Learning From the Founding Fathers: February 2010

Book Review

  • "Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution" by Richard Beeman; 514 pp.; Random House; $30
     

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Review by Larry Morandi

Richard Beeman has spent 40 years on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, not far from the Statehouse in Philadelphia where 55 delegates spent the summer of 1787 crafting the U.S. Constitution.

He thought of calling his history of that convention The Second American Revolution because the decisions reached there shifted the course of American history and transformed a loose confederation of states into a stronger, united government. He opted instead for a title coined by one delegate who, rather than viewing the results as “a work from heaven,” felt it was more appropriately the work of “plain, honest men.”

Who were they? In a series of entertaining character sketches, Beeman explores the founders’ biases and aspirations, their hardened political objectives and willingness to compromise to achieve something more workable than the gridlock represented by the confederation. Many of them also thought their job was to curb what they saw as the democratic excesses of state legislatures, or what James Madison often referred to as the “irresponsible actions” of those legislative chambers.

The book offers colorful descriptions of the delegates, such as Roger Sherman of Connecticut. He was described by a Southern delegate as “the oddest shaped character I ever remember to have met with, he is awkward, un-meaning, and unaccountably strange in his manner.”

Sherman also was the only delegate to have served as a salaried public employee. His portrait reveals a worn patch on his clothing, a contrast with many of his more patrician colleagues. A strong defender of states’ rights, Sherman nonetheless was instrumental in fashioning the compromise that gave up some of those rights by apportioning the House of Representatives on the basis of population with equal representation among states in the Senate.

Beeman balances his biographies with careful analysis of the fundamental issues these men sought to resolve. He points out not only the clamorous big state-small state debate over congressional representation, but the silent debate over slavery. These were the limitations of educated men, Beeman points out, who possessed a vision of what effective governance might resemble but could not envision that slaves could share the same rights as their constituents. Property rights needed to be protected in whatever form.
Readers will be surprised by the secrecy to which the delegates adhered, keeping the press outside the chamber wondering what was going on inside and diminishing the pressure of public opinion.

Perhaps most amazing is what 55 men—40 of whom signed the document—were able to accomplish in just four months. Beeman writes that Mad-ison, a political and intellectual driving force in forming the new government, “was acutely aware that he had not achieved all that he had wished when he first set out to launch his revolution in government.” But, as the author concludes, “the real wonder is that he had achieved as much as he did.”