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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.

Wednesday, May 2, 1787  

May 02, 2020 - 4 minute read

The Colonies

Critics of our Constitution frequently argue it was made for a small country of 3 million people, mostly of English or other Western European descent, huddled against the eastern seaboard and wholly inadequate for a very diverse population of 330,000,000 inhabiting more than 3.7 million square miles of land spanning the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.  Whether this is so will be considered later in this series.  But first, let’s look at the United States during those early years when the Founders came together to “form a more perfect union.”

The first permanent English settlement in North America was Jamestown, founded in 1607. The “prime mover” of the expedition was Bartholomew Gosnold, an explorer hidden in the mists of American history who five years earlier had charted the coast of present day New England and named Cape Cod, the Elizabeth Islands and Martha’s Vineyard, the latter to honor his young daughter, Martha, who had died at the age of two years. 

By 1787, as a remarkable group of men are gathering in the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia, the population has grown to approximately 3.1  million people inhabiting thirteen colonies. Twelve hundred miles from north to south and two hundred miles inland, it is larger than most nations in the world.  In addition are lands extending westward as far as the Mississippi River. Even now, many believe it too large to be effectively governed. 

The largest states geographically are Georgia, Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Massachusetts.  With the exception of South Carolina, the combined area of the six smallest states is less that the square miles of any one of the large states.  Population estimates vary, but It is no surprise that the largest states, with the exception of Georgia, have the largest populations, but containing fewer people per square mile.  Most of the people are Protestant and of English or other Western European descent.  African Americans account for about twenty per cent of the population, nearly all of whom are held in slavery in states south of Pennsylvania. 

More than ninety per cent of the people live and work on farms.  Their lives are scheduled according to the seasons – planting and harvesting – and their products are for home use, sale, and barter. Other than needing to purchase farm equipment, muskets, and powder, eating utensils and similar items, most farms are self-sustaining. Farmers and their families build their own homes and barns, spin cloth and make their clothes  Large families are the norm and life expectancy is about 38 years.  Between one-third and one-half of our children will not live beyond the age of 16. 

For our farmers, the nearest neighbor is most likely at least a quarter to half mile away, except for the large southern plantations.  Travel is equal to the fastest horse on land or the wind-filled sails of the fastest ocean-going ships.  Interstate roads which are likely to be built in the future are, today, almost non-existent and most roads outside of the cities are little more than dusty or muddy paths marked by deep ruts.  Under the best of conditions, we can make about 50 miles a day on horseback and about 12 – 15 miles by coach or carriage.  Such relative isolation makes communication both slow and often word-of-mouth.

The largest cities in America are Philadelphia and New York, with populations of around 40,000 each.  Towns and even villages are composed of merchants, coopers, tanners, blacksmiths, and other tradesmen.  Many live above their shops and maintain a small garden and a few chickens or a cow in the backyard.  Stench from tanneries, abundance of animals, poor sewage, and inadequate drainage attracting flies and mosquitos make the air quite foul, especially during the hot, humid summer months. But we are used to it.

In New England, along the northern coast, commerce, fishing, and ship building make for  very different lifestyles and interests which seem quite foreign to the agrarian southerners.

Nevertheless, life in America is generally satisfying.  Food is plentiful and most people eat three meals a day.  Taverns and boardinghouses line the streets in our towns and cities where various forms of entertainment are readily available, including gambling, cards, fishing, hunting, horse racing, and bear baiting. In many towns, small libraries and theaters  present stage plays and other live entertainment providing enjoyable diversions from everyday work. Newspapers publish as much news and opinion as they can gather while their contents are often posted publicly for easy access and even read to gathering crowds. 

We hear rumors about an “industrial revolution” in Europe where new manufacturing processes are being developed, moving from hand production to machines.  But in America, we still value and patronize skilled cabinetmakers, carpenters, craftsmen, and artisans to supply our needs.  In short, our life is generally parochial; what matters to most of us is what happens in our families and our local communities.  However, we are often concerned about mortgages and high taxes, issues which are probably among the reasons this convention was called. Today, we see ourselves are Virginians or Pennsylvanians, not “Americans.” One observer from Europe recently quipped that the origins, laws, and customs of the north and the south are as different “as the Turks are from the Russians.”


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