Thursday, September 5, 2013

Who Did Not Sign?

By Frank Barker
Assistant Education Coordinator 

The Assembly Room at Independence Hall, photographed 
by Antoine Taveneaux.  Reproduced with permission of the 
In the summer of 1787, George Mason of Gunston Hall traveled to Philadelphia to serve as a delegate to a “Grand Convention” to help improve the inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation. The delegates in attendance soon turned this convention into a constitutional convention that drafted the Constitution for the 13 United States.

Though he spoke often as the delegates hammered out the details of that document, in September, when it came time to sign, George Mason refused, famously saying that he would rather cut off his right hand than sign the document as it was written.

By the spring of ’87, the states appointed had 73 delegates to attend the Philadelphia convention. Eighteen of those delegates refused their appointments, leaving 55 delegates to gather at Independence Hall. Because of the traveling distances involved, by the appointed commencement date of May 14, only eight delegates were in attendance It wasn’t until May 23 that a quorum of seven states had arrived and the Convention could begin in earnest. On September 17, their work was done and the document was ready to be signed.

Was George Mason the only one who did not sign? Below is a state-by-state listing to find out.

Connecticut—Three delegates attended. Only delegate Oliver Ellsworth did not sign, because he left the Convention on August 23 and did not return. He did support ratification, however, and was elected as one of Connecticut’s first two senators.
Detail of the Delaware signatures, including George Read
 and John Dickinson.  Courtesy of the National Archives and 
Record Administration.
Delaware—All five delegates signed.  Except John Dickinson; he left the Convention on September 14 with a migraine and did not return. However, he authorized George Read to sign for him, making George Read the only man to sign the Constitution twice.
Georgia—Sent four delegates. Two did not sign. William L. Pierce left the Convention in July to represent Georgia in the Confederation Congress.* William Houstoun did not arrive until June 1 and did not return to the Convention after his departure on August 6.

Maryland—Two of the five delegates did not sign. Luther Martin and John F. Mercer both opposed the Constitution and a strong Federal government, and they walked out of the Convention; Mercer in August and Martin in early September.
Independence Hall where all the
great documents are wrought.
Historic American Buildings Survey,
Frederick D. Nichols, Photographer.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Massachusetts—Four delegates attended. Two did not sign. Caleb Strong supported a strong Federal government, but he was called away in August because of family illness and never had a chance to sign. Elbridge Gerry stayed at the Convention until the end, but he refused to sign because did not think the Constitution provided adequate protection for the rights of individuals and states. He later argued against ratification. From 1813 to until his death in 1814, he served as President James Madison’s Vice-President.

New Hampshire—Both delegates signed

New Jersey—Five delegates; only William Churchill Houston did not sign. He was present only May 31 and June 1, and was absent for the duration of the Convention due to illness. He would die of tuberculosis in August of 1788.

New York—Three delegates arrived; only Alexander Hamilton stayed until the end to sign the Constitution. Robert Yates and John Lansing, Jr. believed the delegates were in Philadelphia simply to amend the Articles of Confederation. They stayed six weeks, then left, explaining in a joint letter to New York Governor George Clinton that they opposed any system that would consolidate the United States into one government. Both Yates and Lansing vigorously fought against ratification.

North Carolina—Five delegates attended. William R. Davie left the convention on August 13, but would later fight for ratification. Delegate Alexander Martin also resigned in August. He was not staunchly Federalist, but would later serve as one of North Carolina’s first two senators.

Pennsylvania—All eight delegates signed.

South Carolina—All four delegates signed.

Rhode Island—not one delegate from Rhode Island signed the Constitution. Nor did Rhode Island send any delegates to the Convention. In 1790, Rhode Island became the last of the states to ratify the Constitution.

Virginia—sent seven delegates. Four did not sign: Dr. James McClurg wanted a President to serve for life and thought the Federal government should be able to override state laws. He left the Convention on July 21. George Wythe left on July 2 to take care of his ill wife in Williamsburg. Edmund J. Randolph was present at the end of the Convention but refused to sign, calling for a second convention. He disliked the power of a single president and thought the new Constitution was not republican enough. He did, however, support ratification, went on to become U.S. Attorney General under President Washington, and later replaced Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State after Jefferson resigned the post in 1793. The final non-signing delegate from the Old Dominion was George Mason.

Though Mason was the fifth most prolific speaker at the Convention and had initially supported a stronger central government, he withdrew his support toward the end of the deliberations. Late in the proceedings he wrote his “Objections to This Constitution of Government” to explain himself. His first objection was “There is no Declaration of Rights….” Mason would later oppose ratification of the new Constitution as a delegate from Stafford County. He took no positions in the new government. Though he was appointed to succeed Senator John Grayson when Grayson died in 1790, Mason refused because of his own ill health.
Of the 55 men who spent all or part of that hot summer in Independence Hall, 16 did not sign the new Constitution. Only three, Elbridge Gerry, Edmund Randolph, and George Mason were present and refused to sign.
Howard Chandler Christy's 1940 painting Scene at the 
Signing of the Constitution of the United States.  The
painting currently hangs in the U.S. Capitol.

*Pierce’s contribution to the Convention is invaluable, as he wrote insightful character sketches of each of the delegates that were published after his death, giving historians eyewitness descriptions of even the lesser-known delegates. Pierce described George Mason as “... able and convincing in debate, steady and firm in his principles, and undoubtedly one of the best politicians in America."

"America's Founding Fathers - Delegates to the Constitutional Convention." America's Founding Fathers - Delegates to the Constitutional Convention. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 July 2013.<>.
 "George Mason & Historic Human Rights Documents." Gunston Hall. Web. 04 Sept. 2013. <>.
"Individual Biographies of the Delegates to the Constitutional Convention | Teaching American History." Teaching American History. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 July 2013. <>.

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