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

38 Pages Posted: 15 Nov 2012

Date Written: 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.

Keywords: civility, democratic deliberation, Philadelphia Constitutional Convention, American founding, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, civic friendship, public reason, compromise

Suggested Citation

Webb, Derek, The Original Meaning of Civility: Democratic Deliberation at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention (2012). South Carolina Law Review, Vol. 64, No. 1, 2012, Available at SSRN:

Derek Webb (Contact Author)

Yale Law School ( email )

127 Wall Street
New Haven, CT 06510
United States

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