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The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution.

The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution David O. Stewart Simon & Schuster 349 pp., $27


A line in one of Sam Cooke's 1960s pop songs--"don't know much about history"--could apply to much of the American public. Until the last 20 years or so, the average citizen's grasp of American history centered largely on what he or she retained from political speeches, cursory classroom lessons, and memorabilia seen in government buildings and museums. Given the power of history to cultivate higher-order thought and depth among the citizens of a democracy, we were the poorer for it.

Thankfully, storytelling techniques have been infused into history more recently, leading to a corresponding increase in public interest. Our history is suddenly more relevant, alive, and accessible than ever before.

Wresting control from stuffy, stilted academics, popular historians such as David McCullough and Stephen Ambrose have moved the general public far beyond apocryphal tales of "cannot tell a lie" George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. Modern readers of history demand that the writer place them in the scene, get them inside the characters' skin, and provide a vivid eyewitness view. Literary newcomer David Stewart does exactly that in the The Summer of 1787.

I picked up this book more out of a sense of duty than eager anticipation. As a direct descendant of one of the most obscure founding fathers, Jacob Broom of Delaware, I had been well acquainted with the basic story of the Constitutional Convention throughout my youth. "Been there, done that," I thought. Wrong. Ten pages into this book, I could not put it down.

Stewart faced a fundamental problem in making this story interesting. As he notes, "The passage of centuries has petrified many framers into marble figures...." It is a measure of Stewart's literary skill and inventiveness that he has turned ossified legends into interesting, living, breathing people, while re-creating the gestalt in which they hammered o ut the foundation of our democracy.

Too many academic historians heap on numbing detail, causing the reader to check out. Not so Stewart, who has just the right touch, knowing how much the reader wants or needs to hear, manifesting an unerring sense of editorial discretion. Some People-magazine-type factoids also perk up this book. For example, who knew that the stately Washington was "addicted to gainbling ... [and] a most horrid swearer and blasphemer"?

Beyond his command of storytelling, Stewart imparts a lucid sense of who really wielded the power at the Constitutional Convention. He suggests that backroom deal-making in Philadelphia taverns likely got the framers through the big sticking points--the most notable of which was the small states tenaciously holding on to their equal status with the larger states under the Articles of Confederation.

Though James Madison is widely viewed as the father of the Constitution, Stewart keeps score, revealing that Madison came out on the losing end of 40 out of some 70 votes on key issues. The delegates did recognize early on that Madison's account of the proceedings was likely to be definitive, though. Accordingly, with the savvy of modern-day politicians, some slipped Madison written copies of important speeches, lest he miss any of the details in his notes.

This book offers a shrewd, insightful analysis of the intense negotiation process that resulted in the final document, as well as of the key players. In that lawyers are trained in the arts of draftsmanship, negotiation, and compromise, it is not surprising that the most powerful founding fathers tended to be lawyers, including Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson, and John Rutledge.

Surprisingly, the brilliant Alexander Hamilton was a washout, best remembered for having given a speech intimating that our country would be better served by being a neo-monarchy. In the end, Hamilton was "praised by everybody, supported by none," Stewart writes, proving that brilliance alone did not carry the day at the Constitutional Convention.

Benjamin Franklin, the artful elder statesman, played an essential role in keeping the group moving forward with his "transcendent benevolence." He waited for the others to exhaust themselves and then, with an exquisite sense of timing, was able to put together a compromise, speaking in his "most reasonable, informal manner."

Without being didactic or preachy, Stewart outlines the unholy alliance between the large states and the slave states, made to overcome the numerical superiority of the small states on the representation issue. Although this coalition succeeded in creating a majority, it came at a high price--perpetuating and enhancing slavery. The aristocratic freedom-loving yet slaveholding Virginians, such as Washington and Madison, were not blind to the irony of their situation, but they chose to silently and conveniently ignore the irreconcilable contradiction.

The southern states emerged from Philadelphia with the considerable political advantage of counting each slave as three-fifths of a citizen for purposes of determining representation. Rutledge, who hailed from South Carolina, drove a hard bargain, getting everything the South asked for as a price of the region's cooperation with the large states.

A few of the framers realized this would spell trouble, as the seeds of the intractable conflict that would ignite into the Civil War were incorporated into the very fabric of our Constitution. Stewart notes that John Adams's grandson would later observe, in 1861: "We the children of the third and fourth generation are doomed to pay the penalties of the compromises made by the first."

Morris was one of the few framers to speak out against the devil's bargain on slavery that summer, passionately denouncing slavery as a "nefarious institution ... the curse of heaven on the states where it prevailed." To those states, he said, it brought "misery and poverty." The Summer of 1787 should be required reading for anyone who cares about the foundation of our democracy. Beyond that, it is a fascinating study of personalities, personal efficacy, and the give-and-take of the political process, with considerable relevance to present-day America. Some of the regional differences in the America of 1787 are still alive and well today.

Stewart is currently writing a book on the Andrew Johnson impeachment trial of 1868. I can hardly wait to read it, as he has clearly joined the ranks of McCullough and Ambrose as a first-rate popular historian.

WILLIAM S. BAILEY practices law and teaches in Seattle.
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Author:Bailey, William S.
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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