“What I so love about this book [is] it’s a great narrative, a great yarn, great personalities, but you’re not afraid of legislative minutiae.”

That’s what The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart had to say about Richard Beeman’s new book on the making of the U.S. Constitution, Plain, Honest Men, which is excerpted in this issue. Stewart concluded his mostly respectful April 23 interview with the Penn professor of history and former College dean by calling the book “a great and thorough telling of the story.” (On the other hand, he opened the show by pretending to think his guest that night would be “supervillain Bee Man—half man, half bee.”)

This summer Beeman also answered some questions, posed by Gazette editor John Prendergast, about how he came to write Plain, Honest Men, what the delegates to the Convention got right and wrong, and his “out-of-body-experience” on The Daily Show.

You say in the acknowledgements that, though you’ve been studying and writing on the Constitution for 40 years, this is the first book you’ve done on it designed for a wide audience. What was the impulse that led you to write it and why did you think such a book was needed?

The subject of the Constitutional Convention has fascinated me ever since I read Catherine Drinker Bowen’s popular account, Miracle at Philadelphia, more than 40 years ago.  Bowen’s book is a terrifically good read, but as I have thought about the subject over the years, I have come to realize that her book tends to mythologize the Founding Fathers, to elevate them to the status of demi-gods, rather than portray them as the practical-minded, 18th-century politicians that they were. So I wanted to have my say on the subject. And though I have had the pleasure of teaching many hundreds of Penn students about the Convention over the course of my 41 years on the faculty here, my participation in the design and creation of the National Constitution Center—whose exhibits reach hundreds of thousands of American citizens each year—inspired me to try to write a book that would convey my thoughts on this important subject to a much wider audience.  

You call Madison, Washington, and Franklin the “indispensable men” of the Convention. Madison and Washington’s central roles are clear, but can you talk about Franklin’s? In the narrative, he seems out of it much of the time, with the other delegates almost humoring him.

For much of the Convention Franklin’s intervention in the debates is uneven at best, and sometimes downright wacky (as in his suggestion that justices of the Supreme Court be elected by a vote of all the lawyers in the country).  But on the final day of the Convention, in his speech asking the assembled delegates to put aside their sense of their own “infallibility” and to sign the completed document, with all of its perceived flaws, Franklin dispenses an essential bit of wisdom that could serve as sound advice for any group of politicians—particularly, perhaps, our national Congress today.

The book is basically a day-by-day account of the Constitutional Convention, from May to September 1787, and one of the strengths of that detail is that it becomes clear how much the document was created on the fly, so to speak. It’s not like the group convened to ratify something that had been worked on in advance—they really made it up as they went along. Can you talk a bit about the audacity of that process?

The “audacity” of the process occurs at the very beginning, when James Madison and a few key members of the Pennsylvania delegation cook up the Virginia Plan, a plan to scrap the Articles of Confederation altogether and to start over with a truly national national government, with a supreme legislature, executive, and judiciary. That plan called for a true revolution in the character of America’s continental government. Although the Virginia Plan did not survive intact, it did set the agenda for the remainder of the Convention, setting the delegates on a course not merely to amend the Articles of Confederation, but to establish an entirely new kind of central government. After that audacious moment (which occurred on May 29, when Virginia Governor Edmund Randolph presented the Virginia Plan) the process of constitution-making was less about either great flights of imagination or divine inspiration, but rather, was hard, often tedious work.

What were some of the disadvantages? In some ways, decisions seemed to be arrived at through exhaustion. But would more time have helped?

More time??!!!  From the standpoint of the Convention delegates, that summer in 1787 seemed nearly endless. If anyone had suggested that they spend still more time confined to the Assembly Room of the Pennsylvania State House, the delegates would have shrieked with horror.  As it was, when George Mason of Virginia, in early September, proposed that the delegates add a bill of rights to the Constitution, nearly all of the delegates ignored his suggestion, fearing that a discussion of such a bill of rights would prolong their confinement still further.  As it turned out, that bit of impatience was a serious mistake on their part, for when the document was submitted to the people of the states for approval, there was widespread agreement that the absence of a bill of rights was a serious defect.

The Convention’s deliberations were kept secret—with a high degree of success, as it turned out. How did that affect the course of events?

The rule of secrecy was enormously important to the success of the Convention. Over the course of that long summer the delegates disagreed, often vehemently, over many of the proposals put before them. The rule of secrecy allowed them to engage in spirited debate and disagreement, and then to go off that evening to the tavern, enjoy a cordial meal and a drink (actually, copious quantities of drink) together, putting aside their differences of the day, knowing that they would return the following day to try to reach consensus.

The rule of secrecy was of course totally contrary to our modern political ethic—it was both undemocratic and untransparent. But imagine if we were to hold a Constitutional Convention today, with each delegate staking out his or her own position, posturing before the television cameras, carefully prepared with his or her sound bites when confronted by the reporters from Fox News or MSNBC. The ability to “doubt a little their own infallibility,” so perceptively championed by Franklin, would be altogether absent.  I shudder to think of the consequences.

A lot of the early controversies among the delegates based on small state versus large state issues seemed to be beside the point in the later history of the country. But the arguments related to slavery obviously continued to figure—and would ultimately nearly tear the country apart in the Civil War. Were the delegates’ attitudes toward slavery their greatest blind spot?

Absolutely.  The delegates’ failure to confront the “paradox at the nation’s core” may have allowed them to move forward with their business, but by postponing the day of reckoning over that paradox, it added hugely to the suffering and bloodshed that would follow in the decades to come.  The reasons for the delegates’ failure are complicated—too complicated to summarize in a brief paragraph. This is the point at which I ask, shamelessly, your readers to buy and read the book!

There are other elements that we are still arguing about—for example, the extent of executive power, and the notion of “original intent” in interpreting the Constitution. What would the delegates have thought
of that?

Americans have been arguing about how their Constitution should be interpreted since the day the delegates began debating the Constitution on May 25, 1787, and we continue to do so today—especially today. But unlike many contemporary jurists (Justice Scalia does come to mind here), they were extraordinarily humble about their accomplishments. They would have been loathe, I think, to demand that subsequent generations of Americans be bound by their conceptions of any of the particular provisions of the constitution they had drafted. Indeed, they knew full well the extent of the divisions that existed among them about the meaning of key aspects of their constitution—on the precise meaning of “federalism” or “executive power.” With all due respect to those who espouse either an “originalist” or an “original intent” doctrine of constitutional interpretation, I believe that the framers of the Constitution would have found either notion to be chimerical.

If you had to say, what would you judge as the main thing the Constitutional Convention got right, and what was the most important thing they got wrong—aside from their essential indifference to slavery, which is in a class by itself?

The delegates faced the same task that has confronted virtually every society since the beginning of time—that of devising a mode of government that would preserve public order while at the same time granting to individuals an appropriate measure of personal liberty.  But that task was made particularly formidable by the very character of America—its geographic expanse, its ethnic and religious diversity, and the jealousies of each of the independent and autonomous states. In devising a system of government that provided both checks and balances within the new government and for a division of power (however vaguely defined) between the central and state governments, the framers succeeded brilliantly. But most of the framers of the Constitution were republicans, not democrats, and many of the features of the government they created—an indirectly elected Senate and the electoral college come immediately to mind—provide pretty clear evidence that they had succeeded only in creating a more perfect union, not a perfect union.

What would you like people to take away from the book?

A simple truth. Good government requires hard work—both in the creation of the government and in its execution. And it requires a good deal of humility—the ability to check one’s ego at the door and to not allow the perfect to become an enemy of the good. That was Franklin’s essential wisdom, dispensed on that last day of the Convention.

Finally, Plain, Honest Men has received a good deal of attention, including a positive review in The New York Times by Franklin-biographer Walter Isaacson. But for a certain segment of our readers at least, your appearance on The Daily Show was the only publicity that really mattered.  What was that experience like for you, and what impact did it have?

I have described my interview by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show as an “out-of-body-experience.” I was terrified at the prospect and I honestly have little memory of what I actually said in response to his questions.  But, somehow, all that information that I had in my head about this subject didn’t evaporate, the neurons in my brain seemed not to misfire, and I managed to escape without major public humiliation.

The effect of The Daily Show appearance was amazing.  It is perhaps a commentary on the state of our republic that a highly favorable review in the The New York Times by a distinguished author caused book sales to increase slightly, but my six and a half minutes on The Daily Show caused sales to skyrocket! And, from the standpoint of Penn undergraduates, an appearance on The Daily Show seems to have had made a far greater impression than, say, if I had been awarded a Nobel Prize.


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