From May to September 1787, delegates from all states except Rhode Island labored over the intricacies of what makes government work. They did this in a room with the windows closed even on the hottest days to ensure that their deliberations did not leak to the public. They took a vow of silence, so to speak, in order that they might be able to discuss freely without fear of recriminations from the media of their day.
James Madison, who is often called the Father of the Constitution, took notes on what everyone said all those months. He would write in shorthand during the meetings, then turn his notes into a full account in the evenings. His transcription of the convention’s debates were finally published after the deaths of all the persons who were involved.
Some people today would probably decry this type of secrecy, but it was a wise move. The delegates were uninhibited in their discussions and were able to reach consensus on the form of government without the distracting swirl of constant criticism. Although the debates in the convention were secret, the ratification of the document was not. State conventions debated freely the contents of the proposed Constitution; the final vote in each state was the result of a frank, open discussion of the document’s merits.
The form of government set up at that convention has been the envy of many in the world. It has been copied by some, but not always with good results. The key to its workability always rests on the character of the people of a nation. Supposedly, a woman came up to Benjamin Franklin at the conclusion of the convention and inquired, “Mr. Franklin, what have you given us?” His response? “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”
That statement is just as true today.