Constitution Daily

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Hot, hot, hot: The summer of 1787

July 31, 2012 by Benjamin Brown


The Constitutional Convention of 1787 featured a number of heated debates—literally.

By June, framing a newer, stronger government was not the only hot topic: so was the weather. Amazingly, the delegates managed to endure an unbearably hot and humid Philadelphia summer to hammer out the Constitution, but not without some difficulty and complaints.

William Samuel Johnson of Connecticut kept a diary throughout the summer in which he frequently recorded the weather. On 33 of the 80 days for which he described the weather, he noted “hot” or “very hot.”

William Paterson of nearby New Jersey called Philadelphia “the warmest place I have ever been in.”

But even southerners were perturbed by the conditions. Pierce Butler of South Carolina saw his wife leave town because she “could not support the excessive heat of the climate.”

And the framers found no relief in the Pennsylvania State House where they assembled. It was agreed early on that all meetings would be closed to the public, so windows and doors were shut tight. As they longed for the occasional cool summer breeze, the delegates must have felt like students itching to get out of school for the summer.

Apparently the delegates favored fashion over function, as their dress made conditions seem even worse. Being gentlemen of their day, the delegates were clad in coats and vests, which they refused to take off. New Englanders suffered in their wool attire. Southerners, dressed in linen suits, fared slightly better. Especially since the windows in the State House were closed, the smell of perspiration must have been pungent. Never mind air conditioning; these men could have benefited from some Old Spice.

The delegates could not escape the heat even when sessions concluded. The excessive heat lingered through many nights. The homes the delegates stayed in were made of stone or brick and retained the day’s heat. Philadelphia was overrun by flies and mosquitoes during the summer, making it difficult to get a good night’s sleep after a long day in the State House. A visiting Frenchman wrote of the summer climate, “The heat of the day makes one long for bedtime because of weariness, and a single fly which has gained entrance to your room in spite of all precautions, drives you from your bed.”

The heat did not stop the delegates from enjoying Philadelphia’s vibrant social life. While there, George Washington often attended receptions, readings, and plays.

The few times the heat broke boosted morale and provided for productive sessions. On the cool morning of July 13, Edmund Randolph of Virginia sought to correct the language of how the three-fifths ratio would be applied. Just days later, cool weather and the cool head of Alexander Hamilton helped resolve a conflict between a Georgia delegate and a British merchant.

Interestingly enough, weather records indicate that the delegates may have exaggerated. According to historian David O. Stewart, a 20th-century study said Philadelphia enjoyed a relatively cool summer in 1787.

In spite of the often-uncomfortable circumstances, the delegates managed to produce, in a matter of months, a document that still stands 225 years later. Then again, maybe it was because of their discomfort that the delegates were so efficient with their time—they were eager to get it done and go home.

It makes one wonder… perhaps the best way to prod our present-day Congress into really getting things done, as some have suggested, is to turn up the heat: Require Congress to work through the summer, turn off the A.C., and see what happens.

Now there’s a revolutionary idea.


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