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Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution

By Richard Beeman
Random House, 2009

1783: the Battle of Yorktown had been won, but the war was not yet over. Though soldiers remained under arms, many of the States began to turn inward as they awaited official word of the negotiations in Paris. In doing so, they began a policy of benign neglect toward the Continental government and dereliction to their obligations to it under the Articles of Confederation. The immediate and most dangerous result of their behavior was to provide American troops with even less support than the low standards to which they’d by then become accustomed.

By this point, the romantic image of the selfless citizen soldier that had characterized the early war had largely dissolved. Blankets, provisions, pay, pensions – by now, these soldiers perhaps felt, rightly, that they’d endured more than enough deferred promises. So it’s not surprising that a Continental officer, Major John Armstrong, published a letter arguing that the soldiery should resort to the force of arms to take for themselves what Congress seemed unwilling or unable to deliver – with or without the blessing of General George Washington.

As we may infer today from the fact that we’re not living in a military dictatorship, Washington was able to defuse the situation. At Newburgh, New York, he met with the officers at the heart of the conspiracy, and as he finished speaking (so the seemingly made-for-TV story goes), these war-hardened veteran officers were bawling and blubbering out of shame – and love for Washington.

John Beeman begins his history Plain, Honest Men with a lengthier telling of this story, claiming it explores a unique and truly exceptional aspect of America’s political development:

Washington was the only man in America who possessed the combination of charisma, political and military experience, and public support capable of converting America’s experiment in republican liberty into a dictatorship – a benevolent dictatorship perhaps but a dictatorship nevertheless. Given the financial disarray and civil disorder represented by the discontent of the soldiers at Newburgh, Washington could have convinced himself that military solutions to civil political problems were the best course of action, as did many leaders in the revolutions of Latin America in the century to come. Some, like Simon Bolivar in Venezuela, Peru, and Columbia, did so reluctantly. Others, like Santa Anna in Mexico or Bernardo O’Higgins in Chile, did so more eagerly. All of these countries have lived with a tradition of military intrusions in the affairs of their governments ever since.

If we eliminate Beeman’s stricture limiting such occurrences only to Latin America, the list of men who seized control in states teetering on the brink of collapse balloons to include such names as Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler, among numerous others. Two things give the scene at Newburgh its sharp relief: first, we see the essence of Washington’s greatness, and second, we are freshly impressed at how nearly singular in the annals of history was the cooperation of the individual states in the United States’ revolt against the British Crown.

It is a rare example that highlights the highest aspirations of the American experiment: the contention that free people are capable of self-government wherein citizens may assemble peaceably and deliberate their future as a society. Yet merely to say that the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was an orderly, methodical, fait accompli for the American Revolution obscures the fact that it was a meeting of high drama, pregnant with the greatest consequences for the thirteen disparate states that might one day be a nation.

The loose confederacy of former British colonies in North America prior to that year were, as Beeman points out, barely more than a collection of sovereign states coexisting under what was for all intents and purposes a treaty, moving towards a future as potentially fractious as Europe and plagued by the same internecine warfare:

The Articles of Confederation suffered from three fatal flaws. It didn’t allow the continental government the power of the purse – the power either to levy taxes directly or to compel the states to pay their fair share of the expenses of the government. It required unanimous approval of the state legislatures for any amendment to the Articles – including any amendment that might provide a remedy for the government’s inability to raise revenues independently. And it failed to provide for a chief executive capable of giving energy and direction to the new central government as it sought to carry out its essential tasks.

These failings depreciated both the Continental Congress’s currency and legitimacy and led to embarrassments at home and abroad. By 1785 payments on war time loans made by France and Holland came due and went unpaid. In 1786 Shay’s Rebellion was afoot in Western Massachusetts and “while government officials in the Continental Congress were among those most terrified by the threat… they had no money to pay a force of federal troops to quash the insurrection.” Eventually – one shudders to think of it becoming a precedent – a private army was hired to put down the rebellion.

Slowly, the opinion that something had to be done coalesced, and after an abortive convention in Annapolis (with pathetically low attendance) a second attempt in a new venue was authorized. The men meeting in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 did not comprise a congress of heroic demi-gods. They had not drunk from Mimir’s well, they hadn’t eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge and they weren’t a conclave of America’s political elite (despite Washington and Franklin’s presence, the absences of Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, and George Clinton were notable). They were however, largely pragmatic, able politicians who just happened to be a bit verbose – let’s just say the season’s hot weather wasn’t exactly eased by the amount of hot air the likes of Luther Martin and Elbridge Gerry expelled into the atmosphere.

The delegates also brought lots of practical experience to the task, as Beeman notices:

All but two or three of the Convention delegates had performed some sort of government service during their careers. But the most striking fact about the men who were to gather in Philadelphia that summer was the extent to which the vast majority of them had served in the continental government. Forty-two of the fifty-five delegates had served at one time or another in the Continental Congress, an experience that gave those men a very different perspective on the challenges, and frustrations involved in holding the fragile American union together.

In his forward, Beeman discloses the origin of his title, quoting a letter from Gouverneur Morris who was waxing philosophic about the document he’d helped create, saying that “while some have boasted it as a work from Heaven, others have given it a less righteous origin. I have many reasons to believe that it is the work of plain, honest men.”

And of course, this is the central truth at the heart of Plain, Honest Men. The idea that the iconic Framers struggled, argued, bargained – hell, that they even broke a sweat – is a much-needed reality check against the smooth proceedings reported by most high school textbooks, as well as welcome encouragement for the exasperated observer of contemporary American politics. Sure, the Framers may have had a keener fashion sense, spoken more poetically, and didn’t ooze so much disingenuous folksiness as our modern lawmakers tend to do, but they were still imperfect, at times ignorant and maddeningly stubborn. Knowing this can ease the pain of hearing Newt Gingrich or Nancy Pelosi inanely blathering on the evening news about one non-issue or another. The knowledge that it’s pretty much always worked like that and it’s gotten us this far begins to feel like a kind of consolation.

With the goal of humanizing these men, Beeman peppers the pages of his book with short and interesting biographies of many of the delegates. Using these, he is able to break up the monotony that can sometimes threaten to derail Plain, Honest Men, such as when a motion is made to reexamine the formula assigning representatives to residents in the future House of Representatives – for the eighth time. But this is the price you pay for detail!

Once assembled, these men faced a basic question that would have similarly stumped any such body. What to do? According to their mandate, they met “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation, and reporting to Congress and the several legislatures such alterations and provisions therein as shall when agreed to in Congress and confirmed by the states, render the federal Constitution adequate to the exigencies of Government and the preservation of the Union.” But what exactly does any of that mean?

It would be James Madison, a little known Virginia lightweight, who stepped into the breach with a plan that would eventually earn him the epitaph, Father of the Constitution. The proposed Virginia Plan was immediately laid out before the Convention, allowing the large-state nationalists to seize the initiative that would allow them to frame the debate throughout the proceedings. At the heart of the plan was a new bicameral legislature, in which both houses would allot representatives to states proportional to population or wealth or a combination of the two.

As Beeman explains, it was the change in the nature of representation that was truly revolutionary:

James Madison believed from the outset that the fight to create a system of representative government in which ultimate sovereignty resided in the people of the nation as a whole rather than in the states would depend on creating a national legislature based on the principle of proportional representation.

Almost the entire Convention thereafter would in some way or another be colored by the question of representation. The disagreements between large states and small states, the disagreements between Northern states and Southern States, slavery and the election of the executive: all of these issues which at one time or another seemed intractable and threatened to end the whole affair prematurely must be understood through the prism of representation to be fully comprehended. For in the new order that would come after the adoption of the Constitution it was clear to all in attendance that more representatives equaled more power. Arithmetic would have no mercy.

Driven by such hardnosed realpolitik, the rough and tumble political negotiations that surrounded this central debate gave birth to the most shameful aspect of the Constitution, the three-fifths compromise:

In reviewing the controversy over the three-fifths clause, one comes away with a depressing sense of the near-total absence of anything resembling a moral dimension to the debate. The three-fifths compromise was, fundamentally, about states’ individual interests, not the morality of slavery. Those few Northerners like Gouverneur Morris, Rufus King, or Elbridge Gerry who voiced unhappiness with the idea of counting the slave population in apportioning representation did so either out of a fear that Northern interests were being sacrificed to those of the South or, as James Wilson phrased it, the “disgust” that their white constituents may have felt about being considered even in the same category as slaves… As the historian Jack Rakove has observed… [the three-fifths compromise] is indicative of the extent to which all of the delegates agreed that two of the important functions of the government were to protect the rights of property ownership and to distribute and balance power in as fair and equitable a fashion as possible. It should therefore not surprise us that the debate over the way in which slaves would be counted in apportioning representation and taxation would turn on issues of property and power.

Racism wasn’t the only prejudice that diminished high-minded aesthetic of the summer’s proceedings. Although the delegates were young (“the average age was forty-four, the median forty-three”) and well educated (“twenty-nine of the fifty-five had undergraduate degrees…twelve…some form of post-graduate study…”) and in no way comprised a patrician assembly (“many… came from families that already enjoyed wealth, but a substantial number… had started pretty close to the bottom of the social hierarchy and worked their way up”) they were imbued less with the spirit equality and social mobility than with a healthy fear of what they viewed as democratic excess. For many of the Framers, the disciplined austerity of Sparta was more admirable than the robust volatility of Athens or the Plebian Assembly in Rome.

The fruit of their anti-democratic feelings is evident in such offerings as the Electoral College, and their deeper roots are revealed through motions and debates surrounding a number of restrictions on the eligibility of office seekers and enfranchisement. This leads Beeman to conclude:

Although the Founding Fathers genuinely believed that their government should be founded upon the will of the people, their belief that “the people are the king” stopped short of giving to all of those people a full, active role in the day-to-day business of politics.

None of this is to say that we should condescend. Indeed, doing so would attempt to remove the splinter from the eye of the past while ignoring the log in our own. The abrogation of writ of habeas corpus, domestic surveillance, the creation of “free speech zones” at political events, torture and preemptive warfare are all morally ambiguous concessions that have been condoned in the United States over the last decade which the Framers (with the possible exception of Alexander Hamilton) would have found repugnant.

So all things being equal, we should not use their failures to negate the magnitude of their achievements but rather balance them alongside each other to find a true measure. Balance is, after all, what the finished Constitution truly signified as it sought to incorporate and reconcile as many competing interests as it could. For the large states, representation in the House of Representatives would be based on population while the Senate would be devoted to the principle of equal representation as a nod to the small states. The three-fifths compromise, as crassly expedient as it is was, worked for the Northern States because it didn’t count a disenfranchised slave as a whole person toward configuring the South’s representation, yet by counting them in part, it gave the South an incentive to remain within the Union. The compromise that allowed the direct election of Representatives in the House was a boon for Nationalists, and the one that allowed the Senate to be chosen by State Legislatures (as they would be until 1913) was a salve for State’s rights. A singular Executive satisfied the wants of those delegates that desired a more energetic government the same way the two-thirds Congressional veto override satisfied those who worried about the president acting tyrannically.

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States by Howard Chandler Christy

The dizzying feat of weaving together these and numerous other interests into a system that appeared remotely durable is expressed by an excerpt Beeman included from The Federalist Papers No. 39 written by James Madison:

In its foundation it [the new government] is federal, not national; in the sources from which the ordinary powers of government are drawn, it is partly federal and partly national; in the operation of those powers; it is national, not federal; in the extent of them, again it is federal, and not national; and, finally, in the authoritative mode of introducing amendments, it is neither wholly federal nor wholly national.

After all this, it can be fairly asked: how does Beeman’s treatment of the Framers weigh against others? Upon first reading Plain, Honest Men, I wasn’t sure why Publishers Weekly hailed it as “the most authoritative, up-to-date treatment of the Constitutional Convention since Catherine Drinker Bowen’s Miracle at Philadelphia over 40 years ago” or what distinguished it from, say, David O. Stewart’s solid 2007 effort, The Summer of 1787. Initially when I’d finished, I was inclined to favor Stewart based on his narrative’s superior readability. But the more I reflected, the better and better Beeman’s book began to look. The richness and diversity of the angles Plain, Honest Men explores in the end simply surpasses Stewart. For example, in the run up to the convention, Stewart focuses heavily on territorial tensions between the states under the Articles and alluded to repercussions for commerce, and he ably made his case. However, by comparison, Beeman discusses the territorial tensions, aspects of economic competition between the states and post-Independence philosophical views on the nature of authority and delves into how each force influenced and fed off the other. Where Stewart vilified the delegates of the deep South, accusing them of high-jacking the Convention to protect slavery, Beeman instead expounds upon the more nuanced observation over the absence of moral outrage behind Northern opposition.

Eventually I came to also see that it was Beeman’s gift for subtlety, inquisitiveness, judicious judgments and dispassionate objectivity that makes his book to stand out. He does not deify, nor does he desecrate: he honors the Constitution by recognizing it is a legal document, secular not scripture, paradoxical and flawed like the men who crafted it. Cool-headedness and even-handedness are the hallmarks of Plain, Honest Men and ultimately those alone tip the scale in its favor.

Thomas J. Daly received his BA in History from Rowan University in 2005 and a Certificate in Paralegal Studies from Boston University in 2009. He is a Contributing Editor to Open Letters Monthly.

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