In Carol Berkin’s book A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, the personalities and attitudes of the men who penned the Constitution are examined in detail, looking at the events in chronological order and checking into the various interpersonal dramas that took place around this time period. Berkin does a tremendous amount of research and homework in order to bring to life the emotions and feelings that were experienced by the Founding Fathers at the time of the ratification. This leads to a book that is heavy-hitting, thorough and dramatic in its telling of the beginning of America as a country today.
Setting the stage in Philadelphia in the year 1787, as the Constitutional Convention gathers, a certain level of adversity and challenge is found in the air – the future of the United States of America is about to be decided by a group of people with big personalities and very different ideas of what the country should be. Berkin is sure to give these personalities relatable attributes, however, to allow them to be more identifiable to us. Alexander Hamilton, or ” Little Mars” as he is known, is a challenging figure in his own right. One of the delegates from Maryland – Luther Martin – is shown to be such a powerful personality that it is good that nationalists ” did not do battle with him in a sober state” (p. 61).
The attitudes of the delegates are in full swing whenever the actual discussions regarding the Constitution are underway. Berkin utilizes dialogue as well to give each character a unique voice, and allows them to express their feelings regarding the Constitution. When Edmond Randolph, Virginia’s delegate, discusses the idea of having just one member of the executive branch, he calls it a ” foetus of monarchy” in order to oppose a near-king being put in power; however, Pennsylvania’s delegate James Wilson states that this same rule is ” the best safeguard against tyranny” (p. 87). When Governor Morris discusses this executive’s selection by legislature, he states that ” if the legislature elect it will be the work of intrigue, of cabal, and of faction; it will be like the election of a pope by a conclave of cardinals; real merit will rarely be the title to the appointment” (p. 121).
All of these fears are an expression of a palpable sense of unease, all of it coming from dread at a repeat of the same government that they had just rebelled from. They want to make sure that there is no sense of favoritism or mercantilism that occurs as a result of the government’s organization. Berkin shows the audience that the delegates understood the consequences of their actions and decisions; they had to create a government from scratch, one that would stand the test of time and not create the means to buy elections and grant positions through favor. By offering this interpretation of the search for the right governmental structure, Berkin shows the fear and unease that surrounds the Constitutional Convention. We understand that these men were not just the founding fathers of our nation – they were human beings, with real anxieties and insecurities.
While A Brilliant Solution does not provide a word-by-word account of the Constitutional debates, we do get a good picture of what the tenor of these meetings was like. James Madison, in Chapter 2 of the book, arrives ” a full eleven days before the Convention was to get underway” (pp. 30-31). This demonstrates his overeagerness and his lack of ease regarding how to proceed with this tremendous responsibility. He already has a plan of government ready, and a group of nationalists (consisting of Madison, Robert Morris, Ben Franklin, George Washington and others) that are ready to back him up against his political opponents. The environment by which the delegates had to decide on this vital document is described in great detail by Berkin; with the curtains drawn and windows closed to maintain secrecy, flies buzzing around them and the heat bearing down on their heavy clothing, the physical strain of the delegates is not lost on the audience. This makes the creation of the Constitution itself much more nail-biting and tense when you consider the circumstances of its birth, and Berkin establishes this atmosphere in excruciating detail.
Berkin’s book, in its emotional and narrative-based focus on the people and emotions that went into the ratification of the Constitution, differs somewhat from Robert Middlekauff’s historical account of the American Revolution The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789. However, both books seem to focus greatly on the need to demonstrate the hardships that these individual delegates went through in handling the creation of this document. While Berkin attempts to get into the heads of the individuals, Middlekauff merely tells you everything you need to know about them in a dispassionate, clinical way. In the chapter on the Constitutional Convention, he begins with his description of James Madison, ” an introverted little man, a classic intellectual in whom the juices of passion had dried up,” according to intellectuals (p. 622). However, the book goes on to describe him as how his friends saw him – ” lively and sometimes ribald, a man of passion and deep conviction” (Ibid). This need to distinguish between academic and eyewitness accounts of the delegates brings an even-handed approach to the people who helped to create the Constitution.
The book wastes no time in systematically delineating each delegate’s temperament, position and attitude regarding the Constitution one at a time; this is very much unlike Berkin’s approach, which takes a more dialectical road and allows them to interact narratively. We learn everyone’s side on a particular issue, going one issue at a time, from slavery to the selection of an executive – we also learn less about what specific individuals think about these issues, and more about the general debates and differences in ideology that spurred these debates.
The eventual ratification of the Constitution is also covered, as well as the public reaction to it – many people strongly opposed the ratification of this Constitution, as it favored ” consolidated” government as opposed to largely sovereign states that would have their own strong autonomy (p. 640). The scholarly approach to these reactions is also addressed, with modern scholars noting that the Constitution, as it was ratified there, was the start of a conservative movement that created an elite. This elite then ” curbed a growing democracy” by placing power largely in their hands; it is theorized that the majority of delegates were afraid of what a true move toward democracy, which the Revolution was leading to, would mean (p. 640).
The American political system on the whole is unique in that it came about from a group of men who already had the nation started – even before they had become a government, they had suffered through a terrible Revolution to free themselves from tyranny, and even an aborted attempt to govern the territory already (The Articles of Confederation). What’s more, the Constitution was created with a lot of competing interests in mind; many political and economic considerations had to be maintained and evaluated before the final document could be decided upon. With that in mind, many other factors went into the ratification of the Constitution, many of which may be less than favorable.
A Slaveholders’ Union, written by legal scholar George William Van Cleve, attempts to examine the politics of slavery throughout the Constitution, demonstrating the dark side of the deal to create the Union which is not covered in detail by Berkin. Van Cleve’s broad thesis is that slavery was, despite many accounts and public opinion, a very concerning and prevalent issue among the Founding Fathers when they drew up the Constitution of the United States. In fact, slavery was often the deciding factor in a lot of important events surrounding the founding of our country. Van Cleve believes the ” was pro-slavery in its politics, its economics, and its law” (p. 270); in order to become the strong nation that America wanted to be, the North knew that the South was needed. The South wanted slavery, and so the Constitution accommodated that desire for the sake of their allegiance.
In the South and elsewhere in the colonies that comprised America pre-Revolution, slavery was one of the most prominent economic institutions (p. 22). Thirty percent of the wealth found in the South came from slaves, which was almost equal to the Southern land value at the time (p. 23). This was contrasted with the nearly one percent of wealth in the Northern colonies that came from slaves. This substantial wealth that came from the South held substantial sway over the creation of the Articles of Confederation – “ slave states insisted that the Confederation
should have no power to control slavery or slave property, even to support the war effort” (p. 45). When the North attempted to tax slaves or limit the importation of slaves, the Southern delegates threatened to end the constitution; their slave-earned wealth and their steadfast commitment to hold onto it by any means necessary established slavery’s influence over early American politics.
Major pro slavery provisions included the Three-Fifths Compromise, the commerce clause, the Fugitive Slave Clause, and others. According to Van Cleve, the three-fifths compromise was created as a means to give Southern states more representation, and thus protect their interests in the House of Representatives. This made political challenges by the North more difficult, as the South was subsequently given more power in Congress. The North was not ignorant of this; “ in adopting the three-fifths clause, the delegates understood that they were agreeing to a compromise based on sectional wealth representation intended to protect slave property” (p. 124). While this idea was incoherent from a conceptual point of view for many, Northerners adopted it due to the pragmatic political and economic power it would bring America as a whole. Leaving the South and its stance on slavery alone ensured their help in securing political power (p. 133).
This is but one of the many ways that the American Constitution was unique, as it allowed democracy to fall sway to economic interests, and favored slavery and other attributes as a result. This is touched on in Berkin’s book, but due to its narrative conventions it does not quite elevate itself to the level of true historical account. A Brilliant Solution provides an easy-to-follow approach to the Constitutional Convention, as the different factions at play battle each other in simple yet effective dialogue. At the same time, The Glorious Cause shows the ideological differences at play, both at the time and in retrospect, offering a more objective view of the positions that were espoused during the Convention.
Berkin, C. (2002). A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution. Orlando, FL: A
Harvest Book Harcourt, Inc.
Middlekauff, R. (1982). The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789. Oxford
Van Cleve, G. W. (2010). A Slaveholders’ Union: Slavery, Politics, and the Constitution in the
Early American Republic. University of Chicago Press.