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Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution

Joseph R. Stromberg

This book is a well-executed account of the Constitutional Convention, clearly the fruit of many years of scholarly work. It will doubtlessly and quite deservedly come to be seen as one of the best nationalist accounts of the origins of the Constitution. (And since nationalist accounts hold American historical writing under military occupation, the book’s status is assured.) Interesting character sketches enliven the narrative, and appropriate attention is paid to events inside and outside the Convention. Naturally the focus is on crucial debates “in doors” and the key turning points and compromises that produced the final constitutional text. Beeman’s discussion of the 11-day head start enjoyed by a cadre of early-arriving Virginian and Pennsylvanian centralizers is quite arresting.

So here is a very good book of its kind. Some problems lie, however, in the teleology, optimism, and undemonstrable assumptions that mark the genre to which it belongs—that is, the literary form that John Rao irreverently calls “founderology.” Forewarned, we know how things must unfold: zealous, gifted statesmen with a superior Continental Vision struggled against “provincial” stupidity, “power,” and “interest.” Anti-constitutional skeptics acted out of “fear” or “old republicanism,” while nationalists acted (mostly) out of reasonable concerns and timely ideas, and with an eye to economic growth.

Much like his “plain, honest” founders, Beeman (professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania) frequently invokes “THE people” and the sovereignty residing in them. Without further analysis the second notion seems of no more use than Cuba’s “ultimate sovereignty” over Guantánamo Bay. As for “THE people,” one thinks of historian Edmund Morgan’s claim that founder-in-chief James Madison “invented” the (singular) American people. This is true enough in a way but raises the question whether Madison had any business doing so. Nationalists apparently conceived the People—not yet fully existing as one—as prime matter needing the form the framers wished to supply. The whole business confuses words, relations, and things, reverses itself as needed, and ends with nationalist ideology taking the board.

Elsewhere, Beeman is realistic about the clauses counting three-fifths of slaves in figuring representation in the House and forbidding Congress to end imports of slaves before 1808. The latter provision was cold-bloodedly traded for allowing Congress to pass navigation acts by ordinary majorities. Despite later complaints in New England (whose intellectuals—different ones—invented both abolitionism and the pro-slavery ideology), there was no chance that the Convention would address slavery in ways that would please modern people.

Beeman stresses turning points in the Convention but also misses some. One he misses is Hamilton’s defense on June 19, 1787, of the Convention’s right to violate the representatives’ instructions in such a great emergency (see Charles C. Tansill, ed., Documents Illustrative of the Formation of the Union of the American States, 1927, 776ff., which, if nothing else, foretells his later construction of such constitutional mysteries as the Necessary and Proper clause.) Beeman also overlooks the creative writing of Gouverneur Morris (the biggest wheel on the Committee of Style), who later admitted working his own ideas into Article III on the judiciary (see Wythe Holt, “The First Federal Question Case,” Law and History Review, 1985, 187-189). If committee men could amend the draft, why debate and vote on the details?

Throughout, Beeman slides past conceptual traps like divided sovereignty, only to concede their problematic character in the last several chapters. See, for example, his discussion of the preamble—as improved by Morris—where dropping the names of the states (just after “We the People”) “seemed to suggest that the people of the nation possessed that sovereign power” claimed by the states. Yet Beeman clearly sees that changes in already ambiguous language may not entirely resolve things.

Beeman skirts some telling remarks made in the Convention. The “intemperateness” of Martin, Lansing, Paterson, Bedford, Gerry, and Mason seems insufficient ground for dismissing as mere provincial error the serious questions those critics raised. “Mason railed against the separate existence of a ‘federal territory’ predicting that it would become a ‘sanctuary of the blackest crimes.’” Surely not!

I will now add my two cents. On June 9, 1787, William Paterson of New Jersey observed, “We are met here as the representatives of 13 independent, sovereign states, for federal purposes. Can we consolidate their sovereignty and form one nation, and annihilate the sovereignties of our States who have sent us here for other purposes?” Well, could they? Hamilton’s integral nationalism, Madison’s incoherent divided sovereignty, and John Taylor of Caroline’s anti-Federalist (that is, anti-nationalist) republicanism have given answers. We are overrun with “original intentions” and interpretations of them. Still, it may be that continued (and peaceful) relations among 13 concrete political societies did not require nearly as much structure as certain framers hoped to supply. If so, Taylor may yet have the last laugh.

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