Tuesday, March 17, 2020

December 15, 1791: Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution Are Ratified

Bill of Rights

Despite a modern perception that the first ten amendments bestow rights, it’s clear that the Bill of Rights is really a list of government prohibitions. The Founders did not believe in government benevolence and would never have accepted government as the arbiter of rights. 

Read all about it at Constituting America

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Guest essayist at Constituting America: U.S. Constitution Sent to the States for Ratification

Constituting America

The Founding of this great nation was unique. Until 1776, with a few brief exceptions, world history was about rulers and empires. The American experiment shook the world. Not only did we break away from the biggest and most powerful empire in history, we took the musings of the brightest thinkers of the Enlightenment and implemented them. Our Founding was simultaneously an armed rebellion against tyranny, and a revolution of ideas—ideas that changed the world.
That is why we still care about America’s founding and the Framers of our Constitution.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Constituting America: 2020 90-Day Study Launches

I'll be participating again this year. I'll let you know when my essays are published, but in the meantime, take a gander at this.

"Many Americans, including perhaps a majority of young people, believe that the present is so different from the past that the past no longer has anything to teach us. This could not be more wrong." Dr. Wifred McClay, from the Introduction.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Nice Endorsement for Tempest at Dawn

Who is Larry Schweikart? He’s not only a history guru, he’s a tenured college professor, who once lectured in the halls at the University of Dayton. There, he taught history for 20 years and literally “wrote the book” on the subject. A Patriot’s History. Actually 25 books and counting. Many, New York Times #1 best sellers.

Larry Schweikart books on Amazon

Thanks for the kind words, professor.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

A Republic, if You Can Keep It . . .

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

At the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787,  Franklin was queried as he left Independence Hall on the final day of deliberation. In the notes of Dr. James McHenry, one of Maryland’s delegates to the Convention,  a lady asked Dr. Franklin “Well Doctor what have we got, a republic or a monarchy.”  Franklin replied, “A republic . . . if you can keep it.”

Our Constitution created a limited representative republic.  A republic is different from a democracy.  In a democracy, the majority can directly make laws, while in a republic, elected representatives make laws.  Basically, in a pure democracy, the majority has unlimited power, whereas in a republic, a written constitution limits the majority and provides safeguards for the individual and minorities.
In the United States, we actually have both systems.  There is no way for Americans to directly enact legislation at the national level, but half of the states allow ballot initiatives which, if passed by a majority of the voters, have the force of law.
The Founders’ intent at the national level was a representative republic.  The word democracy is not mentioned in the Constitution.   Most of the Founders distrusted pure democracy.  Some had been frightened by Shays Revolt and equated democracy with mob rule. Others were convinced by Madison that different factions would come together until they formed a majority, and then take advantage of those who were not members of their coalition. In fact, Madison showed that throughout history, this phenomenon had destroyed every experiment in democracy.
John Adams wrote that “There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide,” and James Madison wrote in Federalist 10 that “Democracies have, in general, been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” The reason pure democracies fail is that majorities learn that they can legally take property and/or liberties away from others. Those subjected to abuse can be anyone outside the majority coalition, and their minority status can be based on race, religion, wealth, political affiliation, or even which city or state they reside in. Demagogic leaders become adept at appealing to the emotions of jealousy, avarice, and entitlement. They also denigrate opponents in order to justify prejudicial actions taken by the majority.  Soon, oppression of minority classes causes enough conflicts to collapse the democratic process.
A major difference between a republic and a democracy is immediacy. The Founders wanted laws made by representatives in order to put a buffer between popular passions and legislation. In a democracy, decisions are made in the heat of the moment, while periodic elections in a republic provide a cooling off period. To a great extent, democracies are ruled by feelings, while in a republic, the rule of law governs. In a republic, politicians can take principled actions that go against the will of many of their constituents with the knowledge that they will be judged by all the actions they take during their entire term in office. Political leaders are also given time to explain the reasons for their actions.

Of course, if an elected official does something grievously offensive, then the voters can follow the advice of Alexander Hamilton, who in Federalist 21 wrote, “The natural cure for an ill-administration, in a popular or representative constitution, is a change of men.” 
When the people’s will is thwarted, regular elections give them the opportunity to dismiss their representatives and appoint new ones.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Happy Birthday To The Bill Of Rights! 228 Years of Protection

Buy at Constituting America

Is our Bill of Rights a list of government-guaranteed rights? Absolutely not. The first eight amendments are filled with phrases like, “Congress shall make no law, shall not be infringed, shall not be violated, nor be deprived, shall not be required.” These are not a list of rights generously bestowed by a benevolent government. Instead they are a list of restrictions on government. As a safety measure, they added the caveat that this was not a complete list (IX Amendment).

Rights endowed by God was not a new concept. It went back at least to Marcus Tullius Cicero and the Roman Republic. Cicero searched for what he called natural law. Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BC–46 BC) on Natural Rights: 
True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting. There will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens, or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and all time. If so great a power belongs to the decrees of fools that the laws of Nature can be changed by their votes, then why do they not ordain that what is bad be considered good?

John Locke and the Enlightenment magnified awareness that rights came from God. Locke wrote that humans were “by nature free, equal and independent.” Our First Congress wrote these rights as amendments to the Institution and the states ratified the ten amendments we call the Bill of Rights.

Happy Birthday to the Bill of Rights 

Here are two great articles on the Bill of Rights from Constituting America

The Bill of Rights: America's Bulwark of Liberty by Horace Cooper, Constituting America Fellow

Happy Bill of Rights Day by Tony Williams, Constituting America Fellow

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Perfect Gift for Constitution Enthusiast

The real story of our nation's founding.

Christmas gift idea holiday gift
Tempest at Dawn

"The best novel EVER on the U.S. Constitution."—Larry Schweikart, author A Patriot's History of the United States and over a dozen other history books

"I find hope and confidence in the wonderfully written Tempest At Dawn, by James D. Best" Allen Ball, Beaufort Observer

"The novel captures the real drama that ensued behind closed doors as they hammered out what is now the oldest living constitution and the foundation of the nation. Read it for its historical value. Read it for its dramatic value. But read it!"—Alan Caruba, Bookviews

"Thanks to James Best’s masterpiece, Tempest at Dawn, I felt like the 56th delegate at the Constitutional Convention. Using vivid narrative and expressive dialogue, Tempest at Dawn presents all the major issues the Founding Fathers struggled with."—Michael E. Newton, author of Alexander Hamilton and other history books.

"This book was absolutely fabulous. If you want a terrific historical fiction book, I recommend you start with this one." Selbrede 40 Book Challenge

"This is an important story told in a lively fashion. Tempest at Dawn might be the ideal way of introducing the American public to the gripping story of how our Founding Fathers gave birth to our constitution."—Jon Bruning, Attorney General, Nebraska

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Alexander Hamilton has a Warning for the Nation

In mid-June, Alexander Hamilton made a speech at the Constitutional Convention. This was early in the process and the Framers were still feeling their way toward a solution. His words have relevancy to our modern political situation. The emotional plea for impeachment has resulted in a public relations battle between the interested parties. If one side can get the poll numbers to slide in their direction, they win. Both sides have come to believe passion, not evidence of wrongdoing will determine the outcome.

Excerpt from Tempest at Dawn
Gentlemen, I’m unfriendly to both the New Jersey plan and the Virginia plan. Both deliver mere pork with different sauces. Neither considers the amazing turbulence of the democratic spirit. When a popular passion seizes people, it spreads like wildfire. In every society there’ll be a division of people into the few and the many. Give all power to the many and they oppress the few. Give all power to the few and they oppress the many. We’re now watching uncontrolled passion destroy this great country. The Union is dissolving.”

Saturday, October 19, 2019

James Madison warning against democracy at the Constitutional Convention

Recently, there's been a lot of blathering about how our country should become more democratic. There is special fury aimed at the Electoral College. One conservative defense is that the Framers never intended the United States to be a pure democracy. Many times this rational is thrown up without explaining why the framers believed democracy destroyed liberty. Since James Madison has been referred to as the Father of the Constitution, I'll let him explain the dangers of  democracy. 

(As a background note, at the time of the Constitutional convention, Madison didn't technically own slaves. His father owned Montpieler and its slave labor force. This is not an excuse, but an explaintion of why he might have felt free to use slavery to illustrate his point.)

Madison made comments similar to the following on June 6th, 1787.

Excerpt from Tempest at Dawn

Madison made a few more comments on the role of the national government but then could not contain himself. Without preamble, Madison charged into new terrain. “Gentleman, all societies divide into different sects, factions, and interests. Conflicts grow between the rich and poor, debtors and creditors, landed and commercial interests, this district against that district, followers of this political leader or that political leader, disciples of this religion or that religion.

“When a majority unites by passion or common interest, the minority is in grave danger. What can restrain a majority? Not respect for others, nor conscience. In Greece and Rome, the patricians and plebeians alternately oppressed each other—with equal ferocity. We’ve seen the mere distinction of color, in our supposed enlightened time, furnish the grounds for the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.”

With this last, startled gasps escaped from various corners of the room. Madison tried to ignore the reaction. His indictment of slavery had been unpremeditated, but now that it had escaped his lips, he couldn’t recall it.

“Who imposed these unjust laws? The majority. Debtors defraud creditors. The holders of one type of property throw a heavier tax on other types of property. When a majority has the opportunity, they will always threaten the rights of the minority.” Madison shifted his gaze across the sea of delegates. “Make no mistake, in a republic, the majority always has opportunity!”

The real story of our nation's founding.

Monday, September 16, 2019

In celebration of Constitution Day, here's a description of the signing ceremony from Tempest at Dawn

On September 17, 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the engrossed document that began with the three famous words that define the true source of all government power.

From Tempest at Dawn, here's an abridged description of the ceremony.

Madison sat in his customary place with folded hands resting on the table. He didn’t intend to take notes today. In fact, he didn’t intend to take any more notes on any day. This signing ceremony would be the final act of the convention.

Madison noticed that his ink-stained hands looked prayerful. He thought this fitting because a reverential spirit suffused the assembly. The chamber remained hushed as the secretary read the engrossed Constitution in its entirety. At the conclusion, Franklin rose with a speech in his hand.

“Mr. President, most men believe they possess all truth and that whoever differs from them is in error. The older I grow, the more I doubt my own judgment and the more I pay attention to the judgment of others.

“When you assemble a group of men to take advantage of their collective wisdom, you inevitably bring together all their prejudices, passions, and selfish views. From such an assembly, can one expect perfection? It astonishes me that this system approaches so near perfection.

Franklin dropped his papers to his side and spoke in a commanding voice. “I move the Constitution be signed.”

King interrupted the initiation of the signing ceremony. “I suggest that the journals of the convention be destroyed or deposited in the custody of the president. If it becomes public, those who wish to prevent the adoption of the Constitution will put it to bad use.”

 “I prefer the second expedient.” Wilson looked directly at Gerry. “Some may make false representations of our proceedings, and we’ll need evidence to contradict them.”

The last comments confirmed Madison’s suspicion that the fight for ratification would be divisive and mean-spirited.

The motion passed to deposit the journals into the hands of Washington.

Finally, all other business completed, Washington formally called on the delegates to sign the Constitution. The secretary had arranged the Syng inkstand that had been used to sign the Declaration of Independence on a green baize-covered table. Washington walked around the table and signed first. He then called the states from north to south. The delegates remained silent and reverential as they approached the low dais to apply their signatures.

When Virginia was called, Madison felt a tightening in his stomach. This Constitution would permanently bind his beloved country. When he picked up the pen, he looked at Washington, who stood respectfully to the side, instead of behind the table. The precedents set by this man would seal these words. Madison grabbed the pen, dipped it in the inkwell, and signed with confidence. When he looked up, Washington gave him a nod that made Madison think he had read his mind.

Despite his illness, Franklin had remained standing after he signed, shaking hands with delegates and whispering an occasional aside. While the last members were signing, tears glistened in Franklin’s eyes. With an obvious struggle to control his emotions, he began to speak in a stronger than normal voice.

“Gentlemen, have you observed the half sun painted on the back the president’s chair? Artists find it difficult to distinguish a rising from a setting sun. In these many months, I have been unable to tell which it was. Now, I’m happy to exclaim that it is a rising, not a setting sun.”

Once the last signature was in place, no one wanted to spend another moment in this room that had dominated their lives for so many months. Besides, John Dickinson had left a banknote for a celebratory dinner at the City Tavern.

Because of the momentous day, Franklin intended to walk out of the State House. Madison grabbed one elbow, and Wilson took the opposite side to help the old man out of the chamber. Madison hoped he could protect Franklin from being jostled by the bubbling delegates, but Washington took a point position in front of their little group, and the crowd parted like the Red Sea.

“I want to thank you gentlemen for helping an enfeebled and diminished old man,” Franklin said.

“I witnessed your diminished capacity these many months,” Madison said. He became puzzled when this somehow evoked a hearty chuckle from Franklin.

The doctor glanced between Madison and Wilson. “I’m usually assisted by the inmates of Walnut Street Prison. It occurs to me that you men have been prisoners in this chamber.” Franklin chuckled again. “With the power vested in me by the State of Pennsylvania, I pardon and set you free.”

At that precise moment, with theatrics that seemed natural to Washington, the sentries threw open the door to the State House, and Madison was assaulted by bright sunlight and a deafening roar. Hundreds of people cheered, clapped, and whistled at the sight of Gen. George Washington framed by the great white door.

The threesome stopped a respectful distance behind Washington. This crowd was not going to part so easily. In fact, the sentries had skipped down the three steps and joined arms to hold back the surge of people.

“Our rambunctious session on Saturday told our fair citizens that we had concluded our business,” Franklin observed.

“Are you riding with the general?” Madison asked.

“Relax, boys. The general will know the exact moment to step off the stoop.”

True to Franklin’s prediction, Washington gauged the crowd’s mood perfectly, and when he stepped down, they gave the men a narrow path to Washington’s beautiful new carriage.

As they followed in the general’s footsteps, the people continued to cheer and applaud. A woman leaned her head past Madison to yell, “Dr. Franklin, what is it to be? A republic or a monarchy?”

The doctor hesitated in his step and looked over the throng of anxious people. His answer came in a firm, loud voice.

“A republic—if you can keep it.”

The real story of our nation's founding.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Great Labor Day Read


The real story of our nations founding

"The best novel EVER on the U.S.Constitution."--Larry Schweikart, author A Patriot's History of the United States and over a dozen other history books

"I find hope and confidence in the wonderfully written Tempest At Dawn, by James D. Best" Allen Ball, Beaufort Observer

"The novel captures the real drama that ensued behind closed doors as they hammered out what is now the oldest living constitution and the foundation of the nation. Read it for its historical value. Read it for its dramatic value. But read it!"--Alan Caruba, Bookviews

"Thanks to James Best's masterpiece, Tempest at Dawn, I felt like the 56th delegate at the Constitutional Convention. Using vivid narrative and expressive dialogue, Tempest at Dawn presents all the major issues the Founding Fathers struggled with."--Michael E.Newton, author of Alexander Hamilton and other history books.

"This book was absolutely fabulous. When you read, it makes you feel like you are the 56th delegate. If you want a terrific historical fiction book, I recommend you start with this one." Selbrede 40Book Challenge

"The book brings our founders to life with great writing, historic accuracy and amazing wit."--On Transmigration

Friday, June 21, 2019

Why did I Write Tempest at Dawn?

I recently received a query about writing Tempest at Dawn. Here’s my answer.

The United States Constitution is one of our country’s two most revered documents. It’s one thing to write a history book about the Constitutional Convention, but a novelization could be seen as trespassing on sacred ground. When I started Tempest at Dawn, I knew the gravity of the project, but I had no idea how much work it would entail. It was twelve years between the first word and publication.

How did I get myself into this predicament? When I left corporate America to become a consultant, I found myself traveling a lot. My longest engagement was in Boston. I grew up in Southern California, where anything over fifty years old was ripped down to build something brand sparkling new. My hotel room in Boston overlooked Faneuil Hall, which had been an active meeting place since 1742. All of a sudden I was surrounded by history. I went to a bookstore looking for nonfiction about Boston, but instead bought Christopher Collier’s Decision in Philadelphia. I found the book’s description of the Constitutional Convention fascinating and ended up buying book after book on the subject. I had never known how much drama hid behind the dry narratives I had received in school. The real story was raucous, thrilling, perilous, and filled with colossal characters.

Breathtaking drama, great characters, a happy outcome, how could it go wrong. It didn’t go wrong, it went long. In the end, I believe I read every history book ever published on the convention. I wanted to treat the framers honestly, so I read at least three biographies of each of the major players. I studied Madison’s convention notes (over 230,000 words) and made sure everything I presented inside the Independence Hall was true to his notes. A good historical novel must present the period accurately, so I read dozens of books on how people lived in the late eighteenth century. Then I studied events that occurred during the convention, but were not directly associated with the proceedings. These included Washington having a carriage built, John Fitch demonstrating his steamship, horse races, Charles Peale painting a portrait of Washington, balls, and other events that I used to add variety between the deliberations.

(A special thanks to Clive Cussler, who helped with the research on Fitch's steamship demonstration in Philadelphia.)

Tempest at Dawn is tightly structured. The point of view alternates each chapter between James Madison and Roger Sherman. This allowed me to present the perspectives and biases of the two opposing forces within the convention. I had to build elaborate timelines so I could know well in advance whose point of view I would be using when something happened.

I was a stickler for accuracy. I bent rules a little to present a better story, but I wanted to know when I diverged from historical fact. This even came to the lodging. I tried to put each character in the home, inn, or boarding house where they actually stayed. Roger Sherman gave me a problem. No matter how much I looked, I couldn’t find where he stayed. I knew he wasn’t rich, so I guessed he would stay at a boarding house. Finally, I picked my wife’s maiden name and plopped him at Mrs. Marshall’s boarding house.

I made several research trips to Philadelphia. On one trip, my wife found an illustrated map of Philadelphia in 1787. It had been created for the bicentennial. It was perfect. I bought two. When we returned to our hotel, I went over the map in detail from left to right, block by block until I got to the lower right hand corner. There it showed a building with the caption, “Mrs. Marshall’s Boarding House, where Roger Sherman stayed.” I was dumbfounded … and encouraged. I took it as an omen that this book was something I was supposed to write.

Getting an agent for the book was ridiculously easy. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. While he shopped the book, I wrote a Western. After all the constraints of Tempest at Dawn, I wanted to let my imagination fly. Unexpectedly, The Shopkeeper, A Steve Dancy Tale sold very well and became a highly successful series. On the disappointing side, Tempest at Dawn did not sell to a publishing house. So away it went in a drawer while I wrote westerns and contemporary thrillers.

Around 2009, I noticed increasing interest in the Constitution. I dug my book out of a figurative drawer (actually a file folder on my computer) and reread it. Oh, oh. First, it was way too long—well over 200,000 words. There were too many characters for a reader to remember. My penchant for accuracy caused me to use speaking patterns and language of the day. In fact, I had used direct quotes whenever possible. Except the quotes came from written records. Until email and texting, people wrote more formally than they spoke. I did a major rewrite. I modernized the language leaving only hints of the eighteenth century. I cut ruthlessly. I combined characters. Although I put the debates in a logical sequence, I didn’t alter the arguments or events inside the chamber. The book remains true to Madison’s notes.

I believe the best thing to happen for Tempest at Dawn was that by the time I did my rewrite, I had learned the craft of storytelling with my other books. (And from reading countless books on the art of novel writing.) The distance of several years also lent creative perspective. After I completed the new draft, the book reads like a novel … yet still remains truthful, even if not always precisely accurate. (There is an author note in the back that identifies the deviations from historical accuracy.)

Tempest at Dawn has been well received by professional critics and readers, and without a doubt, my favorite book. Download a sample onto your Kindle or order the paperback. I'm sure you'll be surprised and delighted by the story of our nation's founding.