Balancing Act

Historian Richard Beeman’s new book explores the making of the American Constitution.
April 1, 2009

In his new book, Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution, Professor of History Richard Beeman provides a day-by-day account of the struggle to create a frame of government unlike anything the world had ever seen. Taking readers behind the scenes of the Constitutional Convention, Plain, Honest Men offers a detailed account not only of “the extraordinary achievements of the Founding Fathers, but also the conflict, contingency, and uncertainty that marked their deliberations.”

“I consider the United States Constitution to be one of the most important documents ever produced by humankind,” Beeman says. “It has provided the United States with an unprecedentedly durable and just form of government, and it has served as a model for much of the rest of the world. For that reason, it seemed to me important that Americans learn something about the circumstances under which the constitution was written and about the character of those men who wrote it.”

The framers of the Constitution were among the leading intellectuals and politicians of their time—roles, the book explains, that coexisted more “naturally” and “easily” in the late 1700s than they do today. However, writes Beeman, they “were also products of a provincial world—one in which the perspective of even the most cosmopolitan among them was limited by the vast expanse of the American landscape and the inadequacies of the communication networks available to them in eighteenth-century America.”

"The most important lesson we can learn from the delegates relates not so much to any specific interpretation of a particular clause of the Constitution, but rather the spirit and tone with which they approached their task. They had the good sense not to allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good." - Richard Beeman

Plain, Honest Men depicts the diverse personalities and interests of the Founding Fathers, and the book’s narrative of the convention dramatizes the fierce debates and tedious bargaining among the delegates over subjects ranging from representation to the nature of the presidency.  Although Beeman has written six books and dozens of articles on the political and constitutional history of the American Revolutionary Era, he was nevertheless surprised by how his most recent research increased his appreciation for the contributions of some delegates—and diminished his appreciation for the contributions of others.

“Everyone knows about Washington—the ‘Father of his Country’—but historians have been hard-pressed to be very specific about his contributions to the convention,” Beeman says. “He gave only one inconsequential speech at the convention, and his private papers tell us little about his activities outside the walls of the Pennsylvania State House. But the more I studied the convention, the more I realized the importance of Washington's role as presiding officer—his ability to guide the flow of debate from one topic to another and his important role in tempering or deflecting potentially uncivil behavior by the delegates. On the other hand, Alexander Hamilton, who is extravagantly admired by many Americans, was a complete bust at the convention—self-indulgent and spouting opinions that were at variance with the direction in which the convention was moving.”

Virtually all of the issues the delegates debated that summer have continued to provoke debate throughout the nation’s history. Some—such as the balance of power between state and national governments, the extent of presidential power, and the role of the courts in interpreting the Constitution—are still causing controversy today.

“Although they eventually agreed on a final draft of a constitution, the delegates remained deeply conflicted about those issues,” Beeman says. “The most important lesson we can learn from the delegates relates not so much to any specific interpretation of a particular clause of the Constitution, but rather the spirit and tone with which they approached their task. They had the good sense not to allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good, and they pursued that end with civility and humility rather than with invective and arrogance. Nancy Pelosi, John Boehner, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell—take note.”

The art of compromise served the Founding Fathers well, with one major exception. “The ultimate effect of the compromises made in the Convention over slavery,” Beeman says, “left us with a Constitution that was deeply, tragically flawed.” Plain, Honest Men claims that the “seemingly anomalous existence of slavery in a nation founded on a revolutionary promise of equality was not—at least in the minds of the framers—the central issue at stake in the making of the American Constitution.” Rather than a moral imperative, it was the principle of proportional representation of states in the national legislature and disagreements surrounding regulation and taxation of the slave trade that forced delegates to address the issue. In the end, the delegates delayed abolishing the international slave trade and included in their compromise over representation the provision that slaves would be counted as “three-fifths of a person.”  Beeman writes that the failure of the Founding Fathers  “to face up to the paradox of slavery within a constitutional system,” meant that “the new nation would pay heavily in blood and treasure to set things right.”

Beeman concludes that the Founding Fathers were aware that they had not drafted a perfect constitution. He writes, “They knew they embarked on an important experiment, one that could achieve success only by a combination of conscientious stewardship and an openness to further experimentation and change.” His research has led him to be even more skeptical of the argument that we should be bound in our constitutional interpretation by the plain meaning of the legal text of the Constitution.

“There was so much conflict and diversity among the delegates on all of the important topics which they debated, the ‘plain meaning’ of key phrases in the Constitution seems to me impossible to recover,” Beeman says. “I hope that a reading of my book will make congressmen, Supreme Court justices, even presidents a bit more humble in their constitutional pronouncements.”