Saturday, November 24, 2007

Book Review: "Unruly Americans"

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.


Steven said...

The reviewer while clearly acknowledging the evidence presented by the author for the large impact economics played in the convening of constitutional convention and subsequently in the drafting of the bill of rights, discounts the importance of economic issues in the formation of those documents because he finds it uncomfortable. That is a surprising weak basis for a critique of the author's thesis.

JBD said...

... As I note in the review, I recognize the role economic concerns played in the lead-up to Philadelphia, I just happen to think there was also more to it than just economics.