“A good joke always distracted [New York delegate Gouverneur] Morris. The one story about him that everyone knows is about a humorous bet. At the Constitutional Convention, Alexander Hamilton, a fellow delegate, offered to buy Morris dinner if he would go up to George Washington, president of the Convention, hero of the Revolution, and father of his country, slap him on the shoulder, and say, ‘My dear General, I am glad to see you looking so well.’ Morris slapped his slap and won his dinner, but said afterward that the look Washington gave him had been the worst moment of his life.”— Richard Brookhiser, “The Forgotten Founding Father,” City Journal, Spring 2002
Okay, even Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Jimmy Fallon would have a hard time loosening up ol’ George. But he was the indispensable presence at the Constitutional Convention, which, in Philadelphia on this date in 1787, after four months of debates, concluded with its 55 remaining delegates (some had dropped out, in opposition to the final product, already) signing the Constitution of the United States.
Gouverneur Morris, the convention’s wordsmith, wrote the clauses that would be cited for generations to come, and the Virginia delegate James Madison became known as the Father of the Constitution for the original plan that the delegates haggled over.
But it was George Washington—so dignified, alas, that he was humorless, as poor Morris found out—who was the one everyone else framed the document around. He might not have wanted the job, but everyone knew that he would become the first President of the republic under this new plan to replace the Articles of Confederation. Would the new government be strong enough under him? The delegates debated, pondered—then voted accordingly.
I don’t think we need to be too upset about the lack of humor at the original proceedings, do you? The last 225 years have brought more than its share of levity from our nation’s representatives, even if they did so inadvertently. As Will Rogers remarked: “Things are terribly dull now. We won’t have any more serious comedy until Congress meets.”