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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, June 10, 1787

June 10, 2020 - 4 minute read

1770s Men's Fashion

James Madison and James Wilson may have underestimated how deeply committed are the small States’ delegates to maintaining equality of representation in the national legislature.  The small States had no intention of bending to the will of the larger States. Roger Sherman and John Dickinson effectively presented the case for the small States, but the vehement attack on proportional representation by Gunning Bedford and William Paterson seemed to take them by surprise.

Moreover, George Mason, Madison’s ally from Virginia, agreed with Dickinson that the States needed as much defense against the national government as it did against the States. The States’ rights cause was bolstered yesterday with the arrival of Luther Martin, the attorney general of Maryland. Martin is known to be opinionated and verbose, as well as impulsive and carelessly dressed, but he will most certainly be a strident voice for the small States. 

Until now, the weather has been mild, interrupted by frequent showers and an occasional hard rain.  Yesterday, according William Johnson’s diary, was warm and today “hot.” It seems the weather outside the State House is paralleling the warmth of the debate inside. Today’s recess will permit delegates to cool their tempers and rest from the increasingly rancorous debate.

Since the Convention invoked the rule of secrecy, George Washington’s diary has been meticulously sparse, seldom more than two or three lines: “Thursday 7th. Attended Convention as usual. Dined with a Club of Convention Members at the Indian Queen. Drank Tea & spent the evening at my lodgings.” Nearly every day, he “drank tea” somewhere!

Today, Washington’s diary is much different and gives us an opportunity to see him and others outside of the confines of the State House.  He had breakfast with Samuel and Elizabeth “Lizzy” Powel. We met the Powels earlier in this series. Lizzy is the consummate hostess and an active participant in the political and social discussions that are the centerpiece of her salons. History reports that when a yellow fever epidemic threatened Philadelphia in September 1793, the Washingtons urged them to take refuge at Mt. Vernon. The Powels graciously declined the offer and Samuel would die of the fever later that month.

On Tuesday last, Washington had presented “respectful compliments to Mrs. Powel and prays her acceptance of the Vision of Columbus which he promised some days ago…having just come to hand.”  The Vision of Columbus is an epic poem by Joel Barlow in the form of a dialogue between Christopher Columbus and an angel, covering the entire history of both North and South America through the Revolutionary War. Written in nine books it was sold by subscription and published earlier this year. Washington and Benjamin Franklin are both subscribers.

The book overtly reflects the Christian and Federalist sympathies of its author. Barlow had been a chaplain with the Massachusetts militia during the Revolutionary War and later supported the French Revolution, was given French citizenship, and elected to the French Assembly. While spending time in England he became friends with Thomas Paine, and during Paine’s imprisonment in Paris, Barlow facilitated publication of Paine’s The Age of Reason. The Vision of Columbus was an enormous success in the America, France and England and established Barlow as the leading poet of the United. States. 

After breakfast Samuel Powel and Washington rode together “to see the Botanical garden of Mr. Bartram; which, tho’ stored with many curious plants, shrubs and trees, many of which are exotics, was not laid off with much taste, nor was it large.” 

To Washington, Bartram’s garden may not have been large, but it was the first botanical garden in the United States and grew into a trans-Atlantic business, trading with London merchants and prominent English families who prided themselves on landscaping their estates. In 1728, John Bartram, a third generation Quaker purchased from Swedish settlers one hundred and two acres of land sloping down to the Schuylkill River. He and his sons, John and William, began collecting the most varied collection of North American plants in the world. They traveled from New England to Florida and as far west as Lake Ontario, collecting seeds and specimens. Bartram co-founded the American Philosophical Society with his friend Benjamin Franklin and in 1765 named a rare tree after Franklin, called the Franklinia tree. That same year, he was appointed “Royal Botanist” by King George III.

From Bertram’s, Washington and his company went to “the farm of one Jones, to see the effect of the plaister of Paris” and experiments on farming. The subjects of planting, harvesting, various kinds of seeds, manure, modern equipment, and anything related to farming filled many pages of Washington’s diary. These were constantly on his mind.

This evening Washington wrote a long letter to his nephew, Augustine, most of it devoted to managing Mt. Vernon in his absence, including a request that Augustine send to him his “blue coat with the crimson collar and one of those made of the cloth sent me by the Spanish minister – to wit that without lapels and lined with white silk – as I see no end to my staying here.”  It was a time when gentlemen still “dressed.” It was a sign of respect for the dignity of the occasion and simply the way gentlemen appeared in public – coat, waistcoat, knee-length breeches and silk or woolen stockings, low-heeled shoes with buckles (boots for riding), and either powdered hair or wig tied in a queue. Elaborate embroidered silk and velvet have already given way to carefully tailored woolens – republican style.

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