Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) was one of the most celebrated of America's Founding Fathers, a man who enjoyed success as an inventor, scientist, printer, politician, and diplomat. He helped to draft both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.
Like his fellow Pennsylvania delegate Benjamin Rush, Franklin was a member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. While most others attempted to avoid the issue and any debate over it, he was one of the few men at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to take a public stand against slavery.
Having returned to America just two years earlier, Franklin presided over the Pennsylvania delegation to the convention at the ripe young age of 81. As the convention's oldest delegate, he was also one of the 26 delegates—out of 55—who never attended college. George Washington was another.
Elbridge Gerry (1744–1814) was the Vice President of the United States during the James Madison administration and a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. Gerry attended the Constitutional Convention as a delegate from Massachusetts and was an active participant in the debates, but refused to sign the completed Constitution because he thought it centralized too much power at the federal level. His name is the source of the term 'gerrymander,' which refers to the drawing of electoral district boundaries in a way that gives one party an unfair advantage over its rivals.
Since the Revolution, Gerry had been an opponent of a large standing army and a strong central government, but Shays' Rebellion in his home state forced him to reconsider some of his positions. Gerry agreed to attend the Constitutional Convention and chaired the committee that voted in favor of Roger Sherman's Connecticut Compromise in late July 1787.
He recognized the need for a stronger government, but in the end, he felt that his colleagues had gone too far with the Constitution. Most of his objections were later satisfied by the Bill of Rights, but he also found fault with the long term of office for senators, and the fact that congressmen were empowered to determine their own salaries. He went on to serve from 1789–1793 in the first two U.S. Congresses.
Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804) was the first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States. He earned George Washington's respect during the unsuccessful defense of New York City during the Revolutionary War, and subsequently served on Washington's staff until 1781. A nationalist and leading voice for governmental reform during the Critical Period, Hamilton wrote 51 of the Federalist Papers during the debate over ratification. One of the most vocal champions of a strong central government, Hamilton was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson's running mate in the election of 1800.
Hamilton was largely responsible for the Philadelphia Convention itself. Once there, he favored the Virginia Plan for proportional representation in both houses of Congress. This would have favored his home state of New York, which was one of the largest and most populous in the Union, but his two fellow delegates sided with the small states instead.
Hamilton was again rebuffed in June 1787 when he presented his plan for the Constitution, consisting of a lifetime term for the president and a strong executive branch. One of the few convention delegates who came from humble origins, he was nonetheless something of a snob who distrusted democracy and advocated for a monarchical executive akin to the British model. He thought this strong leader might serve as a check upon both the popular masses and the elite members of American society.
Most delegates disapproved of Hamilton's plan. Having just rebelled against a tyrannical king, they had no interest in creating a new king-like presidency. Hamilton left the convention soon thereafter but would later play a pivotal part in encouraging the ratification of the Constitution by co-authoring the Federalist Papers.
John Jay (1745–1829) was the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses, and an American diplomat to Spain and Great Britain. Jay played a critical role in the negotiation of the Treaty of Paris, urging American diplomats to pursue talks with Britain independent of France. He's best known for the treaty he negotiated with Great Britain in 1794 and ratified in 1795.
Jay contributed five essays to the Federalist Papers (numbers 2 through 5 and 64), chiefly discussing foreign affairs. He had served as Secretary of Foreign Affairs from 1784 to 1789 and had executed minor treaties, but was frustrated with his powerlessness under the Articles of Confederation to settle major disputes with Great Britain and Spain.
Rufus King (1755–1827) was one of the Founding Fathers. He served briefly in the American Revolution, practiced law in Massachusetts, and became a member of the Massachusetts General Court from 1783 to 1785.
King was a delegate to the Continental Congress (1784–1787) who helped draft the Ordinance of 1787 for the settlement of the Northwest Territory, and was chiefly responsible for the provision excluding slavery from that region. He was a member of the Massachusetts delegation to the 1787 Constitutional Convention and helped to secure Massachusetts' ratification of the Constitution. A strong supporter of Alexander Hamilton, King became a Federalist senator from New York.
James Madison (1751–1836) was the principal architect of the United States Constitution and the fourth President of the United States. During the Revolution, he helped draft Virginia's state constitution and served in the Continental Congress. In the years immediately following the war, he grew convinced that domestic and international disasters would follow unless the national government was reformed, and therefore joined those calling for a constitutional convention. He teamed with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay to publish the Federalist Papers. (Psst: we have a whole learning guide on Federalist Papers 10 and 51.)
Madison's Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 provided the chief source of information about the debates and compromise processes of the convention, which was closed to the public. Along with Hamilton and Jay, Madison composed the series of 85 anonymously published essays known as the Federalist Papers in order to encourage support for the Constitution and press the argument for its ratification.
Though Madison initially believed that the oft-proposed Bill of Rights would be an unnecessary precaution against the excesses of federal power under the new Constitution, he changed his mind by autumn 1788 and became the principal force behind the rapid passage of the first ten amendments in Congress.
George Mason (1725–1792), a Virginian, was one of the most important delegates to the Constitutional Convention, one of the richest men in his state, and one of the most prominent Founding Fathers.
In July 1787, Mason submitted a proposal to the convention for a national executive consisting of one person, who would be chosen by the national legislature for seven years. There would be no second term. His blueprint for the presidency remained in effect until late August, when John Rutledge introduced a motion to elect the president by joint ballot, from the two houses of Congress. Ultimately, it was decided that the choice would be given to the House of Representatives alone, so that future presidents wouldn't become mere puppets of the Senate.
George Mason successfully persuaded the convention to expand its definition of impeachable offenses in Article II, Section 4, to include "high crimes and misdemeanors," a much broader, and more ambiguous, standard for removing the president. Mason was also one of the few convention delegates who attempted to condemn the "nefarious institution" of slavery as a glaring anomaly within a republic. His unwavering standards ultimately led him to reject the Federal Constitution.
Along with Edmund Randolph and Elbridge Gerry, he was one of the only convention delegates who would not sign the Constitution because of his objections to the final draft. Mason was frustrated with the convention's refusal to prohibit the slave trade immediately, and paradoxically, its failure to pass safeguards that would protect slaveowners against future government actions toward emancipation. He wanted to end the slave trade, but to protect slavery as it then existed in the country. Mason was also alarmed by the convention's rejection of a Bill of Rights. He argued that the new government would result in tyrannical aristocracy or monarchy.
Gouverneur Morris (1752–1816) was a conservative statesman, a Federalist Senator in the early republic, a financial expert who planned the U.S. coinage system, and a distinguished diplomat. He served as member (1775–1777) of the provincial congress of New York and helped to draft the first state constitution there. Morris was a member of the Continental Congress and of the Pennsylvania delegation to the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787. He actively advocated for a strong centralized government and a powerful executive. He was uncompromising on slavery and opposed any concessions to slaveowners. He helped compose the final draft of the Constitution, but remained a champion of aristocracy who distrusted democratic rule.
Morris argued for an executive with lifetime tenure and the presidential appointment of senators. He had no qualms with the notion of a better-educated and wealthy elite running the government in place of the less-educated and less-independent—or so he believed—masses. He served on the Committee of Style, which placed him in charge of the final wording of the Constitution.
Edmund Randolph (1753–1813) was a Virginia lawyer who served in the Continental army as aide-de-camp to George Washington. He was a member of the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1776, state attorney general, a delegate to the Continental Congress, and governor of Virginia. As a Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Randolph presented the Virginia Plan, which favored the large states by proposing proportional representation in both houses of Congress. Although his own plan was very similar to it, he initially opposed the final draft of the Constitution. Randolph then changed course and subsequently urged the adoption of the Constitution in the Virginia ratifying convention. He later served as the first Attorney General of the United States.
As a member of the Committee on Detail, Randolph helped to secure the omission of the word 'slavery' from the Constitution, and would have abolished the institution entirely if he could. Randolph didn't think that the Constitution provided sufficient protection for individual liberties and the rights of states. Still, he wielded his considerable influence to help assure Virginia's ratification, feeling that the Union must be preserved even if on imperfect grounds, and that amendments would prove more feasible to adopt once Virginia was a part of the new government.
Roger Sherman (1721–1793) was a drafter and signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was a longtime member of the Continental Congress (1774–1781 and 1783–1784), helped to draw up the Articles of Confederation, and served as one of the most important members of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. He was also one of the strongest proponents of the new Constitution. Sherman also became a U.S. Representative and U.S. Senator from Connecticut.
At the convention, Sherman worked with William Paterson of New Jersey and the Delaware delegation to devise a resolution to the deadlock between the large and small states in their debate over the basis of congressional representation. His proposal, dubbed the Great Compromise, or the Connecticut Compromise—Sherman was representing Connecticut—outlined the governmental structure that exists today: a lower House of Representatives with representation based on population and an upper house—the Senate—with equal representation for each state.
In other words, Sherman proposed a bicameral legislature with dual representation. The compromise saved the entire convention from dissolution.
George Washington (1732–1799) was commander of the Continental Army during the American Revolution and the first President of the United States. A Virginia planter, surveyor, and land speculator, he sought a commission in the British Army before the Revolution, but in the 1770s, he became an early advocate for separation from Great Britain. During the war, he became synonymous with the cause of independence.
Washington never attended college, but he was eminently respected by the Founding Fathers and was an obvious choice for chair of the Constitutional Convention. He had hosted one of the initial state conferences at his Mt. Vernon estate in March 1785, in which representatives from Virginia and Maryland met to resolve disputes over the jurisdiction of the Pocomoke and Potomac Rivers.
At the Philadelphia Convention, Washington presided but seldom participated in the debates. When the convention adjourned, he confided to a fellow delegate, "I do not expect the Constitution to last for more than twenty years."
When he was elected the nation's first president in April 1789, his almost universal respect and popularity ensured a successful and stable beginning to the new government under the U.S. Constitution. Washington set an important precedent by voluntarily stepping down from the presidency in 1792, after serving two terms. From then until the 1940s, two terms remained the unofficial limit for the presidency, thanks to the power of Washington's example.