We like to think of our nation’s founders as men with unwavering fealty to high-minded principles. To some extent they were. But when they gathered in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 to write the Constitution, they showed that they were also something just as great and often more difficult to be: compromisers. In that regard they reflected not just the classical virtues of honor and integrity but also the Enlightenment’s values of balance, order, tolerance, scientific calibration and respect for other people’s beliefs. On almost all issues that they faced — with one very big exception — this art of compromise served them well. As Benjamin Franklin, that ultimate Enlightenment sage, conveyed in both his actions and words at the convention, compromisers may not make great heroes but they do make great democracies.
Richard Beeman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has taught and written about America’s founding for 40 years, offers a scholarly yet lively account of the Constitutional Convention that emphasizes the craftiness and craftsmanship that went into each of the compromises. This saga has been often told, most recently in David O. Stewart’s novelistic narrative “The Summer of 1787,” but Beeman’s work is distinguished by a gently judicious tone that allows us to appreciate, and draw some lessons from, the delicate balances that emerged out of that passion-filled Philadelphia crucible.