Nation & World

The men behind the Constitutional convention in 1787

There is much talk about, and invoking of, the U.S. Constitution these days. But how was it really built? Who were the men who signed it? What was really important to them in that steamy summer of 1787 in Philadelphia where they gathered to debate a new Constitution?

In “Signing their Rights Away,” Denise Kiernan and Joseph D’Agnese introduce you to the men behind the Constitution Convention and the pressures they faced, both political and personal. It also clearly illustrates the compromises that led to shaping of the document.

In the introduction, the authors lay the scene. The War of Independence is over and the Articles of Confederation weren’t doing the job of holding the new country together. So the word went out for a revision.

“These men had once banded together to fight as brothers against a common enemy, but now they were deeply distrustful of one another. ... Every delegate arrived wanting something — but few were willing to sacrifice anything. In such a contentious environment, reaching compromise would be tough,” says Kiernan.

38 men finally signed the document. Some had fought in the Revolution. Some were drunkards. After signing, some went on to become justices or businessmen. Others lost their fortunes in land speculation in the Wild West — which was then New York, Ohio and other “far” frontiers.

Roger Sherman of Connecticut was a cobbler, a lawyer and a state senator who signed four major documents of American history: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Articles of Association and the Constitution. He came up with the “Great Compromise” — “there would be two houses, one in which representation was based on population and the other fixed, providing equal representation for every state no matter its size.” This led to the House of Representatives and the Senate.

James McHenry is now best known for being the inspiration for the national anthem. It was over Fort McHenry in Baltimore that a flag flew during a British bombardment in 1814, a scene immortalized in the U.S. national anthem. An Irish immigrant, McHenry became a doctor, and later served as a delegate from Maryland to the Constitutional debate. He eventually was from the government by John Adams for being a useless government servant.

After the Constitution was signed came the hard work. Each delegate went back home and turned salesman. Delaware — known as “The First State” — was the first to ratify the Constitution.

Kiernan and D’Agnese, who also wrote “Signing their Lives Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the Men who signed the Declaration of Independence,” have provided another volume that should appeal to all political and history buffs.


“Signing Their Rights Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed the United States Constitution” by Denise Kiernan and Joseph D’Agnese; Quirk Books, Philadelphia (355 pages, $19.95)