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Saturday, January 31, 2009

David O. Stewart's The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution (Simon and Schuster $27.00 and available in paperback in May '09) is one of the riveting popular histories that always seem to catch my eye. With a fine narrative style and flow, Stewart sets out to explain what happened during that summer.

Briefly, I'm sure most of you remember the story well enough. Delegates from all the original thirteen colonies/states, save Rhode Island, met in Philadelphia during what seemed to be particularly sweltering weather, and hammered out the document that has essentially been the document that has governed our land since its adoption and the swearing in of George Washington as the nation's first President. There were debates over the different proffered plans, compromises and, ultimately, a document.

Stewart's particular genius is in relating that story week by week, meshing the personalities of the convention with the issues, large and small, that dominated the debate. The personalities included such figures as the taciturn George Washington, the intellectual James Madison (who despite his reputation was not the father of the Constitution, which he himself admitted), Edmund Morris, Alexander Hamilton and the near grand-fatherly Benjamin Franklin.

The issues were mostly large. The question of what the legislature should look like loomed heavily and broke the delegates into factions of Large state/Small state, which meant population, not geographic size. Should the body be unicameral, or bicameral, and how should those representatives be chosen? If it were representative by population and not by state, how many should each state receive? These questions threatened to tear the delegates apart, and in fact, some did leave the Convention. What should be the nature of the executive? Having fought a Revolution to throw off an onerous King and Parliament, how much power should the chief executive have? And what about the West? The delegates knew that the future of the Republic resided in the growth of the United States. How should new states be admitted? There was even talk that the 13 original states should always retain the majority in whatever Congress was finally adopted.

And ever important was the question of slavery. There was already an incipient Emancipation movement, of which the Southern states were already wary. The 3/5 settlement remained a large portion of the calculus of that summer.

Interestingly, most of our knowledge comes from Madison's own notes from the Convention. It was a closed door proceeding and leaks were few and far between. Also, the delegates knew that whatever they came up with, the document would not be perfect and would have to have a mechanism for change and renewal. Even this week Senator Feingold has introduced an new amendment for the provision of special elections for Senate vacancies.

Stewart weaves the story with the skill of a novelist and with the sure hand of someone who knows the subject well. Our Constitution has been tried and stressed. The past eight years have been, in my humble opinion, the hardest times the document has seen. My biggest hope is that in the next few years, it will be restored.

The Summer of 1787 is available at Jackson Street Books and at your favorite independent bookstore.

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