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A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution Hardcover – September 13, 2002

4.0 out of 5 stars 47 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

"The majority of historians seem to suggest that the founders knew just what to do--and did it, creating a government that would endure for centuries," writes CUNY historian Carol Berkin in the introduction to A Brilliant Solution. Sitting atop the pedestals we've placed them on, these figures would be "amused" by such notions, she says, because in reality the Constitutional Convention was gripped by "a near-paranoid fear of conspiracies" and might easily have succumbed to "a collective anxiety" over its daunting task. The story of the birth of the U.S. Constitution has been told many times, perhaps best by Catherine Drinker Bowen in Miracle at Philadelphia. Berkin's rendition of these well-known events is clear and concise. It does a bit more telling than showing, but this seems to be in the service of brevity--the main text is only about 200 pages. (Another 100 pages of useful appendices follow, including the full texts of the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution, plus short biographies of all the convention delegates.) Berkin is an opinionated narrator, unafraid, for instance, to call Maryland's Luther Martin "determinedly uncouth." She also points out that American government has evolved in ways that would make the founders cringe: they believed the presidency would be a ceremonial office (rather than the locus of the nation's political power) and that political parties were bad (when, in fact, they have served democracy well). Readers who want a sure-footed introduction to America's founding would do well to start here. --John J. Miller

From Publishers Weekly

For the newly independent United States, the years just after the Revolution were the best of times and the worst of times: though the states celebrated their newfound freedom, they did not have a strong central government that would bind them together. Between 1776 and 1787, the proud new nation faced economic crisis, military weakness and interstate conflict problems so enormous they almost dashed all hopes for a future unified country. Yet, as historian Berkin so engagingly illustrates, James Madison, George Washington and a handful of others met in Philadelphia in 1787 to frame a creative answer to the political impasse. Berkin (First Generations: Women in Colonial America) wonderfully reveals the conflicts and compromises that characterized the drafting of the Constitution. She chronicles the development of the document itself, recording the details of each of the articles of the Constitution, for instance, and demonstrating the framers' belief in the primacy of the legislative branch. She also portrays the deep disagreements between Madison's Federalists and the states' rights advocates, such as George Mason and Edmund Randolph of Virginia, both of whom refused to sign the Constitution and swore to fight against its ratification in their state. Most important, Berkin emphasizes that the framers saw the Constitution as a working document, one that would require revision as the country grew. With the sensibilities of a novelist, Berkin tells a fast-paced story full of quirky and sympathetic characters, capturing the human dimensions of the now legendary first Constitutional Convention.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Harcourt; 1st edition (September 13, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0151009481
  • ISBN-13: 978-0151009480
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.6 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #305,477 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Like so many elements of history, there is rampant ignorance or misunderstanding among the American public regarding the origins of our Constitution. Sadly, a significant majority surely have no concept whatsoever of the failed initial attempt at a United States government. More significantly, among the historically literate outside academic circles, there has been a common misperception of our Framers as a set of omniscient statesmen who shared a clear view of the ideal government and crafted a structure that remains unchanged in its essentials to this day. The purpose of Berkin's book is, through a focus on the papers of constitutional convention delegates, to provide insight into the reality behind these myths.
Her theses can be summarized primarily as follows: 1) the process by which the constitution was written was one involving sharply differing views, particularly as to the sharing of power between the individual states and the national government, substantial uncertainty and pessimism regarding the document's capacity to forestall tyranny and a great deal of compromise from strongly held principles, and 2) the character of the current US federal government would astonish the Framers in certain areas, most notably in the greatly expanded powers of the presidency.
Berkin makes a compelling case for both theses through her narrative discussion of the drivers behind the scheduling of the convention, the twisting progress of debate during the sixteen weeks in session, the fierce fight for ratification by the states and the inauguration of Washington as our first president. The major strength of the work is the illumination of the key roles played by delegates such as Gouverneur Morris, James Madison, James Wilson and Roger Sherman.
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Format: Hardcover
In light of current events that occurred after the turn of the century, the presidential election of 2000 and the US Pentagon and World Trade Center disaster, Carol Berkin laments on those events as well as her life as a historian, and responds by reflecting on the historical past with her book, A BRILLIANT SOLUTION: INVENTING THE AMERICAN CONSTITUTION. She revisits the US Constitution with the present in mind, but reflects on the past with a critical eye. For example, Berkin asks one of the most frequently asked questions to arise in recent times, what would the Founding Fathers do?

Berkin succinctly provides answers with her examination of the Founding Fathers and state delegates who helped comprise and create of one of the most significant documents in American history. The book is not meant to be a comprehensive examination, but a concise narrative that describes the inception of the Constitution, which began with the Articles of Confederation, and includes a vicissitude of discussion, which reveals the impassioned activity and skepticism that occurred in the writing of the document that even the Founders did not think would succeed. With her dramatic discussion surrounding the events of the writing of the Constitution, Berkin contains a character sketch of the key framers that intimately describes their intellect as well as their quirks and eccentricities. From personal squabbles to triumphant cooperation, it is amazing that everyone came out of the experience alive.

The biographical sketches after her discussion spotlights each delegate and their unique personal qualities. Most of the delegates attained their education through prominent universities at home and abroad, and came from distinguishable families.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If you are looking for a short, understandable compendium of how the US Constitution evolved, then this is the book for you. Carol Berkin has done a very good job of putting these critical deliberations, the pros and the cons, forward in layman's terms. Better yet, the prose is clear, crisp and incisive. This is a succinct volume in which every word counts, so you will probably want to read it through more than once.

The story of our Constitution is really quite amazing. None of those who helped write it, who agreed with it or fought against its adoption, ever thought they were forging a document that could possibly be so enduring. Many of the central issues the original framers debated, argued and fought over, such as states rights vs. a national, central government, remain critical issues today. More importantly, these issues are debated just as intensely today as when the original framework was set up.

You will enjoy this well written work. Ms. Berkin communicates well with her readers, does not appear to have an interpretative agenda and does quite a good job at enabling the reader to become more conversant regarding the central document upon which our republican form of government is founded. Most of all she will leave you with an enthusiasm to learn more.
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Format: Paperback
This is a great book. For some unexplained reason I was not expecting it to be, but am so glad that I picked it up. This year I have done little besides read a brain-splitting amount of history pertaining to our Founding, from classic biographies of the major players to the Federalist Papers. One thing I could not seem to find, however, was an accurate & enlightening, but at the same time entertaining telling of what went on behind those locked doors and closed shades in Philadelphia so long ago. THis book delivered!

Truly fascinating is the fact that so few American readers realize that if you want drama & intrigue with your education, study the Founders, particularly the story of the creation of the Constitution. Berkin captures this masterfully--so masterfully that most of the time I truly felt as if I was in the room, seated next to Jemmy Madison as he observed history unfolding before his eyes. It is an unusually gratifying feeling when history & storytelling coalesce (as readers of McCullough, Ellis, & Ferling understand). It was my constant reaction to this book.

Let me not leave the impression that this book was light fluff. It is not. It is one of the most educational 200 page books I've read. This is a serious look at what a somewhat motley group of brilliant, passionate, opinionated Americans learned as they forced themselves to hammer out the greatest government in history, while the crisis of a quickly dissolving Confederation was pounding on the doors of Independence Hall.

I would like to have the book footnoted, because I know it was heavily & accurately researched. But I don't think that was Berkin's intention for this book, and she has a very full note on her sources in the back for those who want to dig deeper. Read this book.
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