The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution

One book that I read during my trip was Michael Klarman’s account of the Constitution’s creation, which I highly recommend. The book provides a wonderful overview of the political crisis under the Articles of Confederation, the process that led to the Constitutional Convention, the Convention, the ratification debate, and the drafting of what we now call the Bill of Rights.

Klarman’s thesis is that the Framers were far more nationalist and antidemocratic than the average American in 1787, but their proposal was ratified in spite of this disparity for a variety of reasons. I agree with the first part of this claim–the Framers were ultra nationalists for their era–but I think the second claim about their skepticism about democracy is overblown.

One flaw in Klarman’s account is that the Framers omitted a bill of rights from their proposal. In a sense, they were more willing to trust the democratic process (direct or indirect) than their critics, who insisted that additional constraints were necessary to protect basic liberties. Thus, I’m not sure who was more skeptical of democracy–the Federalists or the Antifederalists–although this insight does depend on how much you think the Antifederalists contemplated judicial review.

A second issue is that I’m not sure that the state constitutions of that era were more democratic than the Federal Constitution, which is part of Klarman’s case against the Framers.  Some of the state constitutions were more democratic, but others were not. Klarman himself points out that many of the states had grossly malapportioned legislative districts (which helped the Federalists in the ratification conventions), for example.

Third, I am dubious about the thought that what the Framers said in Philadelphia represented their “real” views about democracy and that anything they said later was “phony” and designed solely to win support for the Constitution. This was true to some extent, but that cynical take ignores the idea that some of the Framers could have changed their views over the course of the debate.

In any event, you should read the book.  You’ll learn a lot.

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