Miracle at Philadelphia surprised me. I picked it up at Mike’s place on a whim, along with a pile of other books that looked interesting. It sat on my shelf at home for a couple of months before I picked it up one day to start reading. The 1966 original publication date turned me off, as I have an unfair prejudice against books, particularly history books about well-known subjects, written before I was born. I know it’s not fair, but I tend to believe that, if the subject is well-trodden, someone has probably written about it in the last ten or twenty years in a way that is more accessible to the average reader, and also includes the latest information that might have been found in a box or cave somewhere.
So I was surprised and excited to find myself becoming engrossed in the story of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 as told by Catherine Drinker Brown. Brown (or should it be Drinker Brown?) tied together primary sources in a way that brought the characters, debates and times to life. As all great history books should, Miracle at Philadelphia made me want to travel back in time to experience the events it described. I suppose that in a way it allowed me to come close to experiencing the events even without the benefit of a time machine.
One of the great pleasures of the book was learning about small facts or anecdotes that I might have learned in high school but since forgotten.
- Benjamin Franklin, at 81 years old, was the oldest member of the convention.
- Thomas Jefferson was in Europe at the time
- George Washington was the chair of the convention, and it was considered a virtual certainty that he would be president at the head of the resulting government; in fact, some wondered if members of the convention were willing to give more power of the executive branch simply because they knew that Washington would be President.
- When the question of whether to hold a ratifying convention came before the Pennsylvania legislature, it became clear that the convention would be approved, and opponents of the constitution locked themselves in their lodgings to prevent a vote. A mob broke into the hotel and dragged two members to the convention in order to reach a quorum, whereupon the Constitution was ratified. Didn’t something similar just happen in Texas?
Another fascinating aspect of the book was the collection of sources that Brown used. James Madison took the most complete notes of the convention, but the book weaves together notes and journals from several attendees of the convention, the official record, and letters sent before and after the convention. The clarity of thought exhibited by these men both inspires me and leaves me with an odd feeling of shame. I hope that the inspiration/shame leads me to keep a better journal and write more letters. I know that this book leaves me wanting to read a lot more about this period of US history.