- Peace Pact: The Lost World of the American Founding
Since the 1790s, historians have attempted to answer a most provocative question: how were 13 distinct colonies able to form a functioning union? David C. Hendrickson provides a valuable interjection into this conversation by arguing that the Constitution was an attempt at international diplomacy, literally creating a "peace pact" between sovereign colonies that, when threatened with internecine war, decided instead to strive for internal peace (xi).
As Hendrickson demonstrates, union was a daunting prospect. In 1775, John Adams argued that "The Characters of Gentlemen in the four New England colonies, differ as much from those in the others, as that of the Common People differs, that is as much as several distinct Nations almost" (26). These cultural differences translated into sectional allegiances that made drafting and ratifying the Constitution difficult. Hendrickson takes Virginia delegate Henry Lee's comment that he would "submit to all the hazards of war and risk the loss of everything dear to me in life" rather than "to live under the rule of a fixed insolent northern majority" to be emblematic of the difficulties of creating a peace pact between regional blocs of sectional interests (281). Accordingly, Hendrickson praises the compromises leading to the Constitution and provides a well-argued encomium for the acumen of the founders. In fact, he approvingly quotes Benjamin Franklin, who argued at the close of the Constitutional Convention that the Constitution would "astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear, that our councils are confounded like those of the builders of Babel, and that our States are on the [End Page 514] point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another's throats" (5).
This is an expansive book, considering the historical, philosophical, and political origins of the arguments for a federal Constitution. Hendrickson's argument meanders for nearly 300 pages (with nearly 100 pages of appendices and notes), and is so broad that he offers a condensed summary in the introduction (xi–xii) and outlines his argument in seven diagrams in an appendix (263–80). The argument of Peace Pact is broken into six parts: first, Hendrickson lays the scene for the Constitutional debates of 1787–88; second, he considers "the lessons of history," walking the reader through historical parallels drawn on by members of the Constitutional Convention; third, he considers the relationship between the British Empire and the American Revolution; fourth, he considers the origins of the Articles of Confederation; fifth, he considers the diplomatic failures of the Articles of Confederation; and sixth, in the book's concluding section, he considers the writing and ratification of the Constitution.
The sixth section of the book is by far the most interesting, and it is this section that is the most useful for the rhetorical scholar. Here, Hendrickson does a good job in demonstrating how difficult it was to achieve a peace pact between the regional blocs that developed following the Revolutionary War. His ultimate insight is that achieving a balance of power in accordance with American expansion into the West was the key to securing union. By constituting the Senate to secure the dominance of Northern interests in the short run, and the House of Representatives to secure the future dominance of the South as its population of slaves and slaveholders grew and expanded, the Constitution was able to placate all parties. Unfortunately, as Hendrickson hints, this compromise foreshadows the sectional difficulties of the 1830s and beyond that ultimately led to the Civil War.
This is very much the work of a historian interested in explaining one specific historical event: the Constitution. However, the sixth section of the book provides three insights that are useful to rhetorical scholars concerned with argumentation, persuasion, and the functions of public discourse in early America. First, Hendrickson demonstrates good historiographic methods by considering the situated-ness of the Constitution as the interlocutors understood it, which is thus a call for historical immersion. As he argues, "This book enjoins the...