Superb you-are-there documentary about the weather, food, and highflying ideas in the air when the state delegates who were to write the Constitution convened and battled in Philadelphia during May and July 1787. Marking the bicentennial anniversary of the Constitution, Mee's delightful mix of ideas and cultural observation is likely to remain popular for many years and to influence the thinking of young Americans first grasping the origins of their country. The America the reader first sees is a fragmented, conflictive society of self-interested states which has managed to throw off the yoke of foreign rule but has yet to shape up as a political unity. Dramatically, the reader experiences the opposing pull of the centrists who want a strong central government to help keep the states in order and the localists who want power to remain with the states and the less power the better to a national government. And all are wary indeed about powers to be granted the executive--although George Washington, the ostensible first executive, presides over the Philadelphia Convention. If the book has a hero it is the young James Madison, a man of seemingly poor health (who lived to be 85) but with a keen, delicate, analytical scholar's mind, an organ that moved ""at its own terrific speed."" During his adult life, Madison--the Constitution's chief architect--rarely slept more than three or four hours a night and even during that period kept a candle burning so that he could jot down notes. He thought the final document a great compromise and plain failure, though later in life he came to embrace the directly opposite view to the one he held during the framing. Washington (""able to summon a maddening attention to detail"") and Franklin are seen plain and rough-edged, with Franklin slightly dotty, treading on feeblemindedness, and yet amazingly apt and well-spoken when the convention comes to a clinch. When the plainly written final document itself is at last published and the people find themselves saddled as well with an executive and a judiciary, they are stunned by the magnitude of the new nation the states are expected to ratify into being. It is not popular. Among Mee's raunchiest and most lively books.
Pub Date: March 4, 1987
Page Count: -
Publisher: Harper & Row
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1987
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