The Convention’s Story on Canvas

by Daniel Dreisbach

On September 17, 1787, 39 delegates to the Constitutional Convention meeting in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall stepped forward to put their signatures to a document they had framed during the preceding four months. This defining moment in the life of the new nation has drawn the interest of artists across the centuries who have depicted the scene with varying degrees of success.

One such rendering is “Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States” (1940) by Howard Chandler Christy, commissioned to commemorate the Constitution’s sesquicentennial. Authorized by a joint resolution of Congress in April 1939, it was completed and unveiled in the Capitol Rotunda the following year. The massive oil on canvas, measuring 20-by-30 feet, hangs in the Grand East Stairway (House Wing) of the US Capitol. Other depictions of this scene may be more famous, and others are more acclaimed artistically, but none is better at telling the story of the framing and signing of the Constitution.

By the 1930s, Howard Chandler Christy (1873–1952) was a successful commercial illustrator, poster artist, and portraitist. His illustrations were featured in leading magazines and on popular posters of the day. He was famous for painting idealized figures of feminine beauty known as “Christy Girls.” They were his vision of the confident, modern American woman.

With barely veiled condescension toward Christy, a mere illustrator, art critics were quick to disparage the 1940 painting as less high art befitting its subject matter than a mawkish illustration, more suitable for a sentimental giftshop poster than the hallowed walls of the US Capitol building. This “six hundred square feet of canvas,” one critic sneered, “is nothing more than a blown-up illustration. . . . Our Founding Fathers are embarrassed.” It was, to be sure, a work that appealed more to the common man than the highbrow critic.

Long before putting brush to canvas, Christy painstakingly researched accounts of the event memorialized, contemporaneous portraits and written descriptions of the signers, the Assembly Room of Independence Hall where the signing took place, and apparel and other artifacts of the day. Prior to undertaking the congressional commission, he painted and displayed two smaller works on the Constitution’s signing: “We the People” (1936) and “Signing of the Constitution” (1937). Both were reproduced and distributed as posters. These earlier works featured allegorical feminine figures, among others, overseeing the signing. The ladies, representative of Liberty and Justice, could easily be mistaken for Christy Girls. The 1940 painting, by contrast, was intended to be a more realistic, historically authentic portrayal, although the allegorical features of the earlier works may have prefigured the symbolic elements that would drive the narrative in the later, more famous painting.

The Convention’s Story on Canvas

Christy recounted on canvas the dramatic story of the framing and signing of the US Constitution not only through familiar figures prominently positioned in his work and an authentic depiction of the Assembly Room but also through subtle symbolism woven into the scene.

Christy included in his painting 40 of the 55 individuals who attended the Convention (39 delegates, representing 12 states, and the convention’s secretary, William Jackson). Excluded, significantly, were the three delegates—Elbridge Gerry, George Mason, and Edmund Randolph—who declined to sign the completed Constitution and the 13 individuals, who for either personal or political reasons, departed the Convention early. (John Dickinson appears among the signatories even though he left the Convention the previous day due to ill health and signed by proxy.) The most prominent and recognizable figures in the room are George Washington (the Convention President), Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison, who Christy and Americans at the time credited for the Convention’s success and were celebrated as architects of the new constitutional republic.

The curtains are pulled back allowing sunlight to illuminate the chamber, signifying that the Convention, which had conducted its deliberations in secret, was now releasing its work for public scrutiny, debate, and, it was hoped, ratification. (An obsession for accuracy prompted Christy to revisit Independence Hall on September 17, 1936, to sketch the way light and shadows fell across the Assembly Room on the very day of the year, 149 years earlier, delegates had signed the charter.)

James Madison, sometimes called the “Father of the Constitution,” sits alone at a table next to the dais in the center of the scene. On the table, littered with crumpled papers, is an inkwell and quill, acknowledging, perhaps, Madison’s monumental contributions as the creative intellectual force in the chamber and the Convention’s unofficial notetaker.

To Madison’s right is the Connecticut delegation seated at a table with discarded, crumpled pages strewn on the floor beneath them. This vignette depicts Roger Sherman and William Samuel Johnson who, along with their colleague Oliver Ellsworth (who left the Convention in late August and was not present for the signing), are credited with proposing the “Connecticut Compromise,” the critical breakthrough in Convention deliberations that settled the thorny issue of representation, giving states equal representation in the Senate and providing proportional representation in the House of Representatives. The discarded papers on the floor perhaps illustrate the arduous negotiations that produced the decisive compromise and allowed the Convention’s work to move forward.

Thomas Jefferson was in Europe serving as the American minister to France and did not attend the Convention. The artist, however, acknowledged his influence on the proceedings by painting three books from Jefferson’s personal library, which Christy had borrowed from the Library of Congress, at the foot of Franklin’s chair situated in the center foreground of the composition.

Constitution Writing by The Book

Little noticed in the painting and accompanying interpretations of it is an open book resting on a side table in the lower right corner. What book is it, and why is it discreetly included in the scene? It is a copy of the Holy Bible opened to chapter 5 of The Gospel According to St. Matthew.

I know of no evidence that a copy of the Bible was present in the Convention chamber, but, as the most accessible, authoritative, and venerated book in 18th-century America, it is certainly plausible that a copy was in the room.

Occasional quotations from and allusions to the sacred text during Convention deliberations confirm that the delegates were familiar with it. In an August 10, 1787 speech, for example, during a debate on the qualifications for members of the national legislature, the elder statesman Benjamin Franklin commended Jethro’s advice to Moses recorded in Exodus 18:21 regarding the desirable characteristics for prospective rulers of Israel.

Christy’s painting celebrates the Constitution of 1787 and challenges Americans to read and study the nation’s founding charter.

Even more famously, at a critical juncture in Convention deliberations, as tempers frayed and delegates reached an apparent impasse, the venerable Doctor Franklin made a poignant appeal for harmony and Divine intervention:

I have lived, Sir, a long time; and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this Truth, that GOD governs in the Affairs of Men [cf. Daniel 4:17, 25b]. And if a Sparrow cannot fall to the Ground without his Notice [Matt. 10:29; Luke 12:6], is it probable that an Empire can rise without his Aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings, that “except the Lord build the House, they labour in vain that build it” [Psalm 127:1].

Christy almost certainly encountered uses of Scripture in his research on the Philadelphia Convention. More generally, the Bible was by far the most cited work in the political discourse of the founding era, referenced more frequently than any other work or the great political theorists John Locke and Baron de Montesquieu.

Why did the artist place a Bible in the Assembly Room? One cannot say for sure, but several possibilities come to mind. It merits observation, as a preliminary matter, that the book is open (indicating that it has been used), and it is not clasped shut (despite available clasps) or hidden behind a “wall of separation.”

Placing the book sacred and central to the Christian faith in the chamber suggests that the business of the moment was not strictly secular, characterized by a rigid separation of religion from the concerns of the civil state, nor was the fruit of the delegates’ labors a “godless” constitution, as some modern commentators have claimed.

Perhaps the artist was implying that the Bible informed the delegates’ values, as well as the ethos of the document they had framed. Drawing attention to chapter 5 of St. Matthew’s Gospel, a core text of Christian ethics and instructions on the righteous life, buttresses this interpretation. It is also possible that the artist was suggesting that the Bible was a source for broad themes or specific features of the Constitution.

At the top of the right-hand page of the open book appears: “St Matthew V.,” indicating chapter 5 of The Gospel According to Saint Matthew. Why did the artist choose to highlight this text? Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7), among the most beloved New Testament passages, commences in chapter 5. The sermon, including the teachings known as the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3–12), distills the essential, radical, and innovative principles of Christian ethics. The text is a guide to the righteous, disciplined life (e.g., repay evil with good; love your enemy). It provides moral instruction on man’s relationship with his God, and man’s relationship with his fellow man. Perhaps this is what drew Christy to this text.

The Bible and the Constitution

The constitutional framers drew on diverse intellectual traditions, including English common law and constitutionalism, Enlightenment liberalism, and civic republicanism. The Constitution also reflected in its design and content broad themes and specific principles familiar to bible-reading people. It included provisions that, long before they were written into the Constitution, eminent English jurists and colonial lawmakers had said were grounded in the “Word of God.” It is difficult, to be sure, to establish definitively that a specific constitutional provision was taken from a specific biblical text; rather, it is more plausible that constitutional principles were indirectly influenced by biblical concepts that had previously found expression in western legal tradition, especially in the English common law, and, more recently, colonial laws.

The Bible’s influence on the Constitution was manifested in various ways. For instance, general theological or doctrinal propositions regarding human nature, civil authority, political society, and the like informed conceptions and institutions of law and civil government.

Scholars have observed, for example, that a biblical understanding of original sin and humankind’s radical depravity (Genesis 3) inspired the framers to create a constitutional system that would guard against the concentration or abuse of government powers vested in fallen human actors. The most basic, fundamental features of American constitutional design—limited government, separation of powers, and checks and balances—are best understood in the light of this biblical anthropology and the attendant necessity to check, in the words of Federalist 37, “the infirmities and depravities of the human character.” Significantly, this view of humankind was discussed in the Constitutional Convention. In remarks made on July 11, 1787, for example, James Madison acknowledged a fellow delegate’s strong view regarding “the political depravity of men, and the necessity of checking one vice and interest by opposing to them another vice & interest. . . . The truth was,” Madison concurred, “that all men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree.”

The Constitution also included specific provisions that were almost certainly derived from or informed by biblical doctrines and practices.

Consider, for example, Article I, § 8, cl. 5 authorizing Congress to “fix the Standard of Weights and Measures.” Sir Edward Coke, the great—perhaps greatest—English authority on the common law, wrote in a 17th-century commentary that this principle, as expressed in Magna Carta (1215), was “grounded upon the Law of God.” He cited Deuteronomy 25:13–14 in support of this claim of divine provenance.

The Article III, § 3, cl. 1 requirement that convictions for treason be supported by “the testimony of two witnesses” conforms to a familiar biblical mandate for conviction and punishment. Coke said this principle, too, was “grounded upon the law of God expressed both in the old and new Testament.” He then referenced Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15; Matthew 18:16; 2 Corinthians 13:1; and Hebrews 10:28.

The Constitution’s Fifth Amendment, crafted by the first federal Congress, prohibits double jeopardy or trying a defendant twice for the same offense. In a late fourth-century commentary, Saint Jerome (and legal scholars ever since) said this was a principle expressed in the book of the prophet Nahum 1:9. From these origins, the principle forbidding double jeopardy entered into canon law and English customary law and was transferred to American colonial law and early state declarations of rights before it was ultimately enshrined in the Fifth Amendment.

A prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishments,” which was incorporated into the laws of the colonies and the new nation before its eventual inclusion in the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution, accords with the limitations on punishment mandated in the Hebrew Scriptures. Indeed, laws in the early republic limiting corporal punishment to 39 stripes reflected Talmudic interpretations of Deuteronomy 25:3.

Final Thoughts

The Bible’s influence on the American constitutional tradition arguably extends far beyond the handful of examples presented here. Scholars have identified additional constitutional provisions that reflect biblical influence, including measures addressing oaths of office, due process of law, emoluments, presidential pardon power, and corruption of blood.

An open Bible discreetly placed in a painting is not a constitutional or otherwise official affirmation of biblical influences on the US Constitution. It is merely one artist’s commentary, expressed symbolically, on a momentous event in the nation’s history. Nonetheless, Christy’s painting invites a conversation about the influences on the Constitution.

In an increasingly secular age, the claim that the Bible contributed to the nation’s founding is much contested. The US Constitution, as well as state constitutions, written in the wake of independence from Great Britain, although imperfect documents in some important respects, contain features familiar to bible-reading people. Indeed, if we miss or dismiss the Bible’s contributions to the American constitutional tradition, we fail to appreciate the broad range of ideas that contributed to the creation of the American civil order.

Christy’s painting celebrates the Constitution of 1787 and challenges Americans to read and study the nation’s founding charter. And to better understand the Constitution, a discreetly placed book in his painting hanging in the US Capitol invites citizens to read the Bible.