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Gratz College Recognizes Constitution Day: 

Names, Flags, Monuments, and the US Constitution

Paul Finkelman
Chancellor and Distinguished Professor of History
Gratz College

This Friday, September 17, the nation celebrates Constitution Day.  On September 17, 1787, the Constitutional Convention, meeting not far from Gratz in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, finished its work.  Delegates from twelve states (Rhode Island never sent any delegates) signed the Constitution.  Many of those who signed the Constitution are household names in the United States, like George Washington, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin.  One, Alexander Hamilton, is on both Broadway, and our ten dollar bill.  

Others are known to scholars, but less known to the general public.  These include four future Supreme Court Justices, James Wilson of Pennsylvania, John Blair of Virginia, John Rutledge of South Carolina, and William Paterson of New Jersey, and a number of future senators and representatives, such as Roger Sherman, Gouverneur Morris, Rufus King, and Pierce Butler.  Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey would serve as Speaker of the House of Representatives in the 1790s. James McHenry, a physician from Maryland, would be Secretary of War, and give his name to the Fort in Baltimore Harbor that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the Star-Spangled Banner.  

We know less about other signers.  Except for his unusual name, almost no one remembers Maryland delegate, Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer.  We do not even know the location of his grave. 

One of the signers, William Samuel Johnson of Connecticut briefly served in the new United States Senate, but then resigned to become president of Columbia College – now Columbia University.  The young Alexander Hamilton had attended Columbia for the Revolution, when it was known as King’s College.  So too had the important signer Gouverneur Morris, who wrote the first draft of the Constitution during the Convention.  Another Kings College graduate was John Jay, our first Chief Justice, who was not at the Constitutional Convention but helped write the Federalist Papers in support of it.

The connection between Hamilton, Morris, and Jay, and delegate Johnson, and the change in the name of the college, provide a segue to the program on our website today.  This program concerns the question of changing names, removing statues, and the use of confederate flags and other symbols in the United States.  It stemmed from a book I wrote a few years ago, Supreme Injustice:  Slavery in the Nation’s Highest Court (Harvard University Press, 2018).  In writing that book I discovered that Chief Justice John Marshall (who helped ratify the Constitution in Virginia, but was not at the Convention) owned hundreds of slaves, and that he bought and sold people his whole life.  This was shocking to me as a scholar, since all of his biographers claimed he owned very few slaves which they asserted he used as “servants,” and that he was not engaged in the “business” of slavery.  His biographers also claimed he heard very few cases involving slavery, and that he disliked the institution.  

None of these claims turned out to be true, as my research revealed.  Much to my surprise, I wrote a book that was quite different from what I expected to write.  This illustrates the nature of doing research and writing scholarship.  As a scholar, I let the research and the evidence guide me, even when it takes me places I don’t anticipate.  If you would like to read more about Marshall, I suggest these two articles from The Atlantic and the Chicago Law Review.

One of the results of this work is that John Marshall Law School in Chicago changed its name.  Read more here.  I did not expect this to happen and certainly did not write my book with that intention.  

But this experience did lead me to present a hybrid continuing legal education program this summer. The recording can be found on this webpage, in recognition of Constitution Day.  The question is simple: how does our constitutional democracy honor past leaders, names of institutions, and symbols that no longer reflect the goals and aspirations of our nation?  What happens when we discover that a name or a symbol does not reflect the message we want to convey about our country?  Kings College closed during the Revolution. In 1784 it reopened, as Columbia College. The name changed with the times. We have been doing that ever since. 

Please join me in exploring this constitutional and historical challenge as we celebrate Constitution Day.