Signing Their Rights Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed the U.S. Constitution

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We need to cut federal government! We need to expand federal government! We need to stop federal government! We need to stimulate federal government! You can't turn on the television without hearing these arguments. But if you think today's arguments about the role of the federal government are heated, you should have been around back in 1787. Eleven years after the Revolutionary War, the United States was on the verge of a vast political collapse. The Articles of Confederation were too weak to govern such a large new nation. Citizens feared the idea of a strong central government, and our founding fathers had purposely kept the federal government weak. But that meant the feds had no real power to tax people property and businesses, and thus had no income and no currency. Individual banks were issuing their own currency, and in some places inflation was destroying lives. Poor farmers and merchants were having their homes and businesses seized in foreclosure. After Shay's Rebellion, the wealthy now feared anarchy and mob justice. Many predicted a civil war. It seems obvious to us today that the nation needed a good, strong system of government. Yet this is what many people actually feared. Though they had shucked off a King, the states were deeply suspicious of each other and were practically dragged to Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 to hammer out a system that would work. If they failed, the USA would not reach its 12th birthday intact. Signing Their Rights Away tells the life stories of the 39 delegates who begrudgingly attended this Convention. Many of them were battle-hardened militarists who'd served in the War; others were profound legal scholars. One believed in aliens; another wanted to erase the U.S. map and start over; still another had a peg leg. One was ruined by alcoholism; another was ruined by debt. Yet somehow these oddballs managed to put their differences aside and compromise. In the end, the solution to the nation's woes would spring from the mind of a brilliant young man from Virginia, James Madison, who envisioned a three-branch system of government with enough checks and enough balances to win over even the most distrustful delegate. Complete with beautiful illustrations, a clever design (the signatures themselves are a recurring design element), and a book jacket that unfolds into a parchment replica of the Constitution, Signing Their Rights Away is a breezy reference that's great fun for history buffs of all ages.