The Original Meaning of Civility: Democratic Deliberation at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention

Derek A. Webb, Stanford Law School, South Carolina Law Review, Vol. 64, No.1, 2012

For the past twenty years, legal scholars have pored over the records of the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention for insights into how to best interpret the Constitution’s various provisions. In this Essay, I pore over these same materials for insights into how the delegates to the Convention themselves maintained a level of civility through four months of grueling deliberations. At a time when our legislative assemblies, still today populated mostly by lawyers, are too often prone to incivility, ad hominem argumentation, polarization, and resistance to compromise, the ups and downs of the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention may yet prove a fruitful model for constructive dialogue. In particular, I argue that the Convention was marked by a surprising degree of civic friendship borne out of frequent interaction, daily dinner parties that cut across party and sectional lines, and a variety of parliamentary procedures designed to encourage open-mindedness and rational deliberation. Upon this foundation of civic friendship, the delegates reasoned together, utilizing a form of public reason when deliberating about more abstract, structural matters, and compromising when deliberation broke down over issues that cut deep into economic or political interests. This rich, but often overlooked, story of our nation’s founding deserves a telling for lawyers and politicians alike, particularly given the quality and tenor of deliberations in legislative assemblies today.