The Summer of 1787 Review

The Summer of 1787 by David O. Stewart explores how the men of the Constitutional Convention wrote the United States Constitution. The book details each delegate’s contributions to the process, and explains how they tackled the problems facing eighteenth-century America.
The story of the Constitution reveals the document’s flaws, such as the infamous “3/5 of a human being” clause that gave Southern states more voting power using their slaves. Stewart explains that the agreement was a pure political bargain. He goes on to explore the terrible consequences of the clause for slaves and America in general. Through such exploration the reader can understand how the Constitution was built to evolve with the nation, and that human error and bias is built into government.
Stewart is a master of the material for sure. He speaks with great knowledge of each delegate – his background, personality, appearance, annoying habits, contributions, impressions on other people. He paints vivid pictures of the men through such details, from Ben Franklin’s wise and irritating metaphors to the blunt speeches of Mason. Descriptions of what the delegates did during recess helps to build a sense of story. For example George Washington was fond of dining at various houses, fishing with friends, and riding in the countryside.
More importantly, the author knows all about the Convention proceedings (thanks to Madison’s diligent note-taking). Every debate and dissent is detailed. The reader can easily trace a day’s work in the meetinghouse. Stewart provides background information to help the reader understand the issues faced by the Convention, as well as why delegates assumed certain positions. The author clearly did his homework.
            I have no complaints about the quality of information. I do dislike the author’s setup of The Summer of 1787.
            The book is scholarly and dense, with run-on sentences and too many phrases. This reader ended up with a headache. For example, here the author talks about the “details” added to the Constitution via Rutledge’s Committee of Details:

More ambitious was the Committee’s decision that the Senate should negotiate treaties with foreign countries and should name ambassadors. No delegate had ever suggested these arrangements, which reflected the committee’s hopes that the Senate would attract “respectable characters” who would be more trustworthy than the president. That change also reinforced the power of the smaller states, which would have greater influence in the Senate. Though the final Constitution would reduce the Senate’s role to providing the president with “advice and consent” on treaties and ambassadors, even that reduced role has enabled the Senate to block compacts as important as the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. (p 169)

            Do you see how each sentence says multiple things at once? Stewart’s book is made of paragraphs like that one, which makes the work feel like a snarl of spaghetti. Stewart’s writing has no flow. It feels like he writes down his thoughts and puts quotes in crucial places. So while Stewart has a great command of words, he does not seem to write with the intention of accessibility. I had to read several sentences twice.
Stewart chose to tell the story in chronological order. To spice up the scholarly paragraphs, he inserts details about the delegates’ lives and personalities. However, he does this in a way that seems repetitive and elementary. Each chapter starts with a sensory description, such as “the tang of fresh ink hung in the air of the East Room” (p177). Next are a few sentences about the general mood of the Convention. Then Stewart plunges right in to the central controversy of the chapter. After exhausting that goldmine, he ends with a predictable clincher that chains one chapter to the next. The Summer of 1787 feels like Stewart took all of his information, cut it according to controversy and time, and strung it together with awkward narrative hooks.
            In addition, the story of the Convention is filled with a lot of people doing a lot of different things. It becomes very difficult to keep track of each delegate’s goals and biases. Was it Mason who was pro-democracy? Rutledge was a southerner, right? Who was Wilson again? Stewart does remind the reader from time to time, but it wasn’t enough. Not that this problem was the author’s fault – there are a lot of people at the Convention – but maybe Stewart didn’t have to mention who exactly said what. Instead he could have just described the two sides of the argument without so many names.
Also, each delegate is introduced in nearly the same way every time: a brief biography, a black-and-white portrait, and a few humanizing traits such as other people’s opinions of him or his peculiar habits. Stewart’s pictures are vivid, yes, but they are always painted according to a formula. This method makes the writing feel even less organic.
In short, The Summer of 1787 needed an editor. Another set of eyes could have combined Stewart’s scholarly know-how with the elements of story in a more organic manner. The author loves to go into so much detail about the proceedings of the Convention that he should have written papers about the contributions of each man. One paper for Rutledge, one for Washington, and so on. Instead Stewart mashes all the information together into a mess of hotheaded lawyers in a steamy room in Philadelphia. For the sake of clarity, he should have made the book longer. Extending the work would have made more room for the “storytelling” as well.
As a sidenote, Stewart is extremely fond of detailing the adverse Philadelphia weather and its effects on the delegates’ pores. I don’t think a single chapter went by without at least two mentions of how gross the weather was. Perhaps Stewart was a weatherman before turning to law.
However, for all of the book’s structural flaws and inaccessibility, I’d probably be hard-pressed to find a better attempt at explaining the Constitutional Convention. As I said before, writing about any remarkable moment in history is difficult. Writing about the Constitutional Convention is a massive undertaking and Stewart should be applauded for his work. The Summer of 1787 illuminates a pivotal moment in America’s foundation, and just how complicated history is.


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