Book Review: Decision in Philadelphia

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Decision in Philadelphia by Christopher and James Lincoln Collier, originally published in 1987 by Ballantine Books

Though we may remember the political and ideological clashes of the Federalists and the Antifederalists following the adoption of the Constitution, intended to replace the much weaker, much looser Articles of Confederation, we tend often tend to forget that it was written and negotiated by men with different attitudes, views, experiences, and agendas. There was no unified view of what it should look like, or what form the government should take on. There was no consensus on the scope or the power that would fall to the federal and the state government. In the end, it would be the work of those delegates often divided by individual, regional and state size lines.

This is the story that brothers Christopher and James Lincoln Collier bring us in Decisions in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787 as they remind us that, “The Constitution, beyond all else, was forged in the heat of human emotion. In the end, it reflected, for good or ill, the human spirit.” Written just over 30 years ago, it remains as relevant as it ever was. , Seeking to build its foundation on a different approach than other historians have taken while still explaining “how the Constitution, that rock on which American freedom was built, works, what means, and why it was put together the way it was.” Taking the reader through the names and personalities of those influential in the Convention, as well as the major issues that were being faced by the delegates, the Collier Brothers offer a comprehensive, human view of one of the greatest turning points in the history of the young nation as they struggled to build this new Republic.

What the Collier’s do exceptionally well in this book is weave the story together, creating a rich tapestry for the readers, trying to do justice to the fact that “the making of the Constitution was a kaleidoscopic process in which shifts in one place often produced changes in seemingly unrelated places.” Taking on complex, multifaceted issues, controversial within the Convention they break them down from start to finish, making them easy to understand and relevant to the Constitutional process. In some senses, it offers a new and unique view that encourages readers, challenges them even, to dig a little deeper.

Perhaps one of the places we should take note of this is in their addressing of the slavery issue. Morally abhorrent today, the issue was a source of controversy in 1787. After all, the newly formed United States was not the only nation trying to figure out a way to address this issue. Whereas they, like most contemporary historians, condemn the practice, it is not where they end it. While pointing out that an outright ban of slavery would have prevented the passage of the Constitution, and perhaps even shattered the new, and fragile union altogether, the prevalent fear at the Convention, they lay the foundation of how slavery might have been approached to have eliminated the issue without the long, and bloodied Civil War that would follow. Though speculation, it offers a compelling case for review, including of how possible it would have been for states like Georgia, and the two Carolina’s would have been to go it alone.

Unfortunately, not all approaches offered the insight that we would have come to expect from a book that takes on this painstaking depth. Their assessment of the Electoral College, for example, which they refer to as a “Rube-Goldberg Machine”, unnecessarily complicated, hardly does justice to the institution that Alexander Hamilton described in the Federalist Papers as, if not being “perfect, it is at least excellent.” In this, one has to wonder where it was that they drew their conclusion that it was nothing more than “jerry-rigged out of odds and ends of parliamentary junk pressed together by contending interests.” Wherever it may have come from it becomes apparent that their agenda in this is evident as they proclaim, “the question that inevitably comes up is whether it out to be abandoned.”

Where it also tends to venture off track is in some of its various depictions of the characters. James Madison, who had staked so much of his political future on the Constitutional Convention and the passage of a new document, is, in many senses, recast in his role as the Father of the Constitution. Petty, vindictive, fundamentally dishonest, they portray him throughout the work as robbing others of their place in the drafting of the Constitution to secure his place in history. At one point it was stated that “Madison’s attacks on Pinckney’s claim of authorship of at least part of the Constitution were followed up by his admirers and subsequent generations of scholars… Thereafter Pinckney became a footnote of history, a moan soiled by ambition, who must be dishonored for attempting to reap credit that belonged to James Madison.” The theory proposed is that Madison himself revised his notes and his reputation after the Convention to give himself a more prominent place, while attacking and relegating any other, like Charles Pinckney, to the trash heap of history.

Likewise, with Pinckney, and others, Roger Sherman, and Abraham Baldwin, for example, they tend to elevate, picking out their clear favorites from the Convention and raising their status considerably. Considering this is a character driven history, one they are careful to point out isn’t psychohistory, that is going to be unavoidable.

Still, where this book tends to excel isn’t necessarily in the character driven story. It is in the way that it takes the somewhat sporadic, and random debates and issues that the Framers faced, often confusing to those reading a traditional history of the Constitutional Convention, and give it an order that is both easy to understand and enjoyable to read. In that clarity, it becomes a much simpler task to understand the key issues that dominated the discussions in laying out the framework of a new, stronger government.

Without a doubt Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787 is not a perfect history, and it is not without its flaws and faults. Yet it is a comprehensive history that gives the reader a foundation in the Constitution, its origin, structure, and meaning, that is both fun and easy to read. Though it should not be a final study of the Constitution, it is a great place to start and will give readers unique insight into the character and personalities of those who helped frame it, as well as their motivations. I would recommend it to any hoping to gain a better understanding of the history of Constitution.

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