On Sept. 17, 1787, 200 years ago today, they gathered for the last time in the Pennsylvania State House. After four months of debate, it was the day some had thought would never arrive: the day there was nothing left to fight about.

They had come to Philadelphia authorized to craft a few amendments to the existing form of government. After four months of secret deliberation, dozens of bargains, week after week of soaring rhetoric and tedious, painstaking detail, they were about to present the country with an entirely new system -- bigger and more ambitious than anything the nation had THE SUMMER OF '87 Last in a Series ever seen or even imagined.

Yet the mood was strangely subdued. In fact, it was hard to find anyone wholeheartedly satisfied. To Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania -- a man not afraid of hyperbole -- the new Constitution was merely "the best that was to be attained." He would "take it," he said, "with all its faults."

To Alexander Hamilton, it was about as "remote" as it could be from the proper form of government. But since it offered some "chance of good," he said, he too would take it. It was certainly better than the alternative confronting the country, "anarchy and convulsion."

Even James Madison, the architect of the convention, was disappointed, as he had already confided in a letter to Thomas Jefferson in Paris. Four months before, Madison had brought forward what, to him, was the ideal form of government for the United States. Then he had watched with dismay as the others chipped away at it, sacrificing some of his most cherished principles on the altar of compromise. Of course, he would support it and work for it. But he confessed to Jefferson that he believed the plan would not answer the country's needs.

It was a great lesson for young Madison about politics in America -- and one he never forgot. No matter how "ingenius" the theorist, he suggested later in The Federalist Papers, perfection in government exists only in the imagination. In real life, "theoretical propriety" must sometimes be sacrificed.

It is extremely unlikely that anyone in that room thought the Constitution would last 200 years. Washington guessed 20 -- at best -- during a morning walk with Abraham Baldwin of Georgia. In fact, on Sept. 17, 1787, delegates were more worried about whether the Constitution would survive the winter. The ratification struggle that lay ahead was every bit as uncertain as the convention had been in May, when a handful of men waited in the room day after day for the others to arrive, wondering whether the quorum would be achieved.

Because the convention had met in secret, the public was completely in the dark about the new Constitution. For the same reason, the convention was "equally in the dark as to the reception" the Constitution would receive, as Madison said in his letter to Jefferson, though there were signs of battle lines forming.

The delegates' mission, on this final day, was to give the Constitution the best send-off possible.

The convention had composed a letter to the existing Congress, the one-house body that would be abolished. "The friends of our country have long seen and desired" the need for a stronger national government. But, it said delicately, "the impropriety of delegating such extensive trust to one body of men is evident -- Hence results the necessity of a different organization."

Individual delegations had begun composing the letters with which they would introduce the Constitution to their states, each stressing those parts they knew would be most pleasing back home.

"In the course of four months severe and painful application and anxiety," the North Carolina delegates wrote to their governor, "the Convention have prepared a plan of Government for the United States of America which we hope will obviate the defects of our present Federal Union . . . . No exertions have been wanting on our part to guard and promote the particular interest of North Carolina . . . . The Southern States have . . . a much better security for the return of slaves who might endeavour to escape than they had under the original Confederation."

The Connecticut delegates boasted to their governor about the great victory in the fight over representation: "The equal representation of the states in the senate, and the voice of that branch in the appointment to offices, will secure the rights of the lesser, as well as of the greater states," their letter said.

"We have . . . done our best and it must take its chance," Benjamin Franklin wrote a friend.

One major dilemma remained for the convention: the form of the signing of the Constitution. While the 11 state delegations present were unanimous in their approval, the delegates themselves were not. If called upon to personally endorse the Constitution by signing it, some, perhaps many, would refuse.

The objections were many -- and foreshadowed the ratification debates that lay ahead. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts thought that the proposed government was simply too powerful, a threat to the rights of individuals. George Mason of Virginia predicted that it would "end either in monarchy, or {in} a tyrannical aristocracy." He was "in doubt" as to which; but it would surely be "one or the other." Edmund Randolph of Virginia, who had introduced James Madison's Virginia Plan to the convention in May, also was threatening to withhold his support, as was William Blount of North Carolina, and perhaps others.

The prospect of signatures withheld -- of a Constitution going forth from a divided convention -- was greatly disturbing. "A few characters of consequence, by opposing or even refusing to sign the Constitution," said Hamilton, "might do infinite mischief . . . . "

Some device was needed that would make the convention appear unanimous.

Gouverneur Morris suggested that no one be asked to personally endorse the Constitution, but rather, that delegates sign a carefully worded statement attesting to the undeniable fact that the states present were unanimous in their final consent to the document. It was "deliberately ambiguous," Madison conceded in his notes. But it was hoped that this would allow delegates to sign even if they personally disapproved.

Morris prepared the statement. But he was about the worst person in the room to sponsor it, for an endorsement by the schemer Morris always aroused suspicion. The task fell to Franklin.

On the morning of Sept. 17, which fell on a Monday that year, Franklin, unable to stand for long because of his gout, handed his prepared speech to James Wilson of Pennsylvania, who read it to the convention. It remains one of the most famous speeches in American history.

"I confess that there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve," said the speech. But "the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others . . . . "

"I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such, because I think a general Government necessary for us . . . . I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected?

"It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does . . . . Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best . . . .

"On the whole, Sir, I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and, to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument."

Blount announced that he would sign. Gerry, Mason and Randolph would not.

Randolph's position was particularly galling. He had helped organize the convention. He had introduced the Virginia Plan -- the plan of government that had been the embryo of the Constitution.

Franklin addressed him directly. He had "a high sense of obligation" to Randolph for "having brought forward the plan in the first instance," Franklin said. But Randolph's refusal to sign would cause "great mischief" and Franklin hoped "he would yet lay aside his objections."

Randolph responded. It was "the most awful" step of his life, he said, but it was "dictated by {my} conscience." He would not sign.

At about 4 p.m., those who would, signed the following declaration:

"Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelft. It Witness whereof We have hereunto subscribed our Names."

Washington, the president of the convention, signed first. Then, delegation by delegation, the others moved forward and signed.

While they were signing, Franklin was heard to comment about the chair on the dias in which the convention president had sat. Franklin said he had been studying the chair, which had a sun painted on the headrest. In the course of the convention, he said, he had often looked at that sun "without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun."

With that, as Madison's notes put it, "the Convention dissolved itself . . . . "