Monday, June 5, 2017

Book Review: 55 Men: The Story of the Constitution


55 Men: The Story of the Constitution
Based on the day-by-day notes of James Madison
Fred Rodell
published 1936

This book was for sale at my library, and given that I am preparing for our Age of Revolution school year, I could not pass it up, especially because it is about the Constitution "based on the day-by-day notes of James Madison."  Notice it was first published in 1936; I think my copy is actually from 1936 because it is brittle and every page has separated completely from its binding.

James Madison - 
Father of the Constitution

I thought this would read like a diary, but it is actually written in a chronological story narrative.  It begins in May 1787, when delegates met in Philadelphia to "repair" the Articles of Confederation, then replaced it with something totally brand new.  It is certainly an interesting and intense retelling of what fifty-five "hard-headed" men fought for.

This is a perfect book for junior high and high school students, though not juvenile in the least, because it is easily readable, understandable, and there is a chance young people may form a small appreciation for what these men did. This book exposes the battles lost and won between small states and larger states, South and East, state and federal, federal and national, agriculture and business , as well as government and the People. Yet, they banded together to consider what to do when new wily states in the West would want to join the Union. There were details that needed to be worked out, such as term limits, proportional representation, and how to count slaves.  Some of these contentious battles looked like there would never be a conclusion.

Benjamin Franklin - 
I suggested prayer, but they suggested otherwise.

At one point, Benjamin Franklin suggested daily prayers and to request a local clergy of the city to officiate the service, but Alexander Hamilton objected because he pointed out that it might indicate there was trouble in the Convention.  According to Madison's notes, others "agreed that secrecy was more important than divine assistance," and they "continued without the benefit of prayer."  This is interesting because this is not the story others have told.

One of the longer arguments was over  how the president was to be elected. Numerous schemes were successfully demonstrated, showing how dangerous a direct election of the president by the people or by the Senate would be.  Hence, it was finally decided that neither would have the vote; rather the people would vote for electors in their state who would in turn vote for the president.

Alexander Hamilton -
 a strong proponent of federal government

It was amazing how they came to the agreement on the separation of power, each branch of government and its specific responsibility, and the checks and balances that each branch had on the other.  The purpose of the separation of power was to protect all the people from tyranny of a president turned dictator; and it was "to protect a part of the people * from a type of government the delegates themselves feared even more:" DEMOCRACY.  I am not kidding.  The author said Democracy is "soaked . . . with schemes tending toward a more equal distribution of wealth."   Distribution of wealth is legalized greed and theft, and both are wrong.  But I digress.

* So, that separation of powers deal "softened the strength of real majority rule in order to guard the property interests of less than half the people."

Toward the end of the Convention, the slavery issue and slave trade were drudged up again, and it was a bitter fight.  But it was agreed that Congress not pass any legislation against the slave trade for twenty years. The Convention needed those slave states to agree to the new Plan, and the South felt that in twenty years they would no longer need the slave trade.  Essentially, most envisioned slavery fizzling out on its own in the future.

George Mason
I suggested a Bill of Right, but they wouldn't listen.

After four hot months at the Convention, the delegates were eager to get home.  That may be why they declined a Bill of Rights smartly suggested by George Mason; yet, a few months later, a Bill of Rights was added.  Hard as it may be to believe, there was great hysteria after the result of the Convention was revealed; people were extremely skeptical about the newly formed government.  It took an entire year before the ninth of the thirteen states ratified the Constitution and it could go into effect.

In the end, the author asked what the Founders would think today of their new experimental government.  Rodell declares that our government looks a lot more like a democracy.  He said,
[The Founders] would find the powers they once put in the hands of national government, to protect the property rights of men of affairs, being used in exactly the opposite way--being used to limit those property rights in the interest of a majority of the people.
They would find very little remaining of their separation of powers, with its many checks to guard against popular laws.  They would find just one of their three main branches of government removed from the people, instead of two and a half as once they planned.
Included in the back of the book are copies of the original Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the remaining Amendments - a few which were added after 1936.

This is an excellent, thorough, and insightful look at the secret Convention and the contentious debates leading up to the final construction of the foundation of the United States government.  The author lists plenty of evidence as to why the Founders decided for or against an idea, as well as the personal tempers of certain members regarding specific topics.

It has been said that the Constitutional Convention brought together some of the greatest minds that have ever lived; I believe it.  55 Men: The Story of the Constitution is the inside story of that miracle.

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States
- Howard Chandler Christy

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