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The no-names behind our Constitution

On Sept. 17, 1787 members of the Constitutional Convention completed their work. The myth of the historical coverage of this 100-day tour de force is that the confab would make for a good Hollywood movie, highlighted by an articulate and handsome lead cast, a spirit of unanimity and good will, and minor characters dedicated to attendance and hard work. The reality, on the other hand, is that most of the lead and secondary casts consisted of names that neither schoolchildren nor historians would be forced to memorize or readily recount.

Some of the big names of the American Revolutionary era weren't there: John Adams, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock and Samuel Adams.

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Worse was the reality that of the total of 74 delegates chosen by the states, 19 never showed up at all. Of the 55 who regularly attended, only 30 stayed for the full term. Rhode Island was the only state that chose not to send any delegates, a situation that led presiding officer George Washington to express his ire at the state's "impolitic, unjust, and... scandalous conduct, which seems to have marked all her public councils of late." In fact, Rhode Island didn't even ratify the Constitution until May 29, 1790, when the new government had been in effect for more than a year.

New York sent three delegates, but two got fed up with the confab and went home, leaving behind only Alexander Hamilton, a key figure in the final proceedings, without the majority needed to vote on behalf of New York. Quipped Washington at the convention's end, when the delegates signed the document, including the lone Hamilton, the document was approved "by 11 states and Col. Hamilton."

No matter, the committed attendees accomplished their task of agreeing on a form of government, but that was only the first step. Putting their agreement into an impressive organization and writing style would be critical, and an unsung hero emerged. If Thomas Jefferson was the major author of the Declaration of Independence, the man who put the Constitution into words was 35-year-old Gouverneur Morris. Indeed, it was James Madison himself, often called the father of the Constitution, who contended that Morris gave the document "the finish" and "arrangement."

And what an unrecognized hero, whose unusual name is often confused with the appellation "Governor." But Morris was no head of state. He was a wealthy New Yorker, a graduate of Columbia and multilingual. He served in the militia and the Continental Congress, eventually adopting Pennsylvania as his home. Although handsome, he had a deformed arm as a result of a severe burn as a youngster and later lost his left leg in a carriage accident, leaving him reliant on a wooden peg.

But Morris had a brilliant mind, speaking a record 173 times during the convention, leading one delegate to describe him 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."

A strong nationalist, Morris was on the right side of the issues and compromises, but it was as chairman of the Committee on Style that he distinguished himself. But one example: The Committee on Detail handed Morris a preamble that was ho-hum and wordy, naming each one of the 13 states that "do ordain, declare, and establish the following Constitution for the Government of Ourselves and our Posterity."

Morris polished the text into the preamble we honor today:

"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University. His email is tvmzdb6063@cs.com.

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