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What were the Founding Fathers really thinking when they gathered in the Pennsylvania State House to draft the United States Constitution? When answering this question, most have relied on The Federalist Papers, which was first published in book form after the close of the Convention, in 1788. To this day, the book's status is sacrosanct for most Americans. Yet as David Brian Robertson shows, the Papers represented one side of the debate and does not fully capture the political sensibilities that produced the U.S. Constitution. Robertson, drawing from the full range of contemporary sources and not just the Papers, provides a truly authoritative account of the founders' collective political reasoning during the Convention. Organized thematically, each chapter covers a crucial Constitutional issue: the respective roles of the executive, the judiciary, and the legislature; the balance between the federal government and the states; slavery; and war and peace. In virtually every instance, the process was decidedly political, fractious, and piecemeal. As much as they wanted to design the government that would best serve their people, the Founders struggled to balance their broad ideals with self-interested policies and procedures. Robertson's boldly revisionist account of the political horse-trading that dominated the Convention not only greatly enriches our understanding of the nation's founding; it also elucidates why the government they created has proven so difficult to use.
David Brian Robertson is Curator's Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He is the author of The Constitution and America's Destiny and Federalism and the Making of America.