The Witch & We, The People

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SEVENTEEN EIGHTY-SEVEN was not that long ago. It will be four years before we can celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of what happened in Philadelphia that summer. And it will be something worth celebrating. The United States Constitution was the culminating achievement of the Enlightenment in America, if not in the world. Fifty-five men agreed on a way of government that has been more successful in almost every way than any other in a thousand years and more. Yes, the members of the Constitutional Convention all had their special interests to protect, among them the interests of slaveholders, not among them the interests of slaves. But they listened to each other. They reasoned together. And what they did was not unreasonable. It worked. It still works.

It is hard to think that those fifty-five men were much closer in time to the Salem witch trials of 1692 than they were to us. It is still harder to think that in Philadelphia that summer in the very week when they were hammering out the most crucial provisions of the Constitution, they could have witnessed, perhaps did witness, in the streets they daily walked, an event that tied them more closely to the dark world of superstition than to the enlightenment they cherished.

In 1787 Philadelphia was unquestionably the intellectual capital of the United States. It was not simply the fact that Philadelphia was much larger in population than New York or Boston; it was the distinction of its citizens that made the city a magnet for foreign visitors and the obvious meeting place for men who thought, as Alexander Hamilton put it, continentally, men who could see beyond the boundaries of their town or parish or county or state. It was the city of Benjamin Franklin, the very symbol of the Enlightenment, of Benjamin Rush, America’s best-known physician, of David Rittenhouse, America’s leading astronomer, of Charles Willson Peale, painter and promoter, of William Bartram, the country’s foremost botanist. It was the home of the American Philosophical Society, the only significant learned society on the continent. It had a flourishing theater where, despite lingering objections from Quaker moralists, ladies and gentlemen could laugh at a farce or weep at a tragedy. It had eight newspapers and two monthly magazines, The Columbian Magazine and The American Museum , the first magazines in the United States. It had Peale’s Museum with a display of waxworks, paintings, and scientific curiosities, the eighteenth-century prototype of the Smithsonian. It had Gray’s Tavern, with the most elaborate landscape gardens in the country, complete with waterfalls, grottoes, and Chinese pagodas. Philadelphia was the place to be, the place to go.

During that summer the great convention was not the only assemblage of notables to gather there. The Society of the Cincinnati (composed of the officers of Washington’s army) and two religious denominations, Presbyterian and Baptist, held their meetings there at the same time as the convention. Throughout the summer, troops of distinguished visitors would pass through, including Indian chiefs on the way to negotiate with the lame-duck Congress in New York—then the nation’s capital city—about incursions on their lands and land speculators making plans for more incursions. Sooner or later, it seemed, everyone came to Philadelphia.

The members of the convention began arriving in May, the Virginians first. James Madison got there on the fifth, plans for a wholly new national government already forming in his head. George Washington rode in on the thirteenth, suffering from embarrassment that he had declined, on the pretext of his private affairs, to attend the meeting of the Cincinnati and now was to be in Philadelphia anyhow. Gov. Edmund Randolph,with whom Madison concerted his plans, was there by the fifteenth. Benjamin Franklin, of course, was already on hand. He had just completed an addition to his house on Market Street, and on the sixteenth he entertained the new arrivals at an elegant dinner there, along with John Penn, grandson of the founder of Pennsylvania.

The other delegates trickled in at intervals. It was May 25 before enough were present for the convention to begin. What they said to each other on the upper floor of the statehouse has been preserved for us by Madison, in one of the most exciting journals of American history. What they said in the evenings as clumps of them dined together at their taverns and boardinghouses can only be guessed at. What was the conversation, for example, at the Indian Queen, where Madison roomed, along with New Yorker Alexander Hamilton, Virginia’s George Mason, Luther Martin from Maryland, Charles Pinckney and John Rutledge of South Carolina, and North Carolina’s Hugh Williamson?

Presumably they continued to talk, when no outsiders were present, about the things they had argued over during the day. But what did they think about events that went on around them in the city? Were their daytime thoughts affected by the sights and sounds, the stench, the dangers, the alarms and excursions that confronted them when they stepped out of the statehouse? Although we cannot know the answer, we can know a little about the darker side of what they saw. It may not have affected the outcome of what they did, but it may affect our own understanding of the world they lived in and were trying to change.