If there are two things I would recommend reading this summer they are, in order, Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution and then The Constitution of the United States. We take the Constitution for granted probably more than any other document that I know of.
In Plain, Honest Men, Richard Beeman gives the reader a glimpse of the process that produced one of the most beloved documents in the world. If beloved, it is equally misunderstood, misquoted, and misused. While Beeman's book won't prevent the various ills associated with the Constitution, and it won't make Constitutional scholars of us, it will provide an eye opening account of its creation and the personalities of the men who created it. I found Plain, Honest Men to be one of the best books I've read in the last couple of years. Yes, in places it is a page turner.
I also now understand some of the debates over issues like ownership of guns. As much as I am grateful for the existence of the Constitution, it is not a perfect document. Witness the current debates over the issue of gun control, or the separation of church and state. Can you have too much freedom of speech? All of these questions are debated now because of the contents of the Constitution we have. If those issues are confusing to us, the shocker is that they were confusing to the writers of the Constitution. There was very little agreement then on any of the issues. The Constitution we have is a creation of compromise. Understanding what Beeman conveys won't make these issues any clearer, but it will clarify the monumental event that the Constitution's creation was and is. Beeman also provides unique glimpses into the personalities like Robert Morris, George Washington, and James Madison and how they each helped to shape the document we have.
Americans should read Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution. When you're finished, read the real document.
Peace to all.
on December 13, 2009
Beeman is a highly respected scholar and expert on the Constitution, the Convention during which it was drafted, and the intellectual foundations of the document.
This popular, but also scholarly, treatment of the Constitutional Convention is thorough, balanced, and should be on the reading list of anyone who wants to really understand what went on during the three-month-long convention in Philadelphia. The proceedings of the Convention were not well documented (James Madison's amazing journal is the only comprehensive account; there is no other comparable source [least of all the official secretary's sketchy notes], and in many cases there are not corroborating reports that would enable verification of accounts. Hence, "what went on" is often open to interpretation, both as to the intent of the speaker/interest group and as to the precise content.
Given those persistent challenges, Beeman is scrupulously fair in fully describing both what is known, and in most instances to convey the factors that qualify or prevent firm conclusions as to meaning or intent. More than this, no historian should be expected to investigate and convey.
Others have given this book three stars, and have claimed that they find in it bias and apologies for "judicial activism." I find nothing of the sort, and such qualified approval simply reveals a tendency to seek "political correctness" (as defined by the reviewer) in the text.
Beeman's treatment is first-rate, reliable, even-handed, and will help readers to understand that ALL points of view were vigorously and fully shared during the convention. Any other characterization of this book is, in my opinion, based not on fact but on uninformed opinion.
I fully enjoyed this book as part of my reading program on the Constitution, and recommend it without reservation to the thoughtful inquirer.
There have been some excellent books written on the US Constitutional convention held in the summer of 1787. Three come to mind immediately: Catherine Drinker Bowen's MIRACLE AT PHILADELPHIA, 1966; Christopher Collier's DECISION IN PHILADELPHIA, 1986; and the more recent THE SUMMER OF 1787 by David O. Stewart, 2007. This book yields nothing to any of them in its insight into the entire process of creating the Constitution. It is a highly readable, step-by-step account of the many issues that arose from the very start of the convention and the often very drawn out efforts to resolve the complications. The author skillfully captures the personalities, concerns, and contributions of a great number of the delegates as they struggled to keep the convention on track and construct the Constitution.
As the author notes, the Articles of Confederation was little more than a "league" of sovereign states, who after the Revolutionary War had very little incentive to cooperate. But many of the leading citizens of these states were quite worried about the states' vulnerabilities to a variety of threats, both foreign and domestic, including their own state legislatures which were, in their view, too democratic. It was a real dilemma: how to create a stronger central government while respecting the sovereignty of the states.
James Madison of Virginia was by the far the leading advocate for a constitutional convention to resolve these weaknesses. In fact, he got a jump on all other attendees by proposing a new, powerful national government in his fifteen point Virginia Plan, which was the starting point for debate in the convention. All through June and July of 1787 that debate between the nationalists (Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson, Madison, etc) and states' rights delegates from Delaware, New Jersey, New York, among others, was primarily over the structuring of Congress and how the two houses would be filled. It was quite difficult for the delegates to truly appreciate that for Madison ultimate sovereignty for this new nation lay with "the People," not the states. And to this day, it is still not understood by state-righters.
The next biggest issue to resolve was the relative amount of power to be held by Congress or the chief executive. Given the fear of any sort of king-like executive, it took a great deal of persuasion to create an executive with enough power to be effective. Beyond the structure of the Congress and the Presidency, the social fact of slavery was a huge factor in virtually all of the convention compromises. There is absolutely no doubt that the South obtained many concessions from the other states regarding their "peculiar species of property."
"Plain" men could have never accomplished what these highly educated, well-placed fifty-five men did. They had the intellectual ability and resoluteness to make trade-offs among many factors and interests. Dealing with the most contentious matters, most certainly, the creation of a Senate with equal state representation and the accommodation of the Southern way of life, literally prevented a collapse of the entire proceedings. But the last issue came with high costs. Clearly, racism was a fact of life in the 18th century, but the biggest mistake of the convention, according to the author, was allowing for the importation of over 200 thousand Africans over the next twenty years before it was constitutionally banned. The resulting increased political and economic power of the South led inevitably to the Civil War.
As the author notes, the Constitution as of September 17, 1787, was no more than a document of intention, only a framework for a nation and a government. Even ratification was not a foregone conclusion. The author credits Washington with breathing life into the Constitution. It was his administration that set the precedent for so much that remains in present day government. He also notes the tremendous controversy in the first twelve years of our government between the Federalists, that is, Hamilton, and the Republicans, Madison and Jefferson, some of which was based on different interpretations of the Constitution.
The notion of "original intent" naturally arises in any discussion about the creation of the Constitution. It is quite clear that there were many intents that were fused in the making of the Constitution and most certainly reflected the thinking of the current times. It is equally clear that it was in part a flawed document. Certainly, its concessions to slavery put the nation on a course to Civil War. And several constitutional crises have resulted from its ambiguity in its stipulations for selecting presidents. Having said that, the author holds that the Constitution deserves veneration as an extraordinary document, but those feelings should not prevent us from properly addressing the tremendous changes in our society that place many of our principles concerning freedom and equality for every man in some jeopardy.
At this point, this book is probably the best on the constitutional convention.
on March 18, 2009
Beeman makes a pivotal moment in history come alive for the average reader with detailed character sketches of each of the delegates. You're learning something, but you never feel like you're reading a textbook...
I think his treatment of James Madison is destined to be the final word.
The bonus for me was discovering how relevant most of the book is to evaluating the political climate we find ourselves in today.
on August 18, 2010
This book is the most impressive and enthralling reading experience I have had for years. The story of the creation and ratification of the Constitution is given a very human face. The author peppers his chronicle with colorful vignettes and capsule biographies of the principle players. But, much more to the point, he tells the story of "plain, honest, men," struggling with their parochial and innate prejudices, their ambitions, and their notions of what the new country was to be. Strangely, the book had many of the qualities of a cliffhanger, even though I knew how it ended. In reading this book, I came to gain, simultaneously, an incredible respect for those men and their creation ... and a much healthier regard for the Constitution as a product of politics, compromise, and intrigue ... and see it even more as a living creature today. If you ever entertained the notion that the US Constitution was somehow either handed down from on high, intact and perfect, or is the sacrosanct product of our saintly, infallible founding fathers, it is imperative that you read this book...now!
on June 13, 2014
The book began well, introducing each important character who took part in shaping our U.S. Constitution...but it seemed to sag in the middle (hence the reason it took me so long to get through it...and thus my 3 stars, rather than 4). But then, in the final chapters, the author redeemed himself. I particularly enjoyed the quotations from Washington's and Jefferson's inaugural addresses.
on August 19, 2009
This book is truly an outstanding, eye-opening work on the making of our Constitution. Having read books and articles on the subject, and being a civil liberties practitioner, I can say with confidence that this book provides the reader with insights into our Constitution and our framers that cannot be so easily - or entertainingly - obtained from any other source.
It's a day by day account of the writing of the Constitution, that manages to make even the mundane seem gripping, and paints vivid, human portraits of the men who worked on the Constitution. They certainly were not perfect - nor is our founding document - but they did something extraordinary.
This is truly an invaluable contribution for student, teacher, practictioner, citizen, and anyone interested in a good read. I couldn't recommend it more highly.
on March 17, 2009
This book reminds me of "The Founding Brothers" and "The Radicalism of the American Revolution" -- great writing for laymen by a talented professional historian. A key idea is that a small group of delegates, led by Washington, Madison, Morris, and Wilson, planned in advance to launch a revolutionary form of government. But who knew that Madison, clever enough to redirect the delegates who planned to simply amend the Articles of Confederation, was short and sickly, with a tendency to mumble? (A disappointment to me, a fellow Princeton alum.) Try this book... I'm sure you'll like it.
on April 28, 2009
An excellent history of the drafting of what was to become our nation's bedrock legal document.
Professor Beeman brings a lifetime of learning into his solid and polished account of the high and low statecraft that occupied those early leaders in Philadelphia during the long summer of 1787.
If you want to know why we have an electoral college; why Delaware has as many senators as California; why it is no surprise that the Civil War started in South Carolina; why the Constitution bans export taxes; why George Washington really was the indispensable man; why the Bill of Rights came afterwards; why ..., why ..., why ...--Buy and read this book.
It will win prizes.
on March 5, 2014
The most momentous event in the history of the early American republic is the drafting of the United States Constitution in Philadelphia from May to September 17, 1787. Dr. Richard Beeman a distinguished professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on the Constitution has written the best popular account of the event in this generation of scholars.
The president of the Constitutional drafting meeting was General George Washington who would later become the first POTUS.
Delegates from twelve of the thirteen states (Rhode Island did not send delegates) met in the Pennsylvania State House for long hours during the spring, summer and fall of that distant year. Philadelphia had a population of 40,000 in 1787. The fifty-five delegates were housed in private homes, inns and boardinghouses.
Among the distinguished members of the constitution drafting convention were James Madison the writer of the best of the future Federalist Papers and fourth POTUS: Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia, the Pickneys of South Carolina, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts and Luther Martin of Maryland. Delegate G. Morris of Pennsylvania came up with the idea of dividing the federal government into three branches: legislative, judicial and executive. Slavery was the elephant in the room! Twenty-five of the fifty five delegates were slave owners George Mason of Virginia owned over three hundred African-American slaves.
Many of the battles raged over the large states wanting proportional representation in Congress. It was decided that one member would represent 30,000 persons in congressional districts in the United States House of Representatives while two senators would represent each of the states. One of the most interesting parts of the book concerns the executive branch. Many compromises were required and the state conventions between the Federalist and Anti-Federalists supports was fierce. In 1789 The US Constitution at last became operable. The document ended the weak continental congress governed by the Articles of Confederation. Shays rebellion and the inability of the continental congress to tax or wield military power evinced a dire need for a Constitution.
Beeman writes with fluidity and interest on the complex topic of the Constitution. His descriptions of the leading participants and the major issues facing the delegates makes for fascinating reading. This book could be used with efficacy in a college course on the US Constitution. Excellent and essential for students of American government!