Sunday, January 13, 2008

On the coffee table: "Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution"

This is an excellent, well-needed revisionist history of the creation of the Constitution.

While author Woody Holton doesn't go as far as Charles Beard in 1913 and call the Founding Fathers "economic royalists," he does clearly state (and demonstrate with plenty of evidence) that economic issues, and for one class of people, were probably the ultimately concern that led to the Constitutional Convention.

You've maybe heard of Shays' Rebellion in 1786 Massachusetts? Just one of many, many actions in most colonies at the local and regional level. States jacked taxes so high they were four times as high, per capita, as at Revolution 1775. And, most states' legislatures wouldn't print enough cheap paper money to appease farmers and other debtors, who, if not actually marching on state capitals, worked overtime to prevent sheriff's and county courts from selling off properties at debtors' auctions.

In other words, Holton presents the 1780s as William Jennings Bryan's 1896 America writ even larger. And, the Federalist founders as anti-Democrats worried about a debtors' revolt.

Time after time, Holton states the founders saw Article I, Section 10, which prevents states from printing paper money, as a keystone of the new constitution.

As far as mechanisms of government, he re-presents words of numerous Founders indicating their fear of true democracy, in part because they were worried debtors would continue to press governments for cheap money. That's why they cut the actual number of members in the first House in half, to 65, from Madison's original proposal of 130. They thought that the well-to-do could better control politics the larger the population represented by each Congressman. That's also why they didn't mandate single-member districts (read the Constitution, it's not in there), allowing statewide elections.

"Insure democratic tranquility"? Against mob action.

"Promote justice"? Against debtors wanting cheap money.

Sound familiar for today? Well, maybe it is.

And, contrary to Publishers' Weekly, Holton does NOT call the Constitution a "democratic document."

Page 273: "The Framers designed the Federal government to be much less accessible than it seems."

Read the Amazon link: