All Commentary
Thursday, January 1, 1987

Book Review: Decision at Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787 by Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier

Random House-Reader’s Digest, 201 E. 50th St., New York, NY • 331 pages, $19.95 cloth

Ten years ago we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of independence in a spirited if not intellectual fashion. One hopes for a proper celebration in 1987 but I doubt there will be one because there is little “glamour” or excitement connected with constitution making. In contrast to revolutions it is a dull affair—dozens of questions to be asked, studied, debated, and voted upon.

Many compromises were necessary to write a constitution which would be acceptable to the fifty-five participants and the voters of the thirteen colonies. Each general subject opened the door to specifics. There were the issues of slavery, foreign and interstate trade, voting, the chief executive, congress, judiciary, armed forces, foreign affairs, national/state relations—the list is almost endless.

Perhaps the greatest problem for all the men in attendance was the challenge to form a government strong enough to enforce laws but not strong enough to become tyrannical. What de veloped was a system of checks and balances and a separation of powers to prevent any part of government from dominating the others.

The authors of this very readable volume set the scene for The Grand Convention and offer biographical sketches of the major participants—Washington, Madison, Hamilton, Sherman, the Pinckneys, Gouverneur Morris, Edmund Randolph, Elbridge Gerry and others. Most were influential, prominent and well-to-do; many were lawyers. There was a great variety in their personalities and characters, but all were independent thinkers. They labored to produce a constitution which would contain government within proper bounds, as befits a free people.

Two points stand out: first, these were men willing to split their differences; they were not ideologues who would concede nothing. If these men had not made mutual concessions there would have been no Constitution and probably no United States of America as we know it today. The document is imperfect, of course, like everything in life. Second, the men at the Constitutional Convention understood human nature. As the book points out:

“The Constitution, beyond all else, was forged in the heat of human emotion. In the end it reflected, for good or ill, the human spirit. It worked because it was made by human beings for the use of human beings, not as we might wish them to be, but as they really were.”

The Constitution of the United States was made flexible on purpose. To have spelled out everything in detail would have been to draw up a document that would have been outdated in a few years. Brilliant men put together the Constitution, but none is so wise as to foresee the future. What we need to recapture is the spirit and intent of the Founding Fathers whose love of liberty underlay their remarkable work during a long, hot summer 200 years ago.

(Mr, Thornton resides in Lakeside Park, Kentucky.)