The United States of America officially gained independence from Great Britain in 1783 but the nation itself was not yet fully born. Despite its name, the United States hardly consisted of united states; instead regional disputes over tariffs, territorial claims and international trade made the nation more like a household of squabbling siblings than the harmonious community envisioned in the slogans of 1776. By 1786 men were taking up arms to rebel again, against the very people they had fought beside just three years before. The little-known Shays' Rebellion resulted in fresh blood soaking the snows of New England a brutal wake-up call that if something wasn't done soon, all the patriots had fought for would fall apart.
The Summer of 1787 is David O. Stewart's fascinating account of the response to the crisis: the great Constitutional Convention that produced the nation we know today. Far from the staid and formal procedure depicted in classic American paintings, Stewart presents a process marked by discord and confusion and no small dash of hypocrisy as the delegates argued over what to do about everything from navigation rights to slavery. On some points they made good decisions, even brilliant ones; on others bad, and on all they compromised, trying to craft law that would reconcile their hopes for the future with the sometimes petty expectations of their present.
Stewart writes skillfully and fluidly, making what even the delegates acknowledged as a tiresome process into an interesting, compelling read. He doesn't gloss over the men's faults, but presents the Founding Fathers as they were: men with self-interests as well as altruism, flaws as well as wisdom. The forging of a nation is truly a messy process, especially when the laborers do not even know if the nation will accept what they have wrought. Stewart captures this element magnificently, giving the reader an active sense of the tension and doubt the framers faced. The Summer of 1787 is a worthy contribution to the history of the Constitution, not only for its insights into the minds that made our nation, but also as a thoroughly enjoyable read. Howard Shirley is a writer in Franklin, Tennessee.