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Thursday, March 14, 2013

“The Founding: A Dramatic Account of the Writing of the Constitution”, by Fred Barbash


286 pages, Linden Publishers, ISBN-13: 978-0671552565

The Founding: A Dramatic Account of the Writing of the Constitution began life as just another entry keyed to the Constitutional Convention’s bicentennial and, thus, was meant to have broad popular appeal. A journalist for the Washington Post, Barbash writes crisply and colorfully, organizes his complicated material intelligently, and breathes life into the Founding Fathers.

Most were astounded when Edmund Randolph of Virginia presented them with young James Madison’s plan for scrapping the existing Articles of Confederation and establishing a national government that would preempt many of the States’ powers. Because the former colonies had now become 13 small republics whose “ambassadors” convened at the Confederation Congress – and scarcely agreed to anything – these powers were extensive. They included the right to enter foreign treaties, print paper money (which rapidly devalued), and maintain standing armies. For four months the delegates argued, submitted alternate plans, threatened boycotts, temporized, compromised, and finally hammered out the document that was to found the nation.

Barbash leads us skillfully through the conflicts: slavery (the northerners feared an insurrection); suffrage (they all wanted a property qualification but couldn't figure what it should be); the allocation of powers between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary; settlement of the western areas; and on and on and so forth. He judiciously selects from key speeches and supplies anecdotal material garnered from news reports and the conventioneers’ notes and letters. He runs out of steam when the document is finally signed, giving short shrift to the 13 state conventions that followed and to the writing of the Bill of Rights. This is popularized history at a fairly high level. Barbash catches the atmosphere at the Convention and the qualities of the men who gathered there. He explains their diverse positions and considerations succinctly and supplies a useful road map to the tortuous maneuverings and trade-offs that were the birth pangs of the Constitution.

This is overall an excellent, popular account of the Constitutional Convention, and Barbash’s background as a reporter for the serves him well, especially in his portrayal of the delegates as politicians and the Convention as an exercise in politics. He makes effective use of James Madison’s published convention notes to construct dramatic first-person dialogue and enlivens his story by highlighting the impact of the small states and otherwise obscure characters on the deliberations. Though short on revelation of the delegates’ motivations and lacking any new perspective, Barbash’s volume is nevertheless an excellent contribution to the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution.

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