In the face of conservative propaganda arguing the virtues of no-compromise, it is more important than ever to remember that the United States Constitution itself is a product of compromise. No man who served on the Constitutional Convention got everything he wanted, including especially the man known as the “Father of the Constitution”, James Madison. The authors of Signing Their Rights Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed The United States Constitution, understand this, as the title itself makes abundantly clear. Denise Kiernan and Joseph D’Agnese, authors of Signing Their Lives Away (Quirk, 2009) have turned their attention from the signers of the Declaration of Independence to the signers of the Constitution.
What they have put together is a handy and very attractive little series of mini-biographies of the 39 signers of the Constitution. The biographies are organized by state. Each has a picture and next to it the sort of important data you might expect to find on a baseball card. For example, Jonathan Langdon of New Hampshire is identified as “The signer who picked up the tub.” We get his date of birth, his date of death, his age at signing, his profession, and his place of burial. We then get a brief bio of Langdon, about four pages long. Nicholas Gilman, the other New Hampshire delegate (“The most handsome signer”), gets about 3 pages. By way of contrast, George Washington (the president of the Constitutional Convention) gets about 7 pages and James Madison 6.
These biographies cannot tell you everything about these men. There are a plethora of fine book-length works on some of them that go into much greater depth. But that is not the purpose of this book, which is meant to serve as an introduction to these men, most of whom have faded into obscurity. In the case of Langdon, we not only learn who he was before the Constitutional Convention and how he came to be there, but that during the convention “he spoke more than twenty times” and that “his experience as a financier of military operations may have contributed to his belief that a strong central government would make it easier for the new country to defend itself.” Gilman, on the other hand, we learn was “little liked” by his fellow delegates and that James Madison’s “meticulous records” offer no record of the man having spoke at all. On the other hand, Gilman diligently sold the idea of the Constitution to his fellow New Hampshire citizens. “His enthusiasm,” write the authors, “helped ensure New Hampshire’s place of honor as the ninth state to sign, upon which the U.S. Constitution became a binding document.”
This is a very handy little book because it’s so easy to use. It gives you the key information about each signer in an easy to reference format. The dust jacket folds out into a poster of the original document and the appendices offer the Constitution itself and the Bill of Rights and additional amendments, as well as a “Constitutional miscellany” and some very brief bios of the men who left the convention without signing. There is also a brief bibliography.
This little book is entertaining, easy to read, and above all, informative. It’s a brilliant piece of work and a must-have for any history-buff’s library, but more than that, for anyone with an interest in defending that Constitution against the idea that compromise is an evil, for without it, we’d not have a Constitution to be arguing about today.
Signing Their Rights Away will be released on September 6, 2011.