Review

The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution

by David O. Stewart

OK,
dear reader, so you know a good deal about Franklin, Hamilton,
Washington, Madison and the other marble-statue heavyweights who
created the U.S. Constitution. Well, how about James Wilson,
Abraham Baldwin, Luther Martin and David Brearley? They were there
too, and our Constitution might have ended up something quite
different had they not had their say.

   

David O. Stewart has reminded us of such things in this popular
recounting of the 1787 Constitutional Convention. The subject is,
of course, a well-plowed field, and Stewart acknowledges his debt
to Bowen, Rossiter and others who worked on it before him. But his
own treatment, which places as much emphasis on personalities as on
politics or ideology, is deft, readable and accurate. It tells the
story with flair and with an eye on America's future as well as its
past.

Several basic themes run through Stewart's narrative. Sectional
interests --- North vs. South, big states versus small, defenders
vs. deplorers of slavery --- were in play from the very start.
There was basic disagreement over whether the convention was bound
only to revise the inadequate Articles of Confederation or had the
right to scrap them entirely and build anew. When the conclave
began, no one knew exactly what the result would look like --- and
sure enough, the final product was completely satisfactory to
almost no one. Gouverneur Morris, who wrote the final draft, put it
neatly: "I not only took it as a man does his wife, for better, for
worse, but what few men do with their wives, I took it knowing all
its bad qualities."

Compromise, so much out of fashion in today's politics, saved the
day. The delegates knew that the only thing worse than what they
had wrought was to give up and go home with nothing
accomplished.

Readers will surely be appalled --- maybe even entertained in a
macabre way --- by some of the loony ideas that were seriously
proposed and rejected: A life term for the President; giving each
voter the right to vote for three Presidential candidates; and
(James Madison's pet project) allowing the federal government to
veto state laws.

The slavery question dominated everything. Determined southern
delegates wrung huge concessions from northerners in return for
support of provisions that would benefit northern commercial and
shipping interests. The most famous of these Faustian bargains
created the infamous "three-fifths rule" under which slaves were to
be counted at three-fifths of their actual number for purposes of
taxation and representation in Congress. There was general
agreement that pure "democracy," in the sense of giving too much
power directly to the people, was an evil to be avoided.

Stewart nominates as major influences on the convention two men who
were mostly silent presences --- George Washington, who presided,
and the elderly Benjamin Franklin, who commanded enormous respect
while saying little in formal debate. Powerful southerners like
John Rutledge and George Mason also rate a tip of Stewart's hat for
their effective politicking.

And there is a colorful cast of supporting players: Georgia's
Abraham Baldwin, who at a critical moment changed his vote on the
question of how votes in the Senate should be apportioned among the
states; New Jersey's David Brearley, who crucially influenced
decisions on the powers and duties of the President; and tedious
Luther Martin of Maryland, who drove delegates crazy with his
long-winded and boring speeches but made several major
contributions nonetheless (one weary listener said Martin seemed
ready to speak for two months).

The whole thing amounted to what Stewart describes an "an act of
inspired improvisation." 

One senses too that author Stewart may have an artfully hidden
agenda of his own. He notes that direct popular election of the
President was summarily rejected at the convention, but in a brief
appendix he concludes briskly that the reasons given for creating
the much-debated electoral college system no longer apply. Hmmmm,
maybe so…

Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 23, 2011

The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution
by David O. Stewart

  • Publication Date: April 10, 2007
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 0743286928
  • ISBN-13: 9780743286923