A More Perfect Union

On May 14th, 1787, a Convention met in Philadelphia to draw up the articles of “ a more perfect union”. Alexander Winston describes how the problem was “government or anarchy”.

The Light Cavalry—smartly uniformed Philadelphia gentlemen—met George Washington’s carriage at the banks of the Skuylkill and escorted him into the city. Bells pealed; along the brick walks, and from windows open to the May air, the people cheered. He acknowledged the welcome with an occasional stiff nod, perhaps wondering if they would have equal cause to cheer him when he departed.

Most Americans believed the Philadelphia Convention to be necessary; few were sanguine of its success. One Connecticut friend was “as confident as I am of my own existence” that the sessions would end in tragic disunity, and implored Washington to stay away from the coming debacle. Even that stubborn optimist, James Madison, had suggested to him that he delay arrival until it was clear which way the winds of union would blow.

As soon as he was settled in the spacious home of the Philadelphia financier Robert Morris, Washington walked down Market Street and through the low archway into Franklin Court. On that Sunday afternoon in 1787 Benjamin Franklin was taking his ease under a favourite mulberry tree in his garden.

As ambassador to France during the Revolutionary War, he had proved that a frontiersman in fur hat and steel-rimmed spectacles could match the spangles of the French court; now, as chief executive of Pennsylvania, he was host to the Convention. Among the flowering shrubs and gravelled walks the two most famous Americans of their day drank tea and pondered the state of the union.

They had plenty to talk about. For ten years of war and peace the American states had staggered on under the Articles of Confederation. The union was a loose league of autonomous states, its Congress acting more like a diplomatic assembly than the legislature of a single commonwealth.

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