Every nation needs its foundation myth. In the UK, we point to the signing by King John of Magna Carta in 1215 as the key event in the development of civil law and respect for the individual. We do so even though the intended beneficiaries of the charter were the barons, not the common people, and despite the fact that kings and queens became, if anything, more powerful, more ruthless and more autocratic in the centuries that followed.

In America, torn apart today by the presidency of Donald Trump, the hope to which democrats of both upper and lower case cling like drowning men is the Constitution, the formulation of which began 231 years ago this week. This astonishing document, just four pages long, established not only the guiding principles of the United States, but a precise system of government, complete with checks and balances, and an inviolate set of rules against which all executive action must be measured.

Nearly two-and-a-half centuries on, its authors – who assumed that the vote would be restricted to men of property, who never mentioned the word democracy and who were content to enshrine the institution of slavery – are revered by both Left and Right as if they were secular saints. The charter they devised, beginning with the words “We the people,” is accepted as if it were a sacred text, possessing a relevance, both practical and moral, that far outweighs the Ten Commandments.

Popular tradition suggests that America’s Founders were ascetic, almost Jesuitical figures, a bit like the puritans who created the King James Bible. Thomas Jefferson described them as “demi-gods,” whose constitution “would last into remote futurity”.

In fact, they were more like a hunting party out of Tom Jones, complete with frock coats and three-cornered hats. Landowners, country lawyers, doctors, soldiers, merchants, freebooters: they were all on the make, determined to preserve order and advance the interest of their class while keeping the government off their backs.

Whatever else they may have been, they were certainly Americans.

Originally, there were 74 of them, operating as delegates from their states, the 13 former colonies, to the Constitutional Convention that opened in Philadelphia on May 14, 1787.

The Revolution had been won, but the peace was far from assured. There was still bad blood with the British and thoughts were turning as well to expansion, south into Florida and west, beyond the Appalachians, into Indian Country.

The summer of 1787 was hot and humid. So preoccupied were a number of the appointees with other business that 19 of them didn’t even show up, and a further 13 got bored and left early. No one at all arrived from Rhode Island, while of the four representatives from New York, only one, Alexander Hamilton, stayed long enough to sign the final document.

Only a handful of the 42 core delegates made a significant contribution to proceedings. There was George Washington, of course, the former commander of the Continental Army, who chaired the proceedings and ended up as first President of the Republic. But Jefferson was absent in France while John Adams, Washington’s successor as President, was busy in London negotiating with the British. Though he was a regular attender, Benjamin Franklin said very little. No doubt the great man felt that, at age 80, he had done enough already.

Then there was Hamilton – he of the hit musical of the same name. Raised in poverty in the West Indies, he had been ADC to Washington during the war and, like his boss, favoured a strong central government, with the power to tax its citizens and enforce common law. Hamilton would go on to become the first U.S. Treasury Secretary only to die of injuries sustained in a meaningless duel with Vice President Aaron Burr.

James Madison, from Virginia, is sometimes called the Father of the Constitution for having overseen the drafting of the main document and the subsequent Bill of Rights. He was a man of high principle. But he was also a determined slave owner. It was he who originally formulated the Three-Fifths Compromise under which slaves were assessed as 60 per cent of a person for the purpose of allocating state representation in Congress. Madison apparently favoured a strong federal government, then states rights, then a combination of the two. He didn’t serve in the revolution, but as his country’s fourth President, enthusastically stoked the fires that led to the War of 1812.

New Jersey man David Brealey, was an Army veteran who shepherded much of the nitty-gritty of the Constitution. Later, as chief justice of New Jersey, he ruled that the judiciary, not politicians, had the authority to declare whether laws were unconstitutional or not.

John Dickinson, of Delaware, originator of the phrase, “let experience be our guide; reason may mislead us,” wrote polemics under the name Fabius in support of Big Government, but ended up supporting the Great Compromise under which even the smallest states got two Senators.

The quaintly named Gouverneur Morris, from New York, who once said “there never was, nor ever will be, a civilised society without an aristocracy,” actually drafted whole sections of the final document, including, it is said, the preamble. A financier and speculator, he died in 1816 after inserting a piece of whalebone into his penis in an attempt to clear a blockage.

As for the other delegates, trapped in committees, some added a line here or a sub-clause there. But most got on with their lives, as much worried about how their participation would advance their careers as about their impact on posterity.

Charles Pinckney, from South Carolina, was one of those who claimed credit for the clause in the Constitution that required states harbouring escaped slaves to return them to their owners. He opposed paying salaries to members of the Upper House on the basis that Senators should be drawn only from among those of independent means.

Roger Sherman, a former ballet master and treasurer of Yale, disapproved of “paper money” and “bills of credit”. The stipulation he inserted that state debts be repaid exclusively in “gold and silver Coin” remains in the Constitution to this day, though more honoured in the breach than the observance.

Richard Dobbs-Spaight, aged 29, attended every session of the Convention, but contributed nothing that was remembered. Later, after helping secure ratification in North Carolina, he died in a duel with a rival for his party’s nomination to a seat in the House of Representatives.

Robert Morris, a native of Liverpool, was a slave trader, who loaned £10,000 to Washington to help pay the rebels’ wages. By way of compensation, he seized British merchant ships for his own profit. He apparently said little during the Convention, but was among those who nominated Washington as President. Often regarded as the founder of the U.S. financial system, Morris went bankrupt towards the end of his life and spent several years in a debtors’ prison.

There is no getting round it. They were a motley collection –  42 ambitious men in powdered wigs and silk stockings thrown together largely by chance to decide on urgent matters affecting the infant Republic. So why are they venerated as if they were intellectual and moral paragons, set far above the rest of common humanity? Why do they, and they alone, get to set the rules and principles by which America, 231 years on, governs itself?