Book review: Miracle at Philadelphia

Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention, May to September 1787Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention, May to September 1787 by Catherine Drinker Bowen

A superb, must-read day-by-day account of the Constitutional Convention which took place in Philadelphia between May and September 1787. The writing and description of not just the deliberations and the personalities but the stuffy, hot, Philadelphia weather, the shops, the clothes and the impressions of European visitors of a society that snubs its nose at class are so vivid that you get the feeling you are there. I have read a few other accounts of this all-important episode, but none so revealing as to the spirit of the times.

Present here are the great men of American history in all their glory and flaws: Washington, Hamilton, Madison, Franklin, Gouverneur Morris (from whose pen came “We the people” in the preamble to the Constitution), and even a lobbyist for land companies, Manasseh Cutler, who helped draft the Northwest Ordinance that created the vast Northwest Territory and sealed the fate of millions of Indians. Exerting their influence subtly from Europe were Jefferson and Adams. There were fiery speakers both for and against a central government - George Mason and Edmund Randolph from Virginia, Luther Martin from Maryland, Hamilton from New York, Elbridge Gerry from Massachusetts (from whom comes one of my favorite quotes: “The evils we have stem from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots”) - who made no secret of their feelings. They formed the Federalists and Antifederalists who were to have such bitter debates later.

Discussed were issues both trivial and momentous: the exact terms for Senators and Congressmen, whether the President should be appointed for life, the regulation of trade with other countries, the requirements for voting and citizenship, the provision for a national army. But the three most important issues were taxation, representation in both houses, and Western expansion. In many ways these issues encapsulated the central issue: states’ rights vs a strong national government. The small states were afraid that proportional representation would diminish their influence to nothing; the large ones were afraid that incomplete representation would harm their economy, their manufacturing and their landed gentry; sparsely populated ones worried that it would harm Westward expansion and slavery. Many people spoke openly against slavery, but it was out of concerns for the Southern states’ objections that the Constitution adopted the infamous three-fifths clause relating to “other persons” (there was consolation in the fact that the convention at least set a 1808 date for the ending of the slave trade). To soothe concerns on both sides, Roger Sherman of Connecticut offered the Sherman Compromise which proposed that the House would have proportionate representation while the Senate’s composition would be fixed to two from each state.

Women, white men without property, Africans and Indians famously got fleeced. As Jill Lepore wrote in her history “These Truths”, while Africans were degraded as slaves and considered as three-fifths of men, women fared almost as badly and were completely left out of the Constitution: in 1776, Abigail Adams memorably wrote to her husband, "Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation”, but her words were far from anyone’s mind in 1787. Women’s rights as we know them were non-existent then. But the Constitution was at least a triumph of religious freedom when, in the face of objections by some prominent Americans, it did away with any religious test for becoming a citizen and for holding office. This was a revolutionary move for the times.

Bowen’s book also does a fantastic job of letting us see the world through the eyes of these men and women. It’s very difficult for us in the age of the Internet to realize how slow communication was during those times and how disconnected people felt from each other in the unimaginably vast expanse of the country and the frontier to the West. The states were so loosely bound to each other by the previous Articles of Confederation and had such disparate geographies and cultures that in some cases they were threatening to fracture (for instance Maine wanted to separate from Massachusetts, and Virginia was planning to form a navy to defend herself against other states) So many of the concerns arose from legitimate worries that a Senator or President from Washington would never understand the concerns of a farmer from South Carolina, or that a farmer from South Carolina would never understand the concerns of a New England artisan. The fear that a central government would run roughshod over individual states was a very real one, although seventy years later it manifested itself in an ugly incarnation. There was also deep skepticism about “the people” (as Hamilton had put it, “If men were angels, governments would be unnecessary.”), and many vociferously asked that the preamble should say “We the states”.

Another revealing aspect of the book is to communicate how many measures were either defeated when they were first proposed or passed by a slim majority; sometimes the delegates even changed their votes. This was democracy in action; giving everyone a chance to voice their concerns while still obeying the wishes of the majority. Fun fact, especially in light of the present times: the presidential veto was struck down ten-to-one when first proposed. And, in what today seems like the most incomprehensible move, a Bill of Rights was also struck down ten-to-one when first proposed. The main argument was: if Americans are already free, why do they need a separate Bill of Rights? And if you are already laying down rules for what the government can do, why is it necessary to explicitly state what it cannot do? It was only after the Constitution was sent to the states for ratification that Massachusetts proposed adding a bill of rights; in fact some of the amendments in the Bill or Rights mirror Massachusetts’ own proposals for a state bill of rights. Once the powerful states like Massachusetts, Virginia and Pennsylvania ratified, the other states quickly fell in line.

It is wonderful to see Antifederalists who had opposed the Constitution immediately concede to the wishes of the people, often in generous terms, when it is ratified by individual states. In fact that is perhaps the single-most important fact that comes across in Bowen’s account; that men with widely differing views reached a compromise and forged a document which, although it contained important flaws, became a trailblazing, unique, enduring piece of work asking for a “more perfect Union” that led to a clarion call for individual rights and liberty not just in the United States but throughout the world.

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