May 6, 2017


Were the Framers Democrats? : Review of The Framers' Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution, by Michael J. Klarman (CASS SUNSTEIN, New Rambler)

[W]hile Klarman greatly admires the framers, his second goal is to show that they were elitists, in a sense even aristocrats, skeptical about the very idea of popular sovereignty.

James Madison, the father of the Constitution, thought that "the people could not be trusted to intelligently rule themselves" (p. 4). Klarman urges that committed to this belief, the framers undertook a kind of coup, and it was anything but a democratic one. The framers believed in "the natural aristocracy of virtue, talent, and education - men like themselves" (p. 600). They were affirmatively hostile to democracy (p. 606). Their invocation of popular sovereignty was strategic, not sincere. More particularly, "the Constitution was designed in part to block legislation for tax and debt relief," and therefore "represented a victory for one party in a debate that genuinely had two sides" (p. 5). Modern Americans are entitled to hold the framers in the highest regard, but they should not revere them, or refrain from asking about the inconsistency of their handiwork "with our basic (democratic) political commitments."

The Framers' Coup might well be the best book ever written on the founders and their handiwork. [...]

Klarman offers detailed, unfailingly even-handed accounts of the central issues, including the perceived need to expand the powers of the national government, the fights between the small and large states, the architecture of checks and balances, and the ugly but perhaps also essential compromises on slavery. ("To have expected the Constitution to be less protective of slavery than it was probably have been unrealistic.  Because all the delegates to the Constitutional Convention wished to preserve the union, southerners enjoyed considerable bargaining power." P. 303.) If you are generally interested in the Constitution - and tend to side with today's self-proclaimed constitutionalists, who make grand claims about what the document was really about, and which current political disputes it resolves in their favor - Klarman will be your best guide, the kind of teacher you never thought you'd find.

An especially important point here is that the framers wanted to increase the authority of the national government, not to weaken or disable it; they were centralizers. Also important is that they sought a "powerful unitary executive" (p. 226). Even if you are a constitutional specialist and think you know all about the founding generation, you'll learn an extraordinary amount from him. It is true that the various strands of the argument are available elsewhere - including, of course, the debates between large and small states, the compromises on slavery, and the desire to strengthen the central government - and that on particular points, Klarman does not break a lot of fresh ground. But with the sheer accumulation of fascinating details, and the careful, comprehensive elaboration of the precise steps that led from the failure in Annapolis to the Bill of Rights, Klarman has produced something genuinely new.

The Founding Fathers' Power Grab : Was the Constitution designed to make the United States less democratic? (MATTHEW C. SIMPSON, September 29, 2016, New Republic)

The proposed government was less democratic than either the Articles of Confederation or the individual state constitutions. For example, the president would be chosen by an Electoral College rather than by citizens themselves; senators would be appointed by state legislatures; the smallest state would have as many senators as the largest; there were no term limits for any office and no means to recall federal officials; the House of Representatives was small (only 65 members originally), meaning that electoral districts would be geographically vast; and the so-called Supremacy Clause seemed to dissolve the sovereignty of the states altogether. Anti-Federalists (those who opposed the Constitution) had good reason to argue that its true purpose was, as one of them put it, the "transfer of power from the many to the few." The democratic impulses of the Revolutionary Era now came to bear in opposition to the Constitution, both in the press and at the ratifying conventions.

In his impressive new book, The Framers' Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution, Bancroft Prize-winning legal historian Michael J. Klarman seeks to understand why the Framers produced such an undemocratic plan in the first place, and how they managed to get it approved over strong opposition in the state conventions. At the risk of oversimplifying--the book comes in at more than 800 pages--Klarman argues that the Constitution is undemocratic because it was designed to protect wealthy merchants and landowners from the redistributive tendencies of popular government. "The Constitution was," he writes, "a conservative counterrevolution against what leading American statesmen regarded as the irresponsible economic measures enacted by a majority of state legislatures in the mid-1780s."  [...]

There is no question that many of the men who attended the Constitutional Convention had become disillusioned with democracy in the post-revolutionary period. Even aside from their concerns about debt relief and taxation, the political developments of the 1780s seemed to them catastrophic. "Our credit as a nation is sinking," said Connecticut delegate Roger Sherman. "The resources of the country could not be drawn out to defend us against a foreign invasion, nor the forces of the Union to prevent a civil war." If things continue on their present course, said Edmund Randolph of Virginia, "The union will be dissolved, the dogs of war will break loose, and anarchy and discord will complete the ruin of this country." In the summer preceding the Constitutional Convention, Rufus King of Massachusetts said plainly, "It is not possible that the public affairs can be in a much worse situation."

While some of the blame could be put on the Articles of Confederation, which gave the central government insufficient power to organize national affairs, many observers thought the deeper problem was democracy itself. The American people did not seem to be up to the task of broadly based self-government. "We have," George Washington wrote, "probably had too good an opinion of human nature in forming our confederation." Pennsylvania physician Benjamin Rush was less diplomatic. "What is the present moral character of the citizens of the United States?" he asked during the ratification controversy. "I need not describe it.... Nothing but a vigorous and efficient government can prevent their degenerating into savages." "Democracy," he insisted, "is the devil's own government." By the late-1780s it had become conventional wisdom among political elites that, as Elbridge Gerry put it, "the evils we experience flow from an excess of democracy." The Constitution was designed to reverse the democratic trajectory of American politics.

The delicious irony of the Revolution is that it produced a monarchy more powerful than the British, though elective.
Posted by at May 6, 2017 8:25 AM