Constitutional Convention a Brilliant Solution by Carol Research Proposal

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Constitutional Convention

A Brilliant Solution by Carol Berkin

In terms of contemporary relevance, upon first glance Carol Berkin's book A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution would seem to have an advantage over other books about the framing of the U.S. Constitution, such as The Glorious Cause by Middlekauff. That extra degree of relevance for Berkin's book is due to its date of publication (in 2002), after the Supreme Court (in a 5-4 vote) gave the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush and after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001. Berkin's desire to author a book on the creation of the Constitution was stimulated, she explains, by the events of 2000 and 2001. Those two events indeed provided the "genesis" of her decision to tackle this book (Berkin, p. 1). Those are admirable reasons for taking on a difficult historical subject. However, Berkin would appear to be glossing over the "…most celebrated disputed election in presidential history" (Berkin, p. 2) by claiming of the 2000 election crisis, "…the American Constitution had come through yet another trial by fire and a peaceful transition of power had been achieved" (Berkin, p. 2).

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What actually transpired was that the American political system had allowed the Supreme Court to basically elect Bush, 5-4 (five Republicans and four Democrats). And one wonders what Patrick Henry, John Adams and Richard Henry Lee among other delegates to the convention would have said -- if they had a crystal ball and could see into the year 2000 -- about the U.S. Supreme Court trumping the Florida Supreme Court's power. Berkin writes on page 17 that Henry, Adams and Lee were "Americans when they contrasted themselves with the citizens, government officials, and soldiers of England." But at home, they were "Virginians, New Jerseyites, Connecticut men." Clearly state's rights were important to a group of highly educated men who had just helped win the Revolutionary War and hence they had shed the shackles of powerful central government in England.

Research Proposal on Constitutional Convention a Brilliant Solution by Carol Assignment

In 2000 it was state's rights being snuffed out by the federal power structure when the U.S. High Court cut off the recounting of ballots in Florida (ordered by the Florida Supreme Court) that might have given Al Gore a victory. Later, in November 2001, the technical re-counts (by the National Opinion Research Center) showed Gore might have actually may have won if "overvotes" were taken into consideration. But that is another story, albeit the Constitution's awesome power and scope is lurking behind nearly every important political event in America; and every politician standing up to speak about any august national decision (war, peace, torture, executive power vs. congressional power, stealthy federal surveillance of private citizens in the name of national security, and more) embraces "the founding fathers," "the framers," or "our Constitution."

Comparison: Berkin and Middlekauff

Meantime, this paper is a comparison between the descriptions of the process, goals, and results of the Constitutional Convention authored by Carol Berkin and the same descriptions presented by Robert Middlekauff. To begin with, Middlekauff's book is a hefty 665 pages (not counting bibliographic copy) with a 21-page Index. It is a book about the American Revolution and all the events leading up to it and through it.

Middlekauff's book embraces a far wider swath of history than Berkin's book does. In fairness, Berkin's hardback runs 297 (smaller) pages and is focused on the Constitutional Convention, not on the history leading up to it. Berkin includes the Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution and her index is 7 pages. Middlekauff uses footnotes very effectively and Berkin prefers no footnotes to back up her narrative. Interestingly, in "A Note on Sources" Berkin mentions more than a dozen books that readers may wish to consult for a deeper investigation into the conventions. These books spell out all the details and delve into the characters that played important roles in early American history and also at the Constitutional Convention -- but Middlekauff's book is not among those recommended. The Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier book (Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787) is mentioned, though (Berkin, p. 299).

It should also be mentioned that Berkin's book reads more like a novel than a historic collection of essays. Berkin uses colorful descriptive narrative, tightly written chapters, and a tone that is more along the lines of skepticism -- accentuating the sparks between ideas and participants with a history teacher's passion -- than objectivity. Middlekauff on the other hand presents his material more like a history book, though he does provide solid descriptions and sometimes goes into detail to the point of extreme.

It seems with Berkin that she deliberately does not put the delegates at the Constitutional Convention up in a high revered place, as icons of American history. She gives them their due, and goes into their diplomatic styles, but because most of the men were lawyers, she writes, there was ample "verbosity" on the floor of the convention. And she debunks the idea that these delegates who created the Constitution "believed confidently that they were designing a government for the ages" (Berkin, p. 7).

"Comforting" is how she describes the way in which many historians have incorrectly depicted the scene in Philadelphia; and those historians who explain that these delegates "convened in order to set America's destiny in a stone as solid as the Ten Commandments" were also wrong (Berkin, p. 7). The historians and scholars who believe that the "founding fathers knew what they were about" are also off the mark, Berkin continues on page 7. Reading her introductions and her descriptions of the scene and the mood in Philadelphia one gets the feeling that she is out to debunk some of the idealized versions of the Constitutional Convention -- or at least set the record straight.

Even Benjamin Franklin, whom scholars and historians depict as a strong force in forging the democratic document that was to emerge from the convention, is said by Berkin as believing that the best this convention could do would be to "…produce a government that could forestall, for a decade perhaps, the inevitable decline of the Republic into a tyranny of one, a tyranny of a few, or a tyranny of the majority" (Berkin p. 8).

As for Middlekauff's introduction into the Constitutional Convention, he is far less skeptical or pessimistic than Berkin is. James Madison was an intellectual, slight of build, who loved the idea of the union but "hated paper money and feared the wild schemes of debtors, and most of all he feared majoritarian tyranny and its sometime offspring, anarchy" (Middlekauff, p. 622). Middlekauff mentions Madison first as he introduced the convention because "Madison had thought more about government than anyone in the Convention; he was ready for what lay ahead," Middlekauff continues (623), "and he was determined to the point of fanaticism."

Berkin describes Madison as having talked "gravely of mortal diseases afflicting the confederacy" (11). Madison (15) was concerned about money and finances, as mentioned earlier, and saw that New Jersey ("trapped between" New York and Pennsylvania) was "a cask tapped at both ends," according to Berkin's reporting of Madison's description. In Berkin's narrative about Madison, readers don't get nearly as close to understanding his intensity as they do reading Middlekauff.

And so while no reader would expect two writers who are delving into the same topic -- especially an event of such great importance to the young country and to the future of the republic -- to view the proceedings and the men who attended the same way, these two writers have radically different approaches to the subject. Middlekauff goes into detail as to why George Washington really wanted to remain at Mount Vernon, after having led his young revolutionary country to victory over the bigger, better armed and better funded British Army. But Middlekauff points out (623) that two days after Madison arrived in Philadelphia, Washington rode in, "to be greeted by the ringing of bells and the shouts of admiring countrymen." The great regard (and reverence) toward George Washington from ordinary citizens and his peers brought him to Philadelphia, but also, he feared that his "non-attendance in this Convention" would be seen as a "dereliction to republicanism… [and] whether other motives" might be ascribe to him "for not exerting myself on this occasion in support of it" (Middlekauff, p. 623).

Washington, after all, had "more prestige than any American," Middlekauff reminds readers on page 623; and though he brought "neither a clearly formulated plan" for how the constitution should be created or a "well-articulated political philosophy," just being there with his giant reputation was a powerful statement for the delegates to get something done.

As to Berkin's style of covering Washington's arrival in Philadelphia, she barely spend any time at all building up the case that Washington, with all his honors and prestige, should be present. There was nothing in her narrative about Washington riding into town with bells ringing… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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