Thursday, July 30, 2009

Book Review: PLAIN, HONEST MEN: THE MAKING OF THE AMERICAN CONSTITUTION by Richard Beeman (Random House, 2009)

This highly readable, well-organized history of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 bids fair to become the new "standard one-volume history" of that momentous event, eclipsing Catherine Drinker Bowen's excellent MIRACLE AT PHILADELPHIA (1966). Beeman, a history professor at Penn, can't compare with Ms. Bowen in the realm of relating colorful anecdotes of more or less dubious authenticity, nor does he take time out during the narrative to do a quick survey of the sights and sounds of Revolutionary Era America. As one could expect of a man who is a trustee of the National Constitution Center, he is primarily focused on the preparation of the document itself, as well as the attendant drama of the state-by-state ratification process. In these areas, he is masterful.

Beeman eschews conspiracy theories about the counterrevolutionary nature of the Convention and, for the most part, follows his book's title in handling all of the players in the Convention drama as well-meaning, if fallible, men who were genuinely concerned about the shaky status of America as governed by the Articles of Confederation and wanted the central government to be more effective. He does, however, drub the "Founders" pretty badly on the issue of slavery, and not just on the notorious "three-fifths" provision. Beeman argues that, while some of the "Founders," at least, wanted to be rid of slavery, they failed to bring the moral argument to the table with sufficient force (with a notable exception being Gouverneur Morris, the same man who put the "finishing touches" on the written form of the Constitution) and, in fact, wrote certain provisos into the document that went a long way toward ensuring the perpetuation of the institution. Beeman is hardly the first author to do this, of course, but his treatment of the issue is far harsher and rawer than, say, Bowen's. Beeman also places more of an emphasis than Bowen on just how tendentious some of the Convention debates were and how close the applecart came to being upset on numerous occasions. Given the sharp clash of ideas, it is rather remarkable how well the Constitution in practice has worked out (though the cumbersome process the document specifies for electing a President and Vice-President didn't take long to show its flaws). I do wish that Beeman would have come down a bit more forcefully in favor of interpreting the Constitution in terms of its "original intent," though he does give voice to both sides of the interpretation debate. All in all, one could hardly get more even-handed than this treatment of the event that created the modern American nation.

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