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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

“Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention, May to September 1787”, by Catherine Drinker Bowen

346 pages, Back Bay Books, ISBN-13: 978-0316103985

Thomas Jefferson’s statement about the quality of persons attending the Federal Convention, that they were an “assembly of demi-gods”, was an astute observation of the moment. Truly, it was a gathering of the finest minds available anywhere in the world, all collected at precisely the same time, with preservation of the new-found, hard won freedom uppermost in the psyche of all of them; determined to form as perfect a document of government as could be agreed upon; along with a separate bill of rights, and the miracle at Philadelphia did come to pass. It was not without pain, flaws and disappointments for some, but what emerged from this period of time between May and September of 1787 has endured as the lighted lantern of a free people.

One immense yet single goal, attested to through baptism by fire, by the magnificent, dedicated few, overcoming personal agendas to protect the future of the many. We sense the urgency to create a fail-safe document, mingling uneasily with the underlying fear that if mistakes were made now, all could be circumvented by the unscrupulous in the centuries to follow. We feel the intense, vibrant and varying personalities that tried to beat the political bushes enough to rout out the roaches that may be lurking in the document. It's such a mess today it's hard to justify the making of a central government without feeling somewhat foolish; but it was clear that something had to be done with the Articles of Confederation; the sovereign states had become so sovereign that they considered themselves untouchable with regards to sending monies to the common kitty to pay down debt. Nobody knew this better than George Washington; in the throes of the Revolution itself, his pleas for supplies, payrolls for his army, seemingly were tabled inexcusably, maddeningly, by the existing congress even in the face of possibly losing the war for liberty itself. So, after the was won under such duress (another miracle) the gathering of the demigods heeded the call together in high secrecy in Philadelphia for the forming of a central government, whose citizens were to be protected by a truly unique Constitution, even though those patriots such as Patrick Henry were absent in protest fearing another imperial government might be unfolding.

This is truly a magnificent book, highly recommended for those who follow history. One observation the author makes clear is the fact that many Americans today don't know as much as they should about the debates; and I fear our history teachers may be to blame for some of it. Such an event needs constant fanning of a flame, interesting dialog, and too often it becomes dry and boring without that flame. Another must have accounting for anyone interested in the actual debates over the Constitution, the Library of America offers one that is entitled simply enough: Debate on The Constitution, which is a venerable collection of the best and most eloquent of the many writings by the differing minds that were wrangling over its writing and ratification at the time. The collection was selected by Bernard Bailin and includes Benjamin Franklin's famous acceptance speech – “I agree to this Constitution with all its faults” – which is quite a missive in itself, of course.

We all know how it turned out, but she takes us there again, with strength of insight and devotion seldom seen. Yet another literary gem can be noted for posterity from Bowen’s book with this short, yet poignant verse of her own: “If all the tales are told, re-tell them, Brother. If few attend, let those who listen, feel.” She speaks for many with those words; I know she speaks for me.

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