Sunday, May 27, 2012


A review of David O. Stewart’s The Men Who Invented the Constitution: The Summer of 1787 (2007)

 (Rating 5 of 5)

 The Summer of 1787 is master piece. David Stewart takes us to arguably the most important event in U.S. History— the writing of the U.S. Constitution— and places it and a very smooth flowing narrative. Stewart explores the ups and downs of the very hot and often chaotic convention. The great majority of the delegates’ time is focused on representation in the Congress between the ‘big’ vs. ‘small’ states and the slave holding vs. non-slave holding states. The Convention was called for during a time where the states were about to tear their union apart. The recent chaos of Shay’s Rebellion put the need for a stronger federal government front and center.

“Americans needed to think long and hard about what sort of government would preserve their independence and their precious liberties. They needed a government that could hold the states together, develop the huge western territories, and lead Americans to their rightful place in the world. Four months after marched into the mouths of cannon manned by other Americans, the Philadelphia Convention would meet to create that new government. In an act of inspired improvisation, it would produce the world’s longest-running experiment in self-rule, twenty-two decades and counting.”(p.16)

 One of the things that I thought was most interesting about the Convention had to do with the ‘Great Compromise.’ Often when Americans first take a class on Civics in school they learn of the big-state Virginia Plan and the small-state New Jersey Plan and it was ‘the Great Compromise’ that saved everything and kept the delegates together. However in real life Sherman’s proposal—that let the House be decided by population and the states represented in the Senate equally—was proposed really early and voted down. As the debates that kept raging on centered around representation, eventually leading to the proposal of the New Jersey Plan. The introduction of the New Jersey plan to challenge the Virgina plan that the delegates had been working off of as their base idea, forced the delegates to reconsider Sherman’s proposal. One can also imagine vast July heat contributing to some of the decisions in that room.

“The Convention’s secrecy rules worsened the problem, keeping the East Room’s windows and doors firmly closed against eavesdroppers. Delegates gazed longingly though those windows, imagining cool zephyrs that would not be felt to the blessed arrival of quitting time.” (p.82)

Also, I was surprised to learn of how strongly that some of the delegates wanted to make sure power was kept on the east coast. Many delegates felt that if population determined representation then those going out west would one day out vote the Atlantic states in the Congress (as they do). These delegates wanted a provision that would give the Eastern states a permanent majority in the Congress. However the majority at the Convention stood by their republican principles.

 “The principle of equal treatment for new states—embraced unanimously by Congress in New York, and more reluctantly by the Philadelphia Convention—was novel. Beginning with Rome and continuing through Venice, republics had grown by conquest and colonization, but did not extend equal status to their new lands. America would take a very different approach. New states would stand equal to their predecessors. On this issue, Mason, Wilson, and Madison held the delegates to their republican ideals. The former colonials would not become colonizers.” (p.136)

The Men Who Invented the Constitution
The book focuses on some of the lesser-known delegates, such as John Rutledge. Rutledge and his Committee of Detail in the mid-Convention hijacked the Constitution, and tried to put in as many pro-slavery provisions as they could.

 “But they did much more. They added provisions that the Convention never discussed. They changed critical agreements that the delegates had already approved. Spurred by Rutledge, they reconceived the powers of the national government, redefined the powers of the states, and adopted fresh concessions on that most explosive issue, slavery. It is not too much to say that Rutledge and his committee hijacked the Constitution. Then they remade it.” (p.165)

John Rutledge
However theirs was not the last word. When the finally votes were taken many things the Rutledge put in there were taken out. Also the Committee of Style headed by some of George Washington’s close associates such James Madison and Alexander Hamilton would put the Constitution back on a pro-Union track. One member of the Style Committee was James Wilson, the Scottish immigrant who would pen the famous preamble.

James Wilson, author of the Preamble
Alexander Hamilton and James Madison
“The committee’s chairman was a senior, conciliatory figure, Johnson of Connecticut. The other four members, however, were all in their thirties, all unfriendly to state powers, and all from larger, cosmopolitan states. Those looking for the influence of General Washington would note that three were his protégés. Also, all four were brilliant.” (p.230)

 The book closes with a follow up to what the founders were doing in their closing years. It did not end well for all of them. Some of them ended up in debt, murdered, or just plain lonely. Nevertheless their actions would impact the nation would insure their legacies.

 {Video is from the history channel documentary Founding Fathers}

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