Catherine Drinker Bowen’s Miracle at Philadelphia (1966) remains the unsurpassed popular history of the Convention, but...

THE SUMMER OF 1787

THE MEN WHO INVENTED THE CONSTITUTION

A careful account of how the Founders fashioned America’s central document.

Only a decade after gaining independence from Britain, the 13 colonies found their loose alignment under the Articles of Confederation utterly deficient. They were unable to levy taxes, regulate trade, settle border and navigational disputes, raise a military or issue a common currency. A taxpayer revolt turned bloody in Massachusetts and the still formidable threat of Spain and England in North America helped accelerate calls to amend the Articles. During a humid Philadelphia summer and under a rule of secrecy, 55 delegates from 12 states (Rhode Island demurred) exceeded their authority, scrapped the unwieldy Articles and wrote instead a charter of government for and by the people. Attorney Stewart focuses on how this “assembly of demi-gods” (Jefferson’s phrase) reconciled the vast differences among the states—large vs. small, slave vs. free, agricultural vs. mercantile—and adjusted federal and state powers accordingly. Two towering figures, Washington and Franklin, lent their prestige to the convention. With the exceptions of Madison and Hamilton, history’s notice of the rest (the likes of Gouverneur Morris, Roger Sherman, David Brearley and three distinguished dissenters, George Mason, Elbridge Gerry and Edmund Randolph) centers on their contributions to the convention’s unprecedented deliberations. Stewart touches lightly on the delegates’ personalities; he’s at his best discussing the wrangling that resulted in a document simultaneously “the child of lofty idealism and rough political bargains.” The delegates didn’t get everything right. The notorious three-fifths rule embedded slavery in the charter; it required a civil war to expunge this injustice, and the Founders’ conception of the presidency has been frequently, though less violently, amended. Still, history’s first written constitution has proven remarkably durable.

Catherine Drinker Bowen’s Miracle at Philadelphia (1966) remains the unsurpassed popular history of the Convention, but Stewart’s highly readable narrative need defer to little else.

Pub Date: April 10, 2007

ISBN: 0-7432-8692-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2007

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics,...

HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE

A provocative analysis of the parallels between Donald Trump’s ascent and the fall of other democracies.

Following the last presidential election, Levitsky (Transforming Labor-Based Parties in Latin America, 2003, etc.) and Ziblatt (Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, 2017, etc.), both professors of government at Harvard, wrote an op-ed column titled, “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?” The answer here is a resounding yes, though, as in that column, the authors underscore their belief that the crisis extends well beyond the power won by an outsider whom they consider a demagogue and a liar. “Donald Trump may have accelerated the process, but he didn’t cause it,” they write of the politics-as-warfare mentality. “The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization—one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture.” The authors fault the Republican establishment for failing to stand up to Trump, even if that meant electing his opponent, and they seem almost wistfully nostalgic for the days when power brokers in smoke-filled rooms kept candidacies restricted to a club whose members knew how to play by the rules. Those supporting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders might take as much issue with their prescriptions as Trump followers will. However, the comparisons they draw to how democratic populism paved the way toward tyranny in Peru, Venezuela, Chile, and elsewhere are chilling. Among the warning signs they highlight are the Republican Senate’s refusal to consider Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee as well as Trump’s demonization of political opponents, minorities, and the media. As disturbing as they find the dismantling of Democratic safeguards, Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest that “a broad opposition coalition would have important benefits,” though such a coalition would strike some as a move to the center, a return to politics as usual, and even a pragmatic betrayal of principles.

The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics, rather than in the consensus it is not likely to build.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6293-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2017

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