At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, William Pierce, a member of the Georgia delegation, made a series of character sketches of many of the delegates—some flattering and some otherwise. They offer a glimpse into the personality of each delegate and a candid narrative.
William Pierce arrived at the end of May as part of the Georgia delegation. He had the opportunity to interact and closely observe all the delegates who were present and those who followed. The reputation of some preceded them. Delegates like Caleb Strong, from Northampton, Massachusetts, were fairly influential in their own way at home, but cut no particularly dashing figure on the national stage. Pierce was unusually laconic in his description of Caleb Strong: “A lawyer of some eminence,” but “as a speaker he is feeble, and without confidence.”
Strong was, at least, fair-minded. John Adams would later pay him the tribute of being on a par with Washington in even-handedness in dealing with people.
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William Livingston of New Jersey struck Pierce as being “A man of the first rate talents,” but “he is no orator, and seems little acquainted with the guiles of policy.” That was, however, not true of Livingston’s fellow delegate from New Jersey, William Paterson, who was Irish-born, a graduate of Princeton, and a genial and soft-spoken lawyer.
Paterson’s long, beaked nose and receding chin and forehead, said Pierce, “bespoke talents of no great extent,” but in fact, “he is very happy in the choice and time and manner of engaging in a debate, and never speaks but when he understands his subject well.”
The New York Delegation
New York had sent a surprisingly feeble delegation. John Lansing was the mayor of Albany and a lawyer, but “his legal knowledge,” said Pierce, “is not extensive, nor his education a good one,” and he grew opposed to any proposal to junk the articles, so much so that he and his fellow New York delegate, Robert Yates, actually departed the convention in protest after little more than a month.
The joint letter they wrote to New York Governor George Clinton announced that:
A general government, however guarded by declarations of rights, or cautionary provisions, must unavoidably, in a short time, be productive of the destruction of the civil liberty of such citizens who could be effectually coerced by it.
And so, deciding that “our further attendance” would be fruitless and unavailing, they left.
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That left the representation of New York in the hands of one man who was more than equal to the task of taking up Yates and Lansing’s slack, and that was Alexander Hamilton. He arrived in Philadelphia on May 25, and immediately impressed William Pierce as a finished scholar: able, convincing, and engaging in his eloquence the heart and head.
He was not, said Pierce, a forceful speaker: “There is something too feeble in his voice to be equal to the strains of oratory.” What jarred Pierce was Hamilton’s self-confidence, bordering on arrogance. “His manners,” said Pierce, “are tinctured with stiffness, and sometimes with a degree of vanity that is highly disagreeable.”
No one, however, left a more colorful or rakish stamp on the convention than the Pennsylvanian, Gouverneur Morris. Born in New York, Morris had moved to Philadelphia in 1779, and had served in the Continental Congress. He was over six feet tall, had a saber-sharp wit, and a hauteur that could freeze fire.
He was also a ladies’ man of the most daring order. This was despite the loss of his left leg to amputation when it was crushed in a carriage accident in 1780—he walked with a wooden prosthetic attached below his knee. He became Robert Morris’s assistant and protégé as the Confederation’s financial officer.
Pierce’s Rating of Morris
William Pierce rated Morris as one of those geniuses in whom every species of talents combine to render him conspicuous and flourishing in public debate:
He winds through all the mazes of rhetoric, and throws around him such a glare that he charms, captivates, and leads away the senses of all who hear him. With an infinite stretch of fancy he brings to view things when he is engaged in deep argumentation, that render all the labor of reasoning easy and pleasing. He has gone through a very extensive course of reading, and is acquainted with all the sciences. No Man has more wit, nor can any one engage the attention more than Mr. Morris.
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The Financial Weakness of the Confederation
Like his mentor, Gouverneur Morris was impatient of the financial weakness of the Confederation, only he was much less guarded in his expressions of contempt for it.
“Gouverneur Morris’s speech was a very extravagant one,” Madison said years later. “It displayed his usual talent, and also in a striking degree, his usual fondness for saying things and advancing doctrines that no one else would.”
The Representatives of American Society
Thus, the members of the Constitutional Convention came together, representing a very different stratum of American society than the one they could see around them in Philadelphia, or would have noticed from their coach windows as they rattled uncomfortably toward the convention.
Even the numbers of the convention’s delegates effectively meant that there would be only one delegate in the convention for every 71,000 Americans. Or, even worse, if we count only those delegates who sat consistently through the whole convention, one for every 118,000 Americans.
Common Questions about William Pierce’s Character Sketches from the Constitutional Convention
William Pierce was laconic in his description of Caleb Strong and said that he was “a lawyer of some eminence,” but “as a speaker he is feeble, and without confidence.”
About William Paterson’s debating skills, William Pierce said that, “He is very happy in the choice and time and manner of engaging in a debate, and never speaks but when he understands his subject well.”
William Pierce commented about Gouverneur Morris that he had gone through a very extensive course of reading, and is acquainted with all the sciences.