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Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution
Synopses & Reviews
“While some have boasted it as a work from Heaven, others have given it a less righteous origin. I have many reasons to believe that it is the work of plain, honest men.”
-Robert Morris, delegate from Pennsylvania to the Constitutional Convention
From distinguished historian Richard Beeman comes a dramatic and engrossing account of the men who met in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 to design a radically new form of government. Plain, Honest Men takes readers behind the scenes and beyond the debate to show how the worlds most enduring constitution was forged through conflict, compromise, and, eventually, fragile consensus.
The delegates met in an atmosphere of crisis, many Americans at that time fearing that a combination of financial distress and civil unrest would doom the young nations experiment in liberty. When the delegates began their deliberations in May 1787, they discovered that a small cohort of men, led by James Madison, had prepared an audacious plan-revolutionary in its view of the nature of American government. The success of this bold and brilliant strategy was far from assured, and the ultimate outcome of the delegates labors-the creation of a frame of government that would enable America to flourish-was very different from what Madison had envisioned when he launched his grand scheme.
Beeman captures as never before the dynamic of the debate and the characters of the men who labored that summer in Philadelphia, among them James Madison, as brilliant as he was unprepossessing; the mercurial Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, arrogant, combative, but ultimately effective in shaping the language of the completed Constitution; Marylands Luther Martin, a pugnacious (and often inebriated) opponent of a strong national government; Roger Sherman, the straightforward Connecticut delegate who helped broker some of the key compromises of the Convention; and General George Washington, whose quiet dignity and forceful presence helped keep under control the clash of egos and words among the delegates.
Virtually all of the issues the delegates debated that summer-the extent of presidential power, the nature of federalism, and, most explosive of all, the role of slavery-have continued to provoke conflict throughout the nations history. Plain, Honest Men is a fascinating portrait of another time and place, a bold and unprecedented book about men, both grand and humble, who wrote a document that would live longer than they ever imagined. This is an indispensable work for our own time, in which debate about the Constitutions meaning still rages.
Do we need another narrative history of the Constitutional Convention of 1787? Richard Beeman's "Plain, Honest Men" immediately brings that question to mind. Beeman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, understands the need to explain why anyone should bother to read his version of these familiar events; he identifies nine predecessors, two of them recent. So the preface declares that his... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) is "a full narrative account" that will "take readers behind the scenes and beyond the debates, into the taverns and boardinghouses of the city." In addition to liberating the 55 Founding Fathers from their "bronze or marble likenesses," though, he admits to a contemporary "patriotic" purpose, one that indeed informs the entire book. He hopes to persuade those who think the "original intent" of the Founding Fathers can be discerned and should be followed today (read: Justice Antonin Scalia and his acolytes) that the framers approached their task with "uncertainty and humility," and that those who interpret their words now should adopt the same stance. As Beeman remarks, "there was precious little agreement among even those who had drafted the Constitution as to the precise meaning" of many clauses. He certainly succeeds in showing that the convention's participants had diverse opinions about how to solve the primary problems of the prior Articles of Confederation: lack of a national taxing power and lack of national control over commerce. They also disagreed fundamentally about the proper relationship of states and nation, and about the nature and extent of presidential powers. Of the votes on the latter, he observes, the divisions "defied any characterization based either on region or 'interest.'" Yet other divisions were predictable. The large states split with the smaller ones over whether representation in Congress should vary according to population, leading to the famous "Connecticut Compromise" that established equal representation in the Senate and proportional representation in the House. Debates over questions related to slave labor generally pitted northern states against those south of Pennsylvania but occasionally produced strange alliances. Beeman devotes more attention to the slavery issue — "the paradox at the nation's core" — than is common in books that laud the founders' achievement. The framers were men of the 18th century, not the 21st, he reminds us. Twenty-five of the 55 (and not just Southerners) were slave owners; Benjamin Franklin, for example, had freed his last slave only two years earlier. For the convention's participants, the slave system posed knotty problems not because of its immorality but because it impinged on other questions that divided them. Should slaves be fully counted for the purposes of representation? (Answer: no. Though no one liked the clause that mandated counting just three-fifths of the enslaved population, no viable alternative emerged.) Should the international slave trade be stopped? (Answer: possibly, but not until after 1808, because South Carolina's delegates threatened to walk out otherwise.) Should the Constitution provide that fugitive slaves must be returned to their masters? (Answer: yes, a decision Beeman calls "not merely puzzling, but deeply disturbing.") In short, he concludes, "There are no moral heroes to be found in the story of slavery and the making of the American Constitution." The creation of a durable nation from the disparate states during that long, hot Philadelphia summer was "more improbable than inevitable," Beeman contends. To explain the convention's success, he does indeed look beyond the formal meetings. He observes that many delegates lived in the same boarding houses and that groups often dined sociably together, breaking down the delegates' provincialism. He alludes repeatedly to the symbolic presence of George Washington, the silent presiding officer, lending his unparalleled prestige to the gathering. Less convincing is his similar claim for Benjamin Franklin, who repeatedly gave speeches that were off the mark and politely ignored. He also analyzes the convention's voting patterns and attendance records in genuinely new and revealing ways, showing, for example, that the absence of certain delegates affected the vote on the Connecticut Compromise. Although Beeman stresses the contingent nature and uncertain interpretation of the convention's decisions, what most strikes a contemporary reader is his description of endless bickering and tedious debates. Members of Congress, as well as Supreme Court justices, might well profit from this history lesson: The convention achieved success nonetheless. Mary Beth Norton is a professor of early American history at Cornell University. Reviewed by Mary Beth Norton, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Plain, Honest Men" is a full-scale narrative account of the deliberations of the Founding Fathers at the Constitutional Convention. Beeman takes readers behind the scenes and into the streets, taverns, and mansions of Philadelphia to show how the Constitution was forged.
About the Author
Richard Beeman is a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of five previous books on the history of revolutionary America; his biography of Patrick Henry was a finalist for the National Book Award. He has received awards from, among others, the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and he has served as Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford University. He also serves as a trustee and vice-chair of the Distinguished Scholars Panel of the National Constitution Center. Richard Beeman lives in Philadelphia.
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