John Blair (1732–1800)
Gentle in manner and careful in dress, John Blair was born into a prominent Virginia family. He graduated from the College of William and Mary and studied law in London, returning to Virginia to establish a solid legal practice in the capital city of Williamsburg. He served in his colony’s assembly, known as the House of Burgesses, from 1766 to 1770, leaving to accept the position of clerk of the colony’s upper house. Blair was a patriot, supporting the nonimportation agreements passed by Virginia’s radicals and serving on the committee that drafted Virginia’s Declaration of Rights. In 1778 he was elected a judge of the general court and soon became its chief justice. With fellow delegate George Wythe, Blair served on the high chancery court as well. At the Philadelphia convention, Blair attended faithfully but never took the floor and never served on a committee. In 1789 the new president appointed Blair as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, a position Blair held until 1796. In that year the unassuming jurist retired to Williamsburg, living quietly but comfortably until his death.
James Madison (1751–1836)
The oldest of ten children born to a distinguished planter family, Madison received a good education from tutors and the College of New Jersey. Despite a long and relatively healthy life, Madison was something of a hypochondriac, perhaps due to a sickly and frail childhood. Even before he chose a profession, Madison decided on a life in politics; he threw himself enthusiastically into the independence movement, serving on the local Committee of Safety and in the Virginia convention, where he demonstrated his abilities for constitution writing by framing his state constitution. During the war he served in the assembly and in the Council of State, kept from military service by poor health. In 1780 Madison became the youngest delegate to the Continental Congress. An early advocate of a strong central government, Madison attended both the Mount Vernon conference and the Annapolis convention before earning the title “Architect of the Constitution” for his work at the Philadelphia convention. He campaigned tirelessly for ratification in Virginia and reached out to influence New York as well by his contributions to the essays known as The Federalist Papers. Madison won a seat in the first House of Representatives, where he served until 1797. By this time he was a committed leader of the Democratic-Republicans, and he became secretary of state in 1801 when his friend and cofounder of that party, Thomas Jefferson, became president. Madison succeeded Jefferson in 1809, and it was during his administration that the long-standing tensions between Britain and the United States finally erupted into war. After his second term as president, Madison retired to his plantation, Montpelier, where he edited the journal he kept during the Constitutional Convention. He wrote newspaper articles supporting fellow Democratic-Republican and Virginian President James Monroe and acted as Monroe’s informal adviser on foreign policy. In his last years, Madison became actively involved in the American Colonization Society, an organization that encouraged the emancipation of slaves and their resettlement in Africa.
George Mason (1725–1792)
Perhaps the most effective opponent of Madison and the Federalists, Mason was raised by his uncle, John Mercer, following his father’s death when Mason was a young boy. Mercer boasted one of the largest private libraries in the colonies, and Mason read widely in these fifteen hundred volumes. As the owner of Gunston Hall, one of Virginia’s largest plantations, Mason was a wealthy and socially influential man. He became involved in western land speculation, buying an interest in the Ohio Company, and wrote a stinging defense of colonial entitlement to the Ohio Valley region when the Crown revoked the company’s rights. Mason served as a justice of the peace before taking a seat in 1759 in the House of Burgesses. He took up his pen once again to defend the colonial position on the Stamp Act, and by 1774 he had emerged as a leader of the patriot movement in Virginia. Mason drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776. By the early 1780s, Mason had grown disillusioned with public life and retired to Gunston Hall. He agreed to attend the Mount Vernon conference in 1785 but did not go to Annapolis despite his appointment as a delegate to that convention. Mason played a leading role at the Philadelphia convention, speaking frequently and exerting considerable influence over the deliberations. He became increasingly critical of the direction the convention was moving, however, and in the end, Mason refused to sign the Constitution. Among his primary objections was the absence of a bill of rights. Mason actively campaigned against ratification in Virginia, causing a breach in his friendships with both Washington and Madison.
James McClurg (1746–1823)
McClurg was born in Virginia and attended the College of William and Mary. After graduating he went abroad to study medicine, receiving a degree from the University of Edinburgh in 1770. He continued his medical studies in Paris and London, publishing studies that earned him considerable notice from the English scientific community. McClurg returned to Virginia in 1773 and during the Revolution served as a surgeon to his state militia. He was appointed to the faculty of William and Mary in 1779. His reputation as a physician grew, and he was named president of the state medical society. But McClurg had an interest in politics as well as medicine, and when Richard Henry Lee and Patrick Henry refused to serve as delegates to the Philadelphia convention, McClurg gladly accepted a seat in the Virginia delegation. At the convention McClurg supported extensive executive power and independence from congressional control. He left the convention in early August and thus did not sign the Constitution. After ratification McClurg served on Virginia’s executive council, but he never again attained a role in national politics.
Edmund Randolph (1753–1813)
Born into a prosperous planter family, Randolph received his education at the College of William and Mary and then went on to study law with his father. When the Revolution began, Randolph’s father chose to remain loyal to the Crown; the younger Randolph supported independence. He served as one of General Washington’s aides-de-camp during the war. At twenty-three, Randolph was the youngest member of the state convention that adopted Virginia’s first constitution in 1776. Soon afterward he became mayor of Williamsburg and then the state’s attorney general. He entered national politics with his election to the Continental Congress in 1779. In 1786 Randolph became governor of Virginia. It was Randolph who presented the Virginia Plan to the Philadelphia convention, but as the weeks went by, his support for a strong central government diminished. He reluctantly declared his unwillingness to sign the Constitution at the convention, but when the ratification battle began in Virginia, Randolph once again returned to the Federalist camp. He served as President Washington’s first attorney general, and when Jefferson resigned from his cabinet post as secretary of state in 1794, Randolph stepped into that position. He attempted to remain neutral in the growing political division between Jefferson and Hamilton, and perhaps because of the strain this caused, he decided to retire from public life in 1795. He returned to the practice of law and devoted his free time to writing a history of Virginia.
George Washington (1732–1799)
Washington was born into the Virginia gentry, the oldest of six children from his father’s second marriage. His father’s estates included a plantation that would later be known as Mount Vernon. Washington had a limited education, probably from tutors, but he did train as a surveyor. For several years he conducted surveys in Virginia and in what later became West Virginia. In 1753 the royal governor of Virginia appointed him a major in the militia, and by 1754 he had risen to the rank of colonel. When he was demoted because of the expected arrival of British regulars, Washington resigned his commission and leased Mount Vernon from his brother. By 1755, however, he was back in the military as an aide to General Edward Braddock. In 1759 he returned to civilian life, married, and focused much of his energy on farming. He found time, however, for political activity. Between 1759 and 1774, he sat in the House of Burgesses, where he was a strong supporter of colonial resistance to the new British policies. Washington served in the First and Second Continental Congresses, and in 1775 he accepted command of the Continental army. His military experience intensified his conviction that the nation needed a strong central government, and Washington was active in helping to orchestrate the call for the Philadelphia convention. He served as host to one of its predecessors, the Mount Vernon conference. After some hesitation, he agreed to join the Virginia delegation to the Philadelphia convention, where he was immediately elected presiding officer. In 1789 Washington became the first president of the United States by unanimous election. During two administrations Washington supported programs and policies consistent with his Federalist views, more often accepting Hamilton’s position than Jefferson’s on both foreign and domestic matters. Although many encouraged him to serve a third term as president, Washington declined. Rheumatism and other ailments prompted him to retire to his beloved Mount Vernon, where he died at the age of sixty-seven. Although he had not made the abolition of slavery one of his central causes, he did emancipate all his slaves when he died.
George Wythe (1726–1806)
Born into a planter family of Virginia, Wythe was orphaned as a child and grew up under the guardianship of his older brother. Despite the fact that he received little formal education, Wythe became a highly respected jurist and teacher. By 1754 he was the colony’s attorney general. Although he inherited the family estate soon afterward, Wythe preferred to remain in Williamsburg, where he could pursue his study of the classics and of law. He served in the Virginia House of Burgesses for almost twenty years, from the mid-1750s until 1775. He also played an active role in the life of the College of William and Mary. During the Revolution Wythe was a delegate to the Continental Congress, signing the Declaration of Independence in 1776. In 1778 his appointment to the newly created Virginia High Court of Chancery began a twenty-eight-year career on the bench. Despite his legal skills and his impeccable reputation as a judge—he was known as “Wythe the Just”—Wythe’s first love was education. In 1779, when the College of William and Mary created the nation’s first chair in law, George Wythe was the first scholar to receive that honor. In the course of his long teaching career, he trained Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and John Marshall in the law. Although he attended the Philadelphia convention, the sixty-year-old Wythe was not an active participant in the debates and left early, without signing the Constitution. He did, however, work for its ratification. In 1791 Wythe retired from his college position, but he continued to train lawyers privately. One of his last pupils was Henry Clay. It is possible that Wythe was poisoned to death by his grandnephew, who was heir to Wythe’s extensive estate.
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.