The Tempest at Dawn: A Book Review

I bought The Tempest at Dawn I don’t even know how long ago. Whenever it was, it was not something I started right away and many months passed before I opened the book. To be honest, I forgot I had it on my Kindle and it wasn’t until I started browsing through my catalog recently that I rediscovered the book. I knew very little about the novel or the author, but I find early US history interesting so I decided to check out the book.

The prologue places the readers in Antebellum Virginia, and we get a vague sense that civil war could erupt but it still feels remote and unlikely. With the first chapter of the book, we jump back about forty years or so and we are soon introduced to the two primary characters in the book, James Madison and Roger Sherman. Having majored in history, I was already vaguely familiar with James Madison, but I can’t say I knew much about Roger Sherman before reading this book. Of the two, Sherman comes across as the more compelling character but Madison’s political philosophy, regarding government structure at least, is more sensible. Who knows, that could just be my own biases at work, though. In any case, both are interesting characters in their own right and the clash between the two makes for compelling reading. 

Madison is an erudite optimist who is convinced that history offers the best guidance when it comes to the structuring of government and has spent poring over ancient tomes to discover the best form of government. He considers the Articles of Confederation an abysmal failure and hopes to replace it with a more centralized, more powerful government. Sherman is not altogether convinced that the Articles of Confederation have failed, but he is adept at sensing political currents and quickly realizes he can do more to shape the structure of the next government if he is in the building making suggestions as opposed to lobbing stones from outside the building. While he respects Madison’s intellect, he is far more interested in what people want in the here and now, regardless of whether or not it has worked in the past.

In the interests of not giving away any important plot points, I won’t say who gets the better of the argument, but I think their clash makes for interesting reading because it’s still relevant to modern-day politics. The question of who we can make a deal with and when we can make a deal is fraught with ethical considerations, and the Tempest at Dawn explores these issues with grace and sensitivity. Moreover, I really appreciate that the author did not try to elide the issue of slavery as it relates to the Constitutional Convention. It is worth noting that pretty much every country in the world had slavery at the time of the Constitutional Convention, and the peculiar institution was supremely important in post-Revolution America. Some because they thought it morally abhorrent and wished to abolish it, some because they thought it a benign practice and wished to preserve it. Best does a good job of how explaining how the Founding Fathers grappled with the issue and, ultimately, navigated around the issue during the convention and I’d say he did a great job of threading the needle were it not for the epilogue.

In the epilogue, Best veers dangerously close to lost cause mythology and even dabbles a bit in the faithful servant trope. I concede I probably care about these things more than other readers, but I have other misgivings with the epilogue that are a bit more basic in nature. To me, the primary purpose of an epilogue is to tie up loose ends and/or provide some measure of closure. An epilogue doesn’t need to tie up every single loose end–that would be an especially difficult, perhaps impossible task in many historical novels–but the epilogue can be useful opportunity to tie up the simple ones. One of the simple loose ends in the book is whether or not Madison marries the woman he meets during the Constitutional Convention. The book has over twenty characters and keeping track of everybody gets difficult at a certain point. Yes, readers can control F search in their Kindle or flip through a bunch of pages to see if the woman he briefly talks to during the convention is the same one from the epilogue, but I think that’s an unnecessary hurdle for readers. Moreover, it’s not one that would provide much clarity anyway, since the woman he met had a fairly common name. I personally would have appreciated if Best had been a bit more explicit in the epilogue as it regards the identity of the wife, but it’s an admittedly minor grievance. Despite a weak epilogue, I think there is much to enjoy in The Tempest at Dawn and I recommend the book to anyone interested in American history or political history.

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