I am taking a class in graduate school on the American Constitution. I just finished a pretty good book by Carol Berkin called “A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution,” and in it Berkin skilfully describes and analyzes the issues, controversies, and events of the Constitutional Convention.
The war was over and independence gained when the fledgling nation was rocked by Shay’s Rebellion. An event so unnerving that it was denounced by virtually all the Revolutionaries from Samuel Adams to George Washington, that it motivated the Confederation to announce that it was calling for a “convention of delegates” from the colonies to meet in Philadelphia for the purpose of strengthening the Confederation. Yet when the delegates arrived to a man they really had no true idea what authority they exactly had? It wasn’t clear to anyone, save James Madison who arrived first and clearly had an agenda. And it would be the nationalists (they became known as Federalists) who would dominate the convention and do so very early on.
When the Convention began in May of 1787 the 55 delegates were immediately sworn to secrecy; which on the sound of it comes off as a tactic of deception (towards American citizens), but in reality it was to product the members and encourage them to speak candidly. Philadelphia was of course a miserable place in the Summer and that added to the edgy mood. Berkin skillfully handles the issues one by one and does so in a very readable manner. The issues of representation, government structure, state’s rights versus Federalism, electing the President, executive power, separation of powers, ect.
It’s an interesting thing, frankly. The discussions among the members of the Convention in regards to how we were to elect our Chief Executive. The people were seen, by some, as an ill-informed mob that could not possibly be trusted with electing the President. The reasons for this opinion were not that those who were meeting there were elites and regarded those beneath them with contempt, it was out of the impracticable nature of Eighteen Century society. Newspapers, for one, were regional and lacked a “continental”understanding of politics. Most people would not be informed of the issues or the candidates. News traveled slowly, the truth even slower.
Though the members of this Convention clearly outlined a government where the Legislative Branch would dominate, their debates and arguments over the election of the President displayed that they also were very worried about the Executive Branch and its potential power, especially in the hands of a corrupt person. Indeed, we struggle even today.
One note in the negative on Berkin’s book, she gives a very detailed description of Washington’s inauguration where she describes the President saying, “So Help Me God,” which was a surprise as many historians today doubt he uttered those words!