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30 review for Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution

  1. 5 out of 5

    Brian

    The popular view of the Constitution is pretty well expressed by John Milton, and I'll quote it here:God, from the Mount of Sinai, whose gray top shall tremble, He descending, will Himself, in thunder, lightning, and loud trumpets' sound, ordain them laws. -Paradise LostWell, G-d did it through the intermediaries of the founding fathers, but most often that's a detail that's glossed over. The Constitution, in American political thought, is Holy Writ. The truth is far more interesting and messy, h The popular view of the Constitution is pretty well expressed by John Milton, and I'll quote it here:God, from the Mount of Sinai, whose gray top shall tremble, He descending, will Himself, in thunder, lightning, and loud trumpets' sound, ordain them laws. -Paradise LostWell, G-d did it through the intermediaries of the founding fathers, but most often that's a detail that's glossed over. The Constitution, in American political thought, is Holy Writ. The truth is far more interesting and messy, however, as it often is. Richard Beeman takes an look at the Constitutional Convention, primarily through the notes of James Madison. William Jackson, the original secretary for the convention, took only perfunctory notes and completely failed to organize them in any sort of useful fashion, so without the official record history is left to rely on the delegates own documents--and on Madison's own extensive notes. Plain, Honest Men is the tale of how 55 men got together in a hot, stuffy building in Philadelphia and, over the course of four months, hammered together what would become the Constitution of the United States of America. During that time, they dealt with tons of problems we're still grappling with now. How powerful should the president be? How removed from the people should the higher offices of the government be? What are the proper powers of Congress, and of the federal government, and what should be left to the states? The most interesting thing to me, I think, was the diversity of viewpoints and how the arguments went. Beeman points out how important it was that the delegates agreed that votes taken during the course of the debating would not be binding, and you can see how important that was pretty quickly. There were times when the delegates would take up a proposal, vote it down, take up a counterproposal, vote that down, then take up the first proposal again and pass it, all in the same day. And then there were the times the debates got really acrimonious, like over the fate of slavery or the balance between whether the United States would be a government of the states or of the people. One thing that really stands out is how suspicious the founding fathers were of democracy. Several of them would settle for nothing less than a national government that would govern only the states, leaving the governing of the people to the states they lived in, and there was a continual tension between state power and democratic power. Despite the ideals of freedom and the Enlightenment, many of them had a very dim view of the political acumen of the average person and their ability to participate in the political process. I leave the question of their accuracy in this view as an exercise for the reader. I will say this--the description of the debates over slavery makes the founding fathers look completely horrible. The worst of them were blatant racists who argued that not only was slavery economically necessary for the South, but that it was better for the slaves because at least they weren't in Africa anymore. Even the ones who thought slavery was a terrible evil would probably be characterized as white nationalists. They may have thought slavery was injurious to freedom and corrupting to any society that practised it, but they didn't think black people were equal to white people and would have been baffled at the idea of social and legal equality in American society for former slaves. The biggest takeaway I had, though, was that for most of the debate the only important part for the delegates was their states' economic interests. The moral dimension was barely even mentioned. Yeah, yeah, different times, but the result was decades of acrimony, a war that killed more people than existed in any single state at the time of the Constitution's adoption, and remaining racism that still plagues American society today. For all their high-minded talk about freedom and individual liberty, the delegates spectacularly failed to deal with its practical applications in their own society. There were some funny parts, like when the delegates were arguing about how long the president should serve for. One proposal was for seven years, with the option for the legislature to re-elect them, but some other delegates started worrying that this would make the president too dependent on Congress. One delegate proposed eleven years, another one proposed fifteen, and one proposed twenty with the saying, "this is the medium life of princes," i.e., that they were on the path to making the president an elected king anyway, so they might as well just say it. The fact that they ignored basically every single speech and suggestion Benjamin Franklin made was pretty comical as well. The book is quite biographical, providing a huge amount of information on many of the delegates and their possible reasons for voting and arguing as they did. It does fall into, in my mind, one of the problems of biographies because of that, often introducing speculation with phrases like "[delegate] may have considered" or "[delegate] perhaps must have been thinking of" and the like, all of which popped out of the page every time they appeared to me. It does give a good insight into the humanity of the founding fathers, though. This took me a while to get through all out of proportion to its length, but if you're at all interested in the development of American government it's an excellent read. Highly recommended.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Todd Martin

    You’ve probably heard the quote "Laws are like sausages. It's better not to see them being made." Well … nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to the U.S. Constitution which was written during the Constitutional Convention that took place from May 25 to September 17, 1787 in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution provides a daily account of the …. I’ll call them ‘discussions’ although they often resembled bitter, contentious debates, You’ve probably heard the quote "Laws are like sausages. It's better not to see them being made." Well … nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to the U.S. Constitution which was written during the Constitutional Convention that took place from May 25 to September 17, 1787 in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution provides a daily account of the …. I’ll call them ‘discussions’ although they often resembled bitter, contentious debates, that occurred during the Convention resulting in the union of the thirteen states. Significant tensions were present from the beginning. The most notable being: - Those who favored a strong federal government (the nationalists) vs those who favored state sovereignty - Small states who feared losing their autonomy vs large states - The northern states vs the slave-holding southern states - Separation of powers and the power vested in the unitary executive - Whether the executive would be a single person or a group of people - How much democracy should be granted to the people Progress was slow and the process nearly broke down on several occasions, but the members understood the importance of the effort and were each willing to make substantial compromises in order to accomplish their goal. Major compromises included: - The apportionment of congressional representation (based on population in the House and equal representation in the Senate) - The repugnant three-fifths ratio which apportioned seats in the House of Representatives on the basis of a state's free population plus three-fifths of its slave population - The process for confirming federal judges (the president should choose judges and the Senate confirm them) As they say … the rest is history. The Convention concluded on September 17, 1787 with the signing of the new U.S. Constitution and it was subsequently ratified by the states. As to the book … though quite long, I thought it was fascinating. It does an excellent job illustrating how men of differing backgrounds and priorities were able to come together to accomplish a monumental feat … something sorely lacking in today’s polarized political atmosphere. One thing that struck me was how many of the arguments the framers were having in 1787 are ones that are still going on today. - How much power should be afforded the president - What offenses rise to the level of impeachment - Whether it still makes sense for small states representing a small fraction of the country’s population to hold so much sway in the Senate - Whether the electoral college is relevant - The power of the federal government vs state rights - Whether a wall of separation exists between church and state So much has changed in the intervening 233 years and yet, some things haven’t changed at all. Finally, there are those who believe in an ‘originalist’ interpretation of the constitution, which asserts that all statements in the constitution must be interpreted based on the original understanding of the authors or the people at the time it was ratified. The reality is that none of the framers was entirely happy with the constitution and as such numerous interpretations of the document existed. It should therefore come as absolutely no surprise that originalists more often than not interpret the constitution in a way that coincides more precisely with their personal ideology than with any originalist intent.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Leslie Erin Quinn

    Took me a while to get through it, but well worth the read. This book covers in detail the four or so months that it took to get the document hammered out, plus a smattering of the years after and repercussions. What was really fascinating to me is not really the day to day stuff, it is really all about context. Beeman goes into detail about the background of many of the men involved in this arduous process. Their thoughts, motivations, and backgrounds really sucked me in. Not really being a hug Took me a while to get through it, but well worth the read. This book covers in detail the four or so months that it took to get the document hammered out, plus a smattering of the years after and repercussions. What was really fascinating to me is not really the day to day stuff, it is really all about context. Beeman goes into detail about the background of many of the men involved in this arduous process. Their thoughts, motivations, and backgrounds really sucked me in. Not really being a huge history buff, Beeman still managed to capture my attention by giving us much more than names and dates. You can practically see these men huddled in a cramped assembly room arguing their side and, for the most part, trying to find a fair balance not just for them but for all those who would come after.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Mark Fallon

    “While some have boasted it (the Constitution) as a work from Heaven, others have given it a less righteous origin. I have many reasons to believe that it is the work of plain, honest men.” – Gouverneur Morris, delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention This week, like many other weeks for the last 223 years, people are making arguments before the Supreme Court about whether a law is constitutional. In other words – is the law in agreement with the intent of the United States Constitution? Of “While some have boasted it (the Constitution) as a work from Heaven, others have given it a less righteous origin. I have many reasons to believe that it is the work of plain, honest men.” – Gouverneur Morris, delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention This week, like many other weeks for the last 223 years, people are making arguments before the Supreme Court about whether a law is constitutional. In other words – is the law in agreement with the intent of the United States Constitution? Of course, people have argued over what was the intent of the Constitution since it was ratified. And that includes disagreements among the men who drafted the document. In "Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution", Richard Beeman tells what took place during the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Pledged to secrecy, and meeting behind closed doors in the Pennsylvania State House, men from 12 of the 13 states (Rhode Island refused to participate) worked to draft a better framework for the young country. The odds of a positive outcome were never very high. Using notes and speeches kept by some of the attendees, Beeman is able to reconstruct many of the debates that took place. The conflicts between northern and southern states, as well as the competing interests of larger and smaller states, meant compromise was needed at every turn. Some compromises helped create some amazing developments, like the separation of powers among the three branches. Other compromises meant securing the dubious legacy of slavery. Over the next few months, we’ll hear from pundits and politicians about what “the framers of the Constitution had in mind” when it comes to the rights and responsibilities of American citizens and their government. Beeman’s work demonstrates that the framers were never of one mind on most issues. However, they did believe in the power of debate and compromise to effect lasting change. As a result, they created one of the most powerful and influential constitutions ever written. "Plain, Honest Men" is the type of book that inspired my love of history. I highly recommend reading it.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Amy

    A little dry, but overall, a fascinating look at the "players" and their meeting at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 where they developed the U.S. Constitution. Some things that struck me as interesting in my reading: I am not a huge fan of Ben Franklin, but his final speech, urging the delegates to put the need for a harmonious union above their own interests and ideologies, to check their egos at the door, in essence, marked a decisive moment in the process of the making of A little dry, but overall, a fascinating look at the "players" and their meeting at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 where they developed the U.S. Constitution. Some things that struck me as interesting in my reading: I am not a huge fan of Ben Franklin, but his final speech, urging the delegates to put the need for a harmonious union above their own interests and ideologies, to check their egos at the door, in essence, marked a decisive moment in the process of the making of the Constitution. I think today's representatives (senate & congress) need to make use of this practice! Not all of the delegates appointed came to serve. I really liked James Wilson from Pennsylvania. He was the only member of the Convention who envisioned an American government and a president, much like we have today. Wilson also believed that the people should elect the president. When others disagreed, he developed the idea of an electoral college of sorts. People such as Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut and Pierce Butler of South Carolina believed that ordinary citizens of America were too gullible to make an "informed" decision and that their votes could be too easily manipulated. Part of the framework for the Constitution related to small states vs. large states and slave states vs. free states. For those who think that the issue of slavery didn't come up until the mid-1850's, think again! This was a huge issue in relation to the development of the constitution and the author has alluded to the fact that the Civil War came about because of some of the decisions made during this convention. Rhode Island never participated in the development of the Constitution. The whole argument of proportional vs. equal representation in congress was very interesting (p. 152+). The one area where I don't completely agree with Wilson is in his development of the "three-fifths compromise" in regards to slaves (p.153+). The three-fifths compromise was not proposed (supposedly) because the delegates believed that African slaves were only 60 percent human. Rather, the fraction "three-fifths" was intended as a rough approximation of the measure of wealth that an individual slave contributed to the economy of his or her state. I believe slaves had a direct impact on the economy of the south. They should have been counted the same as other people. The Founding Fathers failed to face up to the paradox of slavery within a constitutional system dedicated to securing the blessing of liberty. Some three-quarters of a century later, the new nation would pay heavily in blood and treasure to set things right. Next, the discussion about whether or not to expand slavery into the Northwest Territory was also very interesting considering I currently life in that area. I have to admit that I'm not all that interested in the development of the U.S. Supreme Court and it's interesting to note that this branch of the government took a backseat to the other branches in the development of a more perfect union. According to the book, few delegates felt as passionate about the character of the judicial branch of the government as they did about the need to protect their state interests in the contest for representation or about the prospects and perils of a strong chief executive (p. 236). The "citizenship" requirements for serving in the house / senate was intriguing. John Rutledge of South Carolina believed that any member of Congress should reside at least 7 years in the state from which he was elected. Rutledge was convinced that "an emigrant from New England to South Carolina or Georgia would know little of its affairs and could not be supposed to acquire a thorough knowledge in less time (p. 281). Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania tried to get the citizenship requirement raised to 14 years, but compromised by raising the requirement to 7 years for the House and 9 years for the Senate, provisions that remain in the Constitution to this day. The reason that the president must be a natural born citizen was due to fears of the corrupting effects of European society. George Mason of Virginia was insistent that the president operate in conjunction with a "council of state". Mason's idea was different that working with today's cabinet. He thought the men serving in "his" council would act as a check on presidential power, rather than as the direct agents of that power. This would not only be a check on a bad president, but be a relief to a good one. I sometimes wish we had this in effect today. Veto power was very interesting (see pg. 341). The whole discussion about the possible omission of a "Bill of Rights" was engaging. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were good friends. However, when Thomas Jefferson -- still serving as ambassador in Paris -- received a copy of the Constitution along with a long letter from Madison some 3 months after the Convention adjourned, he found much to be unhappy about. Jefferson believed that the omission of a "Bill of Rights" was an appalling mistake. One of the enduring lessons of the American Revolution was that in the absence of written constitutions laying out not only the powers that governments might exercise but also those they may not, liberty would always be endangered. Perhaps the real reason for this omission were that the delegates were desperately weary and hot in the stuffy Assembly Room and profoundly anxious to avoid anything that would prolong the Convention. There were lots of different committees dedicated to framing and developing the Constitution. There was a Committee of Detail -- the president would be elected by ballot by the legislature -- and a Committee of Style -- described the torturous path by which the framers decided that the president should be chosen by an electoral college. Towards the end of the book, we hear from Benjamin Franklin, again. "You assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitable assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected?" (p. 360) The delegates to the Philadelphia Convention confronted three (3) alternatives: to abolish the state governments and create a single consolidated government, to divide the country into "thirteen separate, independent commonwealths," or to create a "comprehensive Federal Republic." The timeless Constitution and the living Constitution. Do we have this? At the back of the book are two (2) of appendices. Appendix #1 is a full list of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. You will see that not all of the delegates actually signed the Constitution. Appendix #2 is the Constitution.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Matt Davenport

    An excellently written, comprehensive look at the events pertaining to the creation/ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Beeman provides a look at the years under the Articles of Confederation leading up to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, followed by an in-depth portrayal of every day of the Convention's debates, complete with details about all of the key figures' backgrounds, views, and contributions to the debates. Lastly, Beeman finishes with a look at how the Constitution was ratifi An excellently written, comprehensive look at the events pertaining to the creation/ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Beeman provides a look at the years under the Articles of Confederation leading up to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, followed by an in-depth portrayal of every day of the Convention's debates, complete with details about all of the key figures' backgrounds, views, and contributions to the debates. Lastly, Beeman finishes with a look at how the Constitution was ratified and put into effect and the impact our first four Presidents had on the ensuing interpretation, notable among them Jefferson and Madison's debate over the perfect durability of the Constitution versus it's ultimate fallibility as society progresses. This book fit in perfectly with the other books I've been reading this year, and added a great deal of new knowledge and nuance to my understanding on the founding of our government. Would recommend for everyone.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Henry Demond

    Hey, I’ve got a book for you. The next time Michael I-Couldn’t-Deceive-You Moore or Al Frankensenseless tells you the Founding Fathers were a bunch of Racist White Guys, you can throw this book at them. (Unless you have the Kindle version. Don’t throw your Kindle at Sen. Frankensenseless or he’ll steal it and hire a lawyer to somehow prove that it’s his along with 156 other Kindles. Then he’ll say something that’s not funny.) I read this book about a year ago and now I roll my eyes every time I h Hey, I’ve got a book for you. The next time Michael I-Couldn’t-Deceive-You Moore or Al Frankensenseless tells you the Founding Fathers were a bunch of Racist White Guys, you can throw this book at them. (Unless you have the Kindle version. Don’t throw your Kindle at Sen. Frankensenseless or he’ll steal it and hire a lawyer to somehow prove that it’s his along with 156 other Kindles. Then he’ll say something that’s not funny.) I read this book about a year ago and now I roll my eyes every time I hear People of Prominence say that the Constitution is an old, tired, decrepit, worn-out piece of parchment that should be euthanized along with the Tea Party and Strom Thurmond and all the jokes they used to tell in Vaudeville. Richard Beeman’s Plain, Honest Men is a highly engaging book that looks at the Men and their Motives at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. These guys weren’t what the Lefties and the hirsute Mr. Stephanuppagus claim them to be on State-Sanctioned National TV (As an aside, when I see folly such as that, I think, My Word! You mean when I tell a Black Man that I believe in Debate in the Spirit of the Founding Fathers, said Black Man thinks I’m condoning a class of Dead Racists?)! At some point, the four-month, un-catered extended Convention was deadlocked by a contingency of delegates from South Carolina. To break the deadlock, a fellow by the name of Roger Sherman offered what would soon be known as the Connecticut Compromise starring Roger Sherman. It was a provision to appease the smaller states, as they feared getting swallowed up like tiny Lichtenstein during one of Hitler’s midnight cravings for blue cheese. Property rights were very important to these folks (as they should be to us folks today), and the taxation and apportionment clauses focused on populations, not state land mass, per se. It seems either silly or complicated, but if you read the book, you’ll see how close to dis-Union the country came over this banal matter, and you’ll also realize that per the way the Sharper Knives in the Drawer arranged it, Slavery, though still an American institution, could only hang by a thread. Did any of you know that Ben Franklin was an active Abolitionist? And no, that doesn’t mean he wanted to abolish competitor Almanack-writers, it means he ACTIVELY CALLED FOR THE ABOLITION OF SLAVERY, so much so that he went to the County Clerk’s Office and registered the name of his Dot-Org. There was another guy, by the name of Gouverneur Morris (The guy who first talked of “Plain, Honest Men”), from New York, who, when he wasn’t teasing the ladies with his false leg, was ACTIVELY CALLING FOR THE ABOLITION OF SLAVERY. The entire Virginia contingency, you know—Virginia—where there were plantations and such, were not as physically active as Morris or Franklin, but their delegation was comprised of cerebral philosophers and country lawyers and NARY A ONE OF THEM CONSIDERED SLAVERY A VIABLE OR DECENT INSTITUTION. FOX News tele-journalist Chris Wallace apologized to Michele Bachmann for his dopey line of questioning to the Congresswoman and Presidential candidate from Minnesota during a 2011 campaign run. I think George Stephanuppagus owes me and about every US History Teacher in the Land an apology for such dopey and naïve assumptions about our Founding Fathers. Some unnamed opportunist started these Myths decades ago. The Drafting of the Constitution may not have been Cakes and Ale for All, but the perpetrated and perpetuated Myths should never linger as fobs of negativity in the American Psyche in perpetuity.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Bookmarks Magazine

    The challenge of writing an account of the Constitutional Convention is that so many accounts already exist. "Do we need another narrative history of the Constitutional Convention of 1787?" asks the Washington Post. While Beeman's book does not revolutionize the genre, it garners praise for examining the "the nuances and complexities of the compromises that the framers made" (New York Times) and for its detailed recreation of the Philadelphia debates. The most pointed complaint comes from Walter The challenge of writing an account of the Constitutional Convention is that so many accounts already exist. "Do we need another narrative history of the Constitutional Convention of 1787?" asks the Washington Post. While Beeman's book does not revolutionize the genre, it garners praise for examining the "the nuances and complexities of the compromises that the framers made" (New York Times) and for its detailed recreation of the Philadelphia debates. The most pointed complaint comes from Walter Isaacson in his otherwise positive New York Times review. He writes of Beeman's hesitancy to include too much of his own interpretation in the book: "[S:]ince he is in a far better position to make an assessment than we are, it would be nice to know what he believes."This is an excerpt from a review published in Bookmarks magazine.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Diana

    Although the topic is good, the text seems somewhat longer than truly necessary. The writing style is fair, if not truly engaging. I did enjoy a lot of the information, such as the wrangling over certain details, the facts underlying decisions regarding the Connecticut Compromise, the fugitive slave clause, etc. I was unaware of the arguments surrounding representation in Congress and the nature of the executive as well, which was intriguing. Not a bad read, but somewhat pedantic.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Zach

    Highly recommended! Beeman discusses the wide range of positions on each of the topics contained in our Constitution, helping the reader to understand why the resulting language is a compromise between the factions. This approach provides a deep understanding of the nuanced discussions and fragile agreements that began the creation of the system of government we have today.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Mary

    Ugh, why is it that when we write American History it is so boring. I felt like I was living the Constitution Convention in real time. Well, at least it's good to know that we were screwed up, self interested and disagreeable from the beginning, but at least these guys could get something done.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Mark Singer

    This is the best book I have read on the creation of the American Constitution, and would recommend it to anyone interested in the subject. Beeman manages to describe how the document was made without getting crushed by detail.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Linda

    This wasn't what I was looking for. It was a history about the men who wrote the Constitution but I really want something that explains the thinking behind the amendments. So - I didn't finish it.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Matt

    I got tired of reading this right about the time the delegates got tired of being at the Constitutional Convention.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Cindy

    Author unjumbles a lot of data and successfully points story in a straight line. Reader, Michael Pritchard, did a nice, clear narration.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Cheryl Keller

    Here is a fascinating account of the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. The author, Richard Beeman, a scholar of early American history, provides many anecdotes about the weather and local news in Philadelphia and about the personalities of the participants (there's always a curmudgeon in every crowd and there was more than one in that one!) that make the story come alive. I had no previous knowledge of the ominous events in the early post-Rev Here is a fascinating account of the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. The author, Richard Beeman, a scholar of early American history, provides many anecdotes about the weather and local news in Philadelphia and about the personalities of the participants (there's always a curmudgeon in every crowd and there was more than one in that one!) that make the story come alive. I had no previous knowledge of the ominous events in the early post-Revolutionary War days that gave rise to the need for the Constitutional Convention -- the impending financial crises, the serious disaffectation of many senior war veterans, the uprising in Massachusetts. Beeman begins with a bang! However, this is not an "easy" read -- there were so many participants in the convention and Beeman covers them all -- that I found myself paging back and forth in the book to recall information about participants in the convention as the story unfolded. Fortunately there is a great subject index. The chapters that describe what is known about the debates around the office of the President, and that provide the context of slavery in the deliberations and decisions of the convention I found to be especially interesting. And one amazing thing -- something I can hardly imagine today, is that the participants agreed to and kept a commitment to the secrecy/privacy of all the discussions that took place in the convention. The title "Plain, Honest Men" comes a speech by one of the convention participants, Gouverneur Morris of Massachusetts, disagreeing with a popular sentiment that the new Constitution was a kind of divine miracle, said, "while some have boasted it as a work from Heaven, others have given it a less righteous origin. I have many reasons to believe that it is the work of plain, honest men." For anyone seeking a deeper understanding of why the Constitution was needed, who were the primary participants in the development of the Constitution and what were their "agendas," and what the salient topics of debate were for all the framers of that Constitution, this book is a great read.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Bill

    This book is a very well written narrative history of the writing of the Constitution. The title does not really seem appropriate. I am sure the delegates would would be glad to be referred to as honest but plain does not seem a description they would prefer. The topic of the book is a fascinating event. 55 men spent the summer writing a document which is the blueprint for a nation that has changed immensely and is the longest lasting constitutional republic in the world. The process of writing t This book is a very well written narrative history of the writing of the Constitution. The title does not really seem appropriate. I am sure the delegates would would be glad to be referred to as honest but plain does not seem a description they would prefer. The topic of the book is a fascinating event. 55 men spent the summer writing a document which is the blueprint for a nation that has changed immensely and is the longest lasting constitutional republic in the world. The process of writing the Constitution is set forth in great detail. The first item of business was to establish a committee to fashion rules for the convention. The most important contribution of the rules committee was the use of a parliamentary mechanism known as the committee of the whole. This committee was made up of all of the delegates present but allowed for an informal debate and decision process. In the committee of the whole any matter could be brought up and reworked at any time without the formalities required if the delegates were sitting as the convention. The delegates spent much of their time sitting as the committee of the whole discussing the same issues over and over until there was an agreement. Two other committees were used in writing the document. The first was the committee of detail, elected on July 24. It was composed of five delegates and was given the task of writing the Constitution. The members of the committee went through all of the resolutions which had been passed by the convention and using some supplementary materials delivered a draft of the Constitution to the convention on August 6. On September 8, after additional debate and changes to the document, a committee of style was elected which included James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris. This committee gave the final polish to the Constitution producing a very concise document. For example they wrote in seven articles the material that the committee of detail had written in twenty-three articles. In addition they rewrote the preamble substituting "We the people of the United States" for "We the people of...." followed by a list of the thirteen states. Gouverneur Morris in a letter written years after the convention claimed primary authorship of the finished product. By describing the work done in these two committees the author helped me to understand the process of writing the Constitution. It showed me how important a good plan is for a project like this. The book describes a wider scope of events than what occurred in the meeting hall. There is a discussion of the social life of the delegates with particular attention paid to George Washington. He developed a strong friendship with Elizabeth Powell, the wife of a Philadelphia businessman. During the convention she regularly had elaborate dinner parties for some of the delegates in a fashion similar to a French salon. She was well educated and intelligent and her friendship with Washington lasted until his death. The author must have read Washington's diary because he also includes how many times Washington went to church that summer, four. Even the problems of the delegates paying their bills is addressed. Many of the states did not provide enough funds and some delegates had to borrow money to pay their boarding house bill when they left. Some details described go beyond the scope of the average history book. There is a description of an elaborate privy referred to as "The Necessary" capable of occupancy by 16 persons. Benjamin Franklin could not walk because of gout and was carried in a sedan chair described as a miniature carriage which was carried by four prisoners. The discussion of the debates is also very thorough. The Virginia plan, the New Jersey plan and the Connecticut compromise are discussed in detail. While I have a working knowledge of these matters the author did provide additional details of the debates and how the final compromise on the question of representation was reached. The problems presented to the convention in working out the details of the chief executive position are described very thoroughly. The Articles of Confederation had no executive and having just overthrown a monarch there was a fear of a strong executive power. This issue was debated until September 4 before a final resolution was reached. This author more than some others wrote about the problems presented by the topic of slavery in several parts of the Constitution. The delegates avoided the use of the word slavery and adopted the three-fifths compromise i. e. counting slaves as three-fifths of a person for purposes of representation. This compromise changed the results of a number of presidential elections. The Committee of Style submitted their draft to the convention on September 12. There was a brief discussion of a Bill of Rights that day which the delegates quickly decided was not necessary. This quick decision may have been due to fatigue but the lack of a Bill of Rights presented problems during the ratification process. On September 17 the Constitution was ready for signing. Three of the delegates; Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, Edmund Randolph and George Mason of Virginia, decided not to sign the Constitution, all citing different reasons. There was one additional change proposed requiring a representative for each 30,000 people instead of 40,000 people. For the first time that summer Washington rose to speak and in favor of this change which was passed unanimously. The book does continue through the ratification process which is not discussed in detail. I have left out many items which I found interesting. To date this is the best book I have read about this important and interesting event.

  18. 4 out of 5

    R.A. Filce

    I have read many books on the colonial/founding period, and this is one of the few essential ones. It is the best book I have read on the drafting of the constitution. Beeman tells a compelling story of the summer in Philadelphia with realistic portraits of many of the contributors. The emphasis here is on constructing a complete and accurate timeline based on the contemporaneous notes. He does not editorialize but rather gives a scenario supported by the original sources. He taught me the impor I have read many books on the colonial/founding period, and this is one of the few essential ones. It is the best book I have read on the drafting of the constitution. Beeman tells a compelling story of the summer in Philadelphia with realistic portraits of many of the contributors. The emphasis here is on constructing a complete and accurate timeline based on the contemporaneous notes. He does not editorialize but rather gives a scenario supported by the original sources. He taught me the importance of under-appreciated founders like James Wilson and Gouvenor Morris.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Earl C

    A truly excellent dive into the time and the men who forged our American Constitution. Beeman does an excellent job at humanizing these historic and sometimes mythic figures and providing context for their actions. The reading varies from a bit dry to quite engaging and does a competent job of find and forming a narrative without an agenda or overt bias. If you are interested both in the people and the process behind the American Constitution this is an excellent book.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Allen Roth

    A wonderful history of the founding of the American Republic. The men and women who contributed to the Constitutional Convention's success come to life in this insightful and personal recounting of an incredible chapter in American history.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Heather

    It took me a while to get through this book, but it was a very illuminating account of the Constitutional Convention. The Founding Fathers did not always agree. It looks like politics in this country have always been somewhat combative.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Joe

    Constitutional Convention Clarity An excellent presentation of the men who founded our nation. Professor Beeman presents the history in a very readable fashion and humanizes our founding fathers.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Tovah

    A play by play of the writing of the constitution. Though dry and dense, Beeman offers an interesting perspective on the current machine that is our government.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Heather G

    I had no idea there was so much fighting during the making of the Constitution! So many egos, so many ideas, it was truly fascinating.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Richard (Rick)

    This is thick history, not beach-side relaxing reading. However, once I got into the book, I really enjoyed it. It's the detailed, blow-by-blow story of how the founding fathers debated, discussed, and decided the U.S. constitution. In the end, I realized you need the fine details to fully grasp the miracle that is the constitution. There were so many diverse viewpoints, hotly contested on so many issues, but it's beautiful to see the compromise that birthed a nation. It's also interesting to re This is thick history, not beach-side relaxing reading. However, once I got into the book, I really enjoyed it. It's the detailed, blow-by-blow story of how the founding fathers debated, discussed, and decided the U.S. constitution. In the end, I realized you need the fine details to fully grasp the miracle that is the constitution. There were so many diverse viewpoints, hotly contested on so many issues, but it's beautiful to see the compromise that birthed a nation. It's also interesting to read those early debates in light of modern conscience and attitudes, as there were several times when you wish the founding fathers had done things differently. Still, what they accomplished was tremendous, especially for their time. Interesting book!

  26. 5 out of 5

    David Cook

    This was the second time I have read this book. Liked it better the second time. Using notes and speeches kept by some of the attendees of the constitutional convention, the author reconstructs the debates of 1787. The conflicts required compromise over and over. Some compromises were pure genius (separation of powers among the three branches), others were disastrous sewing the seeds of future bloodletting (slavery). If things had gone a bit differently, we might be living in European-style parli This was the second time I have read this book. Liked it better the second time. Using notes and speeches kept by some of the attendees of the constitutional convention, the author reconstructs the debates of 1787. The conflicts required compromise over and over. Some compromises were pure genius (separation of powers among the three branches), others were disastrous sewing the seeds of future bloodletting (slavery). If things had gone a bit differently, we might be living in European-style parliament, with one senator per state, and a president for life. There were some proposals and convention that we would find laughable today. Maybe it was the sweltering and stinky Philadelphia summer causing the delegates to make such outlandish proposals, or better it was the result of the delicate union that resulted from winning the Revolutionary War. Through four months, the brightest men of the Colonies gathered to figure out how to govern an unwieldy alliance of 13 former colonies. Beeman writes that the Constitution came together in a stuffy meeting hall, fancy dining rooms, crowded taverns, and perhaps even a super-sized communal outhouse. The title of the book is a bit of a stretch, though. The men who gathered in Philadelphia were anything but “plain.” Almost all of them were wealthy, and many owned slaves even if some claimed to not really like the idea of keeping people in bondage. They stubbornly stood up for their home states: Delaware made no secret of its small-state fear of big-state bullies, while South Carolina fought for slavery. For its part, independent-minded Rhode Island didn’t even bother to show up, and representatives from New Hampshire only strolled in after most of the heavy lifting was done. But somehow, the delegates were willing to negotiate and never gave up on the idea of a more perfect union. This is a story of committees and compromise, not stirring speeches and verbal duels. George Washington barely spoke but made the proceedings legitimate simply by showing up and sticking around. The elderly Benjamin Franklin came up with a nutty idea or two; thankfully, no one paid attention to his notion of virtual co-presidents. But he wielded influence as he urged delegates to “put the need for a harmonious union above their own interests and ideologies.” The Constitution’s authors weren’t unanimously in favor of democracy and some feared the tyranny of the people as much as they did the excesses of monarchy. Enter the Electoral College, designed to keep the rabble in its proper place (and still managing to wreak havoc in our own time.) “There are no moral heroes to be found in the story of slavery and the making of the American Constitution,” Beeman writes. Even the delegates who hinted at the immorality of slavery weren’t prepared “to match words with deeds.” The founding fathers didn’t just think they were superior to blacks. They viewed slavery through the prism of all-important property rights and the specter of countless emancipated slaves roaming the land. The words “slave” and “slavery” famously didn’t make it into the Constitution, although a bizarre formula did: a three-fifths rule that counted slaves as part of a person for the purposes of representation. As Beeman explains, the idea wasn’t to give slaves any sort of influence but instead resolve a power struggle. One delegate admitted that the omission of the words was “an endeavor to conceal a principle of which we are ashamed.” James Madison, one of the chief architects of the Constitution, didn’t deny its flaws. He believed that the Constitution, “though imperfect, was the best that any group of men at any time could have achieved.” The question comes up often of divine intervention in the drafting of the Constitution, especially in some religious circles. Some rever the Constitution almost as scripture. The participants were not that bold. What they witnessed was some larger than life figures willing to listen and compromise and as it has been said it is "through proving contraries truth is made manifest." The Constitution was not perfect. Perhaps it's genius is in the ability to adapt. Gouverneur Morris one of the delegates from New York said: “While some have boasted it (the Constitution) as a work from Heaven, others have given it a less righteous origin. I have many reasons to believe that it is the work of plain, honest men.” Boy, could we use some plain honest men and women today?

  27. 5 out of 5

    Lizzie

    Not the most thrilling narrative, this is basically a blow by blow of all the data points you missed the first time around in AP American History. Given how embarrassingly ignorant I've let myself remain on the nuts and bolts of early U.S. history, it was worth the effort. That said, what this book mostly made me want was to pick up biographies of everyone from Madison to Hamilton, as quickly as possible. My takeaways- like all negotiated texts, the Constitution left itself plenty of wiggle room Not the most thrilling narrative, this is basically a blow by blow of all the data points you missed the first time around in AP American History. Given how embarrassingly ignorant I've let myself remain on the nuts and bolts of early U.S. history, it was worth the effort. That said, what this book mostly made me want was to pick up biographies of everyone from Madison to Hamilton, as quickly as possible. My takeaways- like all negotiated texts, the Constitution left itself plenty of wiggle room for competing readings of the text, with surprising distance between many of the framers' competing visions (or lack of vision) of what this half-federal, half-national beast might entail. Also very human is the manner in which strong opponents in the Convention talked themselves into coming out as key supporters of the document during the ratification period, and they way even Madison, battered by decades of ensuing conflict, would stray from the positions he staked out as a young Convention member. It was impossible for me to envision the world in which the delegates' agreement to maintain confidentiality about the proceedings was honored. In today's disappointing Washington in which the most confidential information pertaining to our national security is pre-adjudicated in the court of public opinion before it even reaches decision makers, I cannot think of a single matter in which such a 'gentleman's agreement' would hold (much less a matter as weighty as the drafting of a constitution!) Yes, it was a different world- slower information exchange gave leaks less immediate utility and our politicians no longer live under the policing of an identity that forged bonds of confidentiality and upheld agreements between like-minded men of a certain class. However, our loss of even the possibility of confidential political discussions has entailed a loss of the neutral space in which difficult but critical compromises can be made. However, the makeup of that small slice of society from which the framers hailed allowed compromises to be made on the backs of very particular people, the people outside the room. So perhaps the loss of confidentiality was not so much a loss as a trade- with everyone in the negotiating room it has become more difficult to seal bargains in which the same groups of people are called upon to make the sacrifices that keep our country whole and moving forward (Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education). Beeman's best insight here was that "it was a different time" only excuses so much. Delegates went out of their way to avoid using the stark words of slavery as much as possible- such shame only exists when people know they are doing something unsavory but decide to go ahead regardless. Finally, as much as history is composed of large, competing structural forces and silly accidents of happenstance, individual people and their choices matter. The entire edifice of our early nation was constructed upon the person that George Washington chose to be, and the way in which his personal conduct and the accumulated decisions of his life gave other actors the space and surety to take a gamble on a new kind of nation. Amazing, and breathtakingly rare, that we were so lucky as to land a founding father with that gift.

  28. 4 out of 5

    John

    This isn't going to be an especially long review, but I did want to say a few words about why I think this book is only two stars for me. Before I explain why I deducted points, I want to add that I think that this is a solid book about the topic for most people. (Those italicized portions should give you a good idea of where I'm going with this.) It does a good job of setting out the main actors of this American drama, pulling the reader into their personalities and backgrounds so that the motiv This isn't going to be an especially long review, but I did want to say a few words about why I think this book is only two stars for me. Before I explain why I deducted points, I want to add that I think that this is a solid book about the topic for most people. (Those italicized portions should give you a good idea of where I'm going with this.) It does a good job of setting out the main actors of this American drama, pulling the reader into their personalities and backgrounds so that the motivations of the Founding Fathers is clear. The facts seem to be all there (I'm not an expert), and the chronological structure helps guide the reader through the most important aspects of that fate-filled debate. However, I read this after coming from two great histories of the Jamestown colony and one great story about the Mayflower (see my lists for those books). All three of those books featured strong historical characters (John Smith; Miles Standish; Benjamin Church) that the author told the tale through. For instance, Jamestown was a function of Smith's personality, and the rollicking narrative was built around him. While the authors of these books followed the facts of the events, they also brought in a truly human element as well. Beeman doesn't quite accomplish that same feat, though this may be more to do with my expectations than his writing. He DOES explain the personalities of these "Plain, Honest Men" though he does so in a kind of (I'm not sure how else to phrase this) pinging fashion. He sets out the personalities at great length, but then he gets back to a kind of blow-by-blow account of the proceedings. I liked the characterizations very much, but what got me in the end was the way the rest was told. Quite frankly, I kept getting lost in the account because it felt less like a narrative history and more like a list of facts strung together as prose. Here's the worst part (and if you are reading this, Beeman, I'm sorry): I honestly cannot think of another way to write an account of this event. Most reviewers will openly state that they don't like something, but few are willing to engage in a discussion of how it should have been instead. I thought about it. At great length. And I never got anywhere with it. So. To my tastes I did not enjoy this book as much as I had hoped, though to other people's tastes I could fully understand why they would. The rating thus reflects my lack of enthusiasm for the presentation of the event rather than any real deficiency on the author's part. Why bother writing a review, then? Well, it mostly has to do with the fact that I cannot be alone in feeling this. I hope that someone else has a similar background and will steer away from the book for the reasons I've listed. I also hope that someone will read my review and think 'Oh, that's just what I need!' and read it.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Andy Miller

    This was an excellent book about our constitutional convention which had the advantages of being written by a history professor who did painstaking research both from original writings of the delegates themselves as well as other histories written about the convention. It also included thoughtful and in depth analysis--but it does not read like a dry textbook, it was well written, at times it read like a novel with suspense and a look into the personal lives of the delegates. The result is that I This was an excellent book about our constitutional convention which had the advantages of being written by a history professor who did painstaking research both from original writings of the delegates themselves as well as other histories written about the convention. It also included thoughtful and in depth analysis--but it does not read like a dry textbook, it was well written, at times it read like a novel with suspense and a look into the personal lives of the delegates. The result is that I learned as much as I enjoyed reading the book. For example, while not diminishing the work by James Madison, the actual constitution was much more than the common perception that Madison was the father of the constitution and it was largely his product. Madison never accepted the Connecticut compromise which provided for equal representation of all states in the senate while basing representation in the House on population. He also was unsuccessful in giving Congress the power to veto laws passed by state legislatures, Madison's view of the constitution was more of a national model as opposed to the federal model that was adopted. This was confirmed by his exclusion from the important "Committee of Details" which provided the framework of the final document. My understanding of the roles of Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton were also changed. While Franklin had the unquestioned respect of all the delegates and brought credibility to the convention, his actual proposals typically were met with polite rejection. Hamilton was not only absent from much of the convention but his views of a completely national government were completely rejected. I grew to appreciate the influence of lesser known delegates such as James Wilson, Governour Morris and Robert Morris from Pennsvlvania as well as the efforts of the Connecticut delegates such as Roger Sherman who achieved many compromises in addition the Senate/House compromise. It was also fascinating to observe the shifting coalitions of delegates as they moved from subject to subject Perhaps the most interesting thesis of the author, Richard Beeman, was that the almost fatal political mistake of not including a Bill of Rights was not due so much to philosophical objection(thought Madison certainly objected on policy grounds) as it was that most of the delegates were tired and wanted to go home as opposed to committing a protracted debate that would have gone along with the details of drafting and adopting a Bill of Rights A great, great read

  30. 5 out of 5

    Vinnie

    This book was quite impressive in giving a realistic and well researched explanation of the writing to the US Constitution. It shows the depth of disagreement, personalities, and battling world views that went into this world changing document. It is very detailed in its explanation of the truth that constitution was not a holy writ handed down from God or the gods as some would have us believe but rather it was a document forged in dispute, debate, argument, and above all political compromise. This book was quite impressive in giving a realistic and well researched explanation of the writing to the US Constitution. It shows the depth of disagreement, personalities, and battling world views that went into this world changing document. It is very detailed in its explanation of the truth that constitution was not a holy writ handed down from God or the gods as some would have us believe but rather it was a document forged in dispute, debate, argument, and above all political compromise. On February 21, 1787 delegates began to trickle into Philadelphia to propose a plan of government for the United States of America. However it would not be until May 25th of that year that they’d come produce a document that would take 74 delegates would produce and then seek to get ratified. It is an amazing task that took longer then i would have ever imagined and involved more vast difference opinions then our current two arty system could ever embrace. In fact some of the delegates did not plan to be away so long and literally ran out of funds for lodging and food because the document took that long to create. Some even went in to personal debit to see the document through. What i loved about this book is it did not shy away from telling the truth about about the conflicting views of the Federalists, Republican-Democratics, Nationalists, and Monarchist. Yes, there were those present who wanted the US to be a monarch because they honestly did not believe that the average person was smart enough to be able to vote for what was best for them. Other’s wanted an executive committee rather then a President because they did not trust that much power in one man. Others could careless about government structure if they could keep their slaves. The whole 3/5 person debate is covered in great details and Richard Beeman does not shy away of spilling the beans on who said what, and who pushed for and against the 3/5 clause and why. The only down side of this book is it is long, and often quite repetitive and in parts of it Beeman could have summarized debate rather then to give a blow by blow of every single debate and argument. However, if you are looking for scholarly details this is the book for you. In fact, I highly recommend this book to anyone who really wants to understand this amazing chapter in both US history and the progress of democracy in the west.

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