As the Constitutional Convention of 1787 got started, a Philadelphia newspaper, citing reliable sources, reported that the delegates had decided to expel Rhode Island from the union.
The story only reflected wishful thinking among the delegates.
To the men of the convention and their friends, the English language didn't contain enough epithets for Rhode Island, which boycotted the event: "Rogue Island," "Fools Island," land of "pernicious measures," as one delegate put it. Rhode Island's legislature -- one Rhode Islander wrote George Washington apologetically -- was "composed of a licentious number of men, destitute of education . . . void of principle," men who stayed in office only by "debauching the minds of the common people."
The list of Rhode Island's sins was endless. The state had blocked nationalists' measures in the Confederation Congress. It was suspected of harboring Shays' Rebellion fugitives. Most recently, its legislature had passed a law making it a criminal offense for businessmen to refuse to accept the state's nearly worthless currency. State judges who struck down the law were ultimately removed from office.
Worst of all, rumor had it that Rhode Island was secretly planning a redistribution of property.
Horrible visions of 13 Rhode Islands danced in the heads of the delegates to the convention: visions of the whole country transformed by mob rule.
Rhode Island's legislature, thundered delegate Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts, is "a full illustration . . . of the length to which a public body may carry wickedness and cabal."
The delegates' attitude towards the smallest state was above all reflective of their social status in America -- at the top of the pyramid -- and their political affiliations. For the convention was anything but representative.
In Pennsylvania, a party sympathetic to what Rhode Island stood for held considerable political sway. But this group was unrepresented in the state's delegation, which was dominated by its archenemies -- wealthy businessmen and lawyers.
Massachusetts too had a significant popular party, strongest in the western reaches of the state. But its delegation came entirely from Boston and the East, from the "codfish aristocracy" of the coast.
The South Carolinians came exclusively from Charleston, representing the state's low-country planters, the famous South Carolina "oligarchy." All of the state's delegates were related to one another, by blood or marriage.
The same was true of virtually all the delegations. Absent were the names of many strong leaders whose views differed sharply from Madison's brand of nationalism; men like the fiery Patrick Henry of Virginia; Gov. George Clinton of New York, Samuel Chase of Maryland, John Hancock of Massachusetts.
The lopsidedness was in part the result of self-selection: many of these men had had the chance to attend and turned it down, some on principle, most thinking it a waste of their time.
It would turn out to be one of the gravest political miscalculations of American history, and suggests the theme for an intriguing bicentennial parlor game: How different might American be today had a different cast of characters assembled 200 years ago?