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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 3, 1787

June 03, 2020 - 4 minute read

George Washington's inkstand with bottles

By the end of the first week of meetings of the Constitutional Convention, eleven States had enough delegates in attendance to be counted. New Hampshire is soon expected, but Rhode Island refuses to participate. 

James Madison’s pre-planning has paid off. The Convention could have begun with a haphazard, random series of resolutions to remedy the flaws of the Articles of Confederation, or it could begin with a detailed, coherent plan of government – a “straw man,” something to begin with. Madison’s personal research and many conversations with his fellow delegates from Virginia and Pennsylvania laid the foundations of the Virginia Plan. 

All week long, Gov. Randolph has presented elements of the Virginia Plan, at least the first seven, one by one. Each was debated, amended and either passed, failed, or was postponed. But it is a beginning. Progress is being made and the delegates grow less shy to express their views as the days and hours pass.

Notwithstanding the admonition of several delegates that the Convention was called for a limited purpose, namely, to amend the Articles, the reality and true sentiment of what is necessary to be accomplished was best summarized by James Wilson. “As I see it, he said, “we are authorized to conclude nothing, but to propose anything.”

The rule of secrecy has been agreed to, yet everyone is fully aware that each day Madison sits near the raised dais next to the presiding officer and is taking copious notes. They know they will remain confidential for many years, but a record is necessary. Robert Yates, Rufus King, William Pierce, James Mason, and others are keeping their own records, many available to historians in the future, but none as thorough as Madison’s. 

Delegates also spend time writing letters to friends and family back home. Adhering to the rule of secrecy, their letters nevertheless help us to understand their personal opinions of the Convention and other delegates as well as their hopes or anxieties for the future. They also reflect the sentiments of those not participating in the Convention but have a great interest in it. For example, Jeremiah Wadsworth, an influential merchant and entrepreneur in Connecticut, shared his opinions about some of the delegates to his good friend Rufus King. His letter of today, June 3, reveals his satisfaction with Connecticut’s delegation, except for Roger Sherman “who I am told, is disposed to patch up the old scheme of government. This was not my opinion of him when we chose him: he is as cunning as the Devil, and if you attach him, you ought to know him well. He is not easily managed.”

Others were sounding more positive notes. Writing to Henry Knox, Rufus King admitted “we proceed slowly…Nothing however very important has turned up and issued unfavorably.” Nathaniel Gorham was even more optimistic. “I think there is a prospect,” he wrote, “that the Convention will agree on a pretty good plan.”  George Washington was also positive, but cautious, in a letter to his nephew, George Augustine Washington: “The sentiments of different members seem to accord more than I expected they would, as far as we have yet gone.”

Letter-writing was as much an art as a method of communication in 18th century America. Proper handwriting was an essential element of being a gentleman and a necessity in business. Penmanship manuals recommended various styles, often making a noticeable distinction between that of a merchant and a “genteel” writer. Thomas Jefferson commented that George Washington “wrote readily, rather diffusely, in an easy, correct style.”

Letters themselves were of utmost importance and almost the sole method of communicating beyond personal conversation, conveying vital information about a myriad of subjects, sharing emotional sentiments and news among family and friends, and maintaining important records. Letter-writing was not as simple as picking up a ball point pen, scratching a few notes on a piece of paper and dropping it in the local mailbox.

Most pens were made of quill, the main wing or tail feathers of a bird or the hollow sharp spines of spiny mammals such as porcupines. The best were made of goose, swan, and turkey feathers. There are several methods of preparing quills to be used for writing. The matter of paper was also important. Gum sandarac, harvested from an African tree, was used to prepare the paper to absorb ink evenly, as well as to absorb ink blots. Ink was both imported and made at home and sold in powered and liquid form. Made from tannin, gum, iron sulfate or other substances and water, ink was made from a variety of recipes and included soaking, cooking, and fermenting. In addition to pen and paper, a proficient letter-writer would have at hand an inkwell, blotter paper, and rulers.

Many people kept copies of letters for various purposes. Copies were generally hand-copies of the original, although Thomas Jefferson used and improved a mechanical device called the polygraph to make “original” copies. The writer’s hand holds and moves the pen whose action is duplicated by a second pen. Two years ago, he wrote to James Madison, “Have you a copying press? If you have not, you should get one. Mine has cost me about 14. guineas. I would give ten times that sum that I had had it from the date of the Stamp Act.”

Envelopes had not yet been invented, so an essential part of a letter was the seal, often imprinted with one’s initials, coat of arms or other insignia. Once completed, the letter had to be delivered, a slow and often unreliable process. Letters were frequently delivered by friends, servants, travelers, slaves, or others “going in that direction.” At times, multiple copies would be sent to ensure one of them would arrive. 

In 1775, the Second Continental Congress created the United States Postal Service, naming Benjamin Franklin the first Postmaster. In short order, he made numerous improvements to the system. But be assured, understanding our country’s history and purpose is enriched and made more complete by the men who labored over innumerable pieces of paper, with quill in hand, often under the light of a single candle, writing letters. 

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