Saturday, April 25, 2009

Plain Honest Men

The Making of the American Constitution
Richard Beeman

The constitutional convention of 1787 was shrouded in secrecy. The delegates all agreed to talk to and write to no one about the proceedings. Notes taken during the convention were sparse, incomplete an unpublished. Somehow Richard Beenam has been able to piece together not just a book, but a thick tome, on the day by day proceedings at the Pennsylvania State House that resulted in the Constitution that the United States still operates under today.

America, under the articles of confederation, was a loose alliance of thirteen independent states that all agreed to be friends. The Congress, with an equal vote for each state, was responsible for paying off the debts incurred during the revolutionary war, but had no power to collect taxes and was dependent on the voluntary donation of funds from the states. The Congress was the only federal government there was. It comes as no surprise to us that this arrangement didn't work.

A convention was authorized by the Congress to discuss amendments to the Articles of Confederation that would make for a more workable federal government. That convention, astoundingly, devised a plan that dissolved the confederation government, created a three branch system, including a two branched legislature, a judiciary and an executive, none of which bore any resemblance to the confederation Congress.

Beeman's book follows the proceedings of the convention in detail. He talks about the individuals who had the most influence over it's progress, George Washington, returned from retirement at his estate at Mount Vernon after leading the continental army to an improbable victory over the British, was elected president, or chairman of the convention. Benjamin Franklin, internationally renowned as a "naturalist," which is what scientists were called and as a statesman, James Madison, who came prepared with a plan for a new government, the "Virginia Plan," which became the foundation of the new constitution, Alexander Hamilton, Charles Pinkney, Eldredge Gerry, to whom we owe the word Gerrymander, Gouverneur Morris, James McHenry, the person fort McHenry is named after . . .

Beeman does a pretty good job of explaining how the convention dealt with, and failed to deal with the most controversial issue addressed by the constitution - slavery. The delegates from South Carolina and Georgia were adamant that slavery be protected by the constitution. At the time it was just beginning to become an issue. Franklin was president of an abolitionist society in Pennsylvania. Slavery was practiced in most of the states, including Massachusetts and New York. Pennsylvania did not abolish slavery until 1847. But in South Carolina and Georgia, slavery was the only way to acquire to kind of labor needed to work the expanding rice and indigo which were making the landowners rich. There was almost no objection to slavery on moral grounds at the convention but much wrangling over the attempt to count slaves in determining representation in Congress. In the end slaves were counted as 2/3 of a person each for the purpose of assigning Congressional representation. It is difficult to understand this compromise, which led eventually to the Civil War, from a 21st century perspective. I take it as proof of the inevitability, like it or not, of moral relativism. You can not make moral choices outside of your cultural context, even if you think you can and think you are.


Post a Comment

Comments will be moderated - so keep your comments moderate!

OpenID users will have their blog links again, yay!