The Magazine

Founders Keepers

How mortal men produced an immortal Constitution.

Jun 29, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 39 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.