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What do you get when three of our nation’s greatest men drink five bottles of wine? We’re living in it.

Charles Cerami has been labeled by critics as a popular historian and an author whose cinematic, you-are-there narrative style, more than his scholarship, has made best sellers out of his previous works, Jefferson’s Great Gamble and Young Patriots. So one could be forgiven for expecting Cerami’s newest book, Dinner at Mr. Jefferson’s (Wiley, $26), to be more of a cross between the History Channel andthe Food Network than a straight history tome, especially given the promises made in the subtitle, Three Men, Five Great Wines, and the Evening that Changed America.

Ah, but promises, promises. The wines and the evening get extremely shortshrift — just one chapter, a mere 13 pages among 288. But as for the three men —Republicans Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and their rival , Federalist Alexander Hamilton — Cerami delivers soundly. He knows these men well, having written extensively about them in his previous works, and confidently sets them in motion here. At times, it’s an unforgiving portrayal of their roles in what historians call the dinner-table bargain.

Far from being a chicken-or-beef quandary, the dinner-table bargain of June 1790 was an act of brilliant gamesmanship, one that held together the fragile, two-year-old United States. At issue were the location of the nation’s permanent capital and Hamilton’s proposal to have the federal government assume the existing debts of all 13 states, consolidating them with the federal debt. The compromise? To appease powerful Virginians, who saw the debt consolidation as a loss of state power, the capital would be carved out of Virginia swampland along the Potomac River.

Though the issues are old, Cerami’s take on them isn’t. A former foreign-affairs editor at the high-dollar newsletter service Kiplinger Washington Editors, Cerami seems to view his subjects through a current-events filter, with an eye for parallels between the politics practiced by our Founding Fathers and the politics perpetrated by their progeny today. Credit crises, illicit affairs, and party battles fought in the press may be found in stories ripped from today’s headlines, but Cerami has taken them from the annals of history instead and shown how these men handled such crises — not from atop pedestals and podiums but around the dinner table.