Convention History as Presented in the Musical Ch4

History of the 1787 Constitutional Convention as Presented in
1787 the Musical
We Wrote the Constitution

by Robert Picklesimer


Virginia: who were the delegates in the play and why

(continued from Chapter 3)
James Madison, the sine qua non, is the “little man” without whom the Convention might never have happened and the Constitution might never have been written. He is most rightly called “the father of our Constitution.” He drove the whole agenda of the Convention. He was a quiet man but was highly regarded for out-preparing his opponents. He came ten days early and had fifteen Resolves ready by the opening of the Convention for Edmund Randolph to present from Virginia. Virginia at the time had fully one fifth of all the population of the United States, so Madison thought it proper for Virginia to lead the way, but also to protect her broad populist interest. Everything starts with Madison. There is no Convention or Constitution without him. He it was, too, who got the Virginia legislature to propose George Washington as a delegate to this Convention, thus adding to the power and prestige of the Convention, and to the willingness of other states to send delegates. The musical, and its ups and downs, is essentially Madison’s story.

There are hints throughout about what sort of President he will end up being, too. In the War of 1812, he accepted the advice of his Secretary of War (who was from an opposing party) that the city of Washington was not an important military target, and that the port of Baltimore should be protected instead. But when the British turned to the city of Washington to burn it to the ground, Madison rode out and found his Secretary of War at a crossroads on the edge of the city, and fired him on the spot. Then Madison rode to some bridges on the periphery of the city of Washington and took charge of American troops there in order to prevent a further British advance. They did not advance (maybe because the bridges were defended), but the irony is that James Madison, who had been too sickly to physically fight in the Revolutionary War (he performed other supportive administrative functions), became the only U.S. President to physically lead American troops in battle while serving as President.

These actions to come are hinted at in Madison’s section of the song “Who are We?/Someday.” The other very interesting character decision of Madison during the Convention is seating himself very near the Chair of the Convention (we sat him dead center of the stage with the Chair just up left of him, with the rest of the Virginia delegation to his right, and just upstage of the Pennsylvania delegation). Madison sat himself there so he could see everything that was going on and be aware of every motion made, so he could compile as accurate a record of the proceedings as possible. His notes are the primary source for any study of that Convention, and especially for any recreation such as 1787 the Musical. In effect, James Madison is at the exact center of this Convention in every way possible.

Notes on characterization made by Lucinda Lawrence in an appendix to the script of the musical – “bari-tenor, small stature, studious and quiet in contrast to Hamilton, unassuming, but powerful in his knowledge and carefully chosen words. The only time he is not calm is in his own home, with only his servant present, while he studies for the task ahead. Has solos and is a part of barbershop ensemble.”

George Washington, it seems does not do a lot in the play, but his reputation is so great that he gets others to attend, his nomination to the Chair quells the riotous hall, and he clearly demonstrates his favorable stance to a central government throughout, including his final vote on the document itself. Many quarrel over who was the best President, some believing Abraham Lincoln to be the best President we have ever had. But that refuses to acknowledge that George Washington established the template. In his acceptance of public service – leading the army, coming back for this Convention, serving as President for the first two terms, and leaving the office in a democratic transition of regimes – Washington established the pattern by which all other Presidents, including Lincoln, should be measured. But in this one instance at the Act Break of the musical, he establishes the greatest legacy he could – that we “will have NO Kings again!” and instead have peaceful transitions of governmental leadership. He is the model for every citizen, both in the play and without. His austere, but essentially very fair, character is what helped to make the Constitutional Convention the exciting prospect it was. His very presence elevated the proceedings to ones of national destiny, and the nearly full attendance of state delegations at this Convention would not have been possible without him being there. His reputation elevated the status of this Convention, and, as such, gave it the one chance to create a viable, central, federal government without the Constitution being picked apart by the various states.

This almost happened anyway, but, just as the narrow Compromises at the Convention saved the final product, so, too, did the narrow votes to Ratify by the various states. And to whom do they report their progress in Ratification? To George Washington, the man whom they almost universally acknowledge will be the first President, but who would never, ever, accept the position of King. We had had enough of kings. And that makes Washington not only our first, but our best, President. All other Presidents are measured by this yardstick.

Notes on characterization made by Lucinda Lawrence in an appendix to the script of the musical – “bass-bar, highly revered by all, tall, lean, must dance well enough to show off for other delegates. He dominates by his mere presence, yet never abuses his power; he reserves his words, speaking only when he feels it is absolutely necessary, ever striving for what is best for the country. As such, he conceals his vocal opinion during most of the proceedings, but reveals his opinions in multiple non-verbal ways. One might even say he dominates, and maintains his aura, through silence.”

George Mason was the most principled of the so-called “Grumbletonians,” for he did not grumble only because he resisted change, but instead had some very deliberative reasons for resisting this new Constitution. Indeed, during “The Grumbletonians” song, Mason generally reacts with disdain to the silliness of some of his fellow Grumbletonians. In fact, dating all the way back to the Revolution, wherein Mason argued the legality of Britain treating some of its citizens differently from other citizens, every decision of Mason had a sound, principled basis.

He was a neighbor and longtime friend of George Washington, and even in 1774, they both were part of a group proposing the “Fairfax Resolves” (Fairfax County, Virginia, where they both lived) which Mason authored and to which George Washington subscribed. Mason authored Virginia’s Bill of Rights, and many considered that Mason “had a talent that far outweighed Madison’s.” He was a longtime ally of Patrick Henry, although Mason, like Madison, opposed Henry’s pursuit of a state religion.

In 1785, Mason attended the Mt. Vernon Conference, along with George Washington, to help settle some Maryland and Virginia disputes over the Potomac and Chesapeake Bay. Although he did not attend the Annapolis Convention of 1786, we had him do so in the play, because that was the sort of thing he did, and we needed the extra barbershop voice. We also wanted to show him as supportive of a new central government early on, which he was. He was not troubled by the Great Compromise, giving each state equal representation in the Senate, but he did not like talk of “abolishing the states” and felt that only a Bill of Rights could restrict the power of the sovereign central government.

In many of the state delegations there were conflicts, and none more so than in Virginia. One of the secondary points made by this musical is how narrowly this Constitution passed some of the states’ delegations, how narrowly it passed the Convention with its Compromises, and, yet again, how narrowly the final document even passed the Ratification hurdle in each state. For such a durable document, its birthing was a very tenuous thing indeed. In the case of Virginia, Mason and Randolph opposed it by the end of the Convention, while Blair (we substitute Wythe) and Madison supported it, and it looked like a deadlocked tie, meaning failure to pass in Madison’s own state which had proposed its basic idea in the first place. Then it was remembered that, even though Washington had agreed to Chair the Convention, he had not given up his right to vote as a Virginia delegate, and Washington broke the tie.

Ironically, much of Mason’s opposition to the final document was not that it went too far, but that it did not go far enough. Mason did not like the South/small state compromise on slavery, he did not like the “necessary and proper clause,” he did not like the fact that there was no Bill of Rights to necessarily restrain the federal power, and he felt a Second Convention was in order to correct the errors of the first. He actually felt that slavery should have been eliminated (not because of any inherent altruism, but because he believed it gave the Deep South an unfair economic and political advantage), and that federal power over states and individuals should be more severely restrained through an additional Bill of Rights made part of this original document before passing it. Eventually Mason and Patrick Henry became the leaders of the anti-federalists at the Virginia ratification Convention. Thus, as an early ally of a federal government, Mason later became a staunch opponent of the final document. Although he supported the new government when implemented, he still warned about too much federal power, and was one of those, along with Madison, who helped to insure that a Bill of Rights was one of the first things achieved in the first year of the new government.

Notes on characterization made by Lucinda Lawrence in an appendix to the script of the musical – “always overtly ethical. Barbershop bass, though Mason and Dickinson barbershop parts can be swapped.”

Edmund Randolph was a politician, pure and simple. The young governor of Virginia attended the Annapolis Convention of the prior year (in fact, he is one of our barbershop voices in that brief scene recounting the event), agrees to present the Resolves of Virginia (written by Madison) because of the prestige involved, and then promptly wilts at every challenge over states’ rights, maintaining adamantly that he does not want to abolish the states, and claiming that the Resolves are merely talking points he presented, not to which he is bound. Indeed, his brief song acknowledging “I Am a Politician” makes note of his shifting from one side to another, and by the end of the Convention, sensing the tide of popular opinion going against him, he does not vote for, nor sign, the Constitution, without the further protection of a Bill of Rights.

But then, after returning home, he again sensed the swell of public opinion with the chain of states that already had voted for Ratification, and, under the rationale that we needed this new government even if incomplete, he made a political show of changing his mind, voting for it, and helping to influence others. (Randolph was still the sitting governor of Virginia at the time of the Ratification meeting.) This tendency to “play politics” continued, as he became first Attorney General and later Secretary of State under George Washington, at which time he straddled the Jeffersonian and Hamilton positions.

In attempting to influence French positions, however, he exceeded his authority, being a politician again, and was forced to resign and return to politics in Virginia. Randolph wrote “A Vindication” of his resignation, but, as Madison himself suggested, “[Randolph’s] greatest enemies will not persuade themselves that he was under a corrupt influence of France, and his best friend can’t save him from the self-condemnation of his political career as explained by himself.” In short, Randolph is a useful comic character, who may be made even more entertaining by making him aware of his political nature, and using it anyway.

Notes on characterization made by Lucinda Lawrence in an appendix to the script of the musical – “young, comic role, stereotypic ‘shifty’ politician, saying whatever will make himself appear to be on the side of those he addresses while making himself appear to be important at every opportunity, but always with care to avoid getting caught on an opposing side. The other, more observant delegates are aware, but allow this charade. This stereotype should be played for laughs.”

George Wythe signed the Declaration, trained some of the first lawyers to be trained in America, including Thomas Jefferson, served on the Rules Committee, and originally chaired the Committee of the Whole at the Virginia ratifying Convention. He then stepped aside from that post so he could push for Ratification, with the reservations of a Bill of Rights still being needed. He left the Convention early due to an illness in his family, but we kept his curmudgeonly presence and had him stay to cast the countering vote to Mason and Randolph, which John Blair, Jr. actually cast at the Convention. But John Blair was silent throughout the Convention and had none of the other noted aspects concerning the Convention that Wythe had, so it was an easy decision to keep the entertaining old guy and let him replace the nondescript Blair for the vote.

Notes on characterization made by Lucinda Lawrence in an appendix to the script of the musical – “an elder statesman, respected; commands attention from other delegates.” (to be continued)

CHAPTER 1, PART 1 How the Whole Thing Got Started
How the Whole Thing Got Started
 How the Whole Thing Got Started
CHAPTER 2, PART 1 Who Didn’t Make the Cut of 55 Delegates
Who Didn’t Make the Cut of 55 Delegates
CHAPTER 3 Who Made the Cut
to be released:
CHAPTER 5, PART 1 Strong Delegation from Pennsylvania
to be released:
CHAPTER 5, PART 2 An Important Note on Costuming and Hairstyles of the Delegates
Strong Delegation from Pennsylvania
CHAPTER 6, PART 1 Small States; “Grumbletonians”; New Jersey Plan; Great Compromise
CHAPTER 6, PART 2 Small States; “Grumbletonians”; New Jersey Plan; Great Compromise
CHAPTER 6, PART 3 Small States; “Grumbletonians”; New Jersey Plan; Great Compromise
CHAPTER 7 The Other Two States with Grumbletonians: Massachusetts and New York
The divided Massachusetts
 The division of New York
 Hamilton, before leaving the Convention
 Hamilton returns
 Robert Yates and John Lansing, Jr.
Delegations from the South