George Clymer (1739–1813)
Clymer became an orphan within a year of his birth but had the good fortune to be taken in by a wealthy uncle. He was made a partner in his uncle’s mercantile firm and eventually became its sole proprietor. His wealth increased when he merged his business with another prosperous mercantile family. British economic restrictions on his business made Clymer an early advocate of independence. He led the opposition to the Tea Act in Philadelphia, and when war came he personally underwrote the war by trading his specie for unstable continental currency. Quiet and unassuming, Clymer served in the Continental Congress without often entering into debate or discussion, but he willingly served on several key committees. When Congress fled Philadelphia in December 1776, he risked his life by remaining behind to carry on vital congressional business. British troops ransacked his home in Chester County, causing his wife and children to flee to the safety of nearby woods. After the war Clymer served in the Pennsylvania legislature, where he advocated replacing the unicameral legislature with a two-house system. At the Philadelphia convention, he behaved true to his character, speaking rarely but attending conscientiously. When the new national government was established, Clymer served in the House of Representatives. In addition to political activities, he became involved in scientific and cultural improvements, including the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
Thomas Fitzsimons (1741–1811)
Like William Paterson, Fitzsimons was born in Ireland, coming to America in his late teens or early twenties. He became a successful merchant in Philadelphia, marrying the daughter of a prominent businessman and going into partnership with one of her brothers. Fitzsimons was an enthusiastic supporter of independence, and during the war he commanded a militia company. His firm helped supply the military and made a sizable donation to the Continental army. Fitzsimons began his political career in the Continental Congress. Although he was a strong nationalist, he said little at the Philadelphia convention. He served three terms in the House of Representatives, beginning in 1789, and was a strong supporter of Hamilton’s policies. After 1795 Fitzsimons returned to private life, concentrating his energies in his mercantile business. Yet he remained a staunch Federalist and opposed Jefferson’s Embargo Act in 1807. Although he had been one of the founders of the Bank of North America and a director of the Insurance Company of North America, he was not immune to financial ruin, suffering a setback in 1805. Despite the fluctuations in his fortunes, Fitzsimons was a steady contributor to his local Roman Catholic Church, a supporter of public education, and a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania.
Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790)
The tenth son of a soap and candlemaker, Franklin, like Alexander Hamilton, stands as an example of the rags-to-riches story. Apprenticed first to his father and later to his half-brother, the printer James Franklin, he demonstrated his literary talents early by publishing anonymous essays in James’s newspaper while he was still a teenaged boy. In 1723 Franklin moved to Philadelphia, where, after a two-year hiatus in London, he began a successful career as a printer. His Poor Richard’s Almanack gained him fame at home and abroad. A man of Renaissance interests, Franklin was an educational reformer, a philanthropist, and a scientist. His political career was long and distinguished, beginning in the 1750s when he served as a member of the colonial legislature and deputy postmaster of the colonies. He lived in England for much of the period from 1757 to the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, acting as the colonial agent of his own Pennsylvania and several other colonies. He became well-known during the decade of increasing tensions leading to the Revolution, defending the American position on taxation before the House of Commons. Franklin served in the Continental Congress and was one of the members of the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence. He was chosen to preside over the Pennsylvania constitutional convention as well. During the war Franklin’s diplomatic career in France and at the Paris peace treaty negotiations made him the toast of Paris. Dr. Franklin, as he was known, returned to Pennsylvania in 1785 to serve as president of the Supreme Executive Council of his state. By the time of the Philadelphia convention, Franklin was plagued by ill health, but he attended faithfully, expressed his views on a number of key issues, provided expert advice to the nationalist leadership, and was a firm defender of the proposed Constitution. Despite his age and failing health, in 1787 Franklin accepted the position as first president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. He died three years later, still active in civic affairs.
Jared Ingersoll (1749–1822)
Ingersoll was born in Connecticut, where his father was a British colonial official and a prominent Loyalist. He received an excellent education, graduating from Yale in 1766. After graduation he joined his father in Philadelphia to establish a legal practice. In the early years of the war, Ingersoll avoided any political commitments by studying law in London and touring Europe. When he returned to Philadelphia, his politics were decidedly more favorable toward American independence, and in 1780 he served in the Continental Congress. At the Philadelphia convention, Ingersoll was unusually silent despite his skills at debate and his long-standing conviction that the Articles of Confederation were inadequate. After the convention Ingersoll held a number of local positions, serving as attorney general of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia city solicitor and presiding judge of the Philadelphia District Court. He remained a loyal Federalist and in 1812 ran as his party’s vice presidential candidate.
Thomas Mifflin (1744–1800)
The son of a wealthy Quaker merchant, Mifflin was educated in Quaker schools and later received a diploma from the College of Philadelphia (which became part of the University of Pennsylvania) at the age of sixteen. Mifflin became a highly successful Philadelphia merchant but turned his attention to politics by the early 1770s. He was a champion of the American cause in the Pennsylvania legislature and served as a delegate to the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1776. As war approached he helped raise troops and was appointed a major in the Continental army. His military service led to his expulsion by the Quaker Church. Mifflin served as one of the earliest aides-de-camp for General Washington and later held the post of quartermaster general. Mifflin’s relationship with George Washington became strained, due in part to his preference for battle rather than his assigned quartermaster duties, but largely because of his participation in the cabal to replace Washington as commander in chief with General Horatio Gates. Mifflin left the military with the rank of major general, and by 1778 he was once again active in Pennsylvania politics. He served in the state assembly and then took a seat in the Continental Congress, where he became presiding officer in 1783. Mifflin, like Ingersoll, played no significant role at the Philadelphia convention. After the convention he returned to state government, chairing Pennsylvania’s constitutional convention in 1789 and serving as state governor from 1790 to 1799. By the 1790s Thomas Mifflin had moved into the emerging Democratic-Republican political camp. Despite his financial successes, Mifflin’s lavish lifestyle brought him to ruin. He died pursued by creditors and was buried at the state’s expense.
Gouverneur Morris (1752–1816)
Born to wealth and privilege on his family’s impressive Morrisania estate in New York, Morris was educated first by private tutors and then by the faculty of King’s College (later Columbia University). As a young man, Morris lost his leg in a freak carriage accident, but this did not appear to diminish his very active engagement with women. He trained as a lawyer but entered politics as the movement for independence gained ground. A social conservative, he nevertheless joined the patriots’ camp and served in New York’s Revolutionary provincial congress. Despite his wooden leg, Morris served in the militia as well. Acknowledged as a brilliant stylist, he was appointed to the committee that drafted New York’s first constitution. In the late 1770s, Morris served in the Continental Congress, where he was one of the youngest and most intellectually impressive of the delegates. When Governor George Clinton’s party defeated him in his bid for reelection to Congress, Morris moved to Philadelphia and opened a legal practice. By 1781 he was once again involved in public service, working as an assistant to the superintendent of finance for the United States during the Revolution. Gouverneur Morris was one of the leading figures at the Philadelphia convention, speaking more often than any other delegate, his analytical powers leavened by his keen satiric sense. His nationalism was strengthened by his experiences working with Robert Morris and his conviction that a strong central government and a sound fiscal policy were essential to the survival of the country. It was Morris who produced the final draft of the Constitution. After the convention he returned to private life, took possession of the family estate at Morrisania, and settled once again in New York. A man of broad-ranging intellectual and cultural interests, Morris spent many of the years after the Philadelphia convention abroad. He was in France as that nation’s revolution began, and in 1792 President Washington asked him to take over the duties of minister to that nation from Thomas Jefferson. An ardent Federalist until his death, Morris once again retired from politics when the Jeffersonian party began to dominate the national political scene. In his last years, he became a vocal critic of the Democratic-Republicans and of the War of 1812.
Robert Morris (1734–1806)
Robert Morris (no relation to Gouverneur Morris) was born near Liverpool, England, but immigrated to Maryland with his father when he was thirteen years old. Moving to Philadelphia, Morris joined a shipping-banking firm and soon became a partner. His commitment to independence grew slowly after the Stamp Act crisis, but by 1775 he was a strong critic of British policies. He entered politics after his firm began to supply the Continental army with arms and ammunition, serving in the provincial assembly, the state legislature, and the Continental Congress during the early years of the war. When the vote for independence came, however, he voted against it, declaring it was premature. Despite his views, Morris continued to assist the Continental army procure what it required. His efforts earned him the suspicions of others that he was profiteering; though he was cleared of charges, his reputation was marred. In 1781 Morris made a complete commitment to independence by accepting the office of superintendent of finance for the Confederation government. He was generally credited with keeping the nation afloat fiscally during this era. Convinced that the nation needed a stronger central government and firm regulation of its interstate commerce, Morris attended the Annapolis convention and the following year served as a delegate to the Philadelphia convention. He spoke only twice during the entire convention and did not do service on any of the convention’s many committees. He did serve in the first U.S. Senate, however. Morris’s personal finances were faltering when the Philadelphia convention met, and his circumstances grew more precarious in the years that followed. He speculated wildly, overextending his credit to purchase western lands, and soon had to flee his Philadelphia creditors. He was arrested for debt in 1798, thrown into debtors’ prison, and not released until 1801. His last years were spent in poverty and depression, supported by an annuity obtained for his wife by the generous Gouverneur Morris.
James Wilson (1742–1798)
Scottish by birth, Wilson received an excellent education at the universities of St. Andrews, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. He immigrated to America just as the Stamp Act protests were beginning in 1765. His first position was as a Latin tutor at the College of Philadelphia, but he soon gave up teaching for a career in law. He earned a reputation as one of the ablest lawyers in the country and became a leading advocate of American independence. He was a man who elicited respect rather than affection, appearing stern and forbidding to most who met him. Having set up a law practice in western Pennsylvania, Wilson became a political leader in his county. He served in the first provincial assembly, distinguishing himself by writing a tract on the issue of parliamentary authority in the colonies. By 1774 he was in the Continental Congress, and he signed the Declaration of Independence. In most regards, Wilson was a conservative and he opposed the liberal constitution first adopted by Pennsylvania. Popular opposition to his views only hardened them, and his ties with the state’s leading aristocratic and conservative political figures increased. With Robert Morris, Wilson served as one of the directors of the Bank of North America. Wilson was an indisputable leader of the nationalist forces at the Philadelphia convention, second only to Madison in his role in crafting the new government. He led the battle for ratification in Pennsylvania and was the architect of the new, more conservative constitution drafted for Pennsylvania in 1789–90. He was disappointed when President Washington did not appoint him chief justice of the Supreme Court but accepted a position on that bench as an associate justice. A student of the law as well as a practitioner, Wilson welcomed an appointment in 1789 as the first law professor at the College of Philadelphia, and he soon began to compile an official digest of the laws of Pennsylvania. Despite his recognized brilliance and his erudition, Wilson did not distinguish himself on the Supreme Court, perhaps because he mixed business interests with his duties. He barely escaped impeachment when he tried to influence legislation in his home state that would favor land speculators like himself. Wilson suffered from the same compulsive speculative behavior as his friend Bob Morris, and, like Morris, he wound up fleeing creditors. Fearing imprisonment, he moved to New Jersey. Suffering from extreme anxiety over his circumstances, Wilson collapsed at the home of a friend in North Carolina and died there in 1798.
The delegate biographies are excerpted with the generous permission of Carol Berkin, author of A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution (Harcourt). Copyright © 2002 by Carol Berkin.