Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Constitution Series Part 34: Signatures (Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York)

My favorite thing about researching these Founding Fathers is finding their coolest moments, like when John Langdon helped a slave escape the Washingtons or when Hugh Williamson showed up in London and defended the actions of the colonists so well he became friends with Benjamin Franklin. I'm hoping to find cool stories about as many of the signers as possible.

Today I'll be covering three states: Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York, each of which features at least one delegate with a cool story to tell.


Nathaniel Gorham was a merchant-turned-politician from Boston, and he served in the Continental Congress leading up to the Constitutional Convention. At the Convention he was active, serving on influential committees. That said, I haven't found any portions of the Constitution he specifically proposed or supported with zeal, even though he played a significant leadership role there. After the Convention he threw his money into a land speculation deal that turned out to be far more costly than expected, leading to a default and Gorham's removal from affluent society. He died in 1796, just a few years after losing his fortune.

Rufus King was the son of a successful farmer/merchant, who was so successful that mobs rose up against King's father and damaged his property on multiple occasions. This hardened King's father against the American people, but King himself joined the Revolution and fought in the Battle of Rhode Island before returning to Massachusetts and opening a law firm and occasionally serving in the Congress of the Confederation. As one of the younger and more vital attendants at the Constitutional Convention, Rufus King was active throughout the Convention and served on several committees. He was opposed to slavery then, and he continued to fight as an abolitionist through the rest of his life.

After helping to get the Constitution ratified in Massachusetts, King packed up and moved to New York to spend the rest of his life in politics, at the urging of his friend Alexander Hamilton. He served as minister to Britain for years, maintaining a peace between the United States and Britain that lasted until 1805, two years after King resigned from his post. He ran for office several times, first as a senator and twice as Vice President under Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, losing to Thomas Jefferson in 1804 and James Madison in 1808. He ran for President in 1816 against James Monroe and lost again, making King the final presidential candidate of the Federalist Party, which completely dissolved shortly afterward.

He did successfully maintain a seat in the U.S. Senate from 1813 to 1825, and he used his position to urge the country to wean itself off of slavery. His crowning achievement was a speech he gave in 1920 against the Missouri Compromise, which was to admit Missouri as another "slave state." A portion of that speech:
Mr. President, I have yet to learn that one man can make a slave of another. If one man cannot do so, no number of individuals can have any better right to do it. And I hold that all laws or compacts imposing any such condition on any human being are absolutely void, because contrary to the law of nature, which is the law of God, by which He makes His ways known to man, and is paramount to human control.
Apparently King's speech made a huge impact, and though it failed at its immediate aim (stopping the Missouri Compromise), the effects of his speech rippled through the country and brought it another step toward abolitionism, and toward civil war. King died in 1827 at the age of 72.
Two Massachusetts delegates to the Constitutional Convention did not sign the document: Caleb Strong and Elbridge Gerry.

Strong heavily supported the Constitution, and he introduced the notion of having money bills originate with the House of Representatives. However, he was called home due to an illness in his family, and he missed the opportunity to sign the Constitution.

Elbridge Gerry, like George Mason from Virginia, was a vocal and influential attendee who ended up refusing to sign the Constitution on principle, citing a lack of Bill of Rights among other reasons. Gerry continued to be a major force in American politics afterward, being the namesake of "Gerrymandering," for instance. He was the second of James Madison's Vice Presidents to die in office.


William Samuel Johnson was a well-respected man long before the Revolutionary War. He got his education and established a successful law practice in the 1750s. He also joined the Connecticut militia at around that time, and served in the militia until, as the Revolution started heating up, he refused on principle to join the Continental Congress. He felt that independence was a poor decision, and he was convinced that Britain's harmful colonial policies were based on ignorance, not malice. He spent the war working for peace between the colonies and Britain, and his efforts to speak to the British once got him arrested by the revolutionaries, who charged him with treason. He was later released.

After the war, Johnson felt comfortable returning to public life and participating in the new government. At the Constitutional Convention Johnson was a vocal figure, giving eloquent speeches and introducing several bits of language that eventually made its way into the final document. Moreover, he chaired the Committee of Style which put together the final version of the Constitution. That committee included four other people: James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Rufus King, and Gouverneur Morris, all young, outspoken, passionate men, whom the older Johnson managed to direct admirably. Afterward, Johnson served briefly in the newly-created Senate, then dedicated himself to the presidency of Columbia College until he retired in the year 1800. He died in 1819 at the age of 92.
Roger Sherman was even older than William Samuel Johnson. He received little formal education, and mostly taught himself through what books he could find growing up. He moved to New Haven and started a business with his brother, and in growing that business and establishing himself as part of that community he rose in prominence in New Haven.

Despite his lack of education, Sherman was admitted to the Bar in Lichfield in 1754, and from there he rose in politics, serving as a Justice of the Superior Court of Connecticut from 1766 to 1789, among other roles. In 1774, he signed the Articles of Association, the first major document that bound the colonies together, uniting them in a boycott of British goods. In 1776, Sherman signed the Declaration of Independence, severing the colonies' ties with Britain. In 1777, he signed the Articles of Confederation, establishing the nation's new government. And, in 1787, he signed the Constitution, establishing the nation's new new government. He is the only person to sign all four of these momentous documents.

Sherman was the second-oldest person at the Constitutional Convention, and he wielded great influence despite being a "terse, ineloquent speaker." As one of the creators of the Articles of Confederation he was loathe to scrap them and start building an entirely new Constitution, but he was a pragmatic man, and he bent on some issues to get his way on others. Sherman was opposed to a bicameral legislature and having popular elections, but in the end he proposed the Great Compromise, which created the House and the Senate we know today, more or less. He was also opposed to slavery, but he believed the practice to be on its way out naturally, so he used compromise on that subject as a bargaining chip to influence the southerners.

After the Convention, Sherman served in Congress (first in the House and then in the Senate) until his death in 1793. He simultaneously served as the first mayor of New Haven from 1784 until his death. Sherman was always a man to juggle responsibilities effectively and with poise. His wisdom and clear-headedness earned him the praise of the other Founding Fathers, with Thomas Jefferson quoted as saying, "That is Roger Sherman of Connecticut, a man who has never said a foolish thing in his life."

Oliver Ellsworth was the only delegate from Connecticut to miss the signing of the Constitution, though he was active in its creation. He left the Convention near the end of August, but supported ratification.


Alexander Hamilton was the only delegate from New York to remain at the Constitutional Convention. He's a huge figure in the establishment of our country, but I'll try to be brief.

Born in the West Indies, Hamilton was orphaned early and left destitute, but he was a studious young man and he found work early on. Through the generous donations of people in his hometown, he was able to leave the West Indies and seek an education in the colonies. He joined the army during the Revolution, and his abilities brought him to the attention of George Washington, who adopted Hamilton as his aide and confidant. He was instrumental throughout the war, including the success of the Battle of Yorktown.

After the war, Hamilton entered politics, but turned to private practice after getting frustrated with Congress's ineffectiveness. He lobbied for what eventually became the Constitutional Convention. At the Convention itself, though, Hamilton's influence was limited, as both of his fellow New York delegates disagreed with his notion of a strong national government, meaning New York's vote was always in opposition to anything that would change the Articles of Confederation. And, when it became obvious that the Convention would rewrite the Articles altogether, they left in protest, leaving Hamilton the only New York delegate. Due to the rules of the Convention, though, each state needed at least two delegates to get a vote in the proceedings, meaning that though Hamilton could speak, he could not vote to influence the proceedings directly. Still, he participated in the debates, and he ended up signing the Constitution despite reservations about it. Afterward, he fought hard for ratification in New York, writing 51 of the Federalist Papers (far more than James Madison and John Jay combined) and actively participating in the very contentious New York ratification debates.

Hamilton was appointed Secretary of the Treasury by his old friend George Washington, where Hamilton was instrumental in giving the treasury form out of nothingness, among many other things. He was a core part of Washington's administration, even beyond the treasury, and he continued to exert political influence through the Adams Administration. The furious debates between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson led to the formation of the country's first political parties, a dynamic that continues in similar fashion to this day. He was killed in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr in 1804.
As I mentioned before, the other New York delegates (Robert Yates and John Lansing, Jr.) left the Convention early, as they both opposed creating a stronger national government. They and New York Governor George Clinton worked together to oppose the Constitution throughout the ratification process, though their opposition was eventually defeated.

Continue to Part 35: Signatures (New Jersey)

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