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"While some have boasted it as a work from Heaven, others have given it a less righteous origin. I have many reasons to believe that it is the work of plain, honest men." Robert Morris, delegate from Pennsylvania to the Constitutional Convention From distinguished historian Richard Beeman comes a dramatic and engrossing account of the men who met in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 to design a radically new form of government.
Plain, Honest Men takes readers behind the scenes and beyond the debate to show how the world's most enduring constitution was forged through conflict, compromise, and, eventually, fragile consensus. The delegates met in an atmosphere of crisis, many Americans at that time fearing that a combination of financial distress and civil unrest would doom the young nation's experiment in liberty. When the delegates began their deliberations in May 1787, they discovered that a small cohort of men, led by James Madison, had prepared an audacious plan--revolutionary in its view of the nature of American government. The success of this bold and brilliant strategy was far from assured, and the ultimate outcome of the delegates' labors--the creation of a frame of government that would enable America to flourish--was very different from what Madison had envisioned when he launched his grand scheme.
Plain, Honest Men is a fascinating portrait of another time and place, a bold and unprecedented book about men, both grand and humble, who wrote a document that would live longer than they ever imagined. This is an indispensable work for our own time, in which debate about the Constitution's meaning still rages.
From the Hardcover edition.
It was a blustery saturday morning on March 15, 1783, and patches of snow still flecked the ground. General George Washington strode up a long hill toward a rocky promontory at the American army encampment seven miles southwest of Newburgh, New York. He was about to face the greatest personal challenge of his career. He was uncharacteristically nervous and uncertain, roiled by sensations of anger, frustration, and inadequacy. He had led his army to a brilliant victory over the British at Yorktown some seventeen months earlier. Yet the soldiers at Newburgh remained in the field, languishing, while peace negotiations dragged on in Paris. His troops had not been paid for many months, and the Continental Congress’s promises of a generous pension seemed as empty as the coffers of the bankrupt Confederation government.
To make matters worse, a cabal of American army officers, angry over the failure of the continental government to make good on its promises, had decided to take matters into their own hands. Five days earlier, Major John Armstrong, aide- de- camp to the commander at Newburgh, General Horatio Gates (Washington’s longtime rival), circulated an “address” to the soldiers, urging them to cease their meek supplications to an uncaring Congress and, if necessary, to throw off Washington’s leadership and redress their grievances by force of arms. In a letter to his former aide- de- camp and protégé, Alexander Hamilton, Washington expressed his fear that the disgruntled soldiers might throw “themselves into a gulph of Civil Horror.” Yet at the same time he had deep sympathy for their plight. Indeed, Hamilton had been gently nudging his mentor to throw in his lot with the discontented soldiers. As he approached his destination, Washington faced a painful choice: to remain loyal to his long- suffering troops or to honor the rule of law.
America’s ambitious experiment in liberty had seemed full of promise seven years earlier, in the summer of 1776, when Washington had ordered his commanders to read the Declaration of Independence aloud to their troops in order to steel them for the sacrifices ahead. And they had met the challenge. Since that time they had persevered through the cold and deprivation of Valley Forge, through nearly seven years of often dispiriting battle against the better- equipped British Army. Washington had come to understand that American liberty and American union—a strong union—were inseparable. The discontented soldiers at Newburgh threatened to put both liberty and the union at risk.
When he reached the top of the promontory, Washington entered a cavernous, drafty building, one hundred ten by thirty feet, which looked down on the Continental army encampment below. The “New Building” had been constructed a few months earlier to encourage “sociability” among the officers. But as Washington walked the length of the long hall past the five hundred assembled officers toward a small stage and lectern at the far end, there was little feeling of sociability in the air. The spectacle presented by the officers, many of them with faces set in anger, deepened Washington’s gloom. Everything about their appearance testified to the shameful neglect they had suffered at the hands of the continental government—from their torn and soiled uniforms to their worn- out boots and gaunt faces. And these were the privileged few, the officers. Washington knew that the enlisted men, waiting in their barracks for news of the outcome of the meeting, had suffered even greater privation. While the
Excerpted from Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution by Richard Beeman
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