Sunday, December 18, 2005


By Lawrence Goldstone

Walker & Company, $24.00, 240 pages, illus.


Iconoclasm is such a popular pastime among the left, that one shudders at the thought of the sound bites that might emanate from this book if the usual gang of dead-white-man bashers (Katie Couric, Michael Moore, et al) takes a liking to it. But this realpolitik reassessment of the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia — far from demonizing the framers — infuses them with a fullness of character that would tend to support a face-value reading (that is, a conservative interpretation) of the Constitution.

In the legendary view of the Convention — the one we receive in school, on television and in most works of scholarship — the debates surrounding our founding document constitute nothing less (or more) than a four-month colloquium on political philosophy conducted by the greatest minds since the golden age of Athens.

The issue of slavery could be but a footnote to such lofty proceedings. But in this week-by-week, sometimes day-by-day, chronicle of the Convention, Constitutional scholar Lawrence Goldstone brings forth a much different picture. To be sure, the grand philosophical colloquium did take place. However, this phase of the Convention, marked by an abundance of civility and graciousness, occupied only the first four weeks. The following 14 weeks — marked more by sniping and sarcasm — is where the real work was done, and the issue of slavery was central to it.

The first and largest conflict to be engaged was how the two legislative houses would be apportioned. Either or both houses might allocate seats by population, by wealth, by property-ownership or by state. Small (in population) states favored the status quo vote-per-state formula of the Articles of Confederation. Larger states wanted more equitable representation for their more numerous citizens.

Southern states, which were large if slaves were counted but small if they were not, opposed any arrangement that would give the North overwhelming numbers in the legislature. The civility of the early weeks gave way to bitter contention with charges and countercharges of power-mongering, and threats from all sides to walk out. It seemed on a number of occasions that the Convention would collapse.

The great compromises over apportionment gave us the population-based House and state-based Senate, but it also left the Constitution with its most shameful legacy — the three-fifths clause, which, parse it as you might, defined a slave as 60 percent of a human being. The ramifications of slavery did not end there. They spilled over into the debates on taxes, imports and exports, the census, the electoral college, the definition of treason, admissions of new states and even the question of future amendments. As a result, the impact of slavery can be seen in four of the seven articles of the Constitution.

What makes Mr. Goldstone’s book engaging is that he does not marshal these facts to disparage the framers, but to restore the Convention — and hence, the Constitution — to human proportions. In doing so, he creates a riveting drama, where the outcome of the Convention is never certain.

Mr. Goldstone’s stated purpose is to “clear away the gods and heroes” so that we can get a sense of what it would be like to “walk in the door” of Independence Hall with the delegates. He accomplishes this task with economy and verve by weaving together biography, historic context, salient passages from the debates and stories of the alliances forged among the delegates during after-hours meetings in Philadelphia’s inns and taverns.

Fifty-five delegates from 12 states participated in the 1787 Convention, yet only four — Madison, Hamilton, Franklin and Washington — are names that are popularly recognized; and these four are much more than names to us, they are the marbleized icons of our national consciousness. Yet, as Mr. Goldstone shows, Franklin and Washington were present mostly to lend their venerability to the effort and had little impact on the actual proceedings. Madison and Hamilton, though the chief engineers of the conclave, waned in influence after the initial ‘philosophical’ phase.

Refreshingly, Mr. Goldstone does not dwell on the marbleized founders. Instead, by shifting the focus to the key players among the other 51 delegates, he puts a more human face on the Convention. While it is difficult for us to overcome our heroic images of a Washington or Franklin, it is easy enough for us to believe that men whose names we don’t recognize — men like Elbridge Gerry, Rufus King, Luther Martin, Gen. Pinckney — are ordinary mortals with virtues, vices, ambitions and economic interests, that just might have affected their decisions.

Through incisive biographical sketches of many of these unknowns, Mr. Goldstone helps us to appreciate the complexity of motives at work that summer in Philadelphia. Of the economic factors of the time, the competition to settle Western lands was dominant, equaled only by slavery.

Concurrent with the Philadelphia Convention, the Confederation Congress, meeting in New York, passed the Northwest Ordinance, a major piece of legislation that not only favored Northern land speculators over Southerners, but completely outlawed slavery in the territory north of the Ohio River. Yet astonishingly, this legislation met with unanimous approval from Southern congressmen.

Meanwhile in Philadelphia, the Northerners accepted the numerous pro-slavery provisions into the Constitution. Travel was constant between the two cities, and many of the Convention delegates were also members of Congress who made the trip to and from New York at some point during the Convention. Thus historians have long suspected a quid pro quo, though no one yet has been able to definitively document it.

Of the strange-bedfellow coalitions that formed among the Convention delegates, Mr. Goldstone focuses special attention on the alliance between South Carolina’s John Rutledge with Connecticut’s Oliver Ellsworth and Roger Sherman. He credits them with crafting the compromises that carried the Convention over potential collapse and brought it to a successful conclusion.

Many of the framers were personally pained by the slave question, and all were acutely aware of the moral taint that slavery would cast upon a Constitution of free men. As a result, in their debates they constantly resorted to euphemisms such as “this unique species of property” or “this unhappy class;” and in preparing the final document, they studiously avoided using the terms “slave” or “slavery.” The most famous denunciation of slavery during the Convention came from George Mason, the owner of more than 300 souls, who was the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights from which the Bill of Rights was adapted.

The story of this deal-making, conflict-ridden Convention with quirky characters and inexplicable paradoxes, has particular relevance today because it challenges the myth on which the modern despotic judiciary bases its authority. If the framers were more pragmatic than philosophical, then the Constitution is not a mystical text of “penumbras” and “emanations” that only the initiated priesthood (legal experts) can understand. It is what it appears to be: a practical blueprint for federal government.

There is much to admire about the foundation of U.S. government, but nothing is gained by deifying the framers or the Constitution, except for power for the legal class. Mr. Goldstone does not evince any political purpose in this book.

But when we see the founders as ordinary men (or worse, ordinary politicians), we can readily see how absurd it is when judges claim to discover, in the brief text of the Constitution, a moral right to abortion or sodomy, an injunction against creches on public property or new rules for professional golf. Today, the Constitution is little read but widely venerated. “Dark Bargain” makes the document accessible. Both are highly recommended.

Robert Seidenberg is a writer living in Alexandria, Va.

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