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Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the Constitution Analysis

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Published: Tue, 05 Sep 2017

Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the Constitution. By Richard Beeman (New York: Random House) 2009. xxviii + 514 pp. Hardcover, $30.00. ISBN 9781400065707.

Richard Beeman’s book, Plain, Honest Men is a chronological narrative about the day-to-day interactions of the men who made up the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Beeman takes special care in developing the characteristics and personalities of the delegates and explores how their moods, their personal interests, and the hot weather helped to shape the lively debates over the creation of the Constitution. He explores the personal relationships, marriages, and the physical and intellectual idiosyncrasies of the Founding Fathers. Beeman depicts the Framers in a variety of ways. Some of the men were savvy, while others were inept. Some smart and others just mediocre. Some individuals were sophisticated while others were just plain vulgar. Many were quite generous, but others were intensely narcissistic. Beeman characterizes James Madison as being an indispensable but reticent thinker who was incapable of any great oratory or sustained relationships.

The author focuses on the issues such as the presidency, slavery, and the “necessary and proper” clause. On the issue of slavery, Beeman states that for the delegates, it was not “the central issue at stake in the making of the American Constitution.”[1] The author depicts the angry arguments over representation and its connection to slavery, which Beeman refers to as Bernard DeVoto’s “paradox at the nation’s core.”[2] According to the author, many delegates expressed aversion to slavery, but it was beyond them to conclude a way to abolish slavery without catastrophic consequences to the delicate union.

Beeman reconstructs the relationships between Washington and Madison and their intelligent and influential female friends such as Elizabeth Powell, who was the wife of Philadelphia’s mayor, and also had strong political opinions of her own. Beeman describes George Washington as towering above other men and being reserved in nature. Benjamin Franklin is characterized as being jovial and James Madison as being diminutive. The author portrays Madison as arriving from Virginia with a detailed plan of government that entailed completely scrapping the Articles of Confederation and starting from scratch. William Paterson of New Jersey was balding and of an angry disposition, and yet he spoke his way to distinction as the spokesman of the small states and was resolute to challenge his neighbors in the larger states like New York and Pennsylvania. Roger Sherman was a former shoemaker from Connecticut who overcame his bashful rural persona to become the voice of compromise which soon gained the respect of all convention attendees. Sherman was instrumental in creating the compromise that relinquished some states’ rights by apportioning the House of Representatives on the basis of population and allowing for equal representation among states in the Senate. Gouverneur Morris, formerly of New York but currently resided in Pennsylvania, had a peg leg and whose arrogance and often careless rhetoric often alienated the other delegates, was a hypnotic speaker. In creating these personalities, he is aware of the confines of his source material. The records of this period were kept by men who most assuredly had partisan agendas and male-controlled receptivity.

The book begins with the final days of the Revolution. Congress is bankrupt, the army has turned mutinous because of lack of pay, and the thirteen states do not get along. Daniel Shays, a discontented former army captain, leads his own rebellion in western Massachusetts. Representatives from both the north and the south believe the Articles of Confederation are not working and need to undergo some revisions; therefore, they agree to meet in Philadelphia the summer of 1787.

This book is written for general audiences as well as supplemental reading for classroom teachers. In an effort to ensure the reader does not fall into boredom while reading the narrative, Beeman has added peripheral information to keep the reader’s attention. For example, he adds such trivia as the fact that the State House yard privy had sixteen seats and was divided into four compartments[3], a Philadelphia prostitute charged two dollars[4], and the delegates had beer, bread, and butter for breakfast[5].

The author makes use of both primary and secondary sources. He uses Madison’s notes and the papers kept by Hamilton, Madison, and George Washington. Beeman also includes information collected by the Independence National Historic Park to assemble an accurate and authoritative account of the participants of the Constitutional Convention. The books title comes from a remark made by delegate and financier Roger Morris, who viewed the results of the Constitutional Convention as the work of “plain, honest men.” His important message is that our Founding Fathers could be both realists and idealists. The debates over slavery were the results of the limitations of educated men, who possessed a vision of what effective governance might bear a resemblance to but could not imagine extending the same rights to slaves as citizens. In writing Plain, Honest Men, Beeman avoids controversial issues such as the economic motives of the Founding Fathers and provides readers with an understanding of the fragility of the consensus emerging from Philadelphia.

Richard Beeman is considered by scholars to be an authority on the United States Constitution. He played a leading role in the creation of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and has served as vice-chair of its Distinguished Scholars Panel. Beeman has a vast knowledge of the era and is a noted historian of the late 18th century.


[1] Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the Constitution. By Richard Beeman, xii.

[2] Ibid, xii.

[3] Ibid, 63.

[4] Ibid, 74.

[5] Ibid, 78.


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