three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
41-July-Aug-2009
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The Making of the American Constitution

A-Plain Honest MenIn this new examination of the Constitutional Convention of 1776, historian Richard Beeman, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and has written five previous books on revolutionary America, analyzes the debates and compromises that produced our national Constitution.

The Topic: When the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention arrived in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776, they disagreed widely on key issues, including slavery and the balance of power between the states and the national government. That the delegates managed to reach any agreement at all, let alone an enduring one, says much about their willingness to strike necessary compromises. Beeman pays particular attention to the debates and compromises surrounding slavery. In order to explain how men of such varied interests managed to reach an accord, Beeman goes beyond the written record from inside Independence Hall and considers accounts from the taverns and boarding houses frequented by the delegates during their time in Philadelphia.
Random House. 514 pages. $30. ISBN: 1400065704

Providence Journal 4.5 of 5 Stars
"In this astute, dramatic and gracefully written work, historian Richard Beeman has put forth a bold interpretation replete with new insights on the Constitutional Convention and the subsequent debates over ratification. … The book is the best day-by-day narrative of the making of the Constitution I have ever read." Erik J. Chaput

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Plain Honest Men isn’t a page-turner. This is a story of committees and compromise, not stirring speeches and verbal duels. But Beeman … is a fine writer and has a firm grasp on the motives, machinations, and personalities of the 20 major players." Randy Dotinga

Dallas Morning News  3.5 of 5 Stars
"Skillfully, Beeman uses character development to drive his narrative. Specifically, he focuses on James Madison, Ben Franklin and George Washington as the three men who helped ‘make the revolution of 1787 possible.’" Kasey S. Pipes

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"This saga has been often told, most recently in David O. Stewart’s novelistic narrative The Summer of 1787, but Beeman’s work is distinguished by a gently judicious tone that allows us to appreciate, and draw some lessons from, the delicate balances that emerged out of that passion-filled Philadelphia crucible." Walter Isaacson

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"To explain the convention’s success, [Beeman] does indeed look beyond the formal meetings. He observes that many delegates lived in the same boarding houses and that groups often dined sociably together, breaking down the delegates’ provincialism." Mary Beth Norton

Critical Summary

The challenge of writing an account of the Constitutional Convention is that so many accounts already exist. "Do we need another narrative history of the Constitutional Convention of 1787?" asks the Washington Post. While Beeman’s book does not revolutionize the genre, it garners praise for examining the "the nuances and complexities of the compromises that the framers made" (New York Times) and for its detailed recreation of the Philadelphia debates. The most pointed complaint comes from Walter Isaacson in his otherwise positive New York Times review. He writes of Beeman’s hesitancy to include too much of his own interpretation in the book: "[S]ince he is in a far better position to make an assessment than we are, it would be nice to know what he believes."

Cited by the Critics

The Summer of 1787 | David O. Stewart (2007): Stewart, a constitutional lawyer in Washington, D.C., creates a compelling narrative of the players and their conflicting points of view. Critics described the work as fast-paced and novelistic.

Miracle at Philadelphia The Story of the Constitutional Convention May–September 1787 | Catherine Drinker Bowen (1966): This account of the Constitutional Convention is still the widely acknowledged modern classic and a fine place to start.