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Plain, Honest Men

An engrossing account of the men who met in Philadelphia in 1787 to design a radically new form of government.

By Randy Dotinga / April 9, 2009

If things had gone a bit differently, we might be living in the United State of America – plural, be gone – under a prime minister and a European-style parliament. How about one senator per state, a president for life (or at least as long as he does a good job), and a teeny sovereign nation called Rhode Island and Providence Plantations?

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There’s a term for all this: crazy talk. But these were just some of the serious scenarios that flitted through a sweltering and stinky Philadelphia during the summer of 1787.

For four months, the brightest men of the age gathered at the Pennsylvania State House to figure out how to govern an unwieldy alliance of 13 former colonies. As historian Richard Beeman puts it in his encyclopedic new history, the Constitution came together in a stuffy meeting hall, fancy dining rooms, crowded taverns, and perhaps even a super-sized communal outhouse.

As 21st-century Americans, “perhaps we will be able to learn some valuable lessons both from the humility and audacity of these men,” writes Beeman in Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution.

There is indeed plenty to learn from these bewigged boys of summer who managed to create a “distant, centralized government” just a few years after booting one based in London and declaring that was the end of that. Liberty, they decided, needed protection.

The title of the book is a bit of a stretch, though. The men who gathered in Philadelphia were anything but “plain.” Almost all of them were wealthy, and many owned slaves even if some claimed to not really like the idea of keeping people in bondage.

A more accurate title might simply call them “bullheaded.” They stubbornly stood up for their home states: Delaware made no secret of its small-state fear of big-state bullies, while South Carolina fought for slavery. For its part, independent-minded Rhode Island didn’t even bother to show up, and representatives from ornery New Hampshire only strolled in after most of the heavy lifting was done.

But somehow, the delegates were willing to negotiate and never gave up on the idea of a more perfect union.


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