“The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution” book review

Last week I finished a new book called The Summer of 1787: the Men Who Invented the Constitution by David O. Stewart. The author does a good job of weaving together vignettes of the Framers, notes on the contemporary situation, and the actual goings-on in the Convention. I came away with more knowledge, understanding, cynicism, hope, and respect.

The Constitution is seen today as the masterpiece of a gathering of righteous genius looking to set up a great government. In some respects it was; there were many good men, many very intelligent, and they indeed were trying to better the chances for the continuity of the American nation. But there were also those looking only to improve the economic situation of their state and themselves, and most at one time or another threatened to walk out if they did not get what they wanted. Most of them certainly didn’t regard many of their fellow-delegates as geniuses.

It was interesting to learn about some of the lesser-known but very influential Framers, like James Wilson, Gouverneur Morris (yes, that’s his first name), Elbridge Gerry, David Brearly, George Mason and John Rutledge, who had much more to do with creating the Constitution than the names we normally associate with “The Framers” like Washington, Madison, and Hamilton.

Watching the delegates avoid and mishandle the elephant in the room—slavery—was excruciating, knowing where it led. The three-fifths compromise and the guarantee of the slave trade for 20 more years gave the South and slave owners much more political power than they rightfully deserved. George Mason, an ambivalent slaveholder said in regards to the slave trade, “As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, they must be in this [world]. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects, [P]rovidence punishes national sins by national calamities.” I found Mason, who never signed the Constitution because he thought it was too centralized, a very interesting person. I plan on learning more about him.

Abraham Lincoln seemed to concur with Mason in his second inaugural address, saying:

“If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

None of the delegates seemed to walk away from the Convention thinking they had created a divine document. Gouverneur Morris, who opposed the final document, but finally accepted it and signed it because it was what the body agreed on (and was the single hand that put it all together in the form and language we now have it) said, “I not only took it as a man does his wife, for better, for worse, but what few men do with their wives, I took it knowing all its bad qualities.”

I think that the solidarity of delegates and leaders of the time (like Morris) is what has made the Constitution stand the test of time. Our Constitution is, in the minds of Americans, a governing document rather than a set of “standard operating procedures” as other countries’ constitutions are regarded—France has had at least ten since ours was ratified. Because the people truly see the Constitution as the fiber of the nation, it retains legitimacy. The fact that it has only been changed 27 times in 220 years is a testament to this. This is where I find hope; that although we all have our selfish agendas, we still hold the ideal of the Constitution as paramount in our political life. God bless us by helping us maintain that regard for the ideals we see in our Constitution, and helping us maintain the good parts and improve on the bad.


Mike W. says:

Great review, Dave.

Mason is a fascinating character. He had about 76 amendments that he submitted to Madison (who pared the list down to I think 17 in order to contain the debate). Many of his amendments would have prevented a good deal of constitutional problems we have dealt with and are still dealing with.

A good place to start (if you like primary sources like I do) is The Anti-Federalist Papers, a collection of papers written by those who opposed the constitution (like Patrick Henry) with transcripts of certain crucial debates. You get to see that Hamilton’s goal all along was to create an entity that would eventually subserviate (is that a word?) the states (which makes it hard to stomach some of his arguments in the Federalist Papers because you know he’s arguing from, at times, a disingenuous position).

Centrist says:

Another interesting thing about Mason was his contribution to the documents of the Founding. His “Virginia Declaration of Rights” was the precursor to the “Declaration of Independence,” and he was an ardent advocate of a Bill of Rights; in fact, the lack of one was his biggest reason for opposing the Constitution. His influence was crucial in the Bill of Rights becoming a reality in 1791. The protections we associate most with the Constitution, those enumerated in the Bill of Rights, were not adopted until three years after the ratification of the Constitution, and it might not have happened at all had George Mason not stuck to his guns and gone against that same Constitution.

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