"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.
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