As the title of the work suggests, Bowen wants her readers to understand the revolutionary change in government that took place as a result of the Constitutional Convention as a “miracle”—that is, a highly unusual and fortuitous experience. She chooses to emphasize the deft way in which many delegates settled problems through clever argument, the magnanimous way in which debaters compromised in order to come up with a government for the common good, and the chivalrous way in which all the debates and disagreements were handled.
Bowen carefully documents her sources. Although relying heavily on Madison’s record of the convention, she often notes where his version differs from Yates’s or those of other delegates. She also provides multiple perspectives on events and debates by incorporating the journals, personal notes, memoirs, and letters of combatants on every side. Nevertheless, Bowen shaves a bit of the journalistic objectivity for stylistic purposes. She mentions in her “Author’s Note” that her original manuscript included “copious footnotes” but that she deleted the vast majority of them from the final text because “It is hard enough for a reader to follow a summer of convention speeches, without wading through exegeses at the foot of the page.”
Bowen is somewhat biased toward the supporters of the consolidated, powerful national government, and the narrative is arranged as a story of their progress against, and eventual defeat of, the Antifederalists.
Miracle at Philadelphia has long been a favorite text of high school and college American history and constitutional history instructors. It provides an extremely easy-to-read account of one of the most revolutionary events in history. Perhaps the book’s greatest accomplishment is providing an overall context, conceived in unusually intimate human terms, of the often-vaunted characters involved in this historic convention—their lives, their society, and their nation.
Miracle at Philadelphia was Catherine Drinker Bowen’s culminating work in a career as writer of numerous critically acclaimed biographies and other historical writings, such as Beloved Friend (1937), a story of the intimate relationship between the composer Peter Tchaikovsky and Nadejda von Meck (cowritten with Barbara von Meck), and Yankee from Olympus: Justice Holmes and His Family (1944), the story of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and his family. In short, Bowen brought the grandeur of history to the level of the average high school student’s knowledge and ability. In Miracle at Philadelphia, she does so without diminishing the awe-inspiring significance of the framing of what is today the oldest surviving national constitution.