History of the 1787 Constitutional Convention as Presented in
1787 the Musical
We Wrote the Constitution
by Robert Picklesimer
CHAPTER 5, PART 1
The Strong Delegation from Pennsylvania
(continued from Chapter 4)
Chapter 5, Part 1 Benjamin Franklin’s Influence
Chapter 5, Part 2 An Important Note on Costuming and Hairstyles of the Delegates
Chapter 5, Part 3 James Wilson; Gouverneur Morris;
A Note on the Stage Seating of the Pennsylvania and Other Delegations
Chapter 5, Part 1 Benjamin Franklin’s Influence
To Decision in Philadelphia, by Collier and Collier, I refer and respond often because it is both highly regarded and very representative of the current scholarly consensus on the Constitutional Convention. They suggest that Benjamin Franklin was not all that important a figure in the Convention, that he was secondary to Washington, and did not contribute greatly to the final product. Though he did not speak often, nothing could be further from the truth. Likewise, the Colliers acknowledge that James Wilson is an all-but-forgotten delegate to that Convention, but that he had a great deal more influence on the final product than he is credited. M. E. Bradford in Founding Fathers, though, suggests that Wilson was an ineffectual obstructionist who opposed the Grand Compromise, any sovereignty for the states, and generally: “Though he served on the Committee of Detail, whose members composed the first draft of the Constitution, the theory that he was a major influence on the final form of the document is unsupported, a myth of those scholars who prefer his teaching to that of Framers of genuine importance.” In the musical, and in reality, Wilson was an important centerpiece of the Convention. Finally, many dismiss Gouverneur Morris, even though he spoke more than any other delegate to the Convention and authored much of the language of the final version through the vehicle of the Committee of Style, because so much of his observations were masked by his wit, good humor, and his aristocratic rake-ishness. But he also was an important advocate for the new national government. Throw in Robert Morris (whom we do not include in the play except by mentioning him), the richest man in America and “financier of the Revolution,” and George Clymer, Thomas Mifflin, and Thomas Fitzsimons (none of whom we include in the play), who were all close friends and officers and completely supportive of George Washington, and it is clear that Pennsylvania had a very strong delegation to the 1787 Convention in Philadelphia.
Benjamin Franklin In Decision in Philadelphia, besides calling Franklin “old and infirm,” the Colliers contend that “…By the time of the Convention Franklin was more or less chronically ill, and growing feeble…. He brought to it no strong convictions, no carefully reasoned positions as to what should be done. He would accept anything that seemed reasonable, and he made it his main work to calm tempers and smooth roiled seas. His ideas were not really influential at the Convention.” They dismiss Franklin’s motion for a prayer on June 28, during the most contentious phases of the Convention, as a failed attempt to “cool passions and unloosen intransigence.” They acknowledge that “Sherman seconded the motion. But nobody else was interested, and the idea was dropped.” And the Colliers further make almost no mention at all of Benjamin Franklin’s final motion, suggested by another delegate from Philadelphia, Gouverneur Morris, that the State delegations present approve of the final document, not every individual delegate.
All of this comes from being too much the literalists. The Colliers recognized the influence that the prestige of George Washington provided, as the silent man providing guidance behind the scenes for a stronger national government, but they fail to see the contributions of Franklin. They have read the proceedings of the Convention and decide, based upon empirical evidence, that Franklin came up with no new ideas and spoke very little, so he must not have been very important to the proceedings.
This happens often in translations of plays or literature: the interpreters see the immediate but fail to see the larger dynamic. I used to dismiss Sophocles as a Greek playwright because he didn’t have the supposed “high ideals” of Aeschylus, or the “real people” of Euripides, until I was so dissatisfied with translations of Sophocles’ Antigone that I attempted one of my own. Gilbert Murray, who was once regarded as the world’s preeminent scholar of Greek literature and translations of Greek plays, admonished translators that they needed to capture both the literal meanings and to capture the spirit of the literature they are translating. He admitted that the pedagogy of scholars often persuaded against these secondary discoveries, but, in my ancillary experience as a theatre director, that is what we do: read between the lines and figure out what is really happening in a scene. In the case of Sophocles’ Antigone I discovered Sophocles’ masterful use of language, which actually added emotional dimensions to the play, and which I am not sure many translators had discovered. He had some extended metaphors on Greece as the eagle and Thebes as the snake, and also the extended Choral ode on “what is man?” which are much more significant when not treated as isolated poetry, but rather as pertinent to the whole theme of the play.
Likewise, looking at the proceedings of the Convention, Franklin speaks very seldom, and on the surface, doesn’t seem that influential, even, like Washington, in the prestige of his personage. But then, when the Convention is looked at like a play (as Madison transcribed the proceedings), it begins to become readily apparent that it is not so much what Franklin says, nor whether he sides with one faction or another, but it is a matter of when he makes his motions and why he does so. This is especially important in the dynamic of writing a play/musical about the Constitutional Convention, as we did with 1787 the Musical. Even I will confess that I initially felt that the main movers of the document were Madison and Hamilton, but the more and more we wrote, the more Franklin made himself an indispensable part of the play/musical much as he must have inserted himself at the proper moments at the original Convention. We have Franklin acknowledge to Madison, that he is a practical politician after all, “the art of the practical, not the impossible.” And Franklin’s goal is no less than any of the other strong nationalists: he wants a sound national government, and he knows it cannot be done without the consensus of those present, so he goes about to help achieve that consensus. He did so in at least three ways.
The first and most important point at which Franklin influences the Convention is actually the turning point of both the original Convention, and of our 1787 the Musical. Just before the Act Break – when all else seems to be falling apart (this is when it is becoming increasingly clear that the two elements, a strong push for a national government and the reticence of the smaller state minorities to give up any of their sovereignty, are threatening to tear the Convention apart – giving us no lasting government at all, and descending into the chaos of France, for instance) – it is Franklin who breaks up the contentiousness by making a plea for divine guidance and prayer. And it is not insignificant that Roger Sherman seconds that motion. Franklin and Sherman are the elder statesmen of the two different factions, Franklin of the Federalists, and Sherman of the small states’ alliance. In our premiere production of 1787 we seated Franklin exactly down right, and Sherman down left, each as the elder statesman of the two different major factions, and even though they never seem to directly confront each other, in this one instance we have them attempting together to redirect the negative energy manifesting itself at the Convention. This is the dramatic tension necessary to help any play go forward, and Franklin and Sherman both make attempts to ameliorate the largest stumbling block of this Convention.
Franklin wants them all to “just get along,” hoping a suggestion of divine guidance will help them do that, but Sherman has another reason to second the motion. Sherman needs time – time to attempt to influence enough states to broker a deal to give some protection to the smaller states (and by extension other minority interests in the eventual government), and that is what he does. Franklin’s motion does defuse the immediate tension, both in the original proceedings and in our musical; and Sherman does eventually achieve his Compromise, Sherman’s Compromise, the Great Compromise, which saves this Convention, and, who knows, perhaps, our country itself.
The second point at which Franklin influences the Convention is in the matter of the Committee of Eleven. There was much work done in Committees at this Convention. We make fun of this in our comic tune “In Committee” as part of the larger 1787 the Musical. But there were no records kept of the proceedings of the Committees at this Convention. Only, thanks to the forethought of Madison and a few others, of the proceedings itself. But it is significant that Franklin – and not any of the other more determined Federalists in the Pennsylvania delegation – becomes the Pennsylvania representative on this Committee of Eleven (which had one representative from every state). This Committee is a direct result of a tie vote on the issue of equal representation in the second House, then by direct motion of Roger Sherman, and this Committee comes up with the Great Compromise which allowed the Convention and our country to go forward. This is argued in the musical itself. When the representation of the states on this Committee is decided they are all “small states’ men” or, as is the case with Franklin, compromisers who are willing to do what is necessary to help this project, a unified national government, survive. We even have Franklin advise Madison later in “Dawning of the Day,” that, even though Madison was the strongest advocate of a central government, that he hasn’t “failed”: Franklin is the eternal optimist, “It is the Dawning of the Day…” – not the night Madison believes it is.
And the third way in which Franklin influences the Convention is providing the way in which the new Constitution is voted upon and approved. Besides the two iconic statements by Franklin at the conclusion of this Convention (“Do we have a country, Dr. Franklin?” – “Yes, if we can keep it,” and “I have long wondered if the sun on the horizon on General Washington’s chair is a rising or setting sun, and I now know it is a rising sun…”), it is Franklin whom the pro-Constitution forces ask to put forward the motion for passage and the terms under which that passage is made. Franklin makes the last best argument in favor of the document: “I am not sure it is not the best….” It was Franklin who was chosen for a reason. Even if it is Gouverneur Morris’ idea, Franklin puts it forward in a way the Constitution can be passed.
Many academics want to point to some absolute argumentative points that the delegates make at this Convention. The delegates are the significant participants to those who study the proceedings and commentaries. But that is not the way real people and real politics work. Franklin, with his gentle aphorisms, congenial nature, and few moments of significance, is as important, or more so, than all the cleverly reasoned logic. He tells stories, he amuses the delegates, he makes the deliberative body work, and he is not just a feeble old man.
It is no mistake that Franklin was there at both the Declaration of Independence and the writing of the Constitution, that he was the major influence on France, which saved us during the Revolution, and that he was the most highly regarded American in the world for the twenty years leading up to the writing of the Constitution, with the only possible exception of George Washington. Like General Washington, Franklin parcels out his contributions, and uses them in the fashion most comfortable to him, and academics should not make the mistake of measuring him by the number of times he participates, but by the quality of his participation. In the dynamics of our musical, Franklin became more and more important as the story was developed, and I believe strongly that that is what happened in the real proceedings as well.
Notes on characterization made by Lucinda Lawrence in an appendix to the script of the musical – “tenor; oldest delegate, infirm, very overweight; he barely can walk – historically could not walk much by 1787. As such, he often sings while seated. Others listen to him, so he intervenes only if necessary. He recommends compromise between the sides on many issues.” (to be continued)
CHAPTER 1, PART 1 How the Whole Thing Got Started
CHAPTER 1, PART 2 How the Whole Thing Got Started
CHAPTER 1, PART 3 How the Whole Thing Got Started
CHAPTER 2, PART 1 Who Didn’t Make the Cut of 55 Delegates
CHAPTER 2, PART 2 Who Didn’t Make the Cut of 55 Delegates
CHAPTER 3 Who Made the Cut
CHAPTER 4 Virginia Delegation
to be released:
CHAPTER 5 The Strong Delegation from Pennsylvanio
CHAPTER 5, PART 2 An Important Note on Costuming and Hairstyles of the Delegates
CHAPTER 5, PART 3 Strong Delegation from Pennsylvania
CHAPTER 5, PART 2 An Important Note on Costuming and Hairstyles of the Delegates
CHAPTER 5, PART 3 James Wilson; Gouverneur Morris; Note on Seating
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
CHAPTER 7, PART 1 The divided Massachusetts
CHAPTER 7, PART 2 The division of New York
CHAPTER 7, PART 3 Hamilton, before leaving the Convention
CHAPTER 7, PART 4 Hamilton returns
CHAPTER 7, PART 5 Robert Yates and John Lansing, Jr.
CHAPTER 8 Delegations from the South
1787 THE MUSICAL