How mortal men produced an immortal Constitution.
Jun 29, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 39 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
Plain, Honest Men
The two great public documents of our early national history are the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
The first sings with rhetorical grandeur and moral and political aspiration. The second, except for its preamble, possesses about as much stylistic appeal as a real estate contract. It is, after all, a frame of government, not a justification of political independence. Yet the Constitution, for all its plain style and many defects, has undergirded the emergence of a singular, democratic, open society that inspires the hopes and aspirations of people everywhere. As amended, it is the longest-lived written national frame of government in the world, making the United States a 21st-century nation governed by an 18th-century constitution.
In calling the Constitution "the most wonderful work ever struck off by the brain and purpose of man," William Gladstone was thinking of what the Constitution had wrought by the time he wrote those words in 1878-the sustained governance of a continental republic that had survived a brutal civil war. But in our own day, others of the document's strengths have become clearer.
Take, for instance, its taut brevity and, as a contrary example, the twice-defeated draft constitution of the European Union. The European text was first over 500, then (even when reduced) over 300, pages long, impossible to absorb and understand. And it required unanimity to go into effect. By contrast, the Constitution of 1787 (without the Bill of Rights) prints to roughly 10 pages, and it became operational in 1788 when 9 of 13 states had ratified it. The choice of linguistic directness and attention to political strategy were surely among the Framers' wisest decisions. The Constitution's very brevity and open-endedness provoke unceasing debate-the strength of any open society; and its simplicity invites legislative and judicial interpretation-both being the very essence of a living constitution.
Such reflections, however, are not the concern of Richard Beeman, and we can see why. He has his hands full simply setting down the full story of the Constitution's creation. The result is a stunning achievement. This is the first full-length history of the Philadelphia Convention in over 40 years and easily the best and most comprehensive treatment of its subject ever written.
It's hard enough to get the story straight. It's no easier to capture what little drama the tale holds, for the convention was nothing if not an extended debate fest, an arena for long speeches and impassioned words-perhaps the greatest in history-but not exactly a scene designed to hold the attention of our faster-paced and image-saturated age. Yet Beeman manages to bring the convention's characters alive and to keep our attention fixed on what was at stake each summer day in a manner that the Framers themselves would have admired-with economy and clarity of expression.
Catherine Drinker Bowen's classic Miracle at Philadelphia has long introduced Americans to the fabled story of the Constitution's origins. In 2007, David O. Stewart's short, deft Summer of 1787 became the first narrative history since Bowen's. Beeman's purpose, however, differs from that of these taletellers, and it gains over Bowen's because of the wealth of new documentation and scholarship available since her work was published in 1966.
Any history of the constitutional convention must naturally follow a narrative arc; it has to relate how only as the days passed one by one in that fateful summer did the document we know and the government it established gradually take form, detail by detail, decision by decision. The trick is to convey the significance of what occurred at each step without letting analysis or too much detail bog down the story's flow. Here, Beeman is at his best.
He believes that what occurred that summer was "the revolution of 1787." In using that term, he puts himself in opposition to the camp of Charles A. Beard, whose 1913 Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States depicted the Constitution as the product of a class- and property-based counterrevolution against the feared radicalism of the more populist state legislatures. Beeman argues stoutly, if not at length, that seeing the convention's members as reacting against democratic forces and illegally ignoring the Articles of Confederation is misguided because it misconstrues both the situation the Framers faced and the significance of the Constitution's ratification.
The reasoning of Beard and his followers, writes the author, is "dubious" because the Articles were only a "league of friendship" and of "amity and commerce" between polities, much like a treaty that could be broken. This was no illegal coup against an existing, workable government. Moreover, the product of the Convention was only the Framers' "opinion" as to what should become a new frame of government. It would not take effect until the people of the states, in specially convened ratifying conventions, had approved it.
Beeman might have gone on to point out that, even if you think the Constitution represented a counterrevolution, it was a counterrevolution accepted by the people acting through those ratifying conventions, the most democratically elected bodies ever convened before.
Beeman embeds such arguments so modestly in the text that you can easily miss their composite force. You're left most of the time to draw from his lucid account what you will. One has to be struck, for example, by Beeman's implied theme of just how much of the Constitution we owe to a kind of inadvertence. The Framers were always actuated by the need to solve a particular problem, not to test a theory or apply a principle. Yet out of problem-solving emerged enduring mechanisms of constitutional government.
Such is the case with the Framers' invention of divided sovereignty-what we know of as federalism. At first, the Framers were perplexed by how to maintain state polities within a new, national system of governance. That challenge had never existed before. Some, like Virginia's Edmund Randolph, argued that "we ought to be one Nation." Others, like New Jersey's William Paterson, were appalled at the thought of the states' surrendering their sovereign authority. When Pennsylvania's John Dickinson realized that it might be possible to mix national and federal elements in the same system, even so astute a thinker as James Madison dismissed the idea. But as we know, Dickinson's conception of a federal system gradually took root as the solution to an otherwise insoluble political deadlock. What started as the search for the answer to a challenge became a widely copied principle of government.
Throughout his history, Beeman treats the work of the Framers as an extended engagement with such complex matters of government, not of ideology or economic and class interests. If, as he argues, the convention indeed wrought a revolution, like all revolutions its end was not in its beginning. Compromise-among divergent political philosophies, sections, economic interests, and individual ambition-was always the order of the day if a new constitutional order were to replace the Articles.
Among the convention's 55 delegates were those, like Madison and George Washington, who designed the template from which they hoped the final document would emerge only to find themselves, in the end, forced to accept a plan that they could not have conceived of earlier. Almost from the start, they could not control the outcome and had to cede ground before the Constitution was sent to the people for ratification.
Even though most delegates were members of the nation's well-educated, wealthy, cosmopolitan elite and deeply steeped in learning about ancient and modern government, they were also keenly attuned to the differing circumstances of their own states and those for whom they spoke, and thus had to find grounds for acceptable compromise with people of dissimilar political views and hopes.
Critically, most of them were comparatively young and of the generation that had fought the Revolution. They would inherit responsibility for making the new government work; many would seek and gain office in it. Consequently, many had much at stake in the summer's outcome. Twenty-five of them owned slaves-a fact that bore heavily on every major feature of the Constitution and marked American government and society to our own day. All were fallible, unable to escape their own social and cultural status, reluctant to risk their own interests. Each, as Beeman portrays them, was distinctive-some dyspeptic, some wise, some voluble, others silent, many respected, others disliked, but most making contributions, many of them signal, to the outcome. They were humans, not demigods.
Few are unfamiliar with the major compromises that marked the system the Framers designed: the compromise between large and small states that resulted in a bicameral congress, each house differently constituted; the fateful compromise over slavery, in which three-fifths of the slaves were counted toward House representation; and the lesser adjustments over the election of the president (among the most perplexing and hard-fought features). But it comes as a surprise-and in emphasizing such matters Beeman puts himself in rare company among historians-to learn how the Framers' simple decision to allow all votes to be taken in a Committee of the Whole allowed all of their early decisions to be reopened and adjusted. Procedure mattered.
One must also be struck to see Washington, so often taken to be a ramrod figure of unbending seriousness, using Philadelphia's social circuit with political shrewdness to sow ideas, ease colleagues' fears, and work out solutions to convention deadlocks. In fact, not unlike the case in the nation's capital and state capitals today, conversations oiled by drink in the taverns and saloons of Philadelphia were as important to the final outcome as were formal convention debates.
True to form, a few days before adjourning, and with the end to their exhausting labors in sight, 55 Framers celebrated (Beeman reports) by consuming "fifty-four bottles of Madeira, sixty bottles of claret, fifty bottles of 'old stock,' copious quantities of porter, beer, cider, and some large bowls of rum punch." Fortunately, the Framers' heavy work was by then behind them.
So far in the background does Beeman stay that it would be easy to miss what he has accomplished. In a kind of plainsong style, without advancing any overarching interpretation, keeping debates among historians for the footnotes, he has given us a straightforward, authoritative, narrative history of a gathering and an outcome whose claims on our public life are never in doubt. His achievement is unlikely to be surpassed.
James M. Banner Jr. is a historian in Washington and cofounder of the National History Center.