Reviewed by Kevin R. C. Gutzman, Department of History, Western Connecticut State University. Email: gutzmank [at] wcsu.edu.
Political scientist David Brian Robertson here offers a novel approach to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. Rather than focus on one participant or tell the general story of the Convention chronologically, Robertson undertakes to describe the Convention’s decisions discretely. In doing so, however, he stresses ways that decisions made earlier in the gathering affected those made subsequently.
The Original Compromise is divided into eighteen chapters. The first lays out his argument, the next five describe the reasons for the Philadelphia Convention and the approaches to dealing with them that delegates favored, chapters 7-12 explain the Convention’s course regarding the proposed government’s structure, the next five deal with the overarching issue of the extent of the power to be lodged in the new government, and the last summarizes the book.
Robertson asserts that the Framers faced two imperatives: to strengthen the central government of the U.S.A. and to keep that government republican. Both were difficult tasks, he says, but the two together were very, very hard. The Framers’ problem was compounded by the diversity of the delegates and of the political societies to which they were beholden. Perforce, the Convention’s work became a kind of rolling compromise, with early decisions limiting the conclave’s freedom of action in regard to matters considered later on.
In general, Robertson takes a Federalist approach: he accepts the contention that the Confederation Government had too little power, along with the corollary that many – sometimes he and they think virtually all – of America’s civic difficulties in 1787 grew out of that problem. Beyond that, his account of the Convention necessarily stresses the symbolic role of George Washington, the mostly quiet example of Benjamin Franklin, the strategic initiative and oratorical contribution of James Madison, and the leadership role played by Roger Sherman. (One wishes that Robertson had had the advantage of access to the fine recent Sherman book by Mark David Hall (2012).)
In chapter 3, Robertson considers the revision project itself. The first section, “Was it Necessary and Timely to Reconstruct the Nation’s Government?” betrays one of his key assumptions: that the U.S.A. was a nation in 1787 rather than a federal republic in Vattel’s sense. He makes short work of the related question whether the Convention had authority to propose replacement of the Confederation with a completely new government, quoting George Mason to the effect that the Confederation’s government had been dissolved “by the [*214] appointment of this Convention to devise a better one” (p.37).
Since the Philadelphia Convention began according to James Madison’s script, taking up his Virginia Plan off the bat, Robertson begins chapter 4 with consideration of Federalist 10. Although written after the Convention, that essay recapitulated notes and letters written by the Virginian in the months leading up to the Convention, and Virginia’s proposals in the Convention’s early days reflected the ideas that essay would soon make public.
Chapters 5 and 6 describe one of the key divisions in the Convention, that between what Robertson calls “Broad Nationalism” and “Narrow Nationalism.” This nomenclature strikes me as a bit misleading. The Convention considered the Virginia Plan’s call for a “national” government featuring “national” legislative, executive, and judicial branches, and opponents of these formulae did not describe themselves as “Narrow Nationalists.” Rather, they preferred federal government.
In any event, Robertson’s descriptions of the Virginia-Pennsylvania-Massachusetts coalition’s vision and the contrary position of small states supported by New York are perfectly clear. So, too, is his account of the New Jersey Plan’s effect on the course of the Convention.
In Part Two, the central six of his eighteen chapters, Robertson considers the main structural issues before the Convention: “Selecting U.S. Representatives,” “Selecting U.S. Senators,” “Congressional Independence,” “Selecting the President,” “Presidential Independence and Isolation,” and “The Courts and a Bill of Rights.” Along the way, he shows how delegates divided over all of what became the Constitution’s structural provisions and how those divisions were affected by earlier decisions. So, for example, Madison’s growing insistence on presidential authority in the wake of his defeat on Senate apportionment and senatorial selection is of a piece with Sherman’s growing desire for power to be lodged in the Senate.
Robertson errs, as Hall has shown, in thinking that Sherman’s “Connecticut Compromise” occurred to him in response to the Convention’s deliberations; rather, Sherman had proposed a bicameral Congress with state equality in one house and population apportionment of the other years earlier. Not only did Sherman favor such a scheme from a philosophical point of view, but Connecticut, with one-thirteenth of the American population in 1787, would have the same share in a house composed in one way as in a house composed in the other. Sherman’s prominence in Robertson’s account is merited.
The chapter on congressional independence has the Convention devoting extensive attention to questions that now seem essentially trivial. Maybe congressmen are paid, but so what? The matter of their remuneration seems significant to the populace, but it takes up an infinitesimal share of the federal budget. Similarly, the requirement that taxing and spending bills originate in the House is chiefly a technical matter in Congress now, one respected only in the breach (as the history of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act [*215] shows). Intended as a sop to nationalists such as Madison in the wake of their defeat on Senate apportionment, it struck most delegates as trivial from the beginning.
Of more importance, likely, was the decision to ban congressmen from simultaneously holding positions in the Executive Branch. Rejection of this routine British practice (which would also be part of Confederate practice during the Civil War) went a long way to isolate the Executive from the Legislative Branch – and no doubt complicated the process of legislating. Robertson shows that this decision was made without much thought
Famously, the Constitution’s provisions for presidential selection resulted from contentious debate. Many alternative provisions were proposed and discussed before the pre-12th Amendment system was selected. As elsewhere, Robertson’s program of laying out debates about and decisions upon particular portions of the Constitution discretely pays dividends here: his account is crystal-clear.
Part Three, “The Politics of Government Power,” shows the delegates contending over the functions of their proposed new government. Here is Madison insisting upon a federal veto over state legislation over and over again, ultimately without success. There are Gouverneur Morris decrying slaveowners and slavery and the Carolina delegates telling him to stifle himself. Here the imperative to give the central government military power runs into long-standing insistence on local control of militias and fear of distant authority. There the Framers assume that their handiwork, believed imperfect by each and every one of them, will need amendment, and so provide two processes for making formal textual changes.
The Original Compromise is intended to demonstrate that a constitution envisioned in its particulars by no one, and not even much loved by any of its authors, resulted from compromises flowing logically from the order of decision-making in the Philadelphia Convention. (The same could be said of ratification and the earliest amendments.) Overall, Robertson is successful in achieving his aim.
Scholars of the topic are unlikely to find much that is new to them in The Original Compromise. As author of a recent Madison biography, James Madison and the Making of America, I was on familiar ground virtually throughout. Readers less familiar with the story of the crafting of the federal charter, on the other hand, surely can benefit from reading Robertson’s text. His judgments are sure-footed, his writing is clear, and his mastery of both the primary and the secondary materials is substantial.
Hall, Mark David. 2012. Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic. New York. Oxford University Press.
Copyright 2013 by the Author, Kevin R. C. Gutzman.