Putting Things Straight

Schoolchildren find themselves stranded after a plane crash and must find a way to survive on an island. You may remember that story as relayed in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

Early efforts at creating some sort of social order gradually disintegrate into an all-out survival of the fittest. There, the character Ralph, a socially conscious voice of reason, cautions his peers, “We need an assembly. Not for fun. Not for laughing and falling off the log…not for making jokes, or…for cleverness. Not for these things. But to put things straight.”

What happened in America 229 years ago, on May 25, 1787, exemplifies the potency of Golding’s words which he wrote in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

jb 1Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Twenty-nine delegates assembled in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall on that day. Familiar faces of the times included New York’s Alexander Hamilton, South Carolina’s John Rutledge and Rufus King from Massachusetts. Virginia sent the brightest lights of George Mason, James Madison, and that revered Revolutionary War General, George Washington.

They initially convened to amend the Articles of Confederation. Pennsylvania’s Dr. Benjamin Franklin had planned to nominate Washington to preside over the convention but could not attend because, “The state of the weather and of his health confined him to his house.” Instead, Robert Morris from Pennsylvania made the motion and Washington was “unanimously elected by ballot.”

jb 2Photo Credit: Wikimedia

The weeks wore on and more delegates trickled in. The assembly devised procedural rules to govern deliberations. They disagreed about much. Connecticut’s Roger Sherman believed, “The people…should have as little to do as may be about government. They want information and are constantly liable of being misled.” Elbridge Gerry from Massachusetts wholeheartedly agreed, “The people do not want virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots…they are daily misled into the most baneful measures and opinions…” George Mason rebuffed both however, calling direct elections by the people “the grand depository of the democratic principle of government…It ought to know and sympathize with every part of the community.”

There were other points of disagreement. Should the national legislature select the president?  When some envisioned one executive leader, Virginia’s Edmund Randolph woefully “…regarded it as the fetus of monarchy.” Pennsylvania’s James Wilson saw it differently however, insisting that “unity in the executive” would “be the best safeguard against tyranny.”

Many disputes erupted over four months, and 55 total delegates ultimately participated. By the end of it, on September 17, they all found common ground. Indeed, Madison had noted early on, “But he should shrink from nothing which should be found essential to such a form of government as would provide for the safety, liberty and happiness of the community.”

As the assembly prepared to disband, Dr. Franklin finally found the answer to a vexing question. While near the end of his own life, his heart shed the temporal confines of that moment. He saw the chair where Washington had sat; its mahogany back depicted a painted sun. Franklin noted, “I have…looked at that behind the president, without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting; but now at length, I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.”

jb 3Photo Credit: Independence Hall Association

Those 55 delegates laid the cornerstone for a nation we still inhabit. There wasn’t any Internet, and no one walked on the moon. Vision instead sprang from some deeper human core, fueled by an unfettered propensity for imagination and ingenuity. In that place, they found consensus.

That’s one way to put things straight.

Submitted by Jason Bowns

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