Constitutional Convention a Brilliant Solution essay

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Berkin clearly writes a book that covers the details of the Constitutional Convention, how deals were struck, what compromises were put together and why.

Another of the leading characters in Philadelphia during the convention -- John Adams -- is briefly introduced by Berkin as "feisty" and "outspoken" (p. 11); Adams observed "his nation's circumstances with more than his usual pessimism" (p. 12), Berkin writes. Adams is mentioned again in several brief passages (pp. 17, 30, 48-49, 52) albeit most of her early narrative paints a picture of the dynamics within the convention, the arguments, the grandstanding, the axes to grind and other differences -- and not so much with the characters per se.

As for Middlekauff's descriptions of Adams, he of course has many more pages to devote to the more powerful and interesting characters, and John Adams certainly was among the aforementioned participants. On page 239 Middlekauff offers the readers a penetrating look into the personality and mind of John Adams. "Keeping in the background came hard to John Adams, almost as hard as holding his anger in check," Middlekauff explains. But in addition to the anger, Adams was "a warm, often irascible and impulsive man, open to the world, eager for its praise and recognition" (Middlekauff p. 239). The comparison between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams (Middlekauff p. 240) is particularly poignant, and tells the reader a lot about both men.

"Jefferson possess a serene surface that the perpetually uneasy Adams never developed, even for a moment," Middlekauff explains (240). That sentence brings volumes of information to the reader's eyes in a mere16 words. And lest the reader see Adams as a hyperactive wild man on edge all the time, Middlekauff goes on: "Jefferson was elegant; Adams was rough though never coarse. He lacked Jefferson's versatility, but within its range his intelligence cut as deeply as Jefferson's did" (Middlekauff, p. 240). John Adams' knowledge of the history of religion and politics surpassed Jefferson's, Middlekauff goes on. And Adams, who "craved fame and reputation," was not inclined to do "anything" to get publicity for himself (Middlekauff, p. 240), albeit his "maturity of judgment" did not match that of his wife Abigail Smith Adams (Middlekauff, p. 240).

Given the hundreds of pages that Middlekauff was given, he of course could afford to delve deeper into the personalities, careers, and human interests of the convention's characters. One of the few places in her book where she compared Adams with Jefferson, the two delegates have differences over the power the convention would grant to the executive branch. Berkin quotes from Adams' letter to Jefferson in December, 1787: "You are afraid of the one -- I, of the few…you are Apprehensive of Monarchy; I, of Aristocracy…" (Berkin, p. 181).

Both writers delve into the issue of slavery, albeit from entirely different perspectives and in very different contexts. Middlekauff lays a foundation for his discussion of what happened in the Constitutional Convention. Berkin briefly and vaguely lays some groundwork for the convention's discussion of slavery, but does not go into depth to any extent. For example, on page 606 Middlekauff mentions that the very institution of slavery "encouraged white men to think of their liberties…taught them that property was supremely important: property as ownership of the self, of land, and of others made one free."

In fact, Middlekauff continues (606) the existence of "large numbers of black slaves may have helped induce the powerful to protect the liberties of poor whites." There was "an affinity between slavery and freedom in Virginia. The horrors of the enslaved made the free sensitive to the blessings of liberty," he explains. But those horrors did not persuade the whites "to free the slaves" because slaves were "too valuable as a source of labor" (Middlekauff, p. 606). It was a matter of economics over social justice and moral values. The slaves in the colonies reminded Virginians of the "English poor" because "if left to their own devices…[slaves were] Brutish -- vicious, idle, and dissolute" (Middlekauff p. 606). Hence, since property was so important in Virginia and throughout the southern colonies especially, because property as ownership of "the self, the land, and of others made one free" (Middlekauff, p. 606).

As background on slavery and on Jefferson's attitude about slaves, on page 612 Middlekauff describes a bill on slavery taken up by the Virginia legislature that would have gradually emancipated the slaves, and an amendment was attached to that bill which would have allowed slaves born after the act passed to be free "on reaching adulthood." Further, the bill would have required slaves -- after being trained at public expense -- to be "be sent out of the commonwealth to be colonized at a distance remote from white society" (Middlekauff, p. 612). Jefferson though this would be a good idea because he believed that "blacks and whites could not live together peacefully" (Middlekauff, p. 612).

When it came to the writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson (an owner of slaves) had written, "all men are created equal" because he did believe, Middlekauff writes (331), that "in one respect, as men, blacks were the equals of whites because they possessed a 'moral sense,' the quality that defined men as men, that gave them their humanity."

Meanwhile Berkin writes about the slavery issue in general ways leading up to the convention, and mentions states like Georgia were concerned that northern states might try to end slavery (Berkin, p. 110). On page 112 Berkin mentions that the Connecticut Compromise provided that all bills would start in the lower house and that in order to count the number of people (for representative government in the lower house) and give credit to slaves, the slaves would be counted as "three to five" whites. It was the south, understandably, that wanted "assurances that the slave trade could continue, at least for a time, and that the Africans or Caribbean blacks brought to America would not be considered taxable imports."

In his Epilogue, Middlekauff explains that "war and crisis" brought Americans to the place where they had to use "stimulated imaginations" to move to the next step, a formal, believable and workable national government. The bottom line in Middlekauff's view was that those revolutionaries who shook off the shackles of British tyranny had managed to think "in two extraordinarily different ways" (Middlekauff, p. 665). First, they learned to see things "as they are" and next, they had to "imagine how they might be."

As to Berkin's conclusion, rather than having written a lot about Washington during the narrative of the convention, she uses a separate chapter (Chapter Nine) to describe George Washington, and other late chapters to one by one describe the delegates in detail. There is nothing wrong with doing it this way, but a reader might wish to read through the biographies of all the delegates first,…[continue]

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