The Constitution that emerged from the sultry summer of deliberations in Philadelphia quickly made its mark on American politics – it’s safe to assume that all Americans know that. No sooner had it been unveiled on September 17, 1787, than Federalists and Antifederalists began using it as a measuring stick (or battering ram) for their contrasting beliefs about government power, rights and liberties, and the meaning of republican democracy.
But what about the Constitution’s meaning to Philadelphia after 1787 – do we know much about that? Every time I come to Philadelphia, I think about that question. Why? Because the groups and people I study thought of Philadelphia as a deliberative city. Indeed, the idea that Philadelphia — the place, the people, the politics — epitomized the essential deliberative qualities that produced the federal Constitution in the first place remained a key component of the city’s cultural sensibility throughout the late-18th and early-19th centuries.
Over the course of that fabled summer of 1787, a range of different factions had agreed on certain fundamental principles of union, representation, government power and American liberty. They also agreed to write down the product of their deliberations for all the world to see. These accomplishments had a profound effect on Philadelphians too. Suddenly, it seemed as if every group, church, and reform organization wanted to produce a written constitution that reflected the results of their own intense deliberations.
The first free black churches in Philadelphia – the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Episcopal Church –crafted constitutions and articles of association in the 1790s, hoping that these deliberative documents would prove their fitness for equal citizenry. Years later in 1830, when legendary black churchman Richard Allen sought to create a precursor to the NAACP, he called African-American reformers to Philadelphia — where they crafted a constitution after several days of deliberation and debate. Generations of Philadelphia abolitionists crafted constitutions too. What was the first public act of the Philadelphia Female Antislavery Society in the early 1830s? A written constitution. The same held true for myriad other Philadelphia civic organizations, labor groups, and educational societies. By drafting and disseminating their own constitutions, they proved the worth of deliberative democracy.
Needless to say, the early American constitution craze transcended Philadelphia. But perhaps more than anywhere else, Philadelphia and Philadelphians came to see grass roots constitution-making as a specific part of their past. They were proud when others paid homage to the great deliberations of yesteryear. Even the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, one of the Constitution’s harshest critics, knew this, making sure that he launched the American Anti-Slavery Society and its new Constitution from – where else? – Philadelphia in 1833.
Richard Newman is Professor of History at Rochester Institute of Technology and the author, most recently, of Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers (NYU Press).