This book offers a rare treat for American history devotees. Richard Beeman, who has devoted much of his career to studying the Constitution, played a leading role in the creation of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and is currently vice chair of its Distinguished Scholars Panel. Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution (Random House, 544 pages, $30) caps decades of thought and research on the document that so critically shaped the nation.
A long, richly detailed book, as befits its large topic, it opens in the final days of the Revolution with a bankrupt Congress, a mutinous unpaid army, and 13 quarrelsome, suspicious states. In 1786 a disgruntled former army captain named Daniel Shays fomented a good imitation of another revolution in western Massachusetts. Thoughtful northerners and southerners alike began to consider making major changes to the makeshift Articles of Confederation, which the Continental Congress had patched together in the midst of fighting a war. Retired Gen. George Washington agreed, and the Continental Congress issued a call for a convention to gather in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787.
Beeman’s narrative grows richer by the page as the delegates begin to arrive in the City of Brotherly Love. One of the many virtues of Plain, Honest Men (the title is drawn froma remark by financier Robert Morris) is its attention to the amazingly varied gallery of characters who filtered into the Pennsylvania State House during May and June of 1787.
The profiles include the towering and reserved Washington, the jovial Benjamin Franklin, and diminutive James Madison, who arrived from Virginia with a detailed governmental plan that began with junking the Articles of Confederation entirely. Many lesser men are brought to equally vivid life: balding, congenitally angry William Paterson of New Jersey, who orated his way to prominence as the spokesman of the small states and was determined to defy large neighbors such as New York and Pennsylvania ; former Shoemaker Roger Sherman of Connecticut, with his low-key, aw-shucks style, who became a voice of canny compromise that everyone soon respected; and wealthy, one-legged Gouverneur Morris, who had migrated from New York to Pennsylvania and was a mesmerizing speaker even as his arrogance and often reckless rhetoric alienated many.
Beeman is equally entertaining when it comes to describing what the members did with their time off the disputatious convention floor. The seemingly aloof Washington was always available for a “club” dinner with five or six other members, eager to serve up emphatic opinions on the need for a strong federal government. No one could tell more frightening stories about the perils of a powerless Congress. Washington also spent a surprising amount of time with several women he had met in Philadelphia during the war, including Elizabeth Powel, the beautiful wife of the city’s mayor, who had her own strong political opinions.
The book brings to life the angry arguments over representation and its connection to slavery, the institution Beeman calls “the paradox at the nation’s core.” It is refreshing to read how many delegates, including many southerners, expressed their detestation of black enslavement in a free society. But no one could determine a way to eliminate slavery without shattering the fragile union. The most they could do was to reject South Carolina’s demand that every slave count as a free citizen in determining a state’s representation. A majority of southerners agreed to accept that a slave counted as three-fifths of a free man.
Along with his graphic portraits, Beeman reveals a vast knowledge of the era, with telling glimpses of events in the turbulent city outside Independence Hall. Few readers are likely to know that a mob stoned to death a hapless old German woman suspected of being a witch, only a few blocks away from where earnest debates were ongoing about the role of reason and tradition in government. As Beeman somberly observes, the world of 1787 was closer to the Salem witch trials of the previous century than it was to our times. That makes the creation of the Constitution an even more remarkable achievement. Richard Beeman tells the story with a bravura display of literary talent and historical insight.