on the principles and outlines of a system, which we hope may fairly be called an amendment of the federal government.” He expects that it will be “referred to a small committee to be properly dressed…and that sometime in September we may put the last hand to the work.”

Coincidentally, both Washington and Benjamin Franklin today drafted letters to their mutual friend and Revolutionary War compatriot, John Paul Jones. A Scot-born American, Jones was instrumental in organizing the fledgling United States navy at the outset of the Revolutionary War. Temporarily in New York, he will soon sail for England. Washington asked that he deliver a packet (enclosed) to his old friend, the Marquis de Lafayette.

Contentious issues dividing men of good will and patriotism are not confined to the East Room of the State House on Chestnut Street. Leaders of the Presbyterian Church of America are undergoing a similar process, at times nearly as acrimonious.

Presbyterians have been immigrating to the colonies since the late seventeenth century, large numbers coming from Scotland and establishing a strong presence in the middle colonies, especially in Pennsylvania. Although torn between the cause of American Independence and loyalty to George III, sentiment turned in favor of independence after the battles of Lexington and Concord in reaction to circulation of a letter from the Synod of New York and Philadelphia encouraging support of the Second Continental Congress.

The most eminent of Presbyterian leaders is John Witherspoon. Born, educated, and ordained a Presbyterian minister in Scotland, Witherspoon was recruited in 1767 by Richard Stockton, a trustee of the College of New Jersey [Princeton] to become its President. Although Witherspoon was excited by the opportunity, his wife Elizabeth was adamantly opposed. Witherspoon declined the offer. Six months later, a visit from Benjamin Rush, a young American studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh armed with letters of introduction from Benjamin Franklin, influenced Elizabeth’s opinion of America and put to rest her fears of sailing across the tempestuous Atlantic Ocean. The Rev. Witherspoon then accepted the offer; he and his family arrived in America in the spring of 1768.

Having the benefit of his reputation preceding his arrival, Witherspoon had an immediate impact on the college. Fundraising efforts and the endowment increased dramatically. He transformed the institution from its primary object of training ministers to a liberal arts college encompassing a broader range of subjects. As tensions escalated between the colonies and Great Britain, Witherspoon took up the patriot cause.

On May 17, 1776 Witherspoon preached his first political sermon, The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men, declaring America’s “cause as the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature.” The sermon was widely published, exciting public attention. A month later, Witherspoon was a leader in the successful effort to remove from office Royal Governor William Franklin (Benjamin Franklin’s estranged illegitimate son) and was quickly elected as a representative of New Jersey to the Continental Congress. Arriving in late June, he supported independence and, with his two friends Stockton and Rush, signed the Declaration of Independence. (In January, he had presided over the marriage between Rush and Stockton’s daughter.) As one delegate hesitated, saying the country was “not ripe” for such a move as independence, Witherspoon quipped, “Sir, in my judgment the country is not only ripe for the measure, but in danger of becoming rotten for the want of it!”

Witherspoon remained in Congress until 1782, serving on a hundred committees while losing his son James at the battle of Germantown and suffering ransacking of his College by British troops. A leader in the affairs of the Presbyterian Church in America, he is scheduled to give the opening address at the first General Assembly of Presbyterians in America to be held here in Philadelphia in 1789.

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