The Original Compromise: What The Constitution’s Framers Were Really Thinking, by David Brian Robertson
I can’t help but think in reading this particular book that the author’s thinking and research is not quite as original as he thinks it is. That’s not to say that this book is bad by any means; it happens to be a very good book that provides a detailed look at how the framers thought about various subjects relating to the Constitution and how they sought to achieve through various means an electable majority within each of the states to bring their vision for a stronger national government into fruition. It is also intriguing that just as is the case in contemporary America, the role of the smaller and less populous states in maintaining their power through equal representation in the Senate had some serious consequences when it came to the shape of the American republic that the founders eventually developed. It is rather telling that it was the interests of the North that tended to force the creation of the Senate because of fears that the slave power would expand greatly in the South with the development of new states, even if later on it was the slave states themselves that long benefited from parity between slave and free states up to 1850, after which free states started to dominate both the House and Senate, with fateful consequences.
This book is about 250 pages long and is divided into eighteen chapters. The author begins with acknowledgements as well as a discussion of the principal speakers of the convention and abbreviations. After that the author introduces the book by looking at the aspirations of the founders and their compromises and how the convention can be analyzed with a look at ideas, politics, and the sequences of choices made (1). After that the author discusses what ailed the United States in the immediate period after independence and the look at nationalism as the cure (I), with chapters on the setting and context and delegates themselves (2), the proposed remedy of a new constitution (3), the main challenge of controlling republican politics for the common good (4), the broad nationalism of the Virginia plan (5) and the narrow nationalism of the smaller states who feared being made irrelevant (6). After this the author discusses the politics of building government institutions (II), with chapters on the selection of representatives (7) and senators (8), congressional independence (9), selection of the president (10), presidential independence and isolation (11), and the courts and the Bill of Rights (12). Finally, the author discusses the politics of government (III), with chapters on federalism (13), slavery (14), economic authority (15), national security and foreign policy (16), the end game of ratification and expansion and amendments (17), and the results of the convention (18), after which there are appendices that discuss the chronological sequence of convention decisions (i) as well as a text of the constitution itself (ii), along with notes and an index.
The author does not dwell on the fateful consequences that followed the passage of the Constitution, as that would have required a gift of prophecy that no one at the time can be said to have possessed nor should anyone be expected to possess. That said, in reading this book I found myself both impressed by the political savvy of the founders in satisficing the concerns and interests of a majority of the nationalists who came to Philadelphia that summer in 1787 seeking a stronger nation. To be sure, what ended up being compromised was not what anyone would have preferred, but it was something that most of them would be able to support and that was able to attract a majority support in various states, especially once the Bill of Rights were promised to protect those rights that people were most afraid that governments would seek to interfere in. The people who founded our republic were consummate politicians as well as statesmen and this book shows that. Perhaps less happily, it also demonstrates the sort of tact that is required to found a complex republic where there are so many competing interests as well as not unreasonable fears that any government strong enough to protect and defend the people is also strong enough to oppress them as well.