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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

“Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution”, by Woody Holton

384 pages, Hill and Wang, ISBN-13: 978-0809080618

A lot of myths surround the American founding, and it is not uncommon for many to see a continuum from the Declaration to the Constitution with liberty, freedom, and democracy being solidified along the way. But the exhilaration and potential for empowerment felt in 1776 had largely dissipated by the middle 1780s, as well as the commonality of purpose between elites and the (largely) unwashed masses. The defeat of Britain brought with it economic and political discord. Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution discusses at length the economic hard times that were pervasive in the 13 States dating at least from the last battle of the Revolutionary War in 1781, the attempts to deal with those problems ranging from self-help to legislation, and the impact of those developments on calling for a constitutional convention and the subsequent provisions of the US Constitution.

The states under the Articles of Confederation were not on a sound financial footing when the War broke out. The currency, certificates, bonds, etc., that were issued to pay soldiers and buy supplies greatly depreciated over the next several years; in addition, the hard money supply dried up. Upon discharge, soldiers were forced to sell their certificates at steep discounts to speculators. Both creditors and bondholders insisted on payment of debts and interest on bonds. State governments raised taxes primarily to pay that interest. Farmers and artisans (especially in light of a lack of circulating currency) were faced with both debts and taxes that they could not pay. Widespread foreclosures and confiscation of property administered by local sheriffs were the result. But those middling folks felt more victimized than deficient in compliance. The huge rate of return that speculators got on discounted bonds was especially irksome. The people living mostly in the western part of the states forcibly obstructed courts, sheriffs, and auctions and demanded that legislatures give some measure of debt and tax relief, as well as reintroduce paper money. Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts in 1786-87 is the foremost example of citizen self-help.

The ineffectualness of the Articles of Confederation, coupled with what elites saw as irresponsibility and too much democracy on the part of average people and state assemblies, precipitated a constitutional convention in May, 1787. The author discusses the balancing act of the elites of the Convention (virtually all lawyers, merchants and large landowners) in curtailing democracy while appearing to secure it. For example, the provision for people electing members of the lower house of Congress was offset by large electoral districts, which diminishes the potential impact of interest groups (like debt-ridden farmers). Although states could no longer issue currency or give relief to debtors, the newly established right of the federal government to collect import taxes greatly reduced onerous individual tax burdens. Most of the Convention delegates were more concerned with what provisions could get through the state ratifying conventions, than any particular concern for democracy.

The book is a corrective to the usual discussions on the Constitution making process. The author is not concerned with day-to-day Convention affairs, but rather with the underlying economic and political situation leading to the Convention and the general thinking of the delegates. The detailing of the financial hard times consumes much of the book but is a bit muddled, scattered, and repetitious, but nonetheless is informative. Also, it seems that the author overstates the impact that the people had on the final version of the Constitution, despite any unruliness. The founders actually made few concessions to democracy. The anti-Federalists hardly took up the cause of democracy; they were from the same class as the Federalists, but preferred to exercise their power on a state level.

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