The Genius of the People

When the Constitutional Convention was called on the second Monday of May in 1786, eleven years after the thirteen American Colonies had defied the mother country, England, sixty-one appointed delegates were present to help determine what the course of the fledgling country was to be. Four months later, on the seventeenth of September, a document that had been written, wrangled over, and rewritten, torn apart, and pieced back together countless times was finally presented as the code of laws under which citizens of the proposed United States of America would live.

Of the forty-one delegates in attendance on that historic day, thirty-eight signed the document that then was sent to the thirteen sovereign Colonies for ratification. Charles Mee presents a detailed account of the machinations that took place in Philadelphia during the hot and humid summer in which the United States Constitution was drafted. He identifies two major opposing factions: the party of liberty, represented by such stalwarts as John Rutledge, William Paterson, George Mason, and Roger Sherman, which stood largely for states’ rights and local government, and the party of order, represented by the more aristocratic Alexander Hamilton, Governor Morris, and James Madison, which favored a strong central government and, in the case of Hamilton at least, even a monarchy.

Mee relates in lively prose how the division between these two extremes was ultimately bridged and how a concept of representative government with two legislative houses was finally decided upon. His lively vignettes of the men who framed the Constitution are fascinating and revealing.