‘Plain, Honest Men’
by Richard Beeman: a dramatic account of the debates that forged the U.S. Constitution
DALLAS MORNING NEWS 12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, March 29, 2009
Historians have long argued over the intentions of the men who gathered in the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia. As the world’s oldest living constitution, the document has triggered several waves of revision.
In the early 20th century, Charles Beard wrote that the Constitution was created as a business arrangement by men of commerce and privilege. In the Cold War, Carl Van Doren argued that the Philadelphia agreement provided an example for how nations could unite just as the colonies had united years before.
But in the 1960s, Catherine Drinker Bowen produced perhaps the greatest book on the Constitutional Convention, The Miracle at Philadelphia. To her, the document produced by the 55 men from 12 states (Rhode Island did not participate) after five months represented a miracle. And though she labeled its authors as great men, not gods, to many Americans the event seems almost biblical, with the founding fathers descending like Moses from Mount Sinai with the great document for their people.
Richard Beeman tells a very different story in Plain, Honest Men. His account shows very human leaders struggling with the difficult political challenges and offers more drama and less divinity.
The challenge facing the men at Philadelphia was at once simple and profound: how to improve upon the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation without overly empowering the government.
On more than one occasion after the revolution, the Colonies had almost destroyed their new nation. George Washington had to face down a mutiny from his own soldiers when Congress would not pay them. Massachusetts received little help when farmers’ anger over debt and taxes erupted into Shay’s Rebellion. The new nation could not tax its citizens nor defend itself. Clearly, the Articles of Confederation were not working.
As Beeman writes, “something drastic needed to be done to save their experiment in liberty and union.”
And so what began in Philadelphia as an effort to improve the Articles of Confederation evolved into a conference to draft a new Constitution. Beeman painstakingly re-creates the debates in the Assembly Room of the Pennsylvania State House. The debates produced monumental achievements such as the creation of a three-branch government, including a bicameral legislature. There were failures, as well, the continuation of slavery among them.
Skillfully, Beeman uses character development to drive his narrative. Specifically, he focuses on James Madison, Ben Franklin and George Washington as the three men who helped “make the revolution of 1787 possible.” Madison offered ideas, plans and creativity; Franklin facilitated key compromises; and Washington’s presence and prestige gave the proceedings immediate legitimacy.
The result was a Constitution that still works and inspires today. Far from a miracle, Beeman argues that founding father Robert Morris correctly judged it as something else:
“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.”
Kasey S. Pipes, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, is the author of Ike’s Final Battle: The Road to Little Rock and the Challenge of Equality.
Plain, Honest Men
The Making of the
(Random House, $30)