For the newly independent United States, the years just after the Revolution were the best of times and the worst of times: though the states celebrated their newfound freedom, they did not have a strong central government that would bind them together. Between 1776 and 1787, the proud new nation faced economic crisis, military weakness and interstate conflict problems so enormous they almost dashed all hopes for a future unified country. Yet, as historian Berkin so engagingly illustrates, James Madison, George Washington and a handful of others met in Philadelphia in 1787 to frame a creative answer to the political impasse. Berkin (First Generations: Women in Colonial America) wonderfully reveals the conflicts and compromises that characterized the drafting of the Constitution. She chronicles the development of the document itself, recording the details of each of the articles of the Constitution, for instance, and demonstrating the framers' belief in the primacy of the legislative branch. She also portrays the deep disagreements between Madison's Federalists and the states' rights advocates, such as George Mason and Edmund Randolph of Virginia, both of whom refused to sign the Constitution and swore to fight against its ratification in their state. Most important, Berkin emphasizes that the framers saw the Constitution as a working document, one that would require revision as the country grew. With the sensibilities of a novelist, Berkin tells a fast-paced story full of quirky and sympathetic characters, capturing the human dimensions of the now legendary first Constitutional Convention. (Sept.) Forecast: Berkin's wonderfully engaging book could take its place alongside Joseph Ellis's Founding Brothers and David McCullough's John Adams. Her role as commentator on the upcoming A&E series Founding Brothers will raise the book's profile still further. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
With this concise and masterly book, Berkin (history, CUNY; First Generations: Women in Colonial America) joins the upper ranks of popular historians. Her account of the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787 brings to mind Catherine Drinker Bowen's Miracle at Philadelphia and the works of Garry Wills (Inventing America; Explaining America). Like Bowen, Berkin uses a novelistic approach to convey the personalities of the delegates and the mood of those intense, sweltering days. Like Wills, she reworks dense political texts and interprets complicated historical events for a general audience. The cast of main characters (Washington, Hamilton, Madison, Franklin, Mason, Dickinson, et al.) may be familiar to most readers, but Berkin devotes equal attention to the maneuverings of the lesser-known delegates. As the central issues are debated (the election and powers of the executive, the extent of state sovereignty) and the "Great Compromise" emerges from the work of the Committee on Postponed Matters, the delegates' achievement is shown to be nothing short of spectacular. Berkin draws on a careful reading of the primary texts and major historical studies for this work, yet her book is devoid of footnotes. Instead, a "Note on Sources" serves as a bibliographic essay. Most readers won't mind this a bit. Appended are brief biographical sketches of the delegates, as well as the text of the Constitution and the Articles of Confederation. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries. Thomas A. Karel, Franklin & Marshall Coll. Lib., Lancaster, PA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Adult/High School-Berkin begins her well-organized, fast-moving account with a vivid description of the problems faced by the former colonies in 1786. The loss of protection by the British navy had crippled trade with other nations. The army that had protected the settlers moving westward no longer defended them. Military campaigns had left devastated areas populated by the penniless and homeless. The new government had an empty treasury and no authority to replenish it. In response to worsening economic conditions, and the panic inspired by Shay's Rebellion, the Confederation announced a convention of delegates to be held in Philadelphia. The debates, compromises, decisions, and astonishing successes of this remarkable group of men constitute the central theme of this book. Readers get to know these fascinating Americans through succinct character sketches that reveal their thoughts, fears, and aspirations; plentiful quotes from letters, speeches, and diaries enliven the descriptions. The book closes with biographical essays on each of the delegates, summarizing their previous and later activities, and the texts of the Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution.-Kathy Tewell, Chantilly Regional Library, VA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
A lucid study in constitutional history and a meditation on the decline of small-r republican values in the age of the imperial presidency. Berkin (American History/CUNY; First Generations, 1996) opens her account of the Constitution's creation with two recent examples (both already overused) illustrating the conflicts that obtain between the Founding Fathers' intentions and the realities of modern America. The 2000 presidential election demonstrates the apparently imperfect nature of our "hybrid of universal suffrage and [the] older mechanism of an electoral college," while the aftermath of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center reveals that Americans have come to expect their president "to set our agenda in every aspect of domestic and foreign relations." This expectation would have horrified members of the revolutionary generation of 1776, who mistrusted the executive and placed their hopes in an independent, representative legislative body. George Washington, Berkin writes, "believed his role in government was exemplary rather than directive," that the president should be a model of decorum and disinterest "removed from the tarnishing effects of ambition, greed, and factional wrangling" in daily politics. (Try telling that to the last few presidents.) She allows that the Founding Fathers' profound localism and wariness of centralized government soon gave way to the realization that citizens seemed to prefer looking to a single leader rather than committees or caucuses; even so, she professes surprise that Americans today have so little investment in the workings of the legislative branch, which many of the framers of the Constitution believed should be responsible for electing thepresident: In the words of Virginian George Mason, allowing the people to elect a leader directly was as unnatural as it would be "to refer a trial of colours to a blind man." The oft-told story of the making of the Constitution always deserves retelling, and Berkin is just right for the job.
"With the sensibilities of a novelist, Berkin tells a fast-paced story full of quirky and sympathetic characters, capturing the human dimensions of the now legendary first Constitutional Convention." Publishers Weekly Starred Review