In the summer of 1787, a group of delegates from the 13 former American Colonies met in Philadelphia to hammer out a new and improved constitution for their young country. This article is a who's who synopsis of the fifty-five official delegates that participated and their family history links.
With the exception of Rhode Island, which refused to participate, the states had originally appointed 70 representatives to the Convention, but a number of the appointees did not accept or could not attend, leaving 55 delegates who would ultimately craft the Constitution.
Almost all of the 55 delegates had taken part in the Revolution, with at least 29 having served in the Continental forces, most in positions of command. All but two or three had served in colonial or state government during their careers. The vast majority (about 75%) of the delegates were or had been members of the Confederation Congress, and many had been members of the Continental Congress during the Revolution. Several had been state governors. Just two delegates, Roger Sherman and Robert Morris, would be signatories to all three of the nation’s founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution.
More than half of the delegates had trained as lawyers (several had even been judges), although only about a quarter had practiced law as their principal means of business. There were also merchants, manufacturers, shippers, land speculators, bankers or financiers, two or three physicians, a minister, and several small farmers. Of the 25 who owned slaves, 16 depended on slave labor to run the plantations or other businesses that formed the mainstay of their income. Most of the delegates were landowners with substantial holdings, and most, with the possible exception of Roger Sherman and William Few, were very comfortably wealthy. George Washington and Gouverneur Morris were among the wealthiest men in the entire country.
The names of several prominent Founders are notable for their not having participated in the Constitutional Convention. Thomas Jefferson was abroad, serving as the minister to France. John Adams was in Britain, serving as minister to that country, but he wrote home to encourage the delegates. Patrick Henry refused to participate because he "smelt a rat in Philadelphia, tending toward the monarchy." Also absent were John Hancock and Samuel Adams. Many of the states’ older and more experienced leaders may have simply been too busy with the local affairs of their states to attend the Convention, which had originally been planned to strengthen the existing Articles of Confederation, not to write a constitution for a completely new national government.
Listed by states in geographical order. Delegates listed (*) did not sign the completed document.
- Nicholas Gilman (1755-1814) (32) - This lawyer served two terms in the national Congress. He served on the eleven-member Convention Committee on Postponed Matters to find an acceptable compromise on method of electing the President of the United States.
- John Langdon (1741-1819) (46) - A very wealthy merchant with considerable political experience as state president (governor), speaker of the New Hampshire House, and two-time delegate to the national Congress. When the state could not raise enough funds to cover the expense of sending delegates to Philadelphia, he donated enough money to cover the trip, which predictable included himself.
- Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814) (43)(*) - A Harvard educated wealth merchant who served in both the Massachusetts state legislature and the national Congress. He signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. However, he constantly opposed measures leading to an overly strong centralized government and quit the Convention at the very end after failure of his proposal to include the Bill of Rights into the Constitution itself. He would later become famous as 5th Vice President of the US (under Madison) and namesake for the political term of "gerry-mandering". He is the only signer of the Declaration of Independence who is buried in Washington, DC.
- Nathaniel Gorham (1738-1796) (49)(*) - Despite his lack of education, he was a wealthy merchant and excellent debater. He served in the state legislature, national Congress and judge of the Middlesex Court of Common Pleas. He played an important procedural role in the Convention, first as chairman of the Committee of the Whole and as a member of the five-member Committee of Detail.
- Rufus King (1755-1827) (32) - This Harvard educated lawyer graduated first in his class and was an excellent speaker. He served in the national Congress. At the Convention he supported the Virginia Plan and spoke against the further importation of slaves. He served on the eleven-member Committee of Postponed Matters to find an acceptable way to choose a President.
- Caleb Strong (1745-1819) (42)(*) - Another Harvard educated lawyer who served for several years as a state senator. At the convention he strongly supported equal votes for each state regardless of wealth or population. He left the convention early in August for unknown reasons.
This state did not have any delegates participate in the convention.
- Oliver Ellsworth (1745-1807) (42)(*) - A Yale educated judge of the Connecticut Supreme Court and former member of the governor's council. At the Convention he sponsored the Connecticut Compromise together with his fellow delegates and served on the five-man Committee of Detail. Family matters forced him to leave the Convention on August 23.
- William Samuel Johnson (1727-1819) (50) - A Yale educated lawyer who ranked third in his class who had previously served on the national Congress. At the Convention he was appointed chairman of the Committee of Style and Arrangement which was charged with putting the final touches on the Constitution document.
- Roger Sherman (1721-1793) (56) - This self-educated lawyer was described as a dull but determined speaker. He opposed an overly strong central government. He served previously on the national Congress and as a state judge. Always concerned about his country's well-being, he was proud of having signed the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Conferderation.
- Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804) (30) - A lawyer who graduated from Columbia University. He was constantly outvoted by the other two state delegates. He left the Convention in disgust early and would return occasionally for a few days. He signed the final document at the end. When present he argued strongly as an aristocrat and nationalist. Together with James Madison and John Jay he authored the Federalist Papers, explaining the constitution and urging its ratification.
- John Lansing (1754-1829) (33)(*) - Lawyer, state legislature, congressman and mayor of Albany. At the convention he supported the New Jersey Plan, favored by the small states. Together with his fellow delegate Robert Yates he walked out of the Convention for good in early July.
- Robert Yates (1724-1796) (63) - New York Supreme State Supreme Court Judge. At the Convention he joined fellow delegate John Lansing in opposing a strong national government and walked out early in July.
- David Brearley (1745-1790) (42) - Judge of the New Jersey State Supreme Court, studied at Princeton. At the Convention he supported the New Jersey Plan and served as chairman of the eleven-man Committee on Postponed Matters to find an acceptable method to elect the President of the United States.
- Jonathan Dayton (1760-1824) (27) - A lawyer who graduated from Princeton. At 27 he was the youngest Convention delegate. He supported the New Jersey Plan and payment of the United States senators by the national treasury.
- William Churchill Houston (1746-1788) (41)(*) - A lawyer who graduated from Princeton and also a former professor of mathematics and natural philosophy. He had also served in the national Congress. A serious illness forced his departure from the Convention after only two weeks and he died early the next year.
- William Livingston (1723-1790) (64) - A lawyer graduated from Princeton who was regularly reelected governor of his state since the Revolution. He was so tall and thin that he was nicknamed the whipping post. He supported the New Jersey Plan but seldom participated in any debate.
- William Paterson (1745-1806) (42) - A lawyer graduated from Princeton, he served as state attorney general. He acted as chief spokesman of the New Jersey Plan at the Convention.
- George Clymer (1739-1813) (48) - Lawyer, signer of the Declaration of Independence, member of the national Congress. He followed the Convention debate carefully, but seldom spoke himself.
- Thomas Fitzsimons (1741-1811) (46) Merchant member of the Pennsylvania Assembly and of the national Congress. He rarely spoke at the Convention.
- Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) (81) - This famous philosopher was the oldest delegate to the Convention. Fellow delegate William Pierce of Georgia spoke admiringly of his having "an activity of mind equal to a youth of twenty-five years of age". Active in politics all of his life and signer of the Declaration of Independence. He supported a strong national government at the Convention.
- Jared Ingersoll (1749-1822) (38) - A lawyer graduate of Yale and member of the national Congress. He was overshadowed at the Convention by other members of his delegation.
- Thomas Mifflin (1744-1800) (43) - This merchant was a member of both the Pennsylvania Assembly and national Congress, where he once served as presiding officer. Officially listed as head of the Pennsylvania delegation but overshadowed by his fellows.
- Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816) (35) - A lawyer graduate of Columbia with a long history of political activity in both his native New York and in Pennsylvania. He made more speeches at the Convention than any other delegate. In 1778 he signed the Articles of Confederation as a delegate from New York. A member of the Committee of Style and Arrangement to formulate the exact language of the Constitution.
- Robert Morris (1734-1806) (53) - This merchant and congressman served as superintendent of finances during the Revolutionary War and was a signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. At the Convention he nominated George Washington as President of the Convention.
- James Wilson (1742-1798) (45) - This lawyer was a native of Scotland and was educated at the University of St Andrews and the University of Edinburgh. Just eleven years after coming to America, he was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and then served several terms to the national Congress. He was respected by his fellow delegates for his encyclopedic knowledge of history, government and philosophy. A member of the Committee of Detail.
- Richard Bassett (1745-1815) (42) - A lawyer and state senator. At the Convention he was pretty quiet.
- Gunning Bedford (1747-1812) (40) - A lawyer graduated from Princeton, state attorney general for Delaware and member of national Congress. He supported the position of the small states, but was flexible enough to agree to vote in favor of the Connecticut Compromise.
- Jacob Broom (1752-1810) (35) - A surveyor and member of the state house of representatives. He spoke more often in private than in public at the Convention.
- John Dickinson (1732-1808) (55) - Lawyer. Famous author of The Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania which condemned the Townshend Acts of 1767 and denied Parliament to tax the American Colonies. He was chairman of the Committee of Congress that wrote the Articles of Confederation. And served as governor of first Delaware and then Pennsylvania. At the Convention he always emphasized the rights of states and of individuals.
- George Read (1733-1798) (54) - Lawyer, state attorney general, state legislator, congressman and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Appointed head of the Delaware delegation, but followed the lead of Dickinson. He feared equally the power of the large states and the anarchy of the Articles of Confederation.
- Daniel Carroll (1730-1796) (57) - Signer of the Declaration of Independence and member of the national Congress. At the Convention he supported election of the President by electors chosen by the people of the states and opposed having the states pay senators.
- Daniel of Saint Thomas Jenifer (1723-1790) (64) - Served in the Maryland senate and the national Congress.
- Luther Martin (1748-1826) (39)(*) - A lawyer graduate of Princeton and attorney general of Meryland. He left the Convention because of his opposition to setting up a strong national government.
- James McHenry (1753-1816) (34) - A physician educated in Dublin, Ireland. Active in the Maryland state senate and national Congress. He was unenthusiastic about parts of the Constitution, he nevertheless felt it far preferable to the existing Articles of Confederation.
- John Francis Mercer (1759-1820) (28)(*) - Lawyer graduated from William and Mary College. A member of the Virginia legislature and the national Congress before moving to Maryland in 1785. He left the Convention on August 17 to express his disapproval of the strong national government being set up.
- John Blair (1832-1800) (55) - A lawyer and graduate of William and Mary College. He served as chief justice of the Virginia Court of Appeals. Although he took no part in the Convention debate, he approved and signed the completed Constitution.
- James Madison (1751-1836) (36) - A lawyer graduated from Princeton. Widely regarded as Father of the Constitution for his role in organizing the Convention and drafting the Virginia Plan which was used as a starting point for debate. During the Convention he kept detailed notes of what transpired. Afterwards he worked with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton in writing the Federalist Papers to explain and urge ratification of the Constitution. Later as a member of Congress he was chairman of the committee to write the first ten amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights. Then later he served as Fourth President of the United States.
- George Mason (1725-1792) (62)(*) - A farmer and colonel in the Revolutionary Army. His proudest accomplishment was the authorship of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, predecessor to the Bill of Rights found in many states and in the US Constitution. When the Convention refused to add a Bill of Rights to the original Constitution, Mason refused to sign, despite the key role he played in the authorship of that document.
- James McClurg (1746-1823) (41) - This physician with very little political experience decided to leave the Convention by mid-August, feeling that his delegation had little need of his services.
- Edmund Randolph (1753-1813) (34)(*) - lawyer, graduate of William and Mary College, Governor of Virginia. He was one of the authors of and chief spokesman for the fifteen articles presented as the Virginia Plan, and he served on the Committee of Detail. Although he refused to sign the completed Constitution because of the failure to include a Bill of Rights, he later played a leading role in convincing the Virginia Ratification Committee to vote favorably.
- George Washington (55) - Planter and General of the Revolutionary Army. Universally regarded as the Father of the Country and later elected as the First President of the United States under the Constitution. He served as the President of the Convention, but frequently delegated most business to the Committee of the Whole with a more capable leader for handling the debate. His participation and strong nationalist views weighed prominently in the establishment of the Constitution and its ratification by the various states.
- George Wythe (1726-1806) (61)(*) - Professor of law at William and Mary College. Chairman of the rules committee that determined how the delegates would be able to vote. His wife's illness caused him to return home prematurely only ten days after the start of the Convention. He worked hard for a favorable vote on the Consitution by the Virginia Ratification Committee.
- William Blount (1749-1800) (38) - merchant and western land speculator. Served in North Carolina state legislature and national Congress. An inactive delegate that left the Convention on June 20 to attend the North Carolina State Assembly, then proceeded to New York to attend Congress and returned to the Convention on August 3, staying to the end.
- William Richardson Davie (1856-1820) (31) - a lawyer and Princeton graduate and member of the North Carolina legislature. In the Convention he favored equal votes for each state in the Senate and the three-fifths ratio for representation of slaves in the House. Pressure of his legal practice forced him to leave early on August 13.
- Alexander Martin (1740-1807) (47)(*) - politician and Princeton graduate who served in state legislature and as governor. An inactive delegate who left late on August on the grounds that his continued presence would have no effect on the final outcome.
- Richard Dobbs Spaight (1758-1802) (29) - Born in North Carolina, but educated at University of Glasgow, Scotland. Served in both North Carolina state legislature and national Congress. At the Convention he opposed equal votes for the states in the Senate.
- Hugh Williamson (1735-1819) (52) - a physician and member of the first graduating class of the University of Philadelphia. Served in both North Carolina state legislature and national Congress. At the Convention he was on the Committee of Postponed Matters tasked with finding a way to elect the President.
- Pierce Butler (1744-1822) (43) - planter. He served in both the South Carolina state legislature and in Congress. A strong supporter of the separation of powers between legislature, executive and judicial. He was responsible for the insertion into the Constitution itself of the Fugitive Slave clause.
- Charles Pinckney (1757-1824) (30) - lawyer and member of Congress. He undertook a successful campaign to insert into the Constitution a clause forbidding religious tests for office in the Federal Government.
- Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746-1825) (41) - a general in the revolutionary army, lawyer and student at Christ Church College in Oxford, England. Served in the lower house of the South Carolina state legislature. He was a cousin to the other Pinckney. An effective supporter of a strong national government and considered one of the key delegates of the Constitutional Convention.
- John Rutledge (1739-1800) (48) - a lawyer and head of the state delegation. He served as state governor and in both the South Carolina state legislature and in Congress. At the beginning of the Convention he and Robert Morris escorted Washington to the front of the hall after Washington's election as President of the Convention. He was a member of the Committee of Detail and supported a strong national government.
- Abraham Baldwin (1754-1807) (33) - A lawyer and graduate of Yale. He served in the Georgia state legislature and in the national Congress. Considered the ablest member of the Georgia delegation, he served on the committee created to compromise the issues of representation and the origin of money bills.
- William Few (1748-1828) (39) - A lawyer with only one year of formal education, but widely read in the fields of history, philosophy and astronomy. He served in the Georgia state legislature and in the national Congress. Conscientious in attendance at the Convention, but took no part in the debate.
- William Houstoun (1757-1812) (30)(*) - lawyer. He served in the Georgia state legislature and in the national Congress. At the Convention he favored proportional representation in both houses of the national legislature. He stayed at the Convention until the end of July, but then left home for personal reasons.
- William Pierce (1740-1789) (47)(*) - merchant and Congressman. With only minor participation in the Convention debate, he is noted for his character sketches of his fellow Convention delegates. He wrote: "I possess ambition and it was that and the flattering opinion of some of my friends that gave me a seat in the wisest council in the world." He left the Convention on July 1 to attend Congress of the Confederation, otherwise he indicated that he would have signed the completed Constitution.
- Wikipedia - history of the Constitutional Convention
- History of the US Constitution
- National Constitution Center - Museum of the US Constitution
- Constitution of the United States - Document Archive
- Fifty-Five Fathers: The Story of the Constitutional Convention by Selma R Williams - Amazon Books