The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In his book on the Constitution and the founders, Sen. Mike Lee mixes history with fiction

The Utah Republican acknowledges inventing dialogue and details involving Hamilton and Franklin in "Our Lost Constitution."

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) is the author of “Our Lost Constitution,” to be published April 7. (Rick Bowmer/AP)
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Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) has written a book titled “Our Lost Constitution: The Willful Subversion of America’s Founding Document,” to be published Tuesday. A passionate and detailed argument in favor of restoring key constitutional principles, the book attempts to convey what it was like “for those who participated in the ‘miracle in Philadelphia’ and produced our Constitution,” Lee explains in the introductory author’s note. “If this book succeeds, it will help you feel as if you were right there at the pivotal moments of history.”

To heighten the immediacy of some of those moments, Lee has resorted to an unusual device for a nonfiction work: He has made things up. As the senator explains in the author’s note:

I have taken some dramatic license on several occasions in telling these historical backstories. In no instance have I knowingly departed from what I have found in the historical record. But I have, for example, imagined what Alexander Hamilton might have said when he confronted a lynch mob at his college. And I have imagined some of what might have transpired behind closed doors at a dinner and special session of the Philadelphia Convention when Ben Franklin proposed the compromise that saved the Constitution.
At the outset of this project, I expected to use far more dramatic license than I have taken. In the course of my research, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the historical record is more dramatic than anything I could have imagined. It is also far more illuminating. As a result, with only a few exceptions, I found myself writing not historical fiction but history.

When there are gaps in the record, Lee fills them with his imagination. For instance, on May 10, 1775, Sons of Liberty protesters sought to attack Myles Cooper, the Tory president of King’s College (now Columbia University), where the young Hamilton was a student. Hamilton, no fan of Cooper, sought to defend him nonetheless. Lee describes the mob like this:

“Come out or we’ll burn you out!” shouted an intoxicated, torch-carrying man at the front of the mob. “Others carrying clubs chimed in with “Die, Tory!”

A footnote marked at the end that sentence corresponds to this explanation in the back of the book: “Although Hamilton did confront a mob at King’s College, much of the dialogue and many of the details in this scene are imagined.” Later in the scene, Lee describes Hamilton standing in front of Cooper’s residence, challenging the mob:

“Consider your cause and the injury you inflict on it,” shouted Hamilton over the taunts and threats of the mob, displaying to the youngest audience of his young life all the confidence, courage, and contempt for democratic disorder that would propel and plague him at every stage of his soon-to-be-illustrious service to his adopted country. “With your conduct,” he scolded, “you disgrace and injure the glorious cause of liberty.”

In his endnotes, Lee attributes that last sentence to Ron Chernow’s 2005 book “Alexander Hamilton.” Lee then continues the dialogue, describing Hamilton’s subsequent conversation with his roommate at the college.

“Well,” said Robert Troup once Hamilton made it back to the safety of their room. “I see you survived. That must mean Dr. Cooper has survived as well?”
Nodding, his voice hoarse from shouting, Alexander Hamilton whispered, “They’re an ugly, unreasonable lot, Robert.”
“The mob?” asked Troup.
“The people,” replied Hamilton.

Another section of Lee’s book centers on Benjamin Franklin at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. It includes lengthy quotes from Franklin, also describing his physical condition (“the long hair on the back of his balding head was already wet with sweat from the morning’s summer heat”) and facial expressions. For example:

“The solution is a House based on population and a Senate of equality in representation,” Franklin said, as the big-state delegates groaned in exasperation. “But,” said Franklin, raising his voice for the first time and smiling the grin of a chess player finding the path to checkmate, “all bills for raising money must originate in the House. That’s the key! Equality in one house, but all takes must come from the other house!”
Having finally shown the cards in his hands, Franklin smiled — and rightly so. The relieved expressions on his colleagues’ faces told Franklin they liked what they heard.

An endnote corresponding to the start of this section reads: “Although inspired by the historical record, dialogue and details in this scene are imagined.”

Lee’s office referred questions to Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Random House, which is publishing the book. (Sentinel specializes in conservative books and has also published Mike Huckabee, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio.) When asked if there are additional imagined scenes in “Our Lost Constitution” beyond the two Lee acknowledges, and why the use of such scenes was considered acceptable, Sentinel provided this e-mailed response from publisher Adrian Zackheim:

“The use of invented dialog in nonfiction has been a common and acceptable practice for many years, and can be found in the works of many noteworthy writers, both political and nonpolitical. We are surprised by this line of questioning, especially since Senator Lee’s use of invented dialog is disclosed not once but several times in the book.”

Read more from Book Party, including:

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