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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 24, 1787

June 24, 2020 - 4 minute read

American Colonist

George Washington is a confirmed diarist. He has kept a daily diary for most of his life, beginning with his first trip as a surveyor in 1748. During his early years he was somewhat erratic but became faithful to a daily entry beginning in 1768 until appointed commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1775. Resuming his dairy at Yorktown, he lamented “not having attempted it from the commencement of the War.”

Washington’s diaries take many forms. Some recount specific events and travel, others record the weather, a most important matter to a farmer. On April 30, 1785, when he was unable to record the weather himself because of a trip to Richmond, he put his wife Martha in charge of the thermometer. No other topic appears in Washington’s diaries as frequently as agriculture, his land, and his daily inspections of the five farms comprising Mt. Vernon.

On May 9, when Washington left Mt. Vernon for Philadelphia and realized he had left his journal behind, he wrote home and asked that it be sent to him. “It will be found, I presume, on my writing table,” he wrote. “Put it under a good strong paper cover, sealed up as a letter.”  In the meantime, while spending the night in Baltimore on his way to the Constitutional Convention he purchased a new journal.  

Because the Convention delegates voted to maintain confidentiality of their deliberations, Washington’s diary entries are seldom more than one or two sentences in length and limited to social events. Today’s entry is characteristic: “Sunday 24th. Dined at Mr. Morris’s & spent the evening at Mr. Meridiths – at Tea.” 

If there is any single consistent theme in Washington’s abbreviated diary during the Convention, it is “tea,” a small meal between dinner and supper, tea often accompanied by sugar and cream, muffins, cake, or crumpets. It is considered a gentile form of entertaining, though not as widespread as in England.

Surprisingly, “tea” has been recorded in Washington’s diary thirty-two times in the last forty days.  Tea with the Meridiths. Tea with Mr. Francis Hopkinson. Tea at Dr. Shippins. Tea with… These innocuous references to “tea” reveal his active social life and numerous requests for his company.  Only one night this week did he dine with the Morrises, with whom he is lodging; even then it was, he noted, “with a very large company.” Last night he had dinner with Dr. Ruston at his townhouse on Chestnut Street (and “tea at Dr. Morris’s.”).  Friday, “tea with Frans. Hopkinson.” Francis Hopkinson is one of Philadelphia’s most versatile and entertaining citizens. A signer of the Declaration of Independence and patriotic leader on behalf of New Jersey, he had done his part for independence, but his wit and satire contributed in no small way to rousing the public through poems, pamphlets, and songs. “A Pretty Story,” a satire about George III published in 1777; “The Treaty;” and “The Battle of the Kegs,” a propaganda ballad about an attempted attack on Philadelphia in 1778, brought levity to a profoundly serious rebellion. [“My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free,”  “An Ode to the 4th of July” and other Hopkinson songs can be enjoyed on YouTube.]

Hopkinson is also an accomplished organist and harpsichordist. He occasionally plays the organ at Christ Church in Philadelphia and in concerts with professional musicians. He modified a glass armonica (invented by Benjamin Franklin) to be played with piano accompaniment. An evening with Francis Hopkinson is guaranteed to be an enjoyable one.

This week Washington also dined with Mr. Prager, a Jewish merchant, and Samuel Meridith, a brigadier general during the Revolutionary War, merchant and financier, and current member of the Confederacy Congress. [Later, Washington will appoint Meridith as the first Treasurer of the United States.]  Rounding out the week was dinner at the City Tavern for the quarterly meeting of the Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick. Formed in 1771 to promote Irish heritage and mutual aide, among its members are several Convention delegates, including John Dickinson, Thomas Fitzsimons, and Robert Morris.  Washington is an honorary member.  

In each instance, with the exception of dinner with Mr. Prager, Washington’s diary notes he “drank tea,” a social convention evolving from the introduction of tea into the American colonies by the Dutch in the mid-1600s. When the British captured the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam and renamed it New York, tea was already a popular beverage for the wealthier class. In 1682, William Penn founded the Quaker city of Philadelphia and advocated tea over other beverages because it filled “the cups that cheer but not inebriate.” Tea houses began to spring up in Boston, New York,  and Philadelphia as tea became more popular.

By the early 1700s the British East India Company dominated large sectors of British trade, including the tea market, literally monopolizing the tea trade with China. The Company was politically influential but struggled with financial mismanagement, disruptions caused by the French and Indian War, corruption, and smuggling. In the years before the rebellion against Great Britain, nearly ninety percent of all the tea drunk in the colonies was smuggled in. 

American Colonist

In 1767, the British government imposed the Townshend Acts, taxing all goods imported into the United States. Benjamin Franklin warned the British that the colonies intended to manufacture their own goods rather than pay import duties. While they could not manufacture tea, they could smuggle it, and they did. Resistance led to the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770.  In April, the Townshend duties were repealed, except for the tax on tea. The struggle was not about tea. It was about power – power of the British government to control the colonies against the power of the colonies to govern their own affairs. Tea remained a flashpoint for resistance and culminated in the Boston Tea Party in December,1773 when patriots dumped 90,000 pounds of tea into Boston Harbor. 

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