In A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, author Carol Berkin recalls the period following the end of the Revolutionary War when the Articles of Confederation were in force as the governing code for the new United States. Designed with an eye toward decentralizing power, the Articles worked so well that the young nation soon found itself without any significant power. Its army was small and inconsequential; its credit was ruined; and the 13 states tended to conduct themselves as wholly independent political units.

Against this backdrop, Berkin, conveys the desperation and passion of the men who met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 to design America's new constitution. They were men of wealth and comfort," she says, landowners, slaveholders, lawyers, merchants, land and securities speculators, and an occasional doctor or clergyman," who were crafty enough to know that premature leaks could scuttle their proposed ship of state. Consequently, they agreed to keep the details of their discussions secret from the public.

Although the universally revered George Washington and Ben Franklin were both active in the convention, they were less assertive than such younger colleagues as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. From May 25, when the ground rules were laid down, until September 17, the day the document was signed, the debates surged this way and that, often creating the least expected of political allies. Relying on first-hand accounts and doling out the events as they actually occurred, Berkin adds drama and color to what might have been little more than an annotated set of minutes.

The author, a professor of American history at the City University of New York, rounds out her story with an account of the document's ratification and of Washington's inauguration as president. Appended to her engaging narrative are copies of the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution as initially approved, as well as thumbnail biographies of all the representatives to the convention.

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