The successful creation of the Constitution is a suspense story. The Summer of 1787 takes us into the sweltering room in which delegates struggled for four months to produce the flawed but enduring document that would define the nation -- then and now.
George Washington presided, James Madison kept the notes, Benjamin Franklin offered wisdom and humor at crucial times. The Summer of 1787 traces the struggles within the Philadelphia Convention as the delegates hammered out the charter for the world's first constitutional democracy. Relying on the words of the delegates themselves to explore the Convention's sharp conflicts and hard bargaining, David O. Stewart lays out the passions and contradictions of the often painful process of writing the Constitution.
It was a desperate balancing act. Revolutionary principles required that the people have power, but could the people be trusted? Would a stronger central government leave room for the states? Would the small states accept a Congress in which seats were allotted according to population rather than to each sovereign state? And what of slavery? The supercharged debates over America's original sin led to the most creative and most disappointing political deals of the Convention.
The room was crowded with colorful and passionate characters, some known -- Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, Edmund Randolph -- and others largely forgotten. At different points during that sultry summer, more than half of the delegates threatened to walk out, and some actually did, but Washington's quiet leadership and the delegates' inspired compromises held the Convention together.
In a country continually arguing over the document's original intent, it is fascinating to watch these powerful characters struggle toward consensus -- often reluctantly -- to write a flawed but living and breathing document that could evolve with the nation.
Since Catherine Drinker Bowen's Miracle at Philadelphia appeared in 1966, no work has challenged its classic status. Now, Stewart's work does. Briskly written, full of deft characterizations and drama, grounded firmly in the records of the Constitutional Convention and its members' letters, this is a splendid rendering of the document's creation. All the debates are here, as are all the convention's personalities. It detracts nothing from Stewart's lively story to point out that it's just that--a tale--and not an interpretation. Stewart, a constitutional lawyer in Washington, D.C., ignores the recent decades' penetrating scholarship about the Constitution's creation in favor of a fast-paced narrative of a long, hot summer's work. Only one choice mars the book. Stewart, like Bowen, wants us to see the four summer months as the only period when the Constitution was created. But as James Madison and others acknowledged soon afterward, the state ratifying conventions and the First Federal Congress, which added the Bill of Rights, also contributed to the Constitution as we know it. Stewart's excellent book will appeal to those looking for descriptive history at its best, not for a fresh take on the subject. B&w illus. (Apr.)
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Simon & Schuster
April 10, 2007
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Excerpt from The Summer of 1787 by David O. Stewart
Demigods and Coxcombs Assemble
James Madison reached Philadelphia on May 3, ten whole days before any other delegate (except for the ones who lived there), and eleven days before the Convention was scheduled to begin. His early arrival reflected both his eagerness and his lifelong habit of exacting preparation. Always gentle with his health when he could be, the Virginian gave himself ample time to recover from the grinding stagecoach ride from New York, where he had been representing Virginia in the Confederation Congress.
Although Philadelphia was the nation's largest city, home to about 40,000 people, lodging was at a premium. In addition to the Federal Convention (as it was called), the city was hosting a gathering of Presbyterian ministers from around the country. Also in town was the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization of Continental Army officers that some feared as a political force. The Pennsylvania Herald took pride in the confluence:
Here, at the same moment, the collective wisdom of the continent deliberates upon the extensive politics of the confederated empire, an Episcopal convention clears and distributes the streams of religion throughout the American world, and those veterans whose valor and perseverance accomplished a mighty revolution are once more assembled. . . .
Madison settled in at Mrs. House's boardinghouse at Fifth and Market, where Virginians on public business often stayed. It was familiar ground. Madison had lodged with Mrs. House in 1783 during his first term in the Confederation Congress, and the quiet, serious Virginian was little trouble. As one contemporary described him, "His ordinary manner was simple, modest, bland, and unostentatious, retiring from the throng and cautiously refraining from doing or saying anything to make himself conspicuous." Another attributed to him "an air of reflection which is not very distant from gravity and self-sufficiency," but also found "little of that warmth of heart."
In the ten days until the next delegate arrived, Madison could review the two essays he had written in anticipation of the great convention. The first was an examination of republics and confederacies throughout history, including Belgium, Switzerland, and Germany, along with classical examples -- the Lycian, Amphictyonic, and Achean republics. His second essay, called "Madison's Vices" in ironic tribute to its author's undoubted virtue, was an incisive catalog of the infirmities of the Articles. The vices numbered eleven, and the remedy for all of them was a strong central government. The Virginian was keenly aware of the risk that strong governments may take oppressive measures, as the British Parliament had. His goal was a government that not only was strong, but also would respect the rights of its citizens.
For Madison, the accommodation of competing forces was the central job of government. "All civilized societies are divided into different interests and factions," he wrote, including "debtors or creditors," "rich or poor," "members of different religious sects," "followers of different political leaders," "inhabitants of different districts," or "husbandmen, merchants or manufacturers." Government must be "sufficiently neutral between the different interests and factions, to control one part of the society from invading the rights of another."
During those ten days on his own, Madison did more than plan for the coming conclave. Correspondence from home forced his attention to his responsibilities as a slave owner. Had other servants or slaves assisted the escape of Anthony, a runaway brought back to the plantation? Madison had to judge the case from afar. He also called on Dr. Benjamin Franklin, his fellow delegate and recently installed as president of Pennsylvania. Feeling his eighty-one years, Franklin went out little but was happy to receive guests in his garden, particularly under a favorite mulberry tree. Knowing of the slight Virginian's role in pushing for the Convention and of his relationship with Washington, Franklin extended to the younger man the respect warranted by both.
General Washington arrived second, having taken five days to cover the 140 miles from Mount Vernon in his own carriage, driven by his slaves. The contrast with Madison's quiet entry into Philadelphia was stark.