On September 17, 1787, at the State House in Philadelphia, thirty-nine men from twelve states, after months of often bitter debate, signed America's Constitution. Yet very few of the delegates, at the start, had had any intention of creating a nation that would last. Most were driven more by pragmatic, regional interests than by idealistic vision. Many were meeting for the ...
On September 17, 1787, at the State House in Philadelphia, thirty-nine men from twelve states, after months of often bitter debate, signed America's Constitution. Yet very few of the delegates, at the start, had had any intention of creating a nation that would last. Most were driven more by pragmatic, regional interests than by idealistic vision. Many were meeting for the first time, others after years of contention, and the inevitable clash of personalities would be as intense as the advocacy of ideas or ideals.
No issue was of greater concern to the delegates than that of slavery: it resounded through debates on the definition of treason, the disposition of the rich lands west of the Alleghenies and the admission of new states, representation and taxation, the need for a national census, and the very make-up of the legislative and executive branches of the new government. As Lawrence Goldstone provocatively makes clear in Dark Bargain, "to a significant and disquieting degree, America's most sacred document was molded and shaped by the most notorious institution in its history."
Goldstone chronicles the forging of the Constitution through the prism of the crucial compromises made by men consumed with the needs of the slave economy. As the daily debates and backroom conferences in inns and taverns stretched through July and August of that hot summer--and as the philosophical leadership of James Madison waned--Goldstone clearly reveals how tenuous the document was, and how an agreement between unlikely collaborators-John Rutledge of South Carolina, and Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut--got the delegates past their most difficult point. Dark Bargain recounts an event as dramatic and compelling as any in our nation's history.
This superficial account advances the unoriginal thesis that "sectionalism and slavery are key to understanding" the Constitutional Convention. Goldstone (The Friar and the Cipher) recreates the convention, focusing in particular on four delegates: George Mason, a Virginia planter who ultimately refused to sign the Constitution; John Rutledge, a South Carolina lawyer and statesman; Oliver Ellsworth, a dour Connecticut attorney turned judge; and Roger Sherman, a Massachusetts native transplanted to Connecticut, who had risen from cobbler and almanac maker to respected politician. Sherman was the architect of the so-called Connecticut Compromise, which included the plan that states' representation in the House, but not the Senate, would be based on population. Goldstone rehearses the genesis of the three-fifths compromise (that for purposes of taxation and legislative apportionment, slaves would count as 3/5 of a person), the debate over the office of the president and the other key convention controversies. On the whole, Goldstone tells us nothing new. He insists that the framers were acting out of self-interest, not principle-an argument first advanced, with much more nuance, by the great historian Charles Beard in 1913. In short, this is the type of thin and derivative book that gives "popular history" a bad name. 30 b&w illus. not seen by PW. Agent, Henry Dunow. (Oct.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Goldstone (Out of the Flames) has written an account of the formation of the U.S. Constitution in which he attributes the compromises in that document to a struggle won by men with regional economic interests over those with higher ideals. John Rutledge (South Carolina) wanted the maintenance of slavery and economic betterment for Southerners, while idealists like James Madison saw a great future for a united nation. But Goldstone discounts the meticulous work of Madison with such blanket statements as "to a significant and disquieting degree America's most sacred document was molded and shaped by the most notorious institution in its history"-slavery. Throughout, he makes other generalizing statements, as in his summation of the French and Indian War: "The conflict cost many thousands of lives, millions of pounds, brought on the Stamp Act, and shaped the future of three continents. Only 22 years old, George Washington had helped ignite the first world war." Those who accept the premise that the Constitution's ultimate content was based solely on economic factors would be better served by reading the works of Gordon S. Wood, such as The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787. Not recommended.-Karen Sutherland, Bartlett P.L., IL Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Lawrence Goldstone holds a Ph.D. in American Constitutional Studies and is the co-author, with his wife, Nancy, of the highly-praised works of narrative history, Out of the Flames and The Friar and the Cipher. He lives in Westport, Connecticut.