A Review of Carol Berkin's Recent Book on the Constitutional Convention of 1787


Friday, Dec. 13, 2002

Carol Berkin's recent book, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, provides an excellent, concise introduction to the Constitutional Convention and the events surrounding the formation of the United States. Berkin, a professor of history at the City University of New York and Baruch College, tells a familiar story with new vigor and historical imagination.

Accordingly, Berkin's book is a perfect holiday gift for students (whether of law, history, or government) or history buffs - especially in these post-September 11 days, when knowledge of our constitutional past has become even more important.

The Dramatic Story of the Constitution

After a short introductory chapter, A Brilliant Solution examines the period from the arrival of the Convention delegates in Philadelphia, where they deliberated during the sweltering summer of 1787, to the inauguration of George Washington as the new nation's first President.

The book gives us a perfect feel for the eighteenth-century, and the fragile political culture in which the new nation was born. At the time, there were no national political parties, no national figures aside from Washington, and no trustworthy means of mass communication.

Limited communication and long distances meant that very few of the delegates "thought continentally," as Alexander Hamilton had urged them to do. There was precious little binding these recently-independent states together, except for their desperate need to find a workable form of government. And the delegates, far from being able to focus exclusively on the Constitution, were beset by problems at home; despite the importance of their task, some were unable even to stay for the entire Convention because of their other responsibilities.

All of this context, as aptly depicted by Berkin, only emphasizes the unique achievement at Philadelphia. Despite the great need, the enactment of the Constitution was far from certain.

The Convention and Its Controversies

Berkin tells a story of the Convention that is all the more dramatic because its outcome is constantly in doubt. Granted, everyone at the Convention knew that the Articles of Confederation governing the former colonies had a number of problems. States had begun to dispute among themselves, and because of the deliberately weak national government set up by the Articles of Confederation, the States were unable to collectively protect their interests against European powers and others.

Berkin focuses on several major controversies during the Convention, particularly those surrounding the composition and powers of the legislature and the executive. There was only limited discussion of the judiciary at the Convention - a fact that may seem odd in our court-dominated society, but was perfectly understandable to the Founders, who saw greater threats in a charismatic demagogue than in judges.

The Founders saw the possibility of tyranny everywhere, and were exceedingly careful to block off any temptation towards arbitrary, univocal rule. Just as important were the fears of the smaller states to protect their independence against the larger.

Wisely, the Founders moved several major controversies to smaller committees, where they could be handled with less controversy. And in addition to the larger fights over structure, as Berkin explains, some of the debates addressed fine points of detail: Should the President serve a four- or seven year-term? How should the President be addressed? Should there be a council of review to assist the executive?

What emerged was a plan that completely satisfied no one: Indeed, some delegates, such as the Virginian Edmund Randolph, simply refused to sign the document.

But the Constitution did break the deadlocks between the larger and smaller states, and gave enough power to the national government while still respecting state autonomy. It was because it - and the Founders who drafted it - rose to these challenges, Berkin explains, that it was ultimately ratified.

The Remarkable Group That Gathered At the Convention

A Brilliant Solution reminds us how truly astonishing a group the Founders were, and reminds us, too, of the enviable seriousness that characterized the Convention.

The delegates ranged from the aristocratic Gouverneur Morris, to the self-made and ambitious Alexander Hamilton; from the young Charles Pinckney, to the aged Benjamin Franklin; from the fastidious William Paterson, to the drunk and belligerent Luther Martin.

Some were even too young to serve as President in the new document they were drafting. But almost every delegate, regardless of his years, had long experience from which to draw - either in the Continental Army, or in the colonial or state legislatures.

Accordingly, the compromises and debate in which they engaged relied more on the delegates' own experiences and their real-world fears of tyranny, mob rule or national dissolution, than it did on abstract principles and philosophies.

Among the fifty-five delegates, some stood out. Primary among them was James Madison, whose careful notes of the Convention provide our best account of its secret proceedings. Berkin describes Madison's role not only as scribe but also as Founder in her account.

Madison and other "nationalists" - those favoring expanded powers for the national government - worked to combat the strong states' rights feelings at the Convention. The nationalists eventually won some of what they wanted, but not before they made key concessions to their opponents, over issues like representation of the states in the Senate.

A Basis for Further Learning: The Constitution and Beyond.

After the delegates, exhausted from their work, left Philadelphia, the next step was to convince the nation to accept the Constitution.

Nine states were needed to ratify before the Constitution could be considered the law of the land. The fight was harder in some states than in others. At last, in June 1788, New Hampshire (after an adjournment of the state legislature to rally pro-Constitution forces) became the ninth ratifying state, and the dream in Philadelphia became a reality.

The ratification debates inspired America's most significant contribution to political thought aside from the Constitution itself: The Federalist Papers. Written by Madison, Hamilton and John Jay, these eighty-five short tracts combined practical politics with lofty principles, to create a strong defense of the emerging constitutional system.

They remain a touchstone for American political rhetoric to this day. Berkin's A Brilliant Solution provides a useful companion for those who seek to understand the root of the controversies that play themselves out in The Federalist Papers.

The text of A Brilliant Solution is supplemented by helpful appendices, which include the text of the Constitution itself, and short biographies of all the Convention delegates. Especially in conjunction with these material, the book provides a good grounding for anyone wishing to know how the "miracle at Philadelphia" occurred, and why it remains the foundation for American democracy.

Gerald J. Russello, a lawyer, lives in New York City.

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