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.