Revolutionary America

The difference between these two books, Carol Berkin's a Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, and Robert Middlekauff's the Glorious Cause, is not so much in their substance, but rather they are very different in style. Middlekauff does a very professional job presenting material thoroughly, but his style is more prone to factual narrative. On occasion, his writing bursts with descriptive phrasing, as though an editor took his basic manuscript and added some color and gloss to it, as the material called for.

Berkin, on the other hand, writes with a distinctive flair and journalistically inspired descriptiveness of the various and diverse personalities that were on hand to craft the Constitution. She adds quite a bit to the tone of what she is presenting by giving readers colorful looks at the language and styles of the principle movers and shakers at the convention. It is as though she is trying to present history that will be entertaining as well as historically accurate and complete.

BERKIN on PRE-CONVENTION ATMOSPHERE: Carol Berkin's narrative describing the mood of the delegates is focused on the fact that there was much skepticism as to whether the job could get done, whether after the Revolutionary War the young upstart nation could get it together. The "League of Friendship" that served as the temporary national government grew "more impotent, more lethargic, and more incompetent" with every new day (Berkin, 6). So it was definitely time for the leaders in the young nation to get going.

Berkin (7-8) writes that historians tend to smooth over the rough edges that existed among the personalities who gathered in Philadelphia in May, 1787 behind "locked doors and bolted windows" to hammer out a constitution. The typical historian's view on the proceedings was that these were optimists, confident "manipulators" and "astute politicians," Berkin writes. And she is clearly not a typical historian. But she makes clear that the reality was that there was gloom and a lack of confidence going into the convention. The delegates were "anxious and uncertain," and there was a feeling that the representatives from 13 diverse colonies - with very different problems, attitudes, experiences and issues - would never be able to agree "on anything at all."

The author on page 10 takes a swipe at the current (2008) Congress and the executive branch. She suggests that were they suddenly transported "magically" into the 21st Century and witnessed "nightmare of partisanship and faction" that exists at the national level of politics today, the original founders of the Constitution would be shocked. And they would also be "puzzled," Berkin goes on (10), at the fact that "...president was expected to set our agenda in every aspect of domestic and foreign relations." Actually what the author is saying in this passage - published in 2002 - would have been far harsher on both the executive and legislative branches if the book had been published in say 2007. The framers of the Constitution insisted on language in the Constitution that created three equal branches; but since September 11, 2001, any objective observer can see that the Congress has been all to willing to hand over enormous power to the executive branch, and what power Congress has been reluctant to give, the executive branch has simply taken.

Meanwhile on page 12 Berkin describes the optimism that existed in the country following the Revolutionary War, but on page 13-14 notes that there was a post-war economic depression, along with a "wave of foreclosures and evictions" and the states were not getting along with one another. Peace had brought pain in many respects. Jails in Massachusetts were filling up with "debtors" and farmers were in rebellion.

MIDDLEKAUFF on PRE-CONVENTION ATMOSPHERE: In his pages leading up to the convention, author Robert Middlekauff concentrates on the temporary constitution that was put together in 1776, on politics in the states and on Thomas Jefferson's leadership in Virginia. His narrative seems much more formal and less descriptive than Berkin's. He tends to go straight to the facts and give the details in a fairly unemotional, albeit not dry tone. His paragraphs are longer and more detailed while Berkin likes to sneak in juicy little asides and details, and she is not at all shy about using adjectives and metaphors to paint a more complete picture.

For Middlekauff, also reviewed the various versions that different states had drawn up of what the constitution should look like. For example, in Pennsylvania did not believe in a government with separate houses; that system "engendered strife and division." But Middlekauff zeros in on individuals who were well prepared for this procedure - namely James Madison who was "...the most eager for a change to a powerful central government" (Middlekauff 622).

Madison "loved political liberty" but he hated "paper money and feared the wild schemes of debtors"; but "most of all he feared majoritarian tyranny and its sometime offspring, anarchy" (622). When George Washington rode in with his entourage, there was the "ringing of bells and shouts of admiring countrymen"(623). Washington had enjoyed private life at Mount Vernon after "eight years of exhausting service to his country" but albeit he was reticent to attend, he was persuaded to be there. Middlekauff makes a good point on page 622 when he points out that of course Washington was an icon, a national hero, but Washington "brought neither a clearly formulated plan of government...nor a well-articulated political philosophy." A constitution put together with Washington's blessing "would doubtless attract the approval of many of his countrymen," Middlekauff explains.

Middlekauff offers some data on the makeup of the delegation that Berkin does not offer: "At least thirty-four" had some legal training and twenty one were practicing attorneys; eighteen of the delegates were "planters and farmers"; nineteen owned slaves; seven were merchants and "another eight, all lawyers [were] closely associated with commerce." A good majority of the men were office-holders and had served in the Revolutionary war and in Congress.

None of the men attending were black or poor; and there were no women. In terms of those "rigid" conservatives "who resist change" - there were just a handful. Most of the men were in thirties or forties, and the exception was Benjamin Franklin, who was eighty-one "and in bad health." That bad health didn't stop Franklin from being a powerful advocate for a strong national government; he wasn't alone since many delegates realized only a strong central government could have control of regulating commerce.

BERKIN on the EARLY PART of the CONVENTION: The issue of secrecy came up immediately on that first day of deliberations (May 29, 1787); some believed that the "frank discussion of economic, political, and social problems" that faced the country should be kept away from foreign diplomats and observers (Berkin 64). Others though were for secrecy because they wanted to prevent "a further blow to the morale of a public already anxious about the future of the nation" (65). Still others worried about their own reputations and didn't wish to have their positions on the most controversial measures leak out to the public and perhaps harm their upcoming campaigns for public office. But Thomas Jefferson "was appalled" by the "wall of silence the convention had constructed" that was "tying up the tongues" of the delegates. He considered secrecy "an abominable precedent" (65).

On page 66-67 Berkin takes the situation on that initial day of negotiation and makes more of a story out of it; while not saying her narrative is any more accurate than Middlekauff, Berkin does add a little spice and emotion to her writing. She recounts the input by Virginia Governor Edmund Randolph whose rhetoric embraced a litany of troubling "flaws and failures" of the young confederation of states. Among his concerns, which were presented (Berkin 66) with a "perfect note of humility and sincerity," were the following. One) the "inadequacies of the requisitions system"; two) the threat of "social anarchy"; three) unpaid foreign debts, which were "an embarrassment"; four) the "violation of treaties" with some states and with foreign powers; and the "havoc produced by paper money." Beyond that, Randolph mentioned "a gloomy" list of other problems; the failure of the government to "secure its borders"; the failure to compete in the world market; the lack of solutions to solve quarrels between the states "or quell domestic rebellions."

With that as a prelude, Randolph then offered the Virginia Plan, fifteen resolutions that Berkin writes (67) "amounted to a constitutional revolution." Berkin writes that Randolph (who admitted the ideas he was putting forward were not his) had "thrown down the gauntlet" to those who supported the Confederation and "issued the call to arms for the nationalists" (67).

MIDDLEKAUFF on the EARLY PART of the CONVENTION: Author Middlekauff spent far less time than Berkin on the issue of secrecy; in fact in one sentence he declared that the Convention simply decided to "...keep its proceedings a secret, a wise decision making candor and flexibility possible" since both openness and negotiation…