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Unruly Americans and the Origins of the…

Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution

by Woody Holton

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In Unruly Americans and the Making of the Constitution (Hill and Wang, 2007), Woody Holton continues a trend be began in his first book, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (1999), examining how "ordinary" Americans impacted "great events".

At the outset, Holton rejects the so-called "ideological interpretation" of the Constitution's roots, taking the alternative view that the impetus behind the Philadelphia Convention were chiefly economic. At times he seems to flirt with Beardism, but never quite gets there - instead of ascribing purely cynical motives to the Framers, Holton's interpretation grants that they were "motivated by a sense of grievance that was genuine and questionable at the same time" (p. 87).
Holton is fond of the kind of overarching blanket statements that I find just as troubling in my own writing as I do in that of others. Of James Madison, Holton says, "More than anything else, it was the desire to overturn state laws that set him on the road to Philadelphia" (p. 7). "No piece of legislation - at either the state or federal level - did more to advance the movement for the Constitution" than a 1785 congressional requisition for $3 million (p. 66). And then there's Holton's conclusion that "Rhode Islanders, quite inadvertently, did more to boost the momentum for the Constitution than their counterparts in any other state" (p. 77). These statements many all be true (to some extent), but I'm reluctant to accept such strong statements without much more evidence.

One of the most salient points from this book is, ironically, one of those which Holton could have made rather more strongly. In Chapter 12, as he discusses the constitutional provisions designed to insulate the federal government from popular influence, he notes the many additional "antidemocratic" proposals which were discussed and rejected by the Framers because they diminished the chances that the states would ratify the the Constitution. These decisions, he writes, "were compromises between the Framers and the American people" (p. 211).

Holton's concerns being primarily economic, there is much detail here on the debates over paper money, bond speculation, debt assumption, taxes and other financial matters. The research is impressive and the writing clear, but it is very difficult to make such issues particularly engrossing except to the most committed reader. I had to take this book quite slowly to make sure I didn't miss anything hidden within the dense chapters on monetary policy. Nonetheless, Holton's managed to find some interesting sources (including Abigail Adams as bond speculator and the very odd Herman Husbands, who seemed to weigh in on just about everything), and used them well.

I simply cannot share Holton's overall conclusions about the Constitution, which he says contains "insidious ... safeguards against grassroots pressure" (p. 273). I do not believe that the Framers intended their government as a "slur on the capacities of ordinary citizens" (p. 278), because I don't believe they could have ever imagined how long their Constitution would last and the changes America and the world have seen since 1787. I do believe there was significantly more at play in Philadelphia than economic concerns; though those certainly had some effect, I'm unwilling to grant them the primacy Holton does.

A well-written book, and I recommend it highly even though I have reservations about its message.

http://philobiblos.blogspot.com/2007/11/book-review-unruly-americans.html ( )
  JBD1 | Nov 24, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0809016435, Paperback)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:59 -0400)

The motivation of the framers of our constitution is a constant and often hotly debated topic among historians. At one extreme are those who see the framers as brilliant, democratic politicians who did a masterful job of juggling competing interests while remaining true to the ideal of personal liberty. At the other extreme are the economic determinists who view the founders as members of the privileged classes, insistent upon protecting their interests from the encroachments of the masses. Holton certainly would be most comfortable in the latter camp, but his arguments here are free of dogmatism, and he offers some interesting twists on old assertions. He maintains that the delegates to the convention were attempting to limit the democratic tendencies of the individual state legislatures by curbing their powers to issue paper money and offer relief to debtors. Faced with vehement popular opposition to ratification, the Bill of Rights, Holton claims, was promised only to tip the balance in favor of ratification.… (more)

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