Sunday, April 19, 2009

Book Review: Plain, Honest Men

Title: Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution
Author: Richard Beeman
Rating: ****1/2
Tags: non-fiction, history, constition, united states, constitutional convention

Plain, Honest Men is an excellent history of the Constitutional Convention which wrote the U.S. Constitution in 1787. I have always been a fan of the Founding Fathers, but after reading this book I admire them even more, and admire a broader set of men than simply Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and Washington..

Consider what these men had to contend with. The Confederation Congress directed them to make improvements to the Articles of Confederation, not create a whole new government. It was James Madison, more than any other, who provided the energy for such an effort and who wrote much of the document.

The convention was called because the Articles of Confederation were simply not strong enough a foundation for the young United States. State power was superior to federal, international commerce was not working well, nor was taxation. Shay's Rebellion in Massachusetts raised fears that national defense was inadequate.

The task was daunting. No republican government of this size had existed before. England was a constitutional monarchy, and its Parliament provided something of a model, but it was still a monarchy. Many of those in the United States knew the Confederation was not working well, but they were very afraid that too much executive power would lead to tyranny.

Madison, James Wilson, and Governeur Morris each extensively studied previous governments and their studies helped inform the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention. Besides the real problem of creating a balance between national and state governments, the writers of the Constitution had to deal with how to create a government with separation of powers and checks and balances so that no one branch was too powerful. They also had to balance the interests of the large states and the small states, and the slave states vs. the free states. All of these could have been deal breakers. The author's discussion of the slavery issue adds to my belief that ending slavery was simply not possible, at least that it would have destroyed the young country.

Beeman believes that the secrecy in which the deliberations were conducted was essential to the success of the Convention, that it allowed free debate and the ability to keep trying out different solutions. Unfortunately it also means we don't have as full an account of the Convention as one would wish.

The Constitution that resulted was not perfect, but that it came into being at all was a miracle. Beeman gives a readable account of the issues and personalities involved. It was interesting to find out about some of the people who aren't as well known. Madison, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin were essential to the effort, but many others such as Robert and Governeur Morris, James Wilson, John Dickinson, and John Rutledge all added greatly. The entire Connecticut delegation, led by Roger Sherman, provided essential compromises.

A wonderful history that makes me more than ever grateful to live in the United States.

Publication Random House (2009), Hardcover, 544 pages
Publication date 2009
ISBN 1400065704 / 9781400065707

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