25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
A Friendlier Version of Charles Beard's and Howard Zinn's rendition,
This review is from: Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (Hardcover)
This history, told mostly from the vantage point of the average colonial American, rather than from the traditional vantage point of the landed gentry, has a lot to offer in untwisting the mythology of how our Constitution came about.
It is basically a story about the chaos that ensued when all the contending forces -- from the grassroots upwards are thrown into the mix; and all side's views and interests are taken into account. What ensued in 1787 was not a pretty picture. That the author was able to capture this unruliness is a tribute to his skill, and in the end is a much fuller, much more honest and thus a more believable history than the sugarcoated version we have come to accept and revere as the true national story.
Woody Holton is not the first, the only, nor will he be the last historian to note that our founding fathers were an aristocratic and very much anti-democratic bunch, who were as careful and skillful at protecting their own economic interests as they were concerned about shaping a "people's democracy" through the details of the Constitution. And while this book does not go so far as to suggest that the overlapping interests of the landed gentry amounted to a silent reactionary conspiracy, as Charles Beard does in his "An Economic Interpretation of the U.S. Constitution," or as Howard Zinn leaves hanging in the air in his "A People's History of the United States," it does leave plenty of room for the careful reader to draw his own speculative conclusions.
The crux of the matter (and of the book) is that due to the rebellious attitudes and actions of the average colonial citizen, the framers (representing the interests mostly of the landed gentry) were worried about the post-revolutionary slide into "a real people's democracy." Without the heavy-handed intervention of the framers, the average colonial Joe-blow would have exercised an even greater influence over state and national policies than that granted them by the compromises that eventually ended in the Constitution that we now have. Whether the alternative would have been better than what we have, is arguable.
Correctly, Holton makes these average colonial citizens, the real "unsung heroes" of the Constitution, as it was their tenacity and forbearance, their refusal to be dictated to and looked down upon, their agitation in the streets as often as necessary to defend what they viewed as their inherent rights and interests that led to the Constitution we now have. Shay's rebellion is just the most "written about" of the many rebellions that took place during those very hectic times.
As one would expect, most of the debate, and the subtext of the competing interests, were shrouded in economic complexity, arcania and details of that era. For it is at this level that the democracy we have come to enjoy really gets played out. Altogether, Horton's rendition makes us better understand why we are still caught up in the same time warp, with the moneyed interests still exercising undue influence over national policy. Pulling this off without leaving the reader with the feeling that he had an axe to grind was no mean trick, and makes for very interesting reading to boot. Five Stars