Convention History as Presented in the Musical Ch5Pt3

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

by Robert Picklesimer

James Wilson; Gouverneur Morris
A Note on the Stage Seating of the Pennsylvania and Other Delegations

(continued from Chapter 5, Part 2)
Chapter 5, Part 1 A Strong Delegation; 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

Part 3 James Wilson; Gouverneur Morris;
A Note on the Stage Seating of the Pennsylvania and Other Delegations

James Wilson For a multitude of reasons, James Wilson is generally dismissed, considered an unimportant figure in our history. Here, the Colliers, in Decision in Philadelphia, got it right, while many others miss the point. The Colliers recognize reasons Wilson is dismissed, but they also recognize his great contributions. Many others see Wilson as he is seen in the musical 1776, as a “nobody” who prefers his anonymity. We preferred to play it as if Wilson had changed heart by 1787, and, being a piercing legal mind, educated extensively in legal and moral philosophy in Scotland before ever coming to America, he realized the importance of the 1787 Convention and some of the imperatives for this new “experimental” government. Another reason Wilson is generally dismissed, is, even though he became one of our first Supreme Court Justices, he died heavily disgraced and heavily indebted, having indulged heavily, like Robert Morris, in premature speculation in western land, and he ran out of funds before he ran out of options.

But as the Colliers point out, there are some very good reasons to think highly of James Wilson in the Convention of 1787. Wilson is the singular most driven advocate of a strong federal government, he proposes the electoral college as a balance to direct vote for president (which many of the delegates, distrusting a pure mob driven democracy, are still skeptical of), and he is the strongest advocate at this Convention of a single executive for this fledgling government. Without Wilson we may never have had a President, which has served as the figurehead and leader of the United States since its founding Constitution – the office has served at times to cut through the potential administrative bureaucracy of a legislatively led government to help make the United States the dynamic and energetic country it has been since its inception.

In the musical, Wilson is Madison’s most staunch ally, the one element that never fails to push forward for a new, more powerful, central – “federal” – government. And being so, he cannot be dismissed in our musical, even if he is occasionally forgotten by history. Others dismiss Wilson’s role in the Committee of Detail, because once again proceedings of the Committees were not recorded. But that Committee was probably the most important during the Convention, and Wilson was a major influence on that Committee. That Committee came up with the basic structure of the new government, combining all the ideas prevalent and settled at the Convention at the time. The Committee of Style may have polished the final language, but the Committee of Detail wrote our Constitution. And Wilson’s mark is everywhere.

For the philosophy of this new “experiment” was distinctly Wilson’s. Many among the delegates suspected the popular democracy would devolve into anarchy. Many others feared the federal government would simply serve as another onerous master similar to the government of Great Britain. Wilson brought the conviction, suggested in debates in Scotland, and echoed by James Madison, that a distillation of the popular will would lead to the correct decisions by any government. This very idea, that the populace, in its collective conscience, would know what to do, is the most revolutionary of any at this Convention. The further conviction that we only needed a governmental structure to enable that collective will, was uniquely American, and specifically the ideas of James Madison and James Wilson fostered that belief: that the many different elements of this new country could be forged into not only a workable “experiment,” but a positive effector of the will of its people. This philosophy cannot be dismissed. It is at the very center of the writing of the Constitution, and Wilson is its purest example. His solid base is almost as indispensable as are Washington, Madison, Franklin, and Hamilton. The Colliers put it most clearly: “Wilson saw the people as the ultimate repository of sovereignty. They held all power and could distribute it as they liked, dividing it among whatever governments they saw fit to construct. Wilson’s view of the matter was not clear to the other delegates as first. They had grown up believing in a somewhat different principle of government, the idea of the social contract, which said that government was a bargain between the rulers and the ruled. The people, in essence, agreed to accept the overlordship of their kings and governors; in return, the rulers agreed to respect certain rights of the people.”

Next to George Washington, James Wilson was considered the most able and honest of all delegates, and Wilson had an over-abiding opinion of “the people” (whom many among the delegates to this Convention suspected as an undisciplined mob), and Wilson pushed for as much a direct vote on all issues by “the people” as possible. He pushed for the electoral college as the closest to a direct republican vote for President as he could get – many among the delegates wanted the state legislators to vote on or pick this chief executive, and many delegates did not want this chief executive at all – but Wilson believed this “President” was an essential extension of the will of “the people.” Wilson was the strongest advocate for a strong, flexible and effective single leader of the executive branch, and for the electoral college to choose this leader for the people.

Notes on characterization made by Lucinda Lawrence in an appendix to the script of the musical – “Scottish accent; a respected voice of experience and reason among the delegates.”

Gouverneur Morris was the younger brother of Lewis Morris III of New York, who signed the Declaration of Independence, but he apparently was not related to Robert Morris, who was his business and legal partner after Gouverneur Morris had had a political falling out with the state of New York, and had turned to Pennsylvania for recourse. Gouverneur Morris spoke more often than any other delegate to the 1787 Convention, and we play the wooden-legged, upper class degenerate as an aristocratic wit, commentator, rake and self-abnegating buffoon who believed only in the ultimate lesser common denominator among men.

He believed that any class, particularly his own, the aristocracy, would seek to consolidate all power under their reign, and Morris believed that this mistrust of the aristocrats necessitated many protections from an oligarchy. He believed he knew how bad they could be, both individually and collectively, and he tried to serve as a bulwark against the worst abusers… because he was one himself. We introduced Penelope and Katie to show his womanizing, and nearly every incident with Morris is played for laughs. With few exceptions: he is willing to accept Sherman’s compromise, because as he told Madison, some government is better than none; and Gouverneur Morris proposes both the final form the document should take (through the Committee of Detail) and the final form the vote should take (through Ben Franklin). Morris it is who warns Madison that we must not be too inflexible and that we must have a government through a new pact or Constitution, or we will have one with the sword, an alternative of which he does not approve.

Coming from the very aristocratic Morris family of New York, and allied to the very rich and aristocratic Robert Morris family of Pennsylvania (which families were not related, unless very, very distantly and tangentially), Morris espoused many times during the Convention a protection of “property”: he was as fearful of the lawless hordes as he was of the aristocratic power brokers and sought ways to keep any of these factions from depriving any citizen of his “life, liberty, or property” – which phrase was later changed, over G. Morris’ objection, to “pursuit of happiness” – which was meant by many of the delegates to include the concept of property but to go beyond it. So even though we played Gouverneur Morris as an irresponsible, immoral, upper-class, self-abnegating elitist, he had some very good contributions to the final document, not the least of which was the wording of the final form of the Constitution. Serving on the Committee of Style, which wrote the final language, G. Morris is credited with writing the opening words of the Constitution, so often quoted, “We the People, in order to [etc.]….”

Later in life he was made ambassador to France by George Washington, and was able to witness with horror, first-hand, the excesses of the French Revolution, to which the American Revolution might have fallen prey if not for the wise decisions of the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Gouverneur Morris even tried to ransom Louis XVI from the guillotine – unsuccessfully – although he did aid many other endangered aristocrats in France. As further marks of his worldly nature, he spent four more years in Europe after his ambassadorship ended (at the request of France), and he gave the eulogy at two different funerals – for the diametrically opposed Alexander Hamilton and Governor George Clinton, both of New York. When Gouverneur Morris returned from Europe he was appointed a Senator from New York to fill an unexpired term, but in the Jeffersonian sweep of 1802 he was not chosen to continue in that position. He retired to Morrisania in New York, married, and had a son.

Notes on characterization made by Lucinda Lawrence in an appendix to the script of the musical – “a rake, known as ‘the tall boy’; he is overtly hedonistic, but not without some importance in the proceedings. He is one among those elite who are looking out for ‘the people’. The player must convincingly fake his having only one real leg.”

A Note on the Stage Seating of the Pennsylvania and Other Delegations

It is to the Pennsylvania delegation, to the threesome of Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson, and the eldest leader of the faction, Benjamin Franklin, that Madison turns most often for support. When we designed the premiere production, the entire Pennsylvania table was down and stage right of, adjacent to, the Virginia/Madison table, so Madison can speak directly to Wilson, G. Morris, and Franklin as his closest allies. Madison himself was already just to the right and downstage of Washington’s chair (so Madison can be the closest to the chair in order to take his notes); and with North Carolina (to the inside, nearest to the up center door, from which Blount constantly enters – late), South Carolina (next), and Georgia (last) running along the stage right wall (we had them on a slightly raised, one-step platform). Massachusetts and its mostly supportive delegation was nestled in behind Pennsylvania and beside Virginia. New York, which was also split and which didn’t always have all of its delegates in attendance, then was situated to the farthest down right of all the delegations, right beside Pennsylvania and in front of the lone delegate from Georgia. This left the entire stage left side of Washington’s chair for the small states: New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, and eventually New Hampshire when its lone delegate finally arrived.
seating layout (PDF) (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
CHAPTER 2, PART 2 Who Didn’t Make the Cut of 55 Delegates
CHAPTER 3 Who Made the Cut
CHAPTER 4 Virginia Delegation
CHAPTER 5, PART 1 A Strong Delegation; Benjamin Franklin’s Influence
CHAPTER 5, PART 2 Strong Delegation from Pennsylvania
to be released:
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


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s