- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 24, 2002

Madeleine Albright is fond of referring to America as the indispensable nation. Perhaps it is. Reading "A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution," Carol Berkin's fresh account of our beginnings suggests, however, that a more accurate portrayal would be "America, the implausible nation," and while we are at it "improbable" as well.
Those who would most likely agree with that view are the Founders themselves. Few delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 were certain a constitution could be agreed to, and if one were to be fashioned, then ratification by at least nine states was even more unlikely. Optimists like Benjamin Franklin thought otherwise, but even he reckoned the republic, if lucky, would last a decade before falling into tyranny.
This may prove disturbing to those raised on a reverential view of the Constitution's authors. After all, were they not wise men building for the ages? They didn't think so, according to the author, and she makes a convincing case for common sense. But she also suggests that revisionists who believe the Founders were merely acting in their social class interests are wrong too. Whether reverent or revisionist, the conventional interpreters believe the men of Philadelphia were single-mindedly purposeful, if not conspiratorial, about their work. Once again, probably not.
In this account, conspiratorial rings more true than the wise, deliberate design model fostered by those who have long turned the Constitution into a paper idol. Although the author does not stress the point, the Founders did, after all, lock the doors and bolt the windows while deliberating in the stifling summer heat of Philadelphia. They also kept their mouths shut while away from Independence Hall relaxing in taverns and boarding houses.
They were prudent to do so. The Founders knew the Articles of Confederation were a roaring failure. The friendless, fledgling Republic was in debt, had no means to restore its credit, and could scarcely defend itself against enemies, foreign and domestic. The "army" the quotation marks are advisable consisted of less than 700 poorly equipped men. Well, at least this rickety confederacy would be spared a military coup.
Desperate men take desperate measures. The men of Philadelphia in fear and trembling took the first irrevocable step by abandoning the notion of fixing the Articles and deciding to start afresh. Nationalists like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton knew this had to be done all along, but they had no politically realistic game plan. Others needed to be convinced, but the situation was so grave that few, perhaps no one, resisted for long.
That was the easy part. If most of the delegates were more or less nationalists, they were bitterly divided on other questions. The most vexing concerned the legislature. One chamber or two? On what basis would members get elected? The struggle between big and small states lay at the core of crafting a second republic, settled at failure's point by Roger Sherman's brilliant Connecticut Compromise.
Here, too, the author shows that Madison, of all people, badly miscalculated the small-state reaction to the Virginia Plan that made Congress strictly proportional to population, outraging delegates from states like Delaware and New Jersey. Only the Rhode Islanders among the small remained mute because they never showed. ("Rogue Island" would earn its sobriquet by later rejecting the Philadelphia Constitution, but it is a mark of the new republic's maturity that Rhode Island was not brought into the union by force.)
Creating an executive, ex nihilo, to be sure wasn't easy. The available models were not encouraging. Monarchy? Well, no, not even Hamilton wanted a king. On the other hand, the Articles had no executive and all knew where that led. Consequently, the Founders floundered over this one for some time with no one with any fixed idea. One man or a committee? Elected? Certainly, but how and by whom? Powers? Term of office? Finally, the exhausted delegates settled on a last-minute solution that few probably really liked, and which would change radically over the years. Carol Berkin is convinced the men of Philadelphia agreed to Article II because everyone knew Washington would be the first president.
And it is to Washington that this book gives its closing tribute. He took no salary as president though he was deeply in debt, and he ended his presidency fearing the country would be consumed by faction. He was almost right, but the Republic lived on anyway to survive yet more Pauline perils. For this, let us give thanks.

Roger Fontaine served on the National Security Council staff during the first Reagan administration.

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