Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution. By Richard Beeman.

Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution.  By Richard Beeman. (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2009.  514 pp.  ISBN 978-0-8129-7684-7.)

 

            History has portrayed the framers of the Constitution of the United States as either divinely inspired or villainous in various texts.  Richard Beeman has taken neither approach in his book Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution.  Beeman has chosen instead to break these men free of their previous molds by creating a work that takes the reader behind the scenes showing the framers as just plain, honest men who took their representative responsibilities seriously.  In his book, Beeman reveals the uncertainty of the framers as they debated in secret during that sweltering hot summer in Philadelphia to try to create a more solid governing document.  Beeman gives his reader a “full narrative account” of these months including debates in taverns, boardinghouses, and even private homes showing that these meetings were not the only place where the business of running the country was discussed.  He also shows by this work that these men were not trying to create perfection, but rather were “committed to the quest of a more perfect union” that ultimately resulted in the longest standing governmental document in history.[1]

            Beeman is an author who obviously admires those who participated in the Federal Convention, and he makes no apology for that.  However, he also shows these men in a more human light. Beeman said that Jefferson is often quoted as saying the convention members were an assembled group of “demigods.” Beeman believes that this remark is taken out of context and was truly meant as sarcasm since these men did not feel this way about themselves, nor should we.[2]  Thus, Beeman successfully uses many years of accumulated resources, including copious primary sources, throughout the book in order to pierce the veil of the “demigod” view of these men. This is a nice deviation from some of the other current scholarship which seems to focus on more complex legal issues or economics.  Sandra F. VanBurkelo says, “Beeman has produced neither an internal account of the convention nor a law-centered attempt to resolve modern jurisprudential controversies . . . Instead, he explores personal relationships, marriages, physical and intellectual quirks, the entirety of the men in attendance.”[3]  Additionally, Beeman shows the contributions of lesser known men into his narrative such as Gourveneur Morris, Elbridge Gerry, and Charles Pickney.  He also skillfully integrates women into his book including the well known Abigail Adams and the lesser known friend and confidante of George Washington, Mrs. Elizabeth Powel, wife of Samuel Powel. 

            Though Beeman brings the social side of these men into his book, he does not neglect the issues at hand.  Instead, he uses these social areas to either frame or highlight the debates that ensued, most notably in the federalization question, the power of the presidency, and slavery issues.  By marrying the debates with the lesser known human relationships of each man, Beeman shows how truly responsible these men felt toward their task at hand.  He also is able to show that though compromise was absolutely necessary, it was neither easy nor swift.  Walter Isaacson, in his New York Times review, said that Beeman’s book showed that the framers ". . .reflected not just the classical virtues of honor and integrity but also the Enlightenment’s values of balance, order, tolerance, scientific calibration and respect for other people’s beliefs.”[4]

            In an interview about this book, Beeman said that if he could choose between these fifty-five original men or our contemporary congressional leaders that he would choose the original fifty-five every time because of their dedication to the good of the whole or the will of the people they served.[5]  Beeman’s book reflects this attitude in nearly every chapter, but not every reader will agree with his assessment.   In The Moral Liberal, Joseph Stromberg says that readers of this volume should be “forewarned . . . we know how things must unfold: zealous, gifted statesmen with a superior Continental Vision struggled against “provincial” stupidity, “power,” and “interest.”[6]  However, it is hard to argue that these men who were well schooled in Enlightenment principals were struggling against much that was not well debated amongst them after reading Beeman’s book, even if it does support a “superior Continental Vision” as Stromberg asserts.  Mary Beth Norton says it best when she observes, “. . . what most strikes a contemporary reader is his description of endless bickering and tedious debates.”[7]

            For the non-historian, this book is readable and even enjoyable.  The layout of the book is easy to follow in a somewhat chronological order, but it is also subdivided into an easy to follow format even for the novice historian.  For the avid or professional historian, Beeman’s work is priceless.  The sources he consults are invaluable and often under-utilized.  He does not attempt to apologize for his admiration of the members of the convention, but he also does not shade their arguments or distrust of either each other or the plan of government.  For example, Beeman shows that although James Wilson was an advocate of a government of “We the People,” he had little regard for the common man and felt himself superior.[8] It is additions of this type that lend a feeling of honesty to the delivery of the material in this book.  Beeman may have admired these men, but he admires them because they overcame their individual flaws in compromise, not because they had no flaws at all, and that is what makes his work unique and valuable.

1] Richard Beeman, Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2009.), xiv.

[2] Interview with Richard Beeman, CSPAN2 Book TV “Top Nonfiction Authors and Books,” http://www.booktv.org/Watch/10326/Plain+Honest+Men+The+Making+of+the+American+Constitution.aspx

[3] Sandra F. VanBurkelo, Review of “Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution” by Richard Beeman.  Journal of American History, Vol. 97, No. 1, pp. 165-166.

[4] Walter Isaacson, Review of “Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution” by Richard Beeman.  New York Times, Sunday Book Review, April 10, 2009.

[5] CSPAN2 interview.

[6] Joseph Stromberg, Review of “Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution” by Richard Beeman.  The Moral Liberal, December 29, 2010, http://www.themoralliberal.com/2010/12/29/plain-honest-men-the-making-of-the-american-constitution.

[7] Mary Beth Norton, Review of “Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution” by Richard Beeman. The Washington Post, March 22, 2009, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/20/AR2009032000983.html.

[8] Beeman, 131.