Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution

Books about the men who crafted the Constitution over the hot Philadelphia summer of 1787 tend to be either overly reverential or hypercritical. Constitutional historian Richard Beeman’s account is, happily, neither. While he lauds the Founders for their achievement in establishing a workable framework for a strong, centralized American government, he also raises some necessary criticisms, such as the Founders’ “collective indifference” to the immorality of slavery and their very real anxieties about direct democracy. As Beeman describes the daily debates in Philadelphia, from how to elect members of Congress to the powers of the president to the role of the judiciary, it becomes clear that passionate, ideological disagreements were commonplace. Beeman details the major divide between the interests of big states, which wanted Congressional representation by population, and small states, which wanted representation to be apportioned equally by state. He also describes the deep fissures between slave states and non-slave states. Because the Convention’s deliberations were secret, Beeman is forced to focus on the one man who took copious notes, James Madison. Beeman shows how Madison’s deeply held ideas about good government set the agenda in Philadelphia and fueled discussions among the Founders. Beeman does an especially fine job exploring “the most emotionally charged debate of the summer”: the paradoxical status of slavery in a nation extolling liberty. Beeman’s exhaustively researched and accessibly written account will appeal to anyone looking to understand the passionate intellectual conflicts that led to our Constitution.