Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution

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9780809080618: Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution

Average Americans Were the True Framers of the Constitution
Woody Holton upends what we think we know of the Constitution’s origins by telling the history of the average Americans who challenged the framers of the Constitution and forced on them the revisions that produced the document we now venerate.  The framers who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 were determined to reverse America’s post–Revolutionary War slide into democracy. They believed too many middling Americans exercised too much influence over state and national policies. That the framers were only partially successful in curtailing citizen rights is due to the reaction, sometimes violent, of unruly average Americans. 
 
If not to protect civil liberties and the freedom of the people, what motivated the framers? In Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, Holton provides the startling discovery that the primary purpose of the Constitution was, simply put, to make America more attractive to investment. And the linchpin to that endeavor was taking power away from the states and ultimately away from the people. In an eye-opening interpretation of the Constitution, Holton captures how the same class of Americans that produced Shays’s Rebellion in Massachusetts (and rebellions in damn near every other state) produced the Constitution we now revere. Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution is a 2007 National Book Award Finalist for Nonfiction.

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About the Author:

Woody Holton is an associate professor of history at the University of Richmond and the author of the award-winning book Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

EXCERPT
Thirteen North American colonies left the British Empire in 1776, but that was not really the birth date of the American colossus. History’s wealthiest and most powerful nation-state was not actually launched until the summer of 1787, at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Revolutionaries the world over have cribbed from the Declaration of Independence, but the successful ones, those who manage to overturn the social order and establish regimes of their own, find their inspiration not in the Declaration but in the Constitution. Anyone seeking the real origins of the United States must begin by asking why it was that, scarcely a decade after the free inhabitants of thirteen British colonies proclaimed each of them an autonomous state, they decided to meld those thirteen sovereignties together and launch an empire of their own.
Today politicians as well as judges profess an almost religious reverence for the Framers’ original intent. And yet what do we really know about the motives that set fifty-five of the nation’s most prominent citizens—men like George Washington, Ben Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton—on the road to Philadelphia? The Framers’ motivations remain nearly as obscure today as they were that muggy summer of 1787, when the Constitutional Convention delegates voted to maintain the strictest secrecy—and thwarted eavesdroppers by keeping the fetid chamber’s doors and windows closed and latched.
High school textbooks and popular histories of the Revolutionary War locate the origins of the Constitution in the nasty conflicts that kept threatening to tear the federal convention apart—and in the brilliant compromises that, again and again, brought the delegates back together. Should every state have the same number of representatives in Congress, or should representation be weighted in favor of the more populous ones? Solution: proportional representation in the House of Representatives and state equality in the Senate. Should the national government be allowed to abolish the African slave trade? Solution: yes, but not until 1808. In apportioning congressional representation among the states, should enslaved Americans be considered people, giving their owners bonus representatives? What about in allocating the tax burden among the states—should slaves be counted as people there? Solution to both controversies: count each slave as three-fifths of a person.
Whether the title is Miracle at Philadelphia or The Grand Convention or The Great Rehearsal or The Summer of 1787, it is almost as though the same book has been written over and over again, by different authors, every few years.
The textbooks and the popular histories give surprisingly short shrift to the Framers’ motivations. What almost all of them do say is that harsh experience had exposed the previous government, under the Articles of Confederation (1781–89), as too weak. What makes this emphasis strange is that the Framers’ own statements reveal another, more pressing motive. Early in the Constitutional Convention, James Madison urged his colleagues to tackle “the evils . . . which prevail within the States individually as well as those which affect them collectively.” The “mutability” and “injustice” of “the laws of the States” had, Madison declared shortly after leaving Philadelphia, “contributed more to that uneasiness which produced the Convention, and prepared the public mind for a general reform, than those which accrued to our national character and interest from the inadequacy of the Confederation.”
Madison’s preoccupation with what he later called the “the internal administration of the States” was by no means unique. On the eve of the convention, expressions of concern about the weakness of Congress, numerous as they were, were vastly outnumbered by complaints against the state governments. “What led to the appointment of this Convention?” Maryland delegate John Francis Mercer asked his colleagues. Was it not “the corruption & mutability of the Legislative Councils of the States”?
Once the Constitution had been sent out to the thirteen states for ratification, its supporters affirmed that some of the most lethal diseases it was designed to cure were to be found within those same states. William Plumer of New Hampshire embraced the new national government out of a conviction that “our rights & property are now the sport of ignorant unprincipled State legislators.” In the last of the Federalist Papers—the series of eighty-five newspaper essays that are widely seen as America’s premier contribution to political science—Alexander Hamilton praised the Constitution for placing salutary “restraints” on “the ambition of powerful individuals in single states.”
What was wrong with the state assemblies? Given the modern perception that the Founding Fathers had devoted their lives to the principle of government by the people, it is jarring to read their specific grievances. An essay appearing in a Connecticut newspaper in September 1786 complained that the state’s representatives paid “too great an attention to popular notions.” At least one of those Connecticut assemblymen thoroughly agreed. In May 1787, just as the federal convention assembled, he observed that even the southern states, which under British rule had been aristocratic bastions, had “run into the extremes of democracy” since declaring independence.
What these men were saying was that the American Revolution had gone too far. Their great hope was that the federal convention would find a way to put the democratic genie back in the bottle. Alexander Hamilton, the most ostentatiously conservative of the convention delegates, affirmed that many Americans—not just himself—were growing “tired of an excess of democracy.” Others identified the problem as “a headstrong democracy,” a “prevailing rage of excessive democracy,” a “republican frenzy,” “democratical tyranny,” and “democratic licentiousness.”
During the eighteenth century the primary means of land transportation—other than walking—was the horse. Writers and speakers often expressed their anxiety about the changes occurring in their fellow Americans by calling them “unruly steeds.”11 To Silas Deane it seemed that “the reins of Government” were held with too “feeble a hand.”
What had persuaded the Framers and many of the most prominent Americans of the postwar era that the Revolution had gotten out of hand? Consider the case of James Madison, “the father of the Constitution.” Madison is widely credited with writing the “Virginia Plan,” the Constitutional Convention’s first draft. Having addressed the convention more often than all but one other delegate, he went on to become one of the two principal authors of the Federalist Papers, the best-known brief for ratification. When it became clear that roughly half the electorate would refuse to accept the Constitution until it contained a bill of rights, it was Madison who drew up those first ten amendments.
In seeking to explain the desperate urgency with which Madison championed the new national government, his biographers have made much of the fact that in 1784 he asked his friend Thomas Jefferson, the official American envoy to King Louis XVI of France, to rummage through the bookstalls on the left bank of the Seine and ship him a crateful of works on Renaissance and Enlightenment history and philosophy. We can easily imagine Madison’s delight as one of his slaves pried open the chest, revealing everything from Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans to Barthélemy de Felice’s thirteen-volume Code de l’humanité, ou La legislation universelle, naturelle, civile et politique.
One reason historians have always found Madison such an appealing character is that he himself was something of a bookworm. Short and sickly, he more than once predicted that he would not live long. (As it turned out, he made it to the then-extraordinary age of eighty-five.) It is difficult to imagine him mustering sufficient stamina for a modern political campaign and easy to conceive of him as something of a monk. Yet one subject seemed to fuel Madison with a limitless energy and to draw him from the tranquillity of his study. This was his disgust with the state governments that emerged from the Revolutionary War. Madison’s desperate desire to rein in the thirteen state governments was not born in a contemplative philosophical vacuum; it reflected his own day-to-day experience as a political animal.
Madison’s political career began in earnest in 1776, when his Orange County, Virginia, neighbors sent him to the convention that wrote the state’s first constitution. Elected to the founding session of the House of Delegates a short time later, he was defeated the very next year. No matter, for his real passion was for politics on a national scale. In 1780 his former colleagues in the assembly gave him his first year-long term in Congress, and he served until the three-term limit in the Articles of Confederation forced him out, whereupon he immediately got himself reelected to the Virginia legislature.
The Articles permitted former congressmen to reclaim their seats after a three-year hiatus, and as soon as Madison’s three years were up, he was back in Congress. In the summer of 1787 this “feeble,” “sickly” man would muster the energy not only to address the Constitutional Convention on scores of occasions but to take copious notes on nearly every speech given by every other delegate, a task to which he appli...

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