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Inventing the American Constitution

by Carol Berkin

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2002
ISBN: 0-15-100948-1
Publisher: Harcourt

A lucid study in constitutional history and a meditation on the decline of small-r republican values in the age of the imperial presidency.

Berkin (American History/CUNY; First Generations, 1996) opens her account of the Constitution’s creation with two recent examples (both already overused) illustrating the conflicts that obtain between the Founding Fathers’ intentions and the realities of modern America. The 2000 presidential election demonstrates the apparently imperfect nature of our “hybrid of universal suffrage and [the] older mechanism of an electoral college,” while the aftermath of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center reveals that Americans have come to expect their president “to set our agenda in every aspect of domestic and foreign relations.” This expectation would have horrified members of the revolutionary generation of 1776, who mistrusted the executive and placed their hopes in an independent, representative legislative body. George Washington, Berkin writes, “believed his role in government was exemplary rather than directive,” that the president should be a model of decorum and disinterest “removed from the tarnishing effects of ambition, greed, and factional wrangling” in daily politics. (Try telling that to the last few presidents.) She allows that the Founding Fathers’ profound localism and wariness of centralized government soon gave way to the realization that citizens seemed to prefer looking to a single leader rather than committees or caucuses; even so, she professes surprise that Americans today have so little investment in the workings of the legislative branch, which many of the framers of the Constitution believed should be responsible for electing the president: In the words of Virginian George Mason, allowing the people to elect a leader directly was as unnatural as it would be “to refer a trial of colours to a blind man.”

The oft-told story of the making of the Constitution always deserves retelling, and Berkin is just right for the job.