The Magazine

Founders Keepers

How mortal men produced an immortal Constitution.

Jun 29, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 39 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
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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.