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This Day in History: The "non-signers" of the Constitution

On this day in 1819, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention passes away. Caleb Strong of Massachusetts attended the Convention, but he never signed the Constitution.


Have you ever thought about the men who were appointed to serve at the Convention, but who failed to sign the document?


Roughly three dozen men fall into this category of “non-signer” of the Constitution. Of these, only a small handful deliberately rejected the substance of the document. Others didn’t sign, but for different reasons.

Washington as Statesman at the Constitutional Convention, by Junius Brutus Stearns

For starters, nearly 20 men failed to attend the Convention—at all! The historical record leaves us guessing at some of the reasons, but given the difficulties of travel in those days, perhaps a few “no-shows” is unsurprising. Moreover, historians know that at least a few of these men had health problems that prevented travel. Others had business conflicts. One man declined to serve because he worried about catching smallpox in Philadelphia!


So what happened to everyone else? Why didn’t they sign?


A handful of men arrived at the Convention and participated in the discussions, but then had to leave partway through the summer. Men such as Oliver Ellsworth (CT) left early for personal or business reasons, but later became advocates for the Constitution. Similarly, Virginia delegate George Wythe had to return home because his wife was in poor health, but he later supported the Constitution.


One man stayed to the end, but refused to sign, Edmund Randolph (VA) was worried that the Constitution wouldn’t be approved by the requisite nine states. In the closing days of the Convention, he announced that he would not sign the document.


Randolph ultimately changed his mind and ended up supporting the Constitution, but a handful of others never could get comfortable.


Elbridge Gerry (MA) and George Mason (VA) participated fully in the Convention, but they flatly refused to sign the Constitution. Among other things, they worried about the lack of a Bill of Rights.


New York delegates John Lansing and Robert Yates took a different tack. They got disgusted and left the Convention early. They feared that the national government being created was too powerful.


A national government, they explained to the Governor of New York, “must unavoidably, in a short time, be productive of the destruction of [citizens’ civil liberty], by reason of the extensive territory of the United States, the dispersed situation of its inhabitants, and the insuperable difficulty of controlling or counteracting the views of a set of men . . . possessed of all the powers of government . . . .”


John Mercer and Luther Martin of Maryland seemed to agree with much of this. They departed early in protest, fearing that states’ rights were not being sufficiently protected. Martin also had other concerns: For instance, he thought the Constitution should take a harder line on slavery.


What are we to do with all this information today?


Obviously, some of these delegates later had their concerns assuaged: A Bill of Rights was ratified and added to our Constitution. Yet other delegates doubtless continued to feel justified in their doubts.


Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that these delegates were in the minority. Most signed the Constitution, apparently agreeing with a sentiment expressed by James Wilson of Pennsylvania.


“[W]hen I reflect how widely men differ in their opinions,” Wilson observed, “and that every man [and state] has an equal pretension to assert his own, I am satisfied that any thing nearer to perfection could not have been accomplished . . . . it is the best form of government which has ever been offered to the world.”


Primary Sources:

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