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The story of the Constitution Convention for young readers
on November 17, 2004
The point of Jean Fritz's "Shh! We're Writing the Constitution" is that contrary to popular opinion, America had to be dragged kicking and screaming into becoming a new nation. While it is true that Americans were happy to be independent of Great Britain, the colonies that were now states had become used to being sovereign and many of them wanted to keep it that way. Illustrated by Tomie de Paola,, this engaging juvenile history tells how fifty-five delegates gathered in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 to attempt to draw up a plan for the future of the United States. The result was the writing of the Constitution, despite the fact that initially no one agreed to either what should be in it or even if a constitution should be drawn up in the first place.
Fritz makes it clear that there were Founding Fathers, such as Patrick Henry who refused to attend the convention, who did not want a strong federal government, as well as those like Alexander Hamilton who dismissed the current confederation as "nothing but a monster with thirteen heads." The "Shh!" in the title has to do with the agreement of the delegates to keep the proceedings a secret. One of the great things about this book is that young students who already know about George Washington and Benjamin Franklin will learn about other Founding Fathers who were important in framing the Constitution, such as Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, William Paterson of New Jersey, Luther Martin of Maryland, and Edmund Randolph of Virginia. Again, not all of these men would sign their names to the finished document, but they were important during the debate. They will also learn why James Madison is called the "Father of the Constitution," and how Hamilton and another stronger Federalist, John Jay, played important roles, along with Madison, is getting the public to support the Constitution.
In telling the story of how the Constitution came to be written Fritz focuses on why certain points were adopted. So students will not only get to hear about the shouting matches and emotional outbursts, but also the political divisions and complex issues of the convention from which emerged the basis of the American government. Even at the end of the story students will be surprised to learn that the vote to adopt the Constitution was closer in Massachusetts (187 to 168) and Virginia (89-79) than it was in South Carolina (149-73) and that North Carolina voted against ratification and Rhode Island did not even bother to hold a convention (i.e., political divisions were just as strong back then as they are today). In addition to reprinting the Constitution of the United States based on the engrossed parchment sent by the Federal Convention to Congress on September 18, 1787, the back of the book also has four pages of informative notes on details from the Annapolis Convention, the debates over how the president should be addressed and how slaves should be counted, and what became the "Federalist Papers."
"Shh! We're Writing the Constitution" is an informative book that is well presented by Fritz, who served on the National Education Advisory Committeee to the Commission on the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution, which is a pretty good credential. This is one in a series of interesting biographies of the American Revoluiton such as "And Then What Happened, Paul Revere?", "Can't You Make Them Behave, King George?", and "Will You Sign Here, John Hancock?" There is little question that the title of Fritz's books fit a definite pattern.