Author James Best tackled a massive project when he undertook the writing of this book, which took 5 years to complete. Tempest at Dawn is a novel about the events surrounding the Constitutional Convention. While there is no particular mystery, sex, violence, or suspense, the book has plenty of tension. Best takes characters that textbooks render as flat or one dimensional, and makes them multifaceted human beings. The fictional vignettes in his story are wrapped around actual compromises and the horse trading that was constant between the delegates. He does not distort history and his surmises about the roles of the participants are entirely plausible and in fact likely.
Readers will find that Tempest at Dawn “matures” as it progresses, and so does the caliber of the writing. Within the first 50 pages the dialog becomes more and more sophisticated. The reader is alternately smiling, laughing or saddened by the poignancy that Best introduces into the telling. He is especially successful in his portrayal of a realistic and very believable Washington who, Best contends, was the behind-the- scenes puppet master at the Convention.
Best is subtle about including facts throughout the story, successfully weaving in actual quotes, first hand accounts and observations of those who lived through this period. The author has done his research and any reader of history will appreciate these nice touches. In one scene, Washington is attending a play and leaves his box to get refreshments. The stage manager waits until Washington returns to his seat before resuming the play, a courtesy not extended to just anyone. This vignette provides an example of how the patronage of this hero of the Revolution was sought. Washington fans will also appreciate a horse race scene in which Washington triumphs, and another in which he visits a carriage maker. All of these episodes provide insight into Washington’s character. Best knows his history, but he doesn’t bludgeon the reader with a clumsy display of erudition.
Even though Washington is a key figure in the Convention and the book, he is sparingly used in Best’s tale. Madison, however, is a pivotal character both in the actual Constitutional Convention and in Best’s story. The reader gets a sense of a man driven by patriotism to build a “perfect” republic based on the leadership of an enlightened elite. As the story progresses, he is forced by the stolid Roger Sherman to compromise some of his rigid beliefs and finally comes to realize the validity of the opposition’s argument. As the convention nears its conclusion, former combatants work together to bring their constituents into the fold with a series of machinations that would make Machiavelli proud.
If the book has a hero it’s the 66 year-old Roger Sherman of Connecticut. Best shows this under appreciated Founder to be a master politician and a man of high character, two things that don’t often go together. Much of the story revolves around the coalitions formed around Sherman and Madison and the struggle between them. Best does a masterful job of depicting the dispute between the large and small states for representation, the underlying struggle between the southern, slave-tied economies and the northern abolitionists, and the natural contest of competing egos. Unholy temporary alliances between unlikely partners constantly shift in and out of existence. The resulting Constitution was a creation built on compromise – some of them devils’ bargains, and others works of inspired genius. One of the latter was permitting the states to choose their own method of selecting electors for the presidency.
Tempest at Dawn is an audacious undertaking that succeeds by giving texture and color not only to Roger Sherman and James Madison, but also to Gouverneur Morris, Robert Morris (unrelated to Gouverneur), Charles Pinckney, Ben Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton among others. The author’s ability to flesh out so many characters so effectively makes the book, which could easily have been dry and flavorless, sparkle with subtle verve and wit.
In reading Tempest at Dawn, one gets a sense of an author coming into his own almost like members of the Convention surely did. Some of the dialog will surprise the reader with its eloquence and understatement and will require pausing to savor it. Any reader conversant with the history of the American Revolution will have both his affection and appreciation for the “demigods” of the Constitutional Convention deepened. Best ends his story with Washington’s inauguration, which provides a soft landing after the emotion evoked by the author’s depiction of the signing ceremony at the close of the Convention. The reader realizes the magnitude of the Framers’ accomplishment and gets a sense of the emotion they must have felt at its conclusion. The author clearly intended his book to elicit awe and appreciation for what the Framers’ achieved. He succeeded.