The Constitutional Convention, the Blue Bottle Fly, and the Inspiration for the Bill of Rights

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Elbridge Gerry

By Ken Zurski

Massachusetts statesman Elbridge Gerry was of the cantankerous and crafty sort. He typically came late to engagements and was usually the first to tell the host that he had finally arrived. This is the mark he made on the Constitutional Convention in May of 1787 at Independence Hall in Philadelphia during the drafting of the nation’s first constitution.

Actually he made no physical mark on the Constitution, refusing to sign the document and disagreeing with most of the other 40-plus delegates on how much power to give the government in relation to its people. Gerry had signed the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation, but the Constitution was different. There were too many variables and not enough unity, he argued. “If we do not come to some agreement among ourselves. “Gerry maintained, “some foreign sword will probably do it for us.”

In September, after the final draft of the Constitution was reached, Gerry along with two others, Edmund Randolph and George Mason, all agreed the document needed to protect the rights of people of whom whose basic freedoms should be added. Freedoms similar to the one Mason, the governor of Virginia, had drafted in his home state.

Therefore, they argued, it was incomplete.

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George Mason

Mason urged the framers, now drafters, to stay on as long as needed to finish the task. Gerry seconded the motion. The answer from all the other delegates, however, was a resounding, “No.”

Whether or not any of the other participants agreed such rights were necessary wasn’t the point.  Most had been away from their wives and families for months and were ready to leave. In addition, they were weakened by the heat and humidity and disgusted by the cramped sleeping quarters of two to four men per room which during a severe infestation of the blue bottle fly kept the windows shut and the smells in.

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Frankly, they were just plain sick of each other.

Many nearly walked out a month before in August, but trudged on to complete the task. But staying longer? That was not an option for those who actually signed the document. They went home.

Several years later,  James Madison’s proposal of twelve amendments was approved by Congress.

It was appropriately titled the Bill of Rights.

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