The Original Compromise: What the Constitution's Framers Were Really Thinking

The Original Compromise: What the Constitution's Framers Were Really Thinking

The Original Compromise: What the Constitution's Framers Were Really Thinking

The Original Compromise: What the Constitution's Framers Were Really Thinking

Synopsis

The eighty-five famous essays by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay - known collectively as the Federalist Papers - comprise the lens through which we typically view the ideas behind the U.S. Constitution. But we are wrong to do so, writes David Brian Robertson, if we really want to know what the Founders were thinking. In this provocative new account of the framing of the Constitution, Robertson observes that the Federalist Papers represented only one side in a fierce argument that was settled by compromise - in fact, multiple compromises. Drawing on numerous primary sources, Robertson unravels the highly political dynamics that shaped the document. Hamilton and Madison, who hailed from two of the larger states, pursued an ambitious vision of a robust government with broad power. Leaders from smaller states envisioned only a few added powers, sufficient to correct the disastrous weakness of the Articles of Confederation, but not so strong as to threaten the governing systems within their own states. The two sides battled for three arduous months; the Constitution emerged piece by piece, the product of an evolving web of agreements. Robertson examines each contentious debate, including arguments over the balance between the federal government and the states, slavery, war and peace, and much more. In nearly every case, a fractious, piecemeal, and very political process prevailed. In this way, the convention produced a government of separate institutions, each with the will and ability to defend its independence. Majorities would rule, but the Constitution made it very difficult to assemble majorities large enough to let the government act. Brilliantly argued and deeply researched, this book will change the way we think of "original intent." With a bracing willingness to challenge old pieties, Robertson rescues the political realities that created the government we know today.

Excerpt

The founders of their nation fascinate Americans, but their Constitution created a government that often mystifies them. What is the logic behind it? What were the Constitution’s framers trying to accomplish in 1787? Why did they create the United States Congress, the presidency, the courts, and the federal system the way they did? How did they expect these parts to work together? These questions are vital now. We cannot understand today’s United States without understanding the thinking behind the Constitution.

The Constitution shapes American life today. The Constitution still provides the framework for the way the U.S. government makes laws, defends the nation, and provides for Americans’ prosperity. The U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate still must agree completely whenever they make a law. States with large populations, like New York, still have far more seats in the House of Representatives than small states like Delaware; in the Senate, however, each state is represented by two senators no matter how small or large its population. The president, at the head of a separate and independent executive branch, still wields the power to veto Congress’s bills, to appoint important officials with the Senate’s consent, and to command the nation’s military. Judges on U.S. courts are still appointed to the bench under the original rules, and the U.S. judicial branch is still very independent of the other branches. The states still control a wide range of policies that directly affect all Americans, such as policy toward crime and punishment, marriage and family, and business and labor. The Constitution still orchestrates the rhythms of American politics, with Congressional elections every two years, presidential elections every four, and an Electoral College that chooses the president even if his opponent wins the popular vote.

As I studied the founding, I discovered that there is no book that explains the framers’ reasoning during the meeting that produced this durable Constitution. This book addresses the unfilled need for a narrative of the Constitutional Convention’s logic that is accurate, understandable, and drawn primarily from the actual records of the Convention itself.

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