Plain, Honest Men

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

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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?

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.

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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.

“Plain Honest Men” isn’t a page-turner. This is a story of committees and compromise, not stirring speeches and verbal duels. But Beeman, who is a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of five previous books on the history of revolutionary America, is a fine writer and has a firm grasp on the motives, machinations, and personalities of the 20 major players.

George Washington barely said a word, but made the proceedings legitimate simply by showing up and sticking around. The elderly Benjamin Franklin came up with a nutty idea or two; thankfully, no one paid attention to his notion of virtual co-presidents. But he wielded influence as he urged delegates to, as Beeman writes, “put the need for a harmonious union above their own interests and ideologies.”

Meanwhile, the lesser-known Eldridge Gerry fussed about everything, especially the idea that the people should have a direct say as to who governs them.

He had company. The Constitution’s authors weren’t unanimously in favor of democracy and some feared the tyranny of the people as much as they did the excesses of monarchy. Enter the Electoral College, designed to keep the rabble in its proper place (and still managing to wreak havoc in our own time.)

The passage of the centuries has raised our expectations about our country’s founders and their limited embrace of liberty, democracy, and equality. We’re bound to be disappointed by the Constitution’s failures, not least of all regarding the so-called “necessary evil” of slavery.

“There are no moral heroes to be found in the story of slavery and the making of the American Constitution,” Beeman writes. Even the delegates who hinted at the immorality of slavery weren’t prepared “to match words with deeds.”

As Beeman explains, the founding fathers didn’t just think they were superior to blacks. They viewed slavery through the prism of all-important property rights and the specter of countless emancipated slaves roaming the land.

The words “slave” and “slavery” famously didn’t make it into the Constitution, although a bizarre formula did: a three-fifths rule that counted slaves as part of a person for the purposes of representation. As Beeman explains, the idea wasn’t to give slaves any sort of influence but instead resolve a power struggle.

In a rare moment of honesty about this issue, one delegate admitted that the omission of the words were “an endeavor to conceal a principle of which we are ashamed.”

James Madison, one of the architects of the Constitution, didn’t deny its flaws. But, as Beeman writes, he believed to the end of his life that the Constitution, “though imperfect, was the best that any group of men at any time could have achieved.”

Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer in San Diego.

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