Widely compared to Catherine Drinker
Miracle at Philadelphia (1966), considered
by many to be the classic work on the American
constitution, The Summer of 1787's
fly-on-the-wall narrative style stands up to the
comparison in the opinion of most reviewers.
Like Bowen, Stewart focuses solely on the four summer months during which the bulk of the Constitution was framed and does not cover the State ratification process or the first Federal Congress, which established a number of elements including The Bill of Rights. A couple of reviewers point to this as a limitation of The Summer of 1787, but this reviewer thinks that Stewart is right to focus on just these four sweltering months.
The Summer of 1787 is analogous to to the closed world of a "country house mystery", if the author had broken out of the confines of this narrow place and time in the final chapters to cover the ratification and amendment process, not only would the book be in danger of losing its narrative power but the question would be when to stop? After all, the Constitution is a living, breathing document that has been amended twenty-seven times to date and has withstood somewhere in the region of 10,000 proposed amendments. The full story of the Constitution could (and hopefully will) run and run for a long time to come, so focusing on just those first four months seems admirably sensible!
Like James L Swanson's Manhunt, Stewart's emphasis is on the day to day narrative, not on analysis. He covers the Constitutional Convention in chronological order, grouping particular events and stages into individual chapters. What clearly comes across is the enormity of the task faced by 55 men of diverse opinion and ability to find common ground for 13 states, each with their own vested interests already established in the flawed Articles of Confederation. We see the tensions and difficult compromises, such as slavery and the three-fifths rule; the acute minds offering clarity, but also the more obtuse or just plain belligerent countering with confusion.
What comes across most clearly is that the Constitution is not a set-in-stone document handed down to us by a group of demigods, but a framework created by men who, through usually thoughtful but necessarily rushed debate, found a compromise acceptable to the majority. The creation, contents and ratification of this imperfect but surprisingly durable "child of lofty idealism and rough political bargains" was far from a foregone conclusion; and, by extension, it's continuation should never be taken for granted either. The Constitution needs to be read, questioned, defended and amended as necessary for as long as Americans wish to live as a democracy.
This review was originally published in May 2007, and has been updated for the May 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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