Most Americans could probably tell you who wrote the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson is the short answer, of course. However, purists will point out that a committee had been charged with the task – John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston, Roger Sherman and Thomas Jefferson. Instead of creating something that looked like it had been written by a committee, they wisely chose the best writer among them to do the work.
Adams explains his reasons for choosing Jefferson:
John Adams: self-described as "obnoxious,
unpopular and suspect" to his friend Thomas
In a bit of historical irony, his "friend" Jefferson
would make him out to be even more so when
Adams ran against him in the Presidential
election of 1796.
portrait by John Trumball
Reason first: you are a Virginian and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second: I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third: You can write ten times better than I can.
I love this quote. It makes John Adams almost endearing even though he probably was “obnoxious, suspected and unpopular.”
If you ask your average American who wrote the constitution, some might speculate that Jefferson wrote that document as well. After all, the preamble is such a piece of art that it had to be written by someone with an uncommon talent for expression.
But Jefferson couldn’t have written the Constitution directly. He was in Paris. He couldn’t even have had much of a hand in the drafts because the Constitutional Convention met for just under four months. My understanding is that, depending on the winds and the type of ship, it took anywhere from six weeks to 3 months to travel between Europe and America.
Those who paid a little more attention in history class may confidently assert that James Madison wrote the Constitution. He is, after all, known as “the Father of the Constitution.”
James Madison, Fourth President of the United
States and, IMO, one intense looking guy! He's
probably what you would expect from the Father
of the Constitution, author of the Virginia Plan
and major contributor to the Federalist Papers.
portrait by John Vanderlyn
However, like any “father,” the child may have been his idea, but that doesn’t mean he was the one who ultimately gave birth. That’s not to discount his contribution. Like a good father, he was there every step of the way!
Indeed, Madison wrote the Virginia Plan, on which the Constitution was based. This plan was the shot across the bow so to speak that told the delegates to the convention that some powerful people (George Washington included) had no intention of wasting time trying to modify the Articles of Confederation. Madison later wrote the Bill of Rights, but even that was heavily influenced by the Virginia Declaration of Rights written by George Mason.
So who wrote the Constitution?
One of the books currently on my nightstand is America’s Second Revolution: How George Washington Defeated Patrick Henry and Saved the Nation by Harlow Giles Unger. The first part of this book focuses on the Constitutional Convention, and I’ve come to the conclusion that, unbelievably, this document was written by committee. For the most part, the Virginia Plan and other plans (The New Jersey Plan, The Hamilton Plan and other less formal proposals) were debated in a Committee of the Whole.
Committee of the Whole: the whole membership of a legislative house sitting as a committee and operating under informal rules
As an interesting aside, the unwieldy concept of debating something in a Committee of the Whole may have been invented by this group. Merriam-Webster lists its first usage as 1775 – about the time the First Continental Congress would have been dealing with matters pertaining to the Revolution.
Gouverneur Morris, 1787. Reputed to be quite the
ladies' man despite his peg leg.
Luckily, this Committee of the Whole had the foresight to appoint a number of subcommittees throughout the Convention to take care of some of the detail work. Those committees included the Committee of Style, which had as its members Alexander Hamilton, William Johnson, Rufus King, James Madison and Gouverneur Morris. Wisely, this committee appointed their mostaccomplished wordsmith, Morris, to handle most of the fine details.
Gouverneur Morris contributed much to the Constitution during debates, but perhaps that which we should be most thankful for is that, as elementary students, we had to memorize this beautiful and inspiring premable:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Instead of this:
We the People of the States of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New-York, New-Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North-Carolina, South-Carolina, and Georgia, do ordain, declare and establish the following Constitution for the Government of Ourselves and our Posterity.
Thank you, Mr. Morris!
P.S. A note to the editors among you. The spelling of “defence” and “insure” are theirs, not mine. Defense with a “c” was a more common British spelling and shows our roots. The use of “insure” instead of “ensure” may have been the same, or it may have just been a misuse of the word – one that is extremely common today.