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.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The State of History in the United States

history opinion piece book promotion
The New York Times

On May 11, 2019, the New York Times published Rick Atkinson's “Why We Still Care About America’s Founders.” 

Atkinson is the author of the forthcoming book, The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777. Promotional articles are often written to build momentum for a nonfiction book launch. Regrettably, this op-ed says more about the state of history as a discipline than it does about Atkinson’s book.

Normally, a book launch is a joyous occasion, especially when the tome is by a prominent historian who has won Pulitzer Prizes in history and journalism. But these are tough times for historians, especially historians of American history. Progressive activists have belittled white men and toxic masculinity as the scourge of humankind, and American history is just filled with dead, white men.  Some of them slaveholders, as well. Atkinson spent years writing a history book fraught with landmines that could offend the political correctness vigilantes. What’s a historian to do?


Before getting into the meat of his article, Atkinson pays homage to social warriors hunting for offense. Here are the first three paragraphs of his article. 
There’s a lot to dislike about the founding fathers and the war they and others fought for American independence.

The stirring assertion that “all men are created equal” did not, of course, apply to 500,000 black slaves — one in five of all souls occupying the 13 colonies when those words were written in 1776. Nor was it valid for Native Americans, women or indigents.

Those who remained loyal to the British crown, and even fence-straddlers skeptical of armed rebellion, were often subjected to dreadful treatment, including public shaming, torture, exile and execution. In a defensive war waged for liberty and to secure basic rights, the Americans invaded Canada in an effort to win by force of arms what could not be won by negotiation and blandishment — a 14th colony.

Although voting rights did not extend to women, slaves, or Native Americans, Atkinson failed to mention that voting rights were broader in the United States than in any other major power. In fact, voting rights for free males were greater in the colonies than in Great Britain itself. (In the late 18th Century, English voting rights were still doled out by nobility.)

The third paragraph is just gratuitous genuflecting. Loyalists who didn’t actively work for the British were seldom subjected to the atrocities listed, and the Canadian invasion is likewise skewed to appear more belligerent toward Canadians than the British. Military leaders certainly hoped to spark a simultaneous rebellion in Canada, but if that failed, they would be content to draw British forces to the north. American colonialists had no intention of conquring new territory while simultaneously fighting the strongest military force on earth.

Historians should not skew the past to make our ancestors look better, nor should they present the past in a way to advance the narratives of present-day social warriors. People and events should be judged in their time, not ours.

Another irritation with modern historians is the tendency to over-play the perspective of ordinary people. Letters and diaries can provide contemporaneous insight, and as a historical novelist, I greatly appreciate research into past lifestyles. It provides me the details to bring my characters to life. But ordinary people don’t bend history. Extraordinary people do. If we want to change our world, we need to study how it has been done in the past.

As Theodore White wrote, In Search of History, “Threading an idea into the slipstream of politics, then into government, then into history…is a craft which I have since come to consider the most important in the world.”

The Founding of this great nation was unique. Up 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.

And that is why we still care about America’s Founders.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Essay at Constituting America: Nebraska’s State Constitution

Constituting America has begun their 90-Day Essays for 2019. This year, they are centered on "Boundaries on Federal Government" and will cover our federalist form of government, including the state Constitutions. I'm writing the essay on the Nebraska Constitution, which was published today.

You can read it here,

Be sure to explore the other excellent essays. Also, you might want to check out your state's Constitution.

unicameral legislature

Monday, March 11, 2019

Constituting America's Annual Essay

Constituting America has begun their 90-Day Essays for 2019. This year, they are centered on "Boundaries on Federal Government" and will cover our federalist form of government, including the state Constitutions. I'll be writing the essay on the Nebraska Constitution.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Capitalism beats socialism ... every time

Socialism takes from people who produce to give goods and services to the "less fortunate." It is done under the premise of fairness. Everyone should benefit from the largess of the wonderful world that surrounds us all.

The prior paragraph may sound appealing, but there are three fatal errors embedded in the premise.

1. Fortune has little to do with income
2. Fairness is in the eyes of the beholder
3. The world is dangerous, not wonderful.

The term “less fortunate” makes it sound like success depends on luck. Except, what happens to “luck” under a socialist system. Under socialism, scarcity is the order of the day. Even commodities like toilet paper are in short supply. If “luck” brought all these goods to market under capitalism, why doesn’t “luck” deliver the goods under socialism?

If a person produces something through brawn, wits, or practiced skill, that person believes that fairness dictates that they should be able to keep what they produce. It doesn’t matter whether that “fortunate” person is a plumber, entrepreneur, or NFL player. Socialism sees fairness differently. People with more must give their “fair share” of what they produce to others. The recipient probably thinks it’s fair, but producers feels abused.

Advanced societies live in a wonderful world, but its wonders are due to capitalism. Our hardscrabble world offers no “largess” free for the taking. Before Adam Smith, the hoi polloi found food scarce, work backbreaking, bug-ridden shelters unpleasant, support systems nil, and life short. That was the world before capitalism. In fact, that’s the world today in the underdeveloped world. Life is harsh without capitalists to scrape the burrs off.

Those who can’t demand more than minimum wage want to believe that their problems result not from sloth, but from ill fortune, theft, or a rigged system. Socialism appeals to the indebted, the lazy, and the unskilled. For a period, socialism works, but socialism soon converts the productive into the skillfully lazy. Everyone is equal, but equally without. Except for the commissars and their friends and family. They live well. You see, socialism is really about trading places. The politically powerful trade places with the people who used to build stuff, create nifty things, or get it to market. The operative phrase in that sentence is used to. They no longer own the product of their sweat or wits, so they live off their already accumulated wealth, move, or cozy up to the state. Thus, no toilet paper.

Whenever capitalism and socialism are pitted against each other, capitalism always wins. Wherever and whenever free markets are allowed to reign, people are better off. All the people. Inequality grows, but inequality grows under socialism as well. The difference is that the socialist ruling class disguise their lifestyle while under capitalism, the rich revel in it. Why does capitalism work so much better than romanticized socialism? I can explain in one word.


That’s why capitalism wins. Always. Rewards for hard work. Rewards for being clever. Rewards for endless training in a sport or performing art. Rewards for taking risks. Rewards for developing skills needed by society. Even rewards for showing up on time.

Socialism? Not so much. Under socialism the only rewards are for exercising raw political power or being connected to raw political power.

That’s why socialism sucks. Big time.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Franklin's Hidden Role at the Constitutional Convention

Ran across this article at Franklin on Freedom.

Emotions ran high at the Constitutional Convention and the delegate who sooth tempers was usually Ben Franklin. He often did this with a humorous quip, but once filibustered a nonsensical proposition until tempers eventually abated.

Franklin did more. He also teamed with Washington for behind the scene negotiations to keep the convention from collapsing. Reading Madison's notes, it appears arguments often escalated from about mid-week to reach a crescendo on Fridays. Many sessions were recess for the weekend with acrimony high, but on Monday, with little discussion, a compromise or procedural change would resolve or delay the issue. Obviously something had been negotiated outside the chamber. Most likely, the deal would have been struck under the mulberry tree in Franklin's yard.

Benjamin Franklin was one of our greatest Founders and this article is a fun read about an interesting historical character.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Tempest at Dawn Review

I normally don't post Amazon reviews to my blog, but this one highlighted one of my favorite aspects of the book. In researching Tempest at Dawn, I read multiple books about lifestyles in the 1780s. I wanted to not only reflect what happened in the Constitutional Convention, but how the delegates lived. Separate state currencies were only one element of daily life that I wove into the political story.

Being a tremendous fan of early American history, this book immediately appealed to me. After reading it, I found there were several things I still hadn't realized about early America. The biggest was that every state had their own currency (which I'm sure restricted travel further than the fact that it could conceivably take days to travel from Connecticut to New York by wagon, depending on where in Connecticut you lived) and that there was an exchange rate between states that was figured out by...? All states still took British currency, which I suppose makes sense but I figured states frowned on dealing with British currency after the war.
At any rate, even though this is a fictional story of a real event, it held my attention and it wouldn't surprise me that all of the back room deals in the story actually happened. That was politics then as it is now.
It was also sad that with the country's imminent demise, there were politicians who still refused to give up their perceived power. Again, fictional story aside, I highly recommend this book if you like reading about early American history. Great job!

You can read the 216+ reviews (4.4) for Tempest at Dawn here.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Here’s an idea on how to fix Congress!

My grandson graduated from middle-school, so I’ve been in New York City for the last week. My visits are always fun because my three New York grandchildren will have it no other way. Sometimes we get time to do something other than attend school events, sport games, and dance recitals. Yesterday, I met an old friend from Arizona for lunch. Michael E. Newton wrote Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years and other nonfiction history books. Hamilton, of course, played a major role in Tempest at Dawn, so despite my emphasis on fiction, we developed a friendship based on a shared love of history.

After discussing book marketing, writing projects, and American history anecdotes, Michael shared a modern-day political idea that has shown some recent popularity. A congressperson today represents an average of 710,000 people. When we adopted the Constitution, each member represented no more than thirty thousand people. Michael suggested that we return to an upper limit of thirty thousand constituents. I laughed. That would make the United States Congress as large as the Star Wars Imperial Senate. I told Michael I didn’t want to pay taxes for a building large enough to hold so many representatives. He asked why they needed to be in a single building? In fact, why did they need to be in Washington D.C at all?

The intent of this movement is to make the House of Representatives once again answerable to the people.  If congresspersons remained in their districts and participated electronically with Congress as a whole, then they would be surrounded by their constituents rather than lobbyists and the House leadership. Further, if a congressperson only represented thirty thousand citizens, individuals would have more personal contact with their representative and greater influence over legislation. If we could pull this off, we would decrease the power of lobbyists and the establishment by geographically decentralizing the House, while increasing the power of the people by making their representative a neighbor. 

An additional benefit is that staff salaries and office expenses would siphon money out of the richest zip codes in America and disperse it to the hinterlands, from where it came in the first place. I count that as win/win.

Are there negatives? Of course. The senate would undoubtedly be further captured by lobbyists, the media, and party apparatchiki. They’ll probably even become haughtier, if that’s possible. But wait, there’s more. We could send senators out to state environs, as well. Maybe we require them to work in the state capital, maybe even the capitol itself. The Framers wanted the Senate to protect the states, and this might move us closer to the Framers’ vision. Although senators would remain popularly elected, proximity to local politicians would provide the states with additional influence over their prima donnas.

The whole idea is a pipe dream, but an intriguing pipe dream nonetheless. Maybe we could bribe them to go along by doubling their salary. It would be a bargain at twice the price.