The story of the Constitutional Convention and the ratification of the constitution differs greatly in style between Robert Middlekauff's The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 and Carol Berkin's A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution. Both author's tell the same tale, however, the differences between both author's descriptions of the process, goals, and results of the Constitutional Convention are mostly in the style of writing and the major theme of secrecy.
The Constitutional Convention began on May 25, 1786, ten years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. (Berkin, 2002) A total of seven states were represented. Many people had profound effects on the Convention, including James Madison and James Wilson. James Madison was eager to get started, bringing with him detailed plans for establishing a government. James Wilson, like Madison, also brought with him detailed plans. Wilson favored a democratic form of government. Wilson held the belief that the people should have a say in how their country is run, that man's intuition was reliable, his nature benevolent, and that he should be trusted with power. Alexander Hamilton, on the other hand, believed in a constitutional monarchy. However, Hamilton did not play an important role in the Convention.
It should be noted that with such a big decision, there should be an equally large number of opinions, plans, and personal agendas. Due to the secrecy of the Constitutional Convention, most of what was discussed disappeared to the ages. Like a high school election, popularity of a concept determined whether or not it stayed in on the table more so than it’s value to the union.
This created two sides: The first favored democracy, and the second favored monarchy. Everyone wanted the creation of a powerful government, everyone saw that a national government might stimulate the economy, and everyone wanted commerce regulated. However, not everyone wanted a monarchy, the very form of government that made the colonists leave England in the first place.
Most everyone agreed that the states should have equality in Congress. This notion was already well established since the Revolution. However, the larger states wanted to see representatives split up according to population in order to give their state more votes, and the small states wanted to keep the practice of each state, no matter the population, having one vote. This was the most discussed issue at the Convention.
The Virginia Plan suggested that the Articles of Confederation should be discarded even though it was decided that they should only be “corrected and enlarged.” This resolution was followed by 14 more that laid out the framework for what would be a powerful central government. The first order of business was establishing the major branches. The first was “national legislature.” National legislature was composed of two houses, the first elected by the people and the second elected by state legislatures. After this was finished, the national legislature would choose the executive and judiciary branches.
The following orders of business were that the national legislature would include all of the powers of the Confederation Congress. It also had the power to decide on certain cases that may disrupt the harmony of the United States' individual legislations. In essence, the national legislation would decide if the constitution had been violated by state laws, and if so, veto them. However, the national legislation could be checked on through the Council of Revision to fix any errors or corruption.
The Virginia Plan also detailed that the constitution would provide for the admission of new states, guarantee a republican government to new and old states, and require state officials to take an oath to support the constitution. It also provided for ratification in state conventions. This would cause a stir later on. (Middlekauff, 2005)
The Constitution now had to go through the second process of its creation: ratification by the states. Nine states had to approve the Constitution for it to go through. If nine states did not approve it, long months of debate, negotiation, argument, and compromise would be useless. In the end, all nine states ratified, however, North Carolina and Rhode Island did vote against ratification initially. By March of 1790, all nine states had ratified. (Berkin, 2002)
A common opinion in 1787 of what the Constitutional Convention was that it had gone against the principles of the American Revolution, to which there was an original commitment. In the new government, all the power was not with the individual states, but with Congress, an organization that the people were not sure would be free of corruption. People thought that the constitution was a conspiracy to control the states, in essence, a monarchy.
When the war ended, affluent men were running Congress, the army, and state legislatures. The constitution was written in a mood of disenchantment by these men. The people believed that these men that were now running the country did not want a democracy. People believed that Congress had too much power. Critics of the constitution argued that the national government would exercise all powers at the expense of the states because of what George Washington said. Washington stated that one of the purposes of the Convention was to consolidate the Union. This is when critics called for ratification of the constitution. (Middlekauff, 2005)
Berkin's telling of what happened is more story-like than Middlekauff's telling. For example, Berkin (2002) uses detail and dialogue, such as:
“The year was 1786. It was the tenth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the third year of life in a new nation, but the political leaders everywhere feared there was little cause to celebrate. Dark clouds and suffocating gloom seemed to have settled over the country, and these men understood that something had gone terribly wrong.” (p. 11)
Berkin uses dialogue, engulfing the reader in the story. Although Middlekauff and Berkin tell the same facts, Middlekauff's writing is dense and difficult to follow, while Berkin's writing is lighter and easier to read. Berkin makes use of character development, showing instead of telling how the delegates were. Middlekauff tells only the facts, only giving vague descriptions of the delegates.
In the introduction of A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, Berkin describes the story-like style of her book “a conscious act of imagination to see America through the eyes of its founding fathers.” (Berkin, 2002, p. 5) Because the description of events by modern Americans can be difficult to connect to because of the election crisis and the terrorists attacks on September 11, 2001, one must make a conscious effort to be imaginative, not only to tell the facts, but to also make the chronology of events readable to the everyday American. Learning from history is important, however, no one will learn about it if no one makes it fun.
While telling the outcome of the ratification conventions, Berkin used suspense to keep the reader reading. Berkin used at least ten pages to reveal the outcome, while Middlekauff used less. When the verdict did finally come, when reading Berkin's version, the reader feels a sense of relief, somewhat like the reaction to a suspenseful film. Even though the outcome of the ratification conventions were obviously already known, the reader cannot help but read on to see if it turns out the way they know it will.
Middlekauff, on at least two occasions, goes into great detail about specific things. For example, Middlekauff explains why each state were either eager to ratify the Constitution or eager to vote against ratification. This is how Middlekauff drew out the final result, whereas Berkin used suspense.
Another example of this in Middlekauff's version was when Middlekauff described some of the delegates, such as George Washington and James Madison. He described George Washington as eager to get out of the public eye and how he did not even want to attend the Constitutional Convention; Washington wanted to spend his time at Mount Vernon. As for James Madison, Middlekauff described him as a man of small stature, a classic intellectual. Middlekauff described Madison as a man eager to get on with the Constitutional Convention, arriving before all of the other delegates. Middlekauff uses vague descriptions, while Berkin gets into the characters of James Madison and George Washington. Berkin uses more imagination in her version of events while Middlekauff relies on fact for his version.
Secrecy was a major theme of the Constitutional Convention. Middlekauff did not go into this theme in detail, and Berkin did not mention it at all. According to Gordon Lloyd, secrecy was a huge part of the Convention. Since democracy and openness are considered synonymous, many often wonder why everything was kept secret. The reason for the secrecy was that openness does not bode well for conducive deliberation and choice. The pressures of the public would be too much strain under which to decide the future of a nation. Private sessions were required. (Lloyd, 2008)
When comparing the ideal America portrayed in these books, one can’t help but to compare where this nation started to where it is now. In the years since this country was founded, it has still seen corruption a number of times, and in all likelihood, will see again in the future. Many argue that politicians only look out for the wealthy, an argument made stronger simply by the income these politicians now earn. This coupled with money earned through lobbying is a growing concern and fear of further corruption. However, there is always hope for a government free of corruption.
The level of secrecy in the current government is also a note worthy subject for debate. This was especially true during the Iraq war, where false information combined with a need for action. At the time the war was declared, many Americans asked questions concerning weapons of mass destruction, yet the answers were not released. This was because the government did not want to release possible areas if would target during the war. After the war, when no weapons of mass destruction were discovered, the government acknowledged its false information. However, this lead many to believe that fear was used to mask a government conspiracy.
Regardless of fear for the future, it is still common believe that the United States of America is the best nation on the planet. The freedoms allowed in our country are some of the most spoken benefits of citizenship in this country. Despite this, we can not be one hundred percent sure of what transpired in the room where they were decided upon. Our government is good at keeping secrets, especial when it comes to key government activity, and what could be more key to our country than our very on constitution.
Robert Middlekauff and Carol Berkin each tell the story of the Constitutional Convention and the ratification conventions, with nothing left out. The differences are that Middlekauff uses a more straight-forward, factual approach, and Berkin uses a prose-like approach, with elements used such as suspense and character development. Each give accurate portrayals of the process, goals, and results of the Constitutional Convention; the only real differences are the styles used by each author. The explanation of history is important, and the different styles used by different authors tells the same story in several ways, showing how Americans can have different views on their government.
- Berkin, Carol. (2002). A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution. New York: Harcourt, Inc. 5, 11, 169, 190.
- Lloyd, Gordon. (2008). Major Themes at the Constitutional Convention. Teaching American History. 18 May 2009. http://teachingamericanhistory.org/convention/themes/
- Middlekauff, Robert. (2005). The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press. 622-630, 649, 654.