09/01/2012 09:25 am ET Updated Nov 01, 2012

Was There a Miracle at Philadelphia?

Readers who turn the pages of Walter Isaacson's acclaimed biography, "Benjamin Franklin: An American Life," will find a vignette as instructive as it is wont to prompt a smile. As with so many stories surrounding Franklin, wit is merely the guise in which he bestows some of his greatest wisdom.

The setting is this: Near the close of the constitutional convention, Franklin was exiting the hall where he and other delegates had been carefully deliberating the nation's future. A certain Mrs. Powel, anxious to learn just what it was these delegates had in mind, accosted him with a persistent question. "What type of government have you given us?" she wanted to know.

Franklin had an answer at the ready. "A republic, Madam," he replied, "if you can keep it."

Nearly 200 years later, in 1966, Catherine Drinker Bowen framed her book-length account of the making of The Constitution with the famous title, "Miracle at Philadelphia." So saying, she meant to celebrate the creation of what she called "the most remarkable political document in history." Her use of the word miracle was, therefore, not so much a plea for a supernatural occurrence as it was a metaphor meant to underscore an extraordinary time in early American history. "Miracles," she wrote, "do not occur at random ... [and] every miracle has its provenance." Bowen's book, writes historian Richard Beeman, was written as a stirring exploration of that provenance.

What did Bowen find? Drawing on letters and journals from all the leading figures who crafted the Constitution, she discovered there was a power in letting America's founders speak for themselves -- and that they had power to speak to us still. She found passages like this, from a letter written by James Madison to Thomas Jefferson:

This ground-work being laid, the great objects which presented themselves were 1. to unite a proper energy in the Executive and a proper stability in the Legislative departments, with the essential characters of Republican Government. 2. to draw a line of demarkation which would give to the General Government every power requisite for general purposes, and leave to the States every power which might be most beneficially administered by them. 3. to provide for the different interests of different parts of the Union. 4. to adjust the clashing pretensions of the large and small States.

Each of these objects was pregnant with difficulties. The whole of them together formed a task more difficult than can be well conceived by those who were not concerned in the execution of it. Adding to these considerations the natural diversity of human opinions on all new and complicated subjects, it is impossible to consider the degree of concord which ultimately prevailed as less than a miracle.

Recently, a new book written in the tradition of Alexis de Tocqueville has taken the measure of the American experiment, from its inception to the present. Written by Os Guinness (D.Phil., Oxford) it bears the title, "A Free People's Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future." It's a text that helps us rightly remember, and esteem, the framework of sustainable freedom that the framers bequeathed to us.

Guinness's book is both bracing and salutary. Its point of departure, and its title, is taken from Abraham Lincoln, who had written in 1838 that if the approach of danger ever reaches us, "it must spring up among us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide."

Lincoln was not yet 30 when he wrote this. And when one bears the cataclysm that would later be The Civil War in mind, the insight of Lincoln's words is astonishing. Lincoln was no prophet, perhaps, but he was a highly intelligent young man who sensed that lines which threatened to sunder our nation were being drawn.

Dr. Guinness' book is rich in its explorations of Lincoln's words and their import for us today. As an expatriate friend of America, Guinness, like de Tocqueville, has a rare gift for helping us see our better selves. He casts a discerning eye at our modern institutions, and habits of the heart -- as reflected in the broader culture. He freely concedes that there are worrying signs on the horizon, but then, having thoughtfully set out the challenges we face in our historical moment, he brings us back to the best things the founders gave us. On the whole, it's a fascinating perspective from a British citizen.

James Madison marveled over what unfolded at Philadelphia all those years ago. If not a miracle, then it was a consummation devoutly to be wished. To paraphrase Franklin: We will do well if we keep faith with it.