One of the more fascinating periods in the history of the United States is the years between the end of the American Revolution and beginning of the nineteenth century. These were the years of the early American republic, the formative years for the United States. Independence from Great Britain had been hard-won during the American Revolution. The new nation was being governed by the Articles of Confederation and the Confederation Congress. It still remained to be seen whether or not the fledgling United States of America would be able to retain its independence and fulfill its promise of freedom and equality for all. Would the experiment in revolution and republican ideals succeed, or would it be consigned to the dustbin of history?
In recent years, there have been very few books written about the earliest years of the American republic. Most works written on American history during the last two decades have concentrated on events of the mid-nineteenth century and later, and none in the last twenty years have offered an account of what I consider the single most important event in U.S. history: the making of the United States Constitution in 1787.
In 2009, this literary gap was finally filled with the publication of Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution by Richard Beeman. Plain, Honest Men is an altogether brilliant account of how 58 men met in Philadelphia in the spring and summer of 1787 for the express purpose of forming an effective system of government for the United States.
As Plain, Honest Men opens, it is early spring, 1787. The United States of America has been an independent nation since 1776, its system of government specified by the Articles of Confederation. This extraordinary document has been called “America’s first constitution,” but, according to Plain, Honest Men, it is more of a “treaty of peace between a loose confederation of thirteen independent states.” Under the Articles of Confederation, the Federal government has almost no legal authority; no executive branch; and nearly all powers are specifically vested in each state’s legislative bodies.
By the autumn of 1786, the Articles of Confederation have been the supreme law of the land for six years, and their weaknesses have led the United States to the brink of financial ruin and political instability. The country is unable to raise sufficient funds to repay loans made by France and Holland during the American Revolution. American citizens – most notably Daniel Shays – are violently resisting what they see as burdensome taxes levied by the government. Because the Articles of Confederation does not provide for the uniform regulation of interstate commerce, individual states are in bitter completion with each other. The new nation seems poised to collapse under the weight of economic and political chaos.
Members of the Confederation Congress are slow to react to the crisis. After much political wrangling and infighting, the Confederation Congress finally authorizes a convention to be held in Philadelphia in May 1787 for the “express and sole purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation… to render the federal Constitution adequate to the exigencies of Government and the preservation of the Union.”
According to Plain, Honest Men, a small group of influential men – chief among them James Madison, Edmund Randolph, Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris and Robert Morris – had a much more ambitious agenda in mind than the one prescribed by a disinterested and disaffected Confederation Congress: nothing less than the complete rewriting of the Constitution and a total reshaping of the American system of government.
These men shared a deep concern for the future success and security of the United States, and they knew that only a comprehensive overhaul of the American system of government would provide a solution to the national crisis. Their concern was also shared by a recently retired George Washington, who reluctantly agreed to attend the constitutional convention. Because Washington was so universally admired and respected, his attendance would give the proposed convention the prestige and gravitas it needed in order to be successful.
The Constitutional Convention was scheduled to begin on May 11, 1787, but didn’t actually convene until May 25th due to an absence of a quorum. Only a few delegates – chief among them George Washington, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin – showed up on time. As Beeman points out, at no time during the four months the Constitutional Convention was in session were all 58 appointed delegates in attendance.
Plain, Honest Men masterfully tells the story of the day-by-day deliberations that took place in the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall) during the summer of 1787. Because the delegates were sworn to secrecy and no official meeting minutes were kept, Richard Beeman relied extensively on notes taken during every session of the Constitutional Convention by James Madison and other founding fathers. As a result, Beeman has constructed a superb narrative of events that show how the founding fathers were able to work through nearly insurmountable political and sectional differences and forge, through a series of compromises, the remarkable document that serves as the framework for the American system of government and the supreme law of the United States of America.
Interwoven with Beeman’s narrative in Plain, Honest Men of events are profiles of some of the most important and influential delegates to the Constitutional Convention: In addition to such luminaries as George Washington, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, readers of Plain, Honest Men are introduced to men like William Paterson of New Jersey, that state’s attorney general, and a foremost advocate of small states’ interests, limited central government, and equal representation in the Senate; Charles Pinckney of South Carolina, young, vain, and a passionate defender of slavery, who ensured that key passages protecting that “peculiar institution” were included in the finished Constitution; Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, who, in Beeman’s words, may have been the “most consistent naysayer” at the convention, who, along with Virginia’s George Mason, refused to sign the completed Constitution; and many others who played a key role in framing the document that guides America today.
Plain, Honest Men is a wonderful work of American history. It’s written in an easy to read, flowing narrative style that completely captures the atmosphere that must have prevailed at the Constitutional Convention during that steamy summer of 1787. Throughout this outstanding book, Richard Beeman demonstrates first-rate scholarship, sound judgment, and a high degree of impartiality.
MY VERDICT:Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution stands alongside Catherine Drinker Bowen’s earlier classic Miracle at Philadelphia as one of the two best accounts of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. It’s essential reading for all who have an abiding interest in American history in general, and the founding of the American nation in particular. All who read Plain, Honest Men will surely gain a deeper appreciation for the United States Constitution and the “plain, honest men” that framed and wrote it. Read and enjoy!