Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Klarman's "Framer's Coup"

Michael J. Klarman, Harvard Law School, will publish next month The Framers' Coup:The Making of the United States Constitution (Oxford University Press):
Americans revere their Constitution. However, most of us are unaware how tumultuous and improbable the drafting and ratification processes were. As Benjamin Franklin keenly observed, any assembly of men bring with them "all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests and their selfish views." One need not deny that the Framers had good intentions in order to believe that they also had interests. Based on prodigious research and told largely through the voices of the participants, Michael Klarman's The Framers' Coup narrates how the Framers' clashing interests shaped the Constitution--and American history itself.

The Philadelphia convention could easily have been a failure, and the risk of collapse was always present. Had the convention dissolved, any number of adverse outcomes could have resulted, including civil war or a reversion to monarchy. Not only does Klarman capture the knife's-edge atmosphere of the convention, he populates his narrative with riveting and colorful stories: the rebellion of debtor farmers in Massachusetts; George Washington's uncertainty about whether to attend; Gunning Bedford's threat to turn to a European prince if the small states were denied equal representation in the Senate; slave staters' threats to take their marbles and go home if denied representation for their slaves; Hamilton's quasi-monarchist speech to the convention; and Patrick Henry's herculean efforts to defeat the Constitution in Virginia through demagoguery and conspiracy theories.

The Framers' Coup is more than a compendium of great stories, however, and the powerful arguments that feature throughout will reshape our understanding of the nation's founding. Simply put, the Constitutional Convention almost didn't happen, and once it happened, it almost failed. And, even after the convention succeeded, the Constitution it produced almost failed to be ratified. Just as importantly, the Constitution was hardly the product of philosophical reflections by brilliant, disinterested statesmen, but rather ordinary interest group politics. Multiple conflicting interests had a say, from creditors and debtors to city dwellers and backwoodsmen. The upper class overwhelmingly supported the Constitution; many working class colonists were more dubious. Slave states and nonslave states had different perspectives on how well the Constitution served their interests.

Ultimately, both the Constitution's content and its ratification process raise troubling questions about democratic legitimacy. The Federalists were eager to avoid full-fledged democratic deliberation over the Constitution, and the document that was ratified was stacked in favor of their preferences. And in terms of substance, the Constitution was a significant departure from the more democratic state constitutions of the 1770s. Definitive and authoritative, The Framers' Coup explains why the Framers preferred such a constitution and how they managed to persuade the country to adopt it. We have lived with the consequences, both positive and negative, ever since.
Some quite extraordinary endorcements after the jump.

 “In this thoroughly researched volume, which repeatedly illustrates how entranced its author grew with the richness of his sources, Michael Klarman gives us a book that has strangely gone unwritten: a comprehensive account of the adoption of the Constitution, from the reform initiatives of the 1780s through the ratification of the first amendments in 1791.”
—Jack Rakove, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Original Meanings

“The fullest explanation of the origins of the Constitution that we are ever likely to get in a single volume. Klarman ably shows how an interest-ridden Constitutional Convention that was fearful of democracy nevertheless created document that transcended those interests and became the basis for a democracy that has survived for over two centuries.”
—Gordon S. Wood, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Radicalism of the American Revolution

“The Framers’ Coup is the first comprehensive account of the entire struggle for the United States Constitution, from the inception of the amalgamating impulse in the early 1780s all the way through to the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791.  A lot of us who write books about the Constitution are about to see our royalties trail off, because Michael Klarman, in a brisk narrative, deftly summarizes all the major interpretations in developing his own provocative and persuasive take.  I for one will take my lumps, because this book is a beaut.”
—Woody Holton, Bancroft Prize winner and author of Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution

“Michael Klarman has written the best single-volume analysis of the flaws in the Articles of Confederation that led to the Constitutional Convention, the debate in that Convention, the ratification of the proposed Constitution, and the drafting and adoption of the Bill of Rights. With great insight, Klarman explains the complexities of America’s postwar economic, political, and constitutional struggles, showing how a people who fought a long war for their rights could then approve a democracy-limiting Constitution that greatly restricted those rights.  Klarman commands the documentary sources like no other historian.  His page-turning narrative is equal to the epic story he unveils.  Every serious scholar of the period must read this masterful work.”
—John Kaminski, Director, Center for the Study of the American Constitution, University of Wisconsin-Madison

“At last, we have a definitive account of the entire Framing period.  Klarman has brought to the task the narrative skill and situation sense of a historian, the attention to detail and language of a lawyer, and the wisdom and insight of the great scholar that he is.”
—Louis Michael Seidman, Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Constitutional Law, Georgetown University Law Center

“This remarkable book tells a gripping story of how the Constitution, often lauded as principled and visionary, was the work of intensely political individuals who were preoccupied with the issues of their day but were still able to accomplish something the nation needed.  If you are interested in the Constitution and you do not read this book, you are making a big mistake.”
—David A. Strauss, Gerald Ratner Distinguished Service Professor of Law, University of Chicago Law School