On September 17, 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the engrossed document that began with the three famous words that define the true source of all government power.
From Tempest at Dawn, here's an abridged description of the ceremony.
Madison sat in his customary place with folded hands resting on the table. He didn’t intend to take notes today. In fact, he didn’t intend to take any more notes on any day. This signing ceremony would be the final act of the convention.
Madison noticed that his ink-stained hands looked prayerful. He thought this fitting because a reverential spirit suffused the assembly. The chamber remained hushed as the secretary read the engrossed Constitution in its entirety. At the conclusion, Franklin rose with a speech in his hand.
“Mr. President, most men believe they possess all truth and that whoever differs from them is in error. The older I grow, the more I doubt my own judgment and the more I pay attention to the judgment of others.
“When you assemble a group of men to take advantage of their collective wisdom, you inevitably bring together all their prejudices, passions, and selfish views. From such an assembly, can one expect perfection? It astonishes me that this system approaches so near perfection.
Franklin dropped his papers to his side and spoke in a commanding voice. “I move the Constitution be signed.”
King interrupted the initiation of the signing ceremony. “I suggest that the journals of the convention be destroyed or deposited in the custody of the president. If it becomes public, those who wish to prevent the adoption of the Constitution will put it to bad use.”
“I prefer the second expedient.” Wilson looked directly at Gerry. “Some may make false representations of our proceedings, and we’ll need evidence to contradict them.”
The last comments confirmed Madison’s suspicion that the fight for ratification would be divisive and mean-spirited.
The motion passed to deposit the journals into the hands of Washington.
Finally, all other business completed, Washington formally called on the delegates to sign the Constitution. The secretary had arranged the Syng inkstand that had been used to sign the Declaration of Independence on a green baize-covered table. Washington walked around the table and signed first. He then called the states from north to south. The delegates remained silent and reverential as they approached the low dais to apply their signatures.
When Virginia was called, Madison felt a tightening in his stomach. This Constitution would permanently bind his beloved country. When he picked up the pen, he looked at Washington, who stood respectfully to the side, instead of behind the table. The precedents set by this man would seal these words. Madison grabbed the pen, dipped it in the inkwell, and signed with confidence. When he looked up, Washington gave him a nod that made Madison think he had read his mind.
Despite his illness, Franklin had remained standing after he signed, shaking hands with delegates and whispering an occasional aside. While the last members were signing, tears glistened in Franklin’s eyes. With an obvious struggle to control his emotions, he began to speak in a stronger than normal voice.
“Gentlemen, have you observed the half sun painted on the back the president’s chair? Artists find it difficult to distinguish a rising from a setting sun. In these many months, I have been unable to tell which it was. Now, I’m happy to exclaim that it is a rising, not a setting sun.”
Once the last signature was in place, no one wanted to spend another moment in this room that had dominated their lives for so many months. Besides, John Dickinson had left a banknote for a celebratory dinner at the City Tavern.
Because of the momentous day, Franklin intended to walk out of the State House. Madison grabbed one elbow, and Wilson took the opposite side to help the old man out of the chamber. Madison hoped he could protect Franklin from being jostled by the bubbling delegates, but Washington took a point position in front of their little group, and the crowd parted like the Red Sea.
“I want to thank you gentlemen for helping an enfeebled and diminished old man,” Franklin said.
“I witnessed your diminished capacity these many months,” Madison said. He became puzzled when this somehow evoked a hearty chuckle from Franklin.
The doctor glanced between Madison and Wilson. “I’m usually assisted by the inmates of Walnut Street Prison. It occurs to me that you men have been prisoners in this chamber.” Franklin chuckled again. “With the power vested in me by the State of Pennsylvania, I pardon and set you free.”
At that precise moment, with theatrics that seemed natural to Washington, the sentries threw open the door to the State House, and Madison was assaulted by bright sunlight and a deafening roar. Hundreds of people cheered, clapped, and whistled at the sight of Gen. George Washington framed by the great white door.
The threesome stopped a respectful distance behind Washington. This crowd was not going to part so easily. In fact, the sentries had skipped down the three steps and joined arms to hold back the surge of people.
“Our rambunctious session on Saturday told our fair citizens that we had concluded our business,” Franklin observed.
“Are you riding with the general?” Madison asked.
“Relax, boys. The general will know the exact moment to step off the stoop.”
True to Franklin’s prediction, Washington gauged the crowd’s mood perfectly, and when he stepped down, they gave the men a narrow path to Washington’s beautiful new carriage.
As they followed in the general’s footsteps, the people continued to cheer and applaud. A woman leaned her head past Madison to yell, “Dr. Franklin, what is it to be? A republic or a monarchy?”
The doctor hesitated in his step and looked over the throng of anxious people. His answer came in a firm, loud voice.
“A republic—if you can keep it.”
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