Americans are more likely to know that September 18th is National Cheeseburger Day than that September 17th is Constitution Day. Why is that? Because eating good food is enjoyable. History is perceived as dry and boring. But maybe we think of history that way because we didn’t learn all the facts. Let’s take a look at a few fun facts about the signing of the U.S. Constitution that we didn’t learn in school.
Politicians today cannot make the slightest move without it being all over the media. So were the media front and center at the Constitutional Convention of 1787? Nope. Delegates to the convention voted to keep their deliberations secret. Reporters and other visitors were barred from convention sessions. Eavesdropping wasn’t an option either. Windows at the convention hall were kept shut throughout the entire hot summer the convention took place.
OK, so the media was kept at bay, but certainly things were handled in a PC manner, right? Nope again. All 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention were white and male. There were no women and no minorities among the delegates.
But back in the day, everyone got along, didn’t they? Certainly it wasn’t divisive and contentious like things are today. Wrong. Things haven’t changed much over the years. Rhode Island didn’t even send a delegate to the convention because it was opposed to overhauling the framework of the national government. Of the 55 delegates who did participate in the convention, only 39 of them actually signed the Constitution. While .710 is a great batting average for baseball, it was a far cry from unanimity among constitutional convention delegates.
One of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention and a signer of the document was beloved American historical figure Benjamin Franklin. Ben held an honorary position and rarely engaged in debate. Well, you have to give the guy a break. At over 80 years old, he was the oldest delegate in attendance. He was so infirm that he had to be carried to the convention sessions in a sedan chair. Had Jimmy Carter been around then, he probably would’ve used poor old Ben as Exhibit A for Carter’s contention that 80 years old is too old for filling an important political position.
But not all the convention delegates were OLD, white men. One was a YOUNG white man. Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey, age 26, was the baby of the group. The remainder of the white male delegates averaged age 42.
Anyone who knows anything about U.S. history is aware that the U.S. Constitution is an important document. But how was that document produced? It was 1787, after all, so there were no computers, typewriters, or even fountain pens. The U.S. Constitution was produced the old fashioned way–it was handwritten.
Of course, the problem with handwritten papers is that sometimes they cannot be read. What a waste of time the Constitutional Convention would have been if all that was produced after meeting in Philadelphia from May 25th through September 17th was an illegible document. Riding in to save the day and win a penmanship award was Jacob Shallus. Mr. Shallus, the son of German immigrants who was employed by the Pennsylvania General Assembly as an assistant clerk, was hired to physically write the Constitution from drafts provided by the delegates. He was paid the handsome sum of $30 for his efforts in writing 4,543 words (less than a penny a word) on four sheets of parchment paper in two days’ time. Although Mr. Shallus had good handwriting, he wasn’t perfect. An errata paragraph was placed between the end of the articles and the delegates’ signature. These errors were mostly words or phrases left out. And for all his efforts, Mr. Shallus’ name appears nowhere on the document.
And exactly what did Mr. Shallus write 4,543 words on? Parchment paper with the dimensions of 28 3/4″ x 25 5/8″ was used to record these important words.Parchment is a general term for animal skin prepared for writing or printing; the animal skin is treated with lime and stretched. While parchment is expensive, it does last for a long time. The type of animal that gave its life for the production of the constitution is unknown; a calf, a goat, and a sheep are possibilities.
Mr. Shallus used a quill pen with which to write the 4,543 of the U.S. Constitution. A turkey or goose feather quill was likely utilized. (Thankfully, our national bird, the bald eagle, was spared the indignity of having a tail feather pulled for this purpose.) The feather would have been cut so a nub would be available to hold ink and with which to write. Since the feather could not hold a reserve of ink, the quill would have to be dipped in the ink every few words.
Iron gall ink, a purple or brownish-black ink, was the type of ink commonly used for producing important documents at the time the convention took place. Due to its solubility, this type of ink would penetrate the surface of the parchment paper making it difficult to erase or alter. Iron gall ink was made from iron salts and tannins derived from vegetable sources, specifically galls which were most commonly found on oak trees.
A subtle message might be found in the type of ink utilized. The delegates avoided the use of red ink, perhaps not wanting to set a poor precedent for future generations of American citizens. If the Constitution creating the appropriate government framework was awash in red ink, wouldn’t it be okay for the operating government to operate with red ink?
While the constitutional delegates may have had some creative ideas about future government operations, they were still creatures of habit. The constitutional convention was held in the same location where the Declaration of Independence was debated and adopted. In fact, a number of the delegates at the constitutional convention, such as Ben Franklin, had also been in attendance at the same building for the proposal and signing of the Declaration of Independence back in 1776.
The delegates to the convention were wise enough to recognize that they could not devise a perfect governmental plan, and that future circumstances might call for changes to the framework which they would establish. Wisely they aimed to create a “more perfect union” instead of a perfect union. They included procedures in Article V as to how amendments to the document could be added. Over the years, that procedure has been utilized 27 times to amend the original Constitution.
The convention’s final product lives on 232 years later. A hard original copy is on display in Washington, D.C. at the National Archives. But, more importantly, the governmental plan set forth in the Constitution continues to operate. In fact, the U.S. Constitution is the oldest written national constitution in existence today. Maybe we should consume a cheeseburger to celebrate that achievement.
What new facts about the constitutional convention have you learned by reading this blog? Was Ben Franklin too old at 81 to have made a difference at the constitutional convention? Is your view of the Constitution one of an organic document subject to change over time? Would a different governmental plan have been devised if women and minorities had been among the delegates to the convention?