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Thursday, August 1, 1991

A Reviewers Notebook: A Child of Fortune

We almost lost our Constitution before we had one. Jeffrey St. John, a journalist of talents who decided to put himself into a reporter’s position at the secretive meetings of 38 delegates who framed the Constitution in the hot Philadelphia summer of 1787, opens the second book of a trilogy with the story of a narrow escape.

The date was the third week of September in 1787. General George Washington was returning to his farm at Mount Vernon on the Potomac with the new Constitution in his keeping. Crossing the Elk River in northeast Maryland, his carriage fell through the rotten planks of a makeshift bridge. His horses hung suspended 15 feet above the Elk flood. As a reporter who gives us this information, St. John has an uncharacteristic lapse—he doesn’t furnish the details of how local citizens brought the animals to safe ground.

Otherwise St. John plays his clever game of reporting the struggles which gave us our Constitution and our first President. He makes you see what a crushing blow it would have been if Washington had not made it safely to Mount Vernon.

The first volume of St. John’s projected trilogy was called Constitutional Journal. It appeared in the bicentennial year of 1987 after running as a daily newspaper series in the Christian Science Monitor.

In a foreword to the second printing of Constitutional Journal, retired Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote that “St. John . . . takes the reader through the debate, day by day, in an entertaining style that succeeds in conveying both the historical facts and the emotion and drama of the debates.” Justice Burger has continued his support of St. John by offering a foreword to volume two, published as A Child of Fortune (Jameson Books, 392 pages, $24.95 doth). The title comes from a letter written by Washington to the Marquis de Lafayette: “It is now a Child of Fortune, to be fostered by some and buffeted by others . . . . I suppose it will work its way if good; if bad, it will recoil on the Framers.”

Recoil there was to some degree: the provision that extended the slave trade for 20 years wasn’t liked in the Northeast, but it had to be accepted as a compromise to keep the Southern states in line. The anti-federalists (and there were many) would have liked to sustain some connection with the Articles of Confederation, but they were objective men. They were primarily students of geography. The Spanish empire to the south of the 13 colonies and the British to the north in Canada controlled access to two great river systems, the Mississippi and the St. Lawrence. To deal with empires controlling river systems, something stronger than 13 independent colonies was needed. This was the thought that guided the Philadelphia delegates in their Constitution-making. They were happy to have the French, then headed for their own revolution, on their side, but Quebec might become an enemy if the French Revolution went askew. There had once been a French and Indian War. Spaniards were inciting Indians in Georgia even as the Constitution was being debated.

For A Child of Fortune, St. John pretends he is a reporter at ratification debates in 11 states. He makes the progress of ratification exciting even though the reader knows that the stipulated number of nine ratifying states will be reached. Delaware, with more Senators than Representatives, was the first to ratify, followed by Pennsylvania and New Jersey. There were riots in Pennsylvania. New Jersey, a “barrel tapped at both ends,” was easy, for its traders stood to benefit from being a corridor from New York to Philadelphia. Georgia came into line in late December of 1787 on a unanimous vote, with vows to keep the Creek Indians at bay. But there was more to it than that. St. John quotes Georgia’s chief justice as saying his state “suffers from wounded credit.” Paper money was indeed a curse in all the colonies, and the Founders were agreed with Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut that the wisest thing done at Philadelphia was to forbid its printing by the states.

Connecticut became the fifth ratifying state, and the first in New England, for economic reasons specified by Ellsworth. Massachusetts became number six. Shays’s Rebellion against debt foreclosures in the western part of the state was still a vivid warning in Boston. Governor Hancock covered himself with glory—and promoted his own case for the Vice Presidency—as the great conciliator of the Massachusetts convention. But John Adams got the Vice Presidency.

The Lees of Virginia had started talking about a Bill of Rights. Thomas Jefferson, then absent in Paris as ambassador, was in agreement. Patrick Henry in Virginia, the orator of the Revolution, let it be known that he favored acceptance of a Bill of Rights as a “condition” for ratification. There followed the epic struggle between the distrustful patriots Henry and James Madison, with Madison (and General Washington) holding for voluntary amendments to the Constitution. The voluntarists won in Maryland, seventh state to ratify, and in South Carolina (the eighth). New Hampshire became the ninth, giving “legal life” to the Constitution.

Legal life, however, would not have meant real life if Virginia and New York hadn’t been satisfied with promises of a Bill of Rights.

Jeffrey St. John is currently busy with his third volume, which will follow events leading to Congressional adoption of the Bill of Rights.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.