Abraham Baldwin — the Founding Father who saved the Constitutional Convention

November 22, 1754–March 4, 1807

Abraham Baldwin (1754–1807) was a Founding Father of the United States. He is most well-known for signing the United States Constitution and supporting smaller states during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which contributed to the Great Compromise.

Abraham Baldwin, Founding Father

Abraham Baldwin. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Who was Abraham Baldwin?

Abraham Baldwin (1754–1807) was a minister, soldier, politician, lawyer, and Founding Father. He was born in Connecticut in 1754 and attended Yale. During the American Revolutionary War, he served as a chaplain in the Continental Army. After the war, he moved to Georgia where he became a leader in the state legislature and helped develop the public education system in Georgia. Baldwin was elected by Georgia as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and he played a critical role in the creation of the Great Compromise and signed the United States Constitution. Following the ratification of the Constitution, he served five terms in the House of Representatives and two terms in the Senate, and was a leader of the moderate wing of the Democratic-Republican Party.

Abraham Baldwin Facts

  • Date of Birth: Abraham Baldwin was born on November 22, 1754.
  • Parents: His parents were Michael Baldwin and Lucy Dudley.
  • Date of Death: Baldwin died on March 4, 1807, at the age of 52.
  • Buried: He is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Abraham Baldwin, US Constitution Copy
Baldwin’s copy of the United States Constitution, with his notes. Image Source: Georgia Historical Society.

Abraham Baldwin’s Early Life and Career

Abraham Baldwin was born on November 22, 1754, in Guilford, Connecticut. His parents were Michael Baldwin and Lucy Dudley. The Baldwins were early settlers in New England, with Baldwin’s ancestors working as farmers, tradesmen, and government officials. He was related to Elder John Strong, an early Puritan leader in Massachusetts. 

His father was a blacksmith and a Lieutenant in the Guilford Militia. He also believed in the value of higher education. To finance Abraham’s attendance at Yale College, he moved the family to New Haven and borrowed money.  Baldwin graduated from Yale in 1772 and initially intended to become a Congregationalist minister. However, he remained at the school as a graduate student, studying theology. In 1775, Baldwin received a license to preach but decided to stay on at Yale as a tutor.

Abraham Baldwin in the American Revolutionary War

Yale College had historically produced many of Connecticut’s clergy, and during the Revolutionary War, it became a major source of chaplains for the state’s Continental Army. Baldwin initially served as a part-time chaplain with Connecticut forces. In February 1779, he became one of the two brigade chaplains assigned to the state’s forces. He was appointed chaplain in Brigadier General Samuel H. Parsons’ brigade and served in that capacity until the general demobilization of the Army following the announcement of the preliminary treaty of peace in June 1783.

As a chaplain, Baldwin was responsible for maintaining the morale and physical welfare of the soldiers in his brigade, which numbered around 1,500 and included soldiers of different denominations. He also had educational duties, serving as a political adviser to the brigade commander and subordinate regimental commanders. Baldwin’s sermons and conversations with the officers and men were meant to help them understand the basis for the conflict with Great Britain and to increase their sense of mission and dedication to the Patriot cause. In summary, Baldwin’s role as chaplain was more comprehensive than just providing spiritual support, and he played a critical role in motivating and educating the soldiers under his care.

In the winter of 1777–1778, Baldwin’s Connecticut brigade was at Valley Forge with the other main Continental Line units from New England and the middle states. They trained under Frederick von Steuben, which significantly improved their skills as soldiers.

Baldwin’s brigade was assigned to garrison duty near West Point, where it defended against British attacks and secured Continental Army communication lines along the Hudson River. With West Point and the surrounding area safe and secure, Washington was free to launch offensive operations against smaller enemy forces in other parts of the country. 

The brigade trained for an amphibious attack on the British in New York City late in the war, but the plan was never executed. As a result, Baldwin did not see action during the war. However, his service as a chaplain was important to the Patriot Cause, as he helped maintain the morale of the men in the brigade. 

During his time in the army, Baldwin formed friendships with senior Continental Army officers, including General George Washington and General Nathanael Greene, who later took command in the South. He also witnessed the Treason of Benedict Arnold.

General Nathanael Greene, Portrait, Illustration
Nathanael Greene. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Abraham Baldwin in Georgia

Following the war, he turned down opportunities to become a minister or a professor of divinity at Yale. Instead, he pursued a legal career, which he had studied while serving in the Army. He moved to Georgia, likely at the suggestion of Nathanael Greenel, and established a legal practice near Augusta.

Soon after, Governor Lyman Hall approached Baldwin about helping him establish a public education system in Georgia. Baldwin agreed, which led to a long, distinguished career in public service in Georgia.

Baldwin was elected to the lower house of the Georgia Legislature and started to develop his plan for secondary and higher education in the state. Over time, his plan was implemented, which included setting aside land grants to fund the establishment of Franklin College, which later became the University of Georgia. Baldwin modeled the college after his alma mater, Yale.

Baldwin quickly rose to become one of the leaders in the Georgia legislature, and in addition to his educational initiatives, he served as the chairman of numerous committees and drafted many of the state’s first laws. 

His own experience helped him deal with people from various backgrounds. As the son of a blacksmith, he could work with the men who lived on the Georgia frontier, and as a graduate of Yale, he could also relate to the wealthy and educated planters who lived on the Georgia coast. 

In 1785, his career in national politics started when he was elected to represent Georgia in the Confederation Congress.

Lyman Hall, Governor of Georgia
Georgia Governor Lyman Hall. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Baldwin and the Constitutional Convention of 1787

Baldwin was elected as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, along with William Few, William Houston, and William Leigh Pierce. One of the most important issues the Convention dealt with was state representation in the federal legislature and two plans were presented:

  1. The Virginia Plan — It proposed a bicameral legislature — two houses — with representation based on state population. The plan was drafted by James Madison and introduced to the Convention by Edmund Randolph on May 29, 1787. 
  2. The New Jersey Plan — It proposed a single house of the legislature, with each state having one equal vote. The plan was introduced by William Patterson of New Jersey on June 15.

Larger states supported the Virginia Plan, while smaller states supported the New Jersey Plan. However, the Convention rejected the New Jersey Plan on June 19 and voted in favor of the Virginia Plan’s bicameral system on June 21. At that point, there were rumors the small states were threatening to leave the Convention. According to Roger Sherman of Connecticut, “Everything depended on this. The smaller States would never agree to the plan on any other principle than an equality of suffrage.”

At first, Baldwin supported the idea of representation based on property qualifications. However, he changed his position after he learned that small states like Connecticut were thinking about leaving. 

On July 2, 1787, the Convention voted on the motion of “giving each State one vote in Senate and proportional representation in House.” The Georgia delegates that were present — Houston and Baldwin — were the last to vote. The vote was tied when it came to Georgia. Houston voted against the motion, and the tally stood at 4 votes in favor of it and 5 votes against it.

If Baldwin voted against the motion, Connecticut and other states might leave the Convention, possibly ending hope for establishing a new government. If he voted for it, the question would be sent to a committee — Baldwin voted in favor of the motion, tying the vote at 5.

In order to resolve the issue, the Convention set up a “Grand Committee,” which included a member from each of the 11 states that were present at the time. Baldwin was selected to represent Georgia. Joining him on the Grand Committee were:

  1. William Paterson of New Jersey
  2. Robert Yates of New York
  3. Luther Martin of Maryland
  4. Gunning Bedford Jr. of Delaware
  5. Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut
  6. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts
  7. George Mason of Virginia
  8. William Richardson Davie of North Carolina
  9. John Rutledge of South Carolina
  10. Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania

When the Committee first met, it leaned toward the Virginia Plan. However, Benjamin Franklin supported the two-house legislature and Roger Sherman — who replaced Oliver Ellsworth on the Committee — submitted a plan that combined portions of the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan into the “Connecticut Compromise.” The plan set up a bicameral legislature of an upper house — the Senate — and a lower house — the House of Representatives.  Each state had equal representation in the Senate and proportional representation in the House. The Convention approved the plan, which is known as the “Great Compromise,” on July 16, 1787.

Roger Sherman, Founding Father, Illustration
Roger Sherman. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Later Years and Death

Baldwin went on to serve as a Senator and Representative to Congress for Georgia. He also served as President of the University of Georgia. He died on March 4, 1897, while he was in Washington, D.C.

Why is Abraham Baldwin a Founding Father?

Abraham Baldwin is a Founding Father because he signed the United States Constitution. He was one of the two delegates from Georgia who signed the document. Baldwin also played a key role in the events that led to the creation and adoption of the Great Compromise.

Interesting Facts About Abraham Baldwin

What was Abraham Baldwin known for?

Abraham Baldwin was known for his role as a chaplain in the Continental Army, his work to establish a public education system in Georgia, his founding of the University of Georgia, his participation in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, his support for the Great Compromise, and his signing of the U.S. Constitution.

How was Abraham Baldwin significant to Georgia?

Abraham Baldwin was significant to Georgia because of the role he played in establishing the public education system in the state. He also wrote the charter for the University of Georgia, which was approved on January 27, 1785. Baldwin also represented Georgia in the Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, and the Federal Government.

Did Abraham Baldwin fight in the Revolutionary War?

Although he served in the Continental Army, his brigade did not see action in the field during the American Revolutionary War. So he served in the war but did not fight. His brigade was assigned to protect the area around West Point, which included Continental Army communication lines.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Abraham Baldwin — the Founding Father who saved the Constitutional Convention
  • Date November 22, 1754–March 4, 1807
  • Author
  • Keywords Abraham Baldwin, Founding Father, Signer of the Consitution, Constitutional Convention, Connecticut Compromise, Great Compromise
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 22, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 26, 2024