washingtonpost.com
One Nation, Under Ambiguity

By MARY BETH NORTON
Sunday, March 22, 2009

PLAIN, HONEST MEN

The Making of The American Constitution

By Richard Beeman

Random House. 514 pp. $30

Do we need another narrative history of the Constitutional Convention of 1787? Richard Beeman's "Plain, Honest Men" immediately brings that question to mind. Beeman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, understands the need to explain why anyone should bother to read his version of these familiar events; he identifies nine predecessors, two of them recent. So the preface declares that his is "a full narrative account" that will "take readers behind the scenes and beyond the debates, into the taverns and boardinghouses of the city." In addition to liberating the 55 Founding Fathers from their "bronze or marble likenesses," he admits to a contemporary "patriotic" purpose, one that informs the entire book. He hopes to persuade those who think that the "original intent" of the Founding Fathers can be discerned and should be followed today (read: Justice Antonin Scalia and his acolytes) that the framers approached their task with "uncertainty and humility," and that those who interpret their words now should adopt the same stance. As Beeman remarks, "there was precious little agreement among even those who had drafted the Constitution as to the precise meaning" of many clauses.

He certainly succeeds in showing that the convention's participants had diverse opinions about how to solve the primary problems of the prior Articles of Confederation: lack of a national taxing power and lack of national control over commerce. They also disagreed fundamentally about the proper relationship between states and nation, and about the nature and extent of presidential powers. Of the votes on the latter, he observes, the divisions "defied any characterization based either on region or 'interest.' " Yet other divisions were predictable. The large states split with the smaller ones over whether representation in Congress should vary according to population, leading to the famous "Connecticut Compromise" that established equal representation in the Senate and proportional representation in the House. Debates over slave labor generally pitted northern states against those south of Pennsylvania but occasionally produced strange alliances.

Beeman devotes more attention to the slavery issue -- "the paradox at the nation's core" -- than is common in books that laud the founders' achievement. The framers were men of the 18th century, not the 21st, he reminds us. Twenty-five of the 55 (and not just Southerners) were slave owners; Benjamin Franklin, for example, had freed his last slave only two years earlier. For the convention's participants, the slave system posed knotty problems not because of its immorality but because it impinged on other questions that divided them. Should slaves be fully counted for the purposes of representation? (Answer: no. Though no one liked the clause that mandated counting just three-fifths of the enslaved population, no viable alternative emerged.) Should the international slave trade be stopped? (Answer: possibly, but not until after 1808, because South Carolina's delegates threatened to walk out otherwise.) Should the Constitution provide that fugitive slaves must be returned to their masters? (Answer: yes, a decision Beeman calls "not merely puzzling, but deeply disturbing.") In short, he concludes, "There are no moral heroes to be found in the story of slavery and the making of the American Constitution."

The creation of a durable nation from disparate states during that long, hot Philadelphia summer was "more improbable than inevitable," Beeman contends. To explain the convention's success, he does indeed look beyond the formal meetings. He observes that many delegates lived in the same boarding houses and that groups often dined sociably together, breaking down the delegates' provincialism. He alludes repeatedly to the symbolic presence of George Washington, the silent presiding officer, lending his unparalleled prestige to the gathering. Less convincing is his similar claim for Benjamin Franklin, who repeatedly gave speeches that were off the mark and politely ignored. He also analyzes the convention's voting patterns and attendance records in genuinely new and revealing ways, showing, for example, that the absence of certain delegates affected the vote on the Connecticut Compromise.

Although Beeman stresses the contingent nature and uncertain interpretation of the convention's decisions, what most strikes a contemporary reader is his description of endless bickering and tedious debates. Members of Congress, as well as Supreme Court justices, might well profit from this history lesson: The convention succeeded nonetheless.

Mary Beth Norton is a professor of early American history at Cornell University.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company