A classic history of the Federal Convention at Philadelphia in 1787, the stormy, dramatic session that produced the most enduring of political documents: the Constitution of the United States. From Catherine Drinker Bowen, noted American biographer and National Book Award winner, comes the canonical account of the Constitutional Convention recommended as "required reading for every American." Looked at straight from the records, the Federal Convention is startlingly fresh and new, and Mrs. Bowen evokes it as if the reader were actually there, mingling with the delegates, hearing their arguments, witnessing a dramatic moment in history. Here is the fascinating record of the hot, sultry summer months of debate and decision when ideas clashed and tempers flared. Here is the country as it was then, described by contemporaries, by Berkshire farmers in Massachusetts, by Patrick Henry's Kentucky allies, by French and English travelers. Here, too, are the offstage voices--Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine and John Adams from Europe. In all, fifty-five men attended; and in spite of the heat, in spite of clashing interests--the big states against the little, the slave states against the anti-slave states--in tension and anxiety that mounted week after week, they wrote out a working plan of government and put their signatures to it.
Catherine Drinker Bowen was born as Catherine Drinker on the Haverford College campus on January 1, 1897, to a prominent Quaker family. She was an accomplished violinist who studied for a musical career at the Peabody Institute and the Juilliard School of Music, but ultimately decided to become a writer. She had no formal writing education and no academic career, but became a bestselling American biographer and writer despite criticism from academics. Her earliest biographies were about musicians. Bowen did all her own research, without hiring research assistants, and sometimes took the controversial step of interviewing subjects without taking notes.
The “miracle” that unfolded at the city of Philadelphia in 1787 took place in slow motion, as delegates to the United States Constitutional Convention gradually and painfully hammered out one compromise after another over five hot and humid summer months. Yet when that time was over, a miracle of sorts had occurred; thirteen fractious ex-colonies had the organic law that would bring them together as a strong and unified nation. And Catherine Drinker Bowen captures well the improbable, “miraculous” quality of that sequence of events in her 1966 book Miracle at Philadelphia.
Bowen, a former music student from the Philadelphia-area college town of Haverford, Pennsylvania, was a self-taught historian and biographer. While her work was sometimes pooh-poohed by “serious” academic historians, her biographies and historical works quickly gained a large and appreciative audience, and her biography of lawyer Sir Edward Coke won a National Book Award. Formal training or no, Bowen knew how to recount history with an emphasis on the drama and dynamism of what happened in a crucial historical moment; and this book – The Story of the Constitutional Convention, May to September 1787 (the book’s subtitle) – is a history that reads like a suspense novel with an 18th-century setting.
After emphasizing the turbulent circumstances under which the Constitutional Convention met – Shays’ Rebellion had occurred just one year earlier, and the existing Articles of Confederation had proved absolutely unworkable as a system of government – Bowen captures the drama of moments like that when delegate Roger Sherman of Connecticut saw a seemingly unbridgeable divide and came up with a way to bridge it.
Big states like Virginia and Massachusetts wanted proportional representation, as that would give them power within the stronger Union proposed by the convention’s organizers. Small states like Delaware, by contrast, wanted the same representation for each state, so that they could not be overwhelmed by the large states. James Madison, who took extensive notes (even though delegates to the Convention were not supposed to do so), recorded that Sherman “proposed that the proportion of suffrage in the 1st branch [the House] should be according to the respective number of free inhabitants; and that in the second branch or Senate, each state should have one vote and no more” (p. 94). It was the “Great Compromise” that helped to make a great nation.
Yet not all compromises are great, or even good. Once the big-state, small-state issue had been ironed out, the convention had to move on to the issue of slavery. The states of the Deep South – meaning, at that time, Georgia and the Carolinas – had made it painfully clear that they would not sign on to any new Constitution that challenged their “right” to hold fellow human beings in bondage. The South wanted enslaved people counted for purposes of representation in the House of Representatives, but not for taxation. The North wanted enslaved people counted for taxation, but not for representation.
What ultimately resulted is what Bowen aptly calls “a bargain…with a kind of brutal expediency”; under a particularly grotesque compromise, “slaves would be counted, for purpose of representation and taxes, in the proportion of five slaves to three free white inhabitants – the ‘federal ratio’” (pp. 200-201). This was the infamous “three-fifths compromise” – in effect, a declaration that an enslaved African American would be counted as three-fifths of a white person. The mind recoils at the idea – and at the realization that, in spite of passionate denunciations of slavery by delegates as diverse as Gouverneur Morris and George Mason (himself a slaveholder), the Framers effectively kicked the issue down the road. It was left to the Civil War generation, 75 years later, to end slavery and give the American Union a new birth of freedom.
Bowen tries gamely to make the best of the Framers’ decision, writing that “Without disrupting the Convention and destroying the Union they could do no more. The time was not yet come” (p. 204); but to this day, it is painful to read the Constitution and see the elaborate contortions of language by which the original document refers to slavery without ever using the word “slavery.”
Bowen also emphasizes the difficulties over ratification of the Constitution, once the document had been passed out of the Convention and sent to the states. Article VII of the Constitution specified that, in order to have the force of law, the Constitution would have to be ratified by nine out of the thirteen states. The original Constitution had no Bill of Rights – Alexander Hamilton was among those who considered a Bill of Rights unnecessary – but many Americans were concerned about a document that so greatly strengthened the United States Government without providing some measure of protection for the rights of individual citizens.
This concern made for some inspired debates in the individual states. In Virginia, for example, Governor Edmund Randolph, as a delegate to the Philadelphia convention, had refused to sign the Constitution in its original form; but once he was back at home in Virginia, and the Constitution was up for a yes-or-no vote, he called for ratification. In order that the United States of America might have “a firm, energetic government”, Randolph said, he was willing “to concur in any practical scheme of amendments” (p. 301) – even if that meant waiting until after the Constitution was ratified to amend it with a Bill of Rights. Opposing Randolph, with all the famous power of his oratory, was Patrick Henry, who thundered that “To enter into a compact of government, and then afterwards to settle the terms of this compact, was an idea dreadful, abhorrent to his mind” (p. 302). No one, whether Federalist or Anti-Federalist, could help being moved by such a debate. It would have been a great thing to witness first-hand.
Some readers of Miracle at Philadelphia might have wanted to see more emphasis on the manner in which the Framers settled upon the Electoral College as a method of choosing a president. Bowen dutifully notes that it took 60 ballots to settle the question, and that “repeatedly, delegates fell upon it as if never before debated.” She adds that James Madison “remained opposed to popular election, one of his arguments being that people would prefer a citizen of their own state, thereby subjecting the small states to a disadvantage” (pp. 189-90). Many of the Framers, coming as they did from the elite of their respective states, were famously distrustful of direct democracy, seeing in it the potential for “mob rule.”
Yet we now live in a time when two of the past six presidential elections have seen the loser of the popular vote win the Electoral College and become president. In 2016, Donald Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by three million votes -- three-quarters of the entire population of the United States in 1790, according to the first federal census -- and yet still became president. Would the Framers really have considered such an outcome appropriate? Would their distrust of democracy really have gone so far?
Nonetheless, with all of its problems and imperfections, the United States Constitution remains a great formative document for the U.S.A. This nation, through all the turbulence of its history, has functioned under the same constitution for more than 230 years – a record that many other nations might envy. Moreover, the American constitution has inspired and influenced the constitutions of many other countries as they have endeavoured to establish or further democracy in their own societies. There was indeed something “miraculous” about the process by which the Constitution was written and ratified, and Catherine Drinker Bowen conveys the drama of that historical moment well in Miracle at Philadelphia.
I believe this is one of the most nuanced books I've ever read about the early years of our nation. I appreciate it's scholarly approach to source analysis from the Constitutional convention in Philadelphia that hot summer in 1787. I attribute this to the subtly of this book. Just when you begin to think one perspective/idea to be irrefutably true, the author shifts your perspective by using a different source. Then you see that--as the old political adage goes--"where you stand depends on where you sit." It is this methodology that preserves the Constitution as "a living document" open to change and open to interpretation. So the next time you hear someone say that "I'm a Constitution expert and I know that this is unconstitutional" (I'm looking at you Fox News) just remember two things: 1) even the authors of the Constitution were so far from being "Constitution experts" that they had to hammer out compromises (a term which today draws derision from political zealots as being synonymous with appeasement, indecision, or spinelessness); and 2) that in our nation we all have the ability, through education, to become as much a constitutional expert as the windbags on cable t.v., talk radio, and in the blogosphere. Thank you Dr. Bowen for reminding us that.
• Her pen drips with atmosphere. You can feel the sweat build under your shirt collar as you sit in that stagnant State House for hours on end, day after day, all the way through the sweltering Philadelphia summer.
• She contrasts the culture of New America versus Old France and Old Britain, and why it meant that the government conceived that summer could only work in America (these chapters on America's social scene were somewhat of an excursus from the main action but heightened the book considerably in my opinion).
• Her miniature portraits of the major players give a true feel for their differing personalities. She is especially good with Washington.
• She writes with a strong voice, giving the book a conversational feel.
• She clearly presents each issue and the arguments on both sides.
• She assesses the decisions that were made within the context of the time, not in retrospect where we have a clearer view.
• She conveys the weight of the moment. These men knew the burden of all generations to come was on their shoulders.
• She keeps a good pace. She shares detail where needed but never gets bogged down.
• While by no means exhaustive, her book is highly instructive. You will learn much.
• She is a storyteller. She doesn't just relay a narrative. Her writing allows you to become absorbed in all the drama and theatre and thrill.
• She builds to a sensational climax. The final chapter is absolutely gripping. The cast of characters in that final scene seems as if it could only be assembled in a dream, yet every one of them was real, every one of them was present, and every bit of the show worthy of the consequences that hung in the balance.
Required reading for every American - followed by or concurrent with a visit to Independence Park in Philadelphia to get a sense of the beginning.
It is painfully apparent, if you have been following politics in the last 5 years, that many of our policitians today (including our "Constitutional Scholar" President Mr. Obama), who all by the way take an oath to protect the Constitution, simply are not familiar with the document or how it came to be, or why it is unique in the world. They need to read this book and understand that it is "Non-Fiction".
I would be happy to borrow them my dog-eared copy.
The thought that these men came together from all over the country, undeniably the best our young nation had to offer, and put their minds to form a government unique in the world while building relative consensus and offering compromise - while not quite coming to blows - and agreeing to keep this all under wraps until consensus had been reached, is breathtaking. Particularly when compared to "modern" politics. As you move through all the politicking and legal argument offered by the delegates through the book and hear their points of view you begin to understand the general overall sense of purpose these men had. Truly they all had their foibles and colloquial interests which they attempted to forward and they did "kick the can" of slavery down the road, but considering the times and social order of their century, with relative decency and no bloodshed, these men built a particularly strong foundation for what was to become America. When you reach the end of the story, the document itself and the plan it proposed seems so simple - representation by the people, checks and balances - and yet so new.
I particularly enjoyed the insights as to the characters and personalities of this group - we now call our Founding Fathers. From Washington seething on his chair at times (but keeping an even keel!), to the collective wisdom and youthful exuberance of Madison and Hamilton and of course the wise old Ben Franklin offering his insights - his presence at the proceedings offering a softer parental guidance to complement Washington.
This book should inspire you to get a current copy of the Constitution with all amendments and read it over. You owe it to yourself to understand what it is that makes our form of government unique and why that allowed our country to become so great so fast. It should also inspire you to exercise your right to vote - and to keep an eye on our politicians.
An AO Year 9 title, I enjoyed it, though not as much as this author’s John Adams and the American Revolution. I also probably will not assign it to a student unless they are very into history or government. Nonetheless, a worthwhile title.
With all the talk about the Constitution these days, its alarming how little people really know about how it came to be. Catherine Drinker Bowen has penned a fabulous, well-researched book that explains just how difficult it was to even create a document for consideration for ratification. Critics of the Constitution and its imperfections need to read this book to understand exactly what a remarkable feat it was. The most frequent criticisms have to do with slavery and how it was dealt with in the Constitution. Readers will come to understand that the Constitution set the agenda for the elimination of slavery by making it an “interstate commerce issue” managed by the Federal government and not the individual states. Much has been made over the counting of slaves as 3/5 of a person but that criticism is just so much hyperbole and pandering. The South wanted all slaves fully counted for the purposes of representation in Congress and the North didn't want them counted at all (to reduce their influence in Congress). For those who wanted to diminish the influence of the slavery lobby in Congress, this mathematical compromise was a victory. There are many startling revelations in this book. For example, it’s not common knowledge that New York had 20,000 slaves at the time of the Constitutional Convention. This is one of the few books I have read more than twice. It's simply must reading for anyone curious about the Constitution in the context of today's political environment.
This is a knowledge-expanding book and is my favorite read so far this year. I read it slowly, taking 31 pages of notes along the way. As the subtitle suggests, it is a narrative of the five months of the Constitutional Convention but also describes the ratification process. This appealed to me, in part, because of what was left out. I never felt burdened with the author's analysis, speculation, or hindsight. It is simply a retelling of events, often using the delegates' own words. I not only enjoyed reading about the debates and unfolding of events but also about the Philadelphia of that singular summer, feeling the oppression of the heat and the flies. I highly recommend this book to all Americans.
Update: After a second reading, I still strongly approve this book.
AmblesideOnline year 9 book. Tells the story of the making and ratifying of the constitution. I found it interesting if a bit dry. Lots of quotes from primary sources which was nice. It’s a bit amazing to think of how many people took verbatim notes (by hand!) and preserved these happenings for us. Lots of stories and information you won’t get anywhere else. My year 9 student doesn’t like it and says it’s boring but I feel like it’s important to see both sides (federalist and anti federalist) of how we got the constitution. Many interesting considerations were raised that I had never thought about before. One thing I particularly liked was how Patrick Henry (a staunch Antifederalist) responded when his state ratified the constitution. A group of angry Antifederalist held a mass meeting determined to create measures for resisting and Patrick Henry told his colleagues that they had done their best in the proper channels and been defeated. Now he told them, “as true and faithful republicans you had better go home.”
A nation new to its independence dealing with issues internally and external, it’s nascent future hanging by a thread all comes down to 55 men from across its length and breadth to come up with a solution. In her 1966 historical review of what became known as the Constitutional Convention, Catherine Drinker Bowen chronicles how the future of the young United States was saved by a Miracle at Philadelphia.
Though the majority of the book focuses on the four-month long Convention, Bowen begins by setting the stage for why and how the convention came about with the ineffectual government that was the Articles of Confederation and the movement to amend them, which was led by James Madison and endorsed by George Washington by his attendance in Philadelphia. For those like myself not really versed in nitty gritty details of Convention it was interesting to learn that most of the work was done in ‘Committee of the Whole’ in which Washington while President was seated among the other delegates. The familiar highlights of the Virginia Plan, New Jersey Plan, and the Great Compromise are covered but in the historical flow of the debates within the Convention and decisions in-between of important elements within the Constitution. Throughout the Bowen introduces important personages and how their views remained constant or changed throughout the Convention resulting reputations being made or destroyed during and after the process of ratification. Bowen ends the book with a look at the ratification process, in particular the debates in Massachusetts and Virginia.
Covering approximately 310 pages, the book is efficient in covering the events of the Convention overall. However Bowen completely missed how the Great Compromise was voted in the Constitution, she just mentioned it. Besides that big miss within the Convention, Bowen spends chuck of the middle of the book covering a “Journey in America” that had nothing to do with the Convention but was just giving a glimpse of the nascent country that felt like filler than anything else.
Miracle at Philadelphia is a very good historical review of the Constitutional Convention that does not analyze but just reports history. Catherine Drinker Bowen does a wonderful job in juggling the various accounts of the Convention by the delegates and the official record to create very readable narrative. I highly recommend this book for those interested in this closing piece of the American Revolution.
Bowen's history of the Constitutional Convention is a great read, and makes what at the time would have been endless debates nicely accessible. It breaks into two nearly even parts, where the first is a fairly chronological account of the first half, and the second instead goes topic-by-topic for the second half.
This was deliberate, and Bowen uses the adjournment of the Convention at the end of July as an opportunity to take a look at the overall condition of the states, and then picks up the by-topic narrative after reconvening on August 6. It makes for an interesting structure, and one that works out well, though I found myself enjoying the first half more (which shows my low tolerance for going into the nitty-gritty).
Naturally, there is also plenty of scene-setting, with the crises besetting the government under the Articles of Confederation leading to a convention to amend the Articles to make the new government less unwieldy and incapable. A whole new constitution was not part of the original program, but speedily became its object once in session. At the end, Bowen naturally also goes into the process of ratification, and the political fighting in the various states over the new Constitution. This part is a bit of a whirlwind in comparison, but still takes up three chapters.
This is very much a readable history, and quite good at its job. Bowen doesn't try for any real 're-interpretations', but works with the exiting materials, and references to the notes and letters around the Convention, and spends a lot of effort to set the scene and get the atmosphere down. Instead long analyses of arguments pro and con, there is reference to the weather, to the physical world around the delegates from the states, to help understand the conditions they were working in. It does a great job as a look into the place and time, and leaves the hair-splitting to much dryer reads.
Anyone interested in history and how the United States was founded should love this book.
Catherine Drinker Bowen tells us the story of the thinking and writing of the U.S. Constitution in the voice of the delegates who attended the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and made history. The author used a plethora of sources to tell how the U.S. Constitution came to be step by step, day after day of the Convention. We learn that coming up with the historical document was certainly no easy work, and unity was hard to reach among delegates. We learn what delegates proposed, debated; what they agreed or disagreed on; how they voted several times on some issues; what they perceived as a real threat for Liberty in the future.
This history book both reads like a novel and is an unparalleled source of knowledge. This is certainly one of the best books I have been given to read.
Miracle is not a word an atheist would like to see in the cover of a book. Religious controversies aside, it could be a disclaimer indicating the book is biased as f**k. Catherine Drinker Bowen is honest enough to call herself an Old Whig in the preface. She also mentions in the endnotes she did not have room to cover the anti-federalist ideas in depth, as well as other elements of the debate, before, during, and after the convention, that could have given us a broader perspective. It is, as advertised, a story of the Constitutional Convention, and nothing more. Contrarily to what it might seem, I am not in the least disappointed. Dinker Bowen gives us a vivid account of those hot months in Philadelphia, balancing the political and the personal aspects of the debate. While there is plenty of back and forth—pro and contra if you will—not every element of the discussion gets the same level of attention and more than once I felt arguments were left unfinished because “you know how the story ends.” I did not. This is the first time I read the Constitution of the United States—nicely included at the end of the book, together with the Bill of Rights—and I was surprised to find the infamous Electoral College there. It might be that I missed that in the main text, or simply that the she Dinker Bowen did not think it as important as someone writing the same book today would. I also missed the decision to have two senators per state, but that one I knew. On the positive side, I found particularly interesting why the Bill of Rights was not intended to be part of the Constitution, and enjoyed Noah Webster’s remarks about that immensely. While I think it is still a good book, it is possible there are better alternatives today. I would have appreciated the inclusion of the “Virginia Plan”, or the draft of the Constitution mentioned towards the end of the book to better follow the debates. In any case, if I need a more legal oriented version, Jack Rakove’s “Original Meanings” might be the way to go, even if some of the reviews out there make it sound daunting. I want to know what happens next though. “Gordon S. Wood’s Empire of Liberty?”
An excellent book on the Constitutional Convention; lots of interesting details about the discussions and arguments that led to the compromises that led to the Constitution we have today. Reading about those debates helps one to understand why this (instead of that) decision was made. Very interesting to note that even the delegates to the convention did not think it a perfect document - but rather the best that could be developed at the time.
The end - where the ratification debates in the states are described - was something of a disappointment. After the level of detail in the discussion of the convention itself, the lack of detail here is somewhat disappointing - but perhaps, given that the focus of the book was on the convention proper, that's understandable.
This was not a bad narrative, but it did not have much analytical depth nor a solid connective thread in the story it told. It did include good physical sketches of some characters and some anecdotes new to me.
"Every miracle has its provenance, every miracle has been prayed for."
"Compromise can be an ugly word, signifying a pact with the devil, a chipping off of the best to suit the worst."
"Most of our political evils may be traced to our commercial ones." -James Madison
"A federal government operates on states, a national government directly on individuals." -James Madison
"To pursue happiness signified that a man could rise in the world according to his abilities and his industry."
"It is exhilarating," a historian has said, "to trace the growth of reasonableness in society."
"Federal liberty is to states what civil liberty is to private individuals." -James Wilson
"We should consider that we are providing a Constitution for future generations, and not merely for the circumstances of the moment." -James Wilson
"When you are in a minority, talk; when you are in a majority, vote." -Mr. Sherman of Connecticut
"When a great question is first started, there are very few, even of the greatest minds, which suddenly and instictively comprehend it in all its consequences." -John Adams
"Men love power. Give all power to the many, they will oppress the few. Give all power to the few, they will oppress the many." -Alexander Hamilton
"Popular passions, spread like wild fire and become irrisitable." -Alexander Hamilton
"I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth- that God governs in the affairs of men... If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground unseen by him, is it probable an empire can arise without his aid? I fimly believe this, and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel." -Benjamin Franklin
"If we do not come to some agreement among ourselves, some foreign sword will probably do the work for us." Elbridge Gerry
"Every amusement which seperates men from women is contrary to the welfare of society, calculated to render one of the sexes boorish and the other dull, and to destroy, in short, that sensibility, the source of which Nature has placed in interchange between the sexes." -Chastellux
"What advantages are derived from a finished education and the best of company! How does it banish that awkward stiffness, so common when strangers meet in company! How does it engage the most perfect strangers in all the freedom of an easy and pleasing sociability, common only to the most intimate friends!" -Manasseh Cutler
"This was not a legislative body, to make laws. It was the business of delegates to create a Constitution for the country as it existed."
"No free government or the blessings of liberty can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherance to temperance, frugality, and virtue." George Mason
"After six years of fighting it is not difficult for greed to operate under the guise of patriotism."
"Liberty is the sun of society, and the Rights are the beams." -John Dickinson
"Bills of Rights, generally begin with declaring that all men are by nature born free. Now, we should make that declaration with a very bad grace, when a large part of our property consisits in men who are actually born slaves." -General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney
I consent, Sir, to this Constitution, because I expect no better and because I am not sure that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good." -Benjamin Franklin
"I have often and often in the course of the session... looked at that behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun." -Benjamin Franklin
"That [the Constitution] may promote the lasting welfare of that country so dear to us all, and secure her freedom and happiness, is our most ardent wish." -George Washington
"One cannot but admire their patience, the willingness of citizens to learn, ascertain the truth about this new government."
"I formed my own opinion, and was pleased with this Constitution." -Jonathan Smith
"Take things in time, gather fruit when it is ripe. There is a time to sow and a time to reap. We sowed our seed when we sent men to the Federal Convention. Now is the harvest. Now is the time to reap the fruit of our labor. And if we don't do it now, I am afraid we shall never have another opportunity." -Jonathan Smith
"A convert's argument is always heartfelt."
"Sir, if I do not stand on the bottom of integrity and pure love for Virginia, as much as those who can be most clamorous, I wish to resign my existence." -Edmund Randolph
From the Women's National Book Association's press release:
We launch our Book-A-Day Women’s History Month Program at the beginning—with our founding document, the creation of the U.S. Constitution. Catherine Drinker Bowen’s classic Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention tells the story of those few months in 1787 when the new country’s leading statesmen hammered out the compact that would define our country and shape its identity. Drawing from letters, diaries, and other documents of the day, the author gives voice to the founders’ principles, fears, and passions—and charts their course, through contentions and compromises, to an agreement. One of the most popular books ever written about this foundational moment, Miracle at Philadelphia engages as well as educates readers about the hard task of forging consensus in a democracy.
A superb, must-read day-by-day account of the Constitutional Convention which took place in Philadelphia between May and September 1787. The writing and description of not just the deliberations and the personalities but the stuffy, hot, Philadelphia weather, the shops, the clothes and the impressions of European visitors of a society that snubs its nose at class are so vivid that you get the feeling you are there. I have read a few other accounts of this all-important episode, but none so revealing as to the spirit of the times.
Present here are the great men of American history in all their glory and flaws: Washington, Hamilton, Madison, Franklin, Gouverneur Morris (from whose pen came “We the people” in the preamble to the Constitution), and even a lobbyist for land companies, Manasseh Cutler, who helped draft the Northwest Ordinance that created the vast Northwest Territory and sealed the fate of millions of Indians. Exerting their influence subtly from Europe were Jefferson and Adams. There were fiery speakers both for and against a central government - George Mason and Edmund Randolph from Virginia, Luther Martin from Maryland, Hamilton from New York, Elbridge Gerry from Massachusetts (from whom comes one of my favorite quotes: “The evils we have stem from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots”) - who made no secret of their feelings. They formed the Federalists and Antifederalists who were to have such bitter debates later.
Discussed were issues both trivial and momentous: the exact terms for Senators and Congressmen, whether the President should be appointed for life, the regulation of trade with other countries, the requirements for voting and citizenship, the provision for a national army. But the three most important issues were taxation, representation in both houses, and Western expansion. In many ways these issues encapsulated the central issue: states’ rights vs a strong national government. The small states were afraid that proportional representation would diminish their influence to nothing; the large ones were afraid that incomplete representation would harm their economy, their manufacturing and their landed gentry; sparsely populated ones worried that it would harm Westward expansion and slavery. Many people spoke openly against slavery, but it was out of concerns for the Southern states’ objections that the Constitution adopted the infamous three-fifths clause relating to “other persons” (there was consolation in the fact that the convention at least set a 1808 date for the ending of the slave trade). To soothe concerns on both sides, Roger Sherman of Connecticut offered the Sherman Compromise which proposed that the House would have proportionate representation while the Senate’s composition would be fixed to two from each state.
Women, white men without property, Africans and Indians famously got fleeced. As Jill Lepore wrote in her history “These Truths”, while Africans were degraded as slaves and considered as three-fifths of men, women fared almost as badly and were completely left out of the Constitution: in 1776, Abigail Adams memorably wrote to her husband, "Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation”, but her words were far from anyone’s mind in 1787. Women’s rights as we know them were non-existent then. But the Constitution was at least a triumph of religious freedom when, in the face of objections by some prominent Americans, it did away with any religious test for becoming a citizen and for holding office. This was a revolutionary move for the times.
Bowen’s book also does a fantastic job of letting us see the world through the eyes of these men and women. It’s very difficult for us in the age of the Internet to realize how slow communication was during those times and how disconnected people felt from each other in the unimaginably vast expanse of the country and the frontier to the West. The states were so loosely bound to each other by the previous Articles of Confederation and had such disparate geographies and cultures that in some cases they were threatening to fracture (for instance Maine wanted to separate from Massachusetts, and Virginia was planning to form a navy to defend herself against other states) So many of the concerns arose from legitimate worries that a Senator or President from Washington would never understand the concerns of a farmer from South Carolina, or that a farmer from South Carolina would never understand the concerns of a New England artisan. The fear that a central government would run roughshod over individual states was a very real one, although seventy years later it manifested itself in an ugly incarnation. There was also deep skepticism about “the people” (as Hamilton had put it, “If men were angels, governments would be unnecessary.”), and many vociferously asked that the preamble should say “We the states”.
Another revealing aspect of the book is to communicate how many measures were either defeated when they were first proposed or passed by a slim majority; sometimes the delegates even changed their votes. This was democracy in action; giving everyone a chance to voice their concerns while still obeying the wishes of the majority. Fun fact, especially in light of the present times: the presidential veto was struck down ten-to-one when first proposed. And, in what today seems like the most incomprehensible move, a Bill of Rights was also struck down ten-to-one when first proposed. The main argument was: if Americans are already free, why do they need a separate Bill of Rights? And if you are already laying down rules for what the government can do, why is it necessary to explicitly state what it cannot do? It was only after the Constitution was sent to the states for ratification that Massachusetts proposed adding a bill of rights; in fact some of the amendments in the Bill or Rights mirror Massachusetts’ own proposals for a state bill of rights. Once the powerful states like Massachusetts, Virginia and Pennsylvania ratified, the other states quickly fell in line.
It is wonderful to see Antifederalists who had opposed the Constitution immediately concede to the wishes of the people, often in generous terms, when it is ratified by individual states. In fact that is perhaps the single-most important fact that comes across in Bowen’s account; that men with widely differing views reached a compromise and forged a document which, although it contained important flaws, became a trailblazing, unique, enduring piece of work asking for a “more perfect Union” that led to a clarion call for individual rights and liberty not just in the United States but throughout the world.
I read this book during the same time period as I read "The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution" by David O Stewart. They are both good books but "The Miracle of Philadelphia" isn't as lively as "Summer of 1787." Stewart does have the advantage of coming around second and fixing some of the problems in Brown's book. Such as explaining some historical events that are referenced a lot by the founding fathers. This book expects you to know a bit of history. I like history and while the events she talks about sound familiar, I needed a descriptive telling like Stewart provides.
It is obvious that Stewart has read "The Miracle of Philadelphia" and, it seemed to me, to borrow from it a bit. If you are only going to read one of the books, read, "The Summer of 1787". As you read, it gets better.
It is hard for me to rate this book fairly because I was not really ready for it. It is a book of serious history. No fictional reparte thrown in to lighten it up. Bowen is a superb writer, which is the only way I was able to get through the book. Her style is natural and she does make the wrangling over the Constitution interesting. However, this is a book that requires a certain amount of concentration to get through; (sadly, I haven't the ability to give it the concentration it deserves). My main takeaway from the book is that our Constitution really was a miracle and that the signers but a tremendous amount of thought and debate into each clause. Highly recommended for students of history who are serious readers. Not recommended for before-bed reading.
Three hundred and ten pages about a four-month long meeting of dead, white men arguing with each other? How could this be interesting?! If you have any interest in the USA, its history, and the social and political issues resonating still today, grab a copy and get a-reading! This is a “Wow!” book, engaging, well-researched, informative! Author Catherine Drinker Bowen says of her goal in its writing: “Since the beginning, the country had moved toward this moment, towards self-government, toward union. … My book celebrates [America’s grand national experiment]. Its aim throughout is evocation, suggestion. I greatly desire that my readers may see Convention delegates as they rise and address the Chairman, Washington, or face each other in committee. Above all I want to call back the voices: James Wilson’s cold, cutting logic; Gouverneur Morris’s easy ironic flow, Roger Sherman’s drawling Yankee common sense; Madison’s quiet, extraordinary performance day after day. …” This reader must say MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! Drawing from voluminous primary resources, Bowen has painted a very human and revealing picture of the politics and passions, hopes and fears, that were at work throughout the process of imagining, agreeing, drafting, and approving the U.S. Constitution. She allows the participants to illuminate their motives and reasons, as they interacted on the floor and in reporting on their off-the-floor conversations to far off observers. She captures the tension building as the weeks and months passed by, significant disagreements still prevailing in the room, and no guarantee that the efforts would not fail. Bowen shows us clearly, too, that once approved by the majority of delegates, these tensions and high chances for failure continued to prevail in several key state ratification convention discussions and votes, as the final 50 pages of the book detail so well. The process was disputatious from start to finish: Do we even have the right and authority to consider anything but amendment of the Articles of Confederation? Why are we/”they” meeting is secret? Are we strengthening a partnership between States or creating a Nation of common citizens: How do we prevent the rise of an authoritarian, aristocracy or even the restoration of a monarchy while providing more adequately for the coordination of authority and activity across the entire US? How can we trust or limit the control by those we might empower? Yet, fear of the consequences of failure – a possible break-up of the partnership; interfering relations between individual states and foreign nations; swallowing up of weaker, neighboring states by the larger, stronger states; even conquest by one or more foreign powers – kept the conversation alive through all of the confrontation and argument. Finally, after four months, the signing … and after seven more months, approval by the required ninth state – a new government was to be formed under the new document (and joined by the others of the original 13 within the next two years)! The miracle of this book’s title accomplished! Let George Washington, as cited by Bowen, provide two items of summary: Writing to Patrick Henry immediately after the Convention, Washington wrote: “I wish the Constitution … had been more perfect. But I sincerely believe it is the best that could be obtained at this time … it appears to me that the political concerns of this country are in a manner suspended by a thread … and, if nothing had been agreed on by the Convention, anarchy would soon have ensued.” (p. 280) Writing of the value of open and strong opposition facing the Constitutionalists during the writing and ratification: “Upon the whole, I doubt whether the opposition to the Constitution will not ultimately be productive of more good than evil; it has called forth, in its defence, abilities which would not perhaps have been otherwise exerted that have thrown new light upon the science of Government, they have given the rights of man a full and fair discussion, and explained them is so clear and forcible a manner, as cannot fail to make a lasting impression.” (p. 305) Bowen’s book provides a remarkably lively and informative portrayal of the hard work of self-government and its development in the United States of America. It is well worth a read!
I cannot imagine how a story of the writing, controversy, and eventual ratification of the United States Constitution might be better told. Even now in 2023, as the document remains paramount in the sometimes shaky functioning of the government it created, the history as told here reveals how close it came even back in 1787 and 1788 to NOT being ratified by the debaters who first composed it and then argued most strenuously amongst each other both for and against it.
We must be grateful to all of those men we still instantly recognize as our Founding Fathers, but it appears we should spare some recognition for many less remembered names, as well as for other remembered names who vehemently opposed the composition as it was originally presented to the separate states from the Philadelphia Convention delegates. Patrick Henry of Virginia, who desperately feared—and preached against in eloquent language—any federalism of the separate thirteen states, accepted his defeat with more grace than violence when he spoke to a mass meeting of protestors in Richmond following the Virginia convention’s ratification. He said that he had “done his best against the Constitution in the proper place [the Convention],” and the question was now settled. “As true and faithful republicans,” he said, “you had all better go home.”
James Madison, the delegate I had heretofore understood to be the actual “writer” of the constitutional document, appears to have been not that exactly. Mrs. Bowen reports that he was the taker of the most extensive notes about who said what throughout the convention. But when the final decisions had been agreed upon by a majority of the delegates about what the proposed united law would say, Madison was only one of five members elected by the others to a Committee of Style to arrange how it should be said. These five (besides Madison of Virginia, they were William Samuel Johnson of Connecticut, Alexander Hamilton of New York, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, and Rufus King of Massachusetts) spent four days together, reaching agreement on the need of an introductory preamble, on the structure of the fundamental document, and on conciliatory phrases to be used throughout. And it was Gouverneur Morris who was assigned the task of writing it into a finished form. He took dictation from the other members as he contributed his own eloquent language:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The seven “Articles” and their subsections listed the rules that had been debated, fought over, and compromised upon over the three months of daily convening by members of twelve of the states then established (Rhode Island did not contribute). Mrs. Bowen continues her story to include the difficult process of ratification in each state, which led ultimately to the added Bill of Rights. Throughout, attentive readers of this book can feel the anguish of those involved to create (or not) a fair and functioning government of joined states (including some hoped-for future states!) in hopes of a harmonious unity of all. We feel the sweltering heat of a Philadelphia summer and stare at convention speakers of tall and skinny stature or of the short and fat. We marvel at their patience (or not) with each other as their preferences conflicted and their ideas clashed. And we learn to appreciate their collective anxiety over the enormous task entrusted to them. By the end we surely agree that the result achieved was a Miracle.
This book should be required reading for all college American history courses. And for Advanced High School history courses as well.
I first encountered the author, Catherine Drinker Bowen back in high school when her biography of Sir Edward Coke, Chief Justice of England, The Lion Under the Throne, formed the mainstay of my research for my first term paper on Sir Edward. Though that book seemed huge at the time, it was fascinating reading, and because of it, I had been looking forward to reading Miracle at Philadelphia ever since I bought this copy from the Book-of-the-Month Club back when it was reissued around the Bicentennial of the Constitution. It too was eminently readable, despite what might have been a somewhat dry subject.
Miracle at Philadelphia is the story of how the United States Constitution was written. It tells of the arguments and uncertainties that attended the drafting of the Constitution, the speeches for and against nearly every point, and the repeated revisions that occurred day to day.
But most of all, it gives insight into the men who came together to write the Constitution. Some of them, of course, we know pretty well from their roles in other parts of our country’s history – men such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. But others, people like Edmund Randolph (then governor of Virginia), who provided the first rough draft of a plan for the Constitution, or Gouverneur Morris, who eventually provided much of the language used in the final version we don't usually hear as much about.
I was somewhat surprised at some of the issues that seemed to carry a lot of weight with the delegates at the time. We sort of learned in school that much of the eventual design of the Constitution was due to the fears of the small states that the large states would override their interests. But that Shay’s Rebellion was such a big deal for them (when today it barely registers as a footnote in history) was a surprise. On the small vs. large states issue, it is a little shocking to think that the ‘large’ states most feared by the smaller states were Massachusetts and Virginia. In fact, of the original thirteen states, I think only New York and Pennsylvania could by any stretch of the imagination be called large states today. It is also a little curious that, given all the later trouble over it, the issue of slavery was largely glossed over in the writing of the Constitution.
I’m from Philadelphia, and, with the exception of one year, I’ve lived in Philadelphia my whole life. I’m not saying that’s why Catherine Drinker Bowen’s (CDB) book titled Miracle at Philadelphia made it onto my night table, but it surely didn’t hurt. And yes, I did have to clarify more than once that the book did not involve either the Eagles’ recent Super Bowl victory, the Phillies’ 2008 World Series Championship, or the Flyers’ back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships back in the Pre-Cambrian era.
That being said, being from Philadelphia certainly gave the book a more three dimensional feel. Not only was I familiar with the places made historic by our Founding Fathers back in 1787 (such as Independence Hall), but my wife and I enjoyed our first dinner together as husband and wife at the same City Tavern frequented by those Founding Fathers after many a long, hot, humid, frustrating day of Constitution building. We also live within two miles of the birthplace of Dr. Benjamin Rush, who garners several positive mentions by CDB, not the least of which is the quote with which CDB decided to close her excellent work: “‘Tis done. We have become a nation.”
Apart from my local, personal connections, CDB’s book is an excellent glimpse into the daily struggles and battles which led to Constitution 1.0. We get an idea of George Washington’s frustration, frustration so deep he used some downtime to gallop off to nearby Valley Forge to physically reminisce over more frustrating times, and to fish. We gain a new appreciation for lesser sung heroes of those negotiations such as James Wilson. We even get to hear gossipy tidbits like which delegates didn’t speak at all and which delegates spoke too much, who showed up every day and who left under the flimsiest of excuses.
Most importantly, I learned much about the Constitution itself, enough to recognize when it is attacked, enough to know it must be protected.
Finally, rest easy CBD because the phrase "Miracle at Philadelphia" will from this point forward always refer to that illustrious convention of 1787...
unless the Phillies win the 2021 World Series Championship.
No period of American history held more dramatic events than the years between 1775 and 1800. There were at least three pivotal episodes which did much to create America from a loose confederation of colonies. The Revolutionary War began in earnest with the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775. In 1800 the new nation achieved a peaceful transition of power from one executive to another. This was something unique in world history. The people chose a new leader and the previous leader stepped down, handing the reins to another man. What enabled that peaceful transfer was the event in 1787; the ratification of the United States Constitution. We often forget that this was no sure thing. Delegates were chosen from 12 states, each with his own priorities, jealousies and agendas. Each man was a leader with extensive legal and political experience. They met in the dog days of summer in one of the most inhospitable summer climates imaginable; Philadelphia. They debated and argued for four grueling months making hundreds of compromises and bargains. Many members disliked the final product and refused to endorse it but, heroically, kept their objections private until the document had been submitted to the Congress for each state to review and ratify. There are many books which tell this story but none give it the drama and gravitas that Bowen’s book achieves. These men are sometimes only remembered as marble statues but Bowen brings each of them, complete with strengths and weaknesses, to life. If you only have the time to read one book on the creation of the Constitution this is, without a doubt, the one you should choose.
I'll bet not many Americans know very much about the politics and prejudices, regional rivalries, compromises and confrontations that motivated the delegates of the Federal Convention of 1787. While we may have read a fair amount about the bright lights among these men, Washington, Franklin, Madison and Hamilton, we know little, I suppose, about the lesser known delegates who made crucial and enduring contributions to our nation's founding document, men like James Wilson and Gouverneur Morris, Nathaniel Gorham, and Edmund Randolph, and maybe still less about those, such as Luther Martin, George Mason and Elbridge Gerry, who refused to sign it. Bowen's book tells their story through the often fiery debates that took place in Independence Hall that sultry and miraculous summer in Philadelphia. Published in 1966, this book is an inveterate classic, which I had not read before. I'm glad I did. Despite its age, it certainly deserves an esteemed place among the best books of the national foundation. It helps us understand why Washington wrote that the Constitution produced by this diverse and sometimes irreconcilable collection of men was "much to be wondered at...little short of a miracle." Indeed.