A judicious history of “one of the most important gatherings in modern history.”
Talk of “demigods” and “miracles” surely flatters the Framers and their posterity, but it fails meaningfully to explain what transpired in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. Beeman (History/Univ. of Pennsylvania; The Varieties of Political Experience in Eighteenth-Century America, 2004, etc.) eschews the heroic version of the story in favor of a hard-eyed narrative that in no way diminishes the Framers’ achievement. He efficiently establishes the historical context—the shadow of Shays Rebellion, a Congress unable to raise money to pay the nation’s debts—in which the delegates met for the limited purpose of considering changes to the Articles of Confederation. The thumbnail sketches of the delegates—including the bombastic Luther Martin, the imperious Gouverneur Morris, the learned James Wilson, the strange Roger Sherman, the even stranger Elbridge Gerry and many others—usefully illustrate the degree to which individual personalities and backgrounds shaped the result. Principally, however, Beeman concentrates on the business of the convention. In a motion-by-motion, day-by-day, debate-by-debate fashion, he re-creates the hard bargaining over issues, including proportional versus equal representation; the nature of the presidency; the composition of the electoral college; divided sovereignty between the states and the federal government; and even the seemingly simple matter of the creation of a federal district, which some delegates feared would become a “sanctuary of the blackest crimes.” In demythologizing the event—he criticizes the sainted Madison, and he gently upbraids the delegates for their moral obtuseness over slavery and for their refusal to concede the need for a Bill of Rights—Beeman also effectively evokes the sheer drudgery of it all, the weariness and tedium that threatened to overwhelm those who toiled though that humid Philadelphia summer.
Masterfully told American history for the scholar and general reader alike.