- Paperback: 384 pages
- Publisher: Hill and Wang; 1st edition (October 14, 2008)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0809016435
- ISBN-13: 978-0809016433
- Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 8.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 33 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #198,854 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution 1st Edition
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“Holton demonstrates a lucid and systematic dismantling of the myths surrounding the making of our national government. His succinct account persuasively revives the economic interpretation of the Constitution in terms well-suited for our times, and it will surely become the essential work for students of the founding era. The Constitution enabled the ascent of the United States to great political and economic power, Holton makes plain, but at a profound cost to democracy. If Americans today find our national politicians entrenched in office, out of touch with their constituents, and responsive to lobbyists for the rich, they will understand why after reading this compelling book.” ―Robert A. Gross, James L. And Shirley A. Draper Professor of Early American History, University of Connecticut, and author of The Minutemen and Their World
“Woody Holton reframes the coming of the Constitution, revealing the rich debate Americans conducted over the cause of capital in the new land. In this account, real people--farmers, soldiers, taxpayers, speculators, creditors and entrepreneurs--replace images of the Founders, and intimate issues like tax fairness, economic effects, and electoral accountability matter far more than abstractions. The result is a new and compelling history.” ―Christine Desan, Professor of Law, Harvard Law School
“Woody Holton invites us to revise most of what we think we know about the origins of the United States Constitution. In this account the Founding Fathers do not appear as selfless philosophers journeying to Philadelphia to explore competing theories of republican government. Rather, Holton describes them as deeply anxious men, determined to contain a surge of popular democracy that seemed to threaten their financial interests. In this brilliantly researched study Holton thus revives an economic interpretation of the Constitution and in the process reminds us that ordinary American farmers after the Revolution imagined a strikingly different nation from the one that the Founders gave us.” ―T.H. Breen, Director, Center for Historical Studies, Northwestern University
“Here is a book that helps answer the puzzle of how in 1787 the framers of the Constitution curbed what they considered ‘the excess of democracy' in the states and at the same time accommodated democratic pressures. Using a vast array of little appreciated contemporary sources, Holton constructs a fresh, sinewy argument that unfolds with a mounting sense of excitement. The result is a tough, realistic way of thinking about the founders. Unruly Americans is a brilliant book, rich with insights into the American Revolution and the Constitution.” ―Alfred Young, author of Liberty Tree: Ordinary People and the American Revolution
“Move over, Founding Fathers. It turns out that average Americans from the ‘unruly mob' had more to do with insuring the personal liberties we Americans now hold dear than did the Framers we so revere. Woody Holton's fascinating and energetic new book makes us take a fresh look at the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights. The populist underpinnings of our Republic are real, and this has clear implications for the role that citizens ought to play today in reforming American democracy. Holton's lesson: If the establishment won't change the system, the people can. They've done it from the beginning.” ―Larry J. Sabato, Director, Center for Politics, University of Virginia
About the Author
Woody Holton is an associate professor of history at the University of Richmond and the author of the award-winning book Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia.
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One thing is virtually indisputable. Almost nobody was satisfied with the governance of the 13 liberated states under the structure called the Articles of Confederation. But the dissatisfaction wasn't only with the federal governance; it was more vociferously directed toward the governance of each of the states. It's hardly flagrant revisionism in 2010 CE to maintain that the Constitution of 1787 was a "conservative backlash" against runaway democracy unleashed by the Revolution itself. In fact, that's essentially the orthodoxy historical dogma since the work of Charles Beard early in the 20th C. Woody Holton acknowledges that position from the onset, but reveals that his research has led him to a more nuanced conclusion: that it was the perception of unbridled 'leveling' by the 13 states' governments which generated the desires of "leading men" to construct a stronger federal government. In other words, for Madison and the others who assembled to frame a new constitution, the chief goal was to restrain States' Rights!
So... the greatest pertinence of Holton's analysis should be the light it sheds on the hot-button question of "original intent" that roils politics in the USA today. In many ways, Holton reveals, the furious divisions over the balance of relations between the states and the federal government already existed in the 1780s. Of course, the side taken by anyone, ever, on the issue of States' Rights has always depended on "interests". The defense of slavery was the most obvious and inflammatory interest from the very start, but Holton discovers an economic dynamic -- in very simplified terms, the debtors versus the debt-holders -- that divided opinion internally in each of the 13 former colonies.
There are quite a number of "amusing" ironies to be noted in the "States' Rights" arguments against a powerful federal government, ev n before that central government was established:
* prior to 1787, it was generally the Rich who adamantly denounced "tax relief" by the various state governments. But it has to be understood that the tax relief of the 1780s was inherently at the expense of bond holders and speculators.
* the States' Rights position was usually associated with a tolerance for inflation, for the issuance of paper money, as a means of equalizing wealth through a kind of indirect taxation.
* the supporters of the state governments, and therefore opponents of the federal, generally favored "easy" immigration and feared that a tighter-money federal government would discourage immigration and disrupt the supply of labor as well as stifle development of new lands.
* central to the political thinking of States' Rights advocates, those who wanted the state governments to be even more 'democratic', was the view that a "republican' government could only thrive in a climate of rough economic equality; thus the most articulate States' Rights spokesmen openly supported measures to "redistribute" property and to discourage "concentration" of wealth! And this objective of "redistribution" could, in their minds, be achieved most efficiently by state governments maximally answerable to the broad electorate. Thus, many strong states' rights proponents also advocated elimination of the state senates (i.e. unicameral legislatures), strict 51% majority rule on all legislation including tax proposals, and abolishment of gubernatorial/executive veto powers.
For a tightly focused academic study, Holton's "Unruly Americans" manages to spare pages here and there for wide-ranging insights. One of the best chapters of the book treats the cultural paradigm of "sentiment" that both sides of the debate over debt and taxes invoked. Holton's reflections on Adam Smith are extremely enlightening; in fact, he has convinced this reader that Smith's economic thinking is incomplete and incomprehensible without taking account of Smith's other great book, "A Theory of Moral Sentiments". Holton also casts his net over the implications of the post-Revolution social turmoil for changes in expectations of equality -- of the poor, of slaves and freed slaves, and especially of women. The accounts and activities of Abigail Adams, an astute self-interested bond speculator, form a key resource for Holton's research.
I recommend both of Woody Holton's books enthusiastically, for all readers interested in American history and the deep roots of the polarization that typifies American politics today, despite the seeming tweedle-dee/tweedle-dum nature of the two political parties.
"Unruly Americans" sets out to disprove what it claims most scholars and historians erroneously claim: that the founding fathers designed the Constitution to empower ordinary Americans and protect their basic civil rights. Nay, says Woody Holton, the founding fathers' principal motivation in drafting the Constitution was to accomplish the opposite: take power away from ordinary Americans and consolidate it in the national gov't, because the founding fathers determined that ordinary Americans were incapable at self-governing and therefore needed to be guided by the elites who were better equipped at making economic and public policy decisions.
In fleshing out his thesis, Holton spends more than half of the book going over the financial and economic issues that were plaguing the colonies. The primary issue Holton focuses on (in fact, nearly the only issue) is the financial and political chasm that existed between the creditors and debtors; bondholders and taxpayers. This is the first problem of Holton's analysis: the labels. Inevitably, this kind of dichotomy helps in explaining certain issues and makes them easier to follow and understand. However, it's overly simplistic. For one, not all creditors agreed with each other on policy issues, as neither did all debtors (which Holton, to his credit, does point out at times). Secondly, bondholders were not separate from taxpayers, as these are not mutually exclusive: bondholders were taxpayers too.
The biggest problem of Holton's interpretation is the almost total lack of a broader political and economic context of the times. This shows especially in the later part of the book which discusses the ratification debates and commentaries, as well as Holton's take on James Madison's intellectual and political conversions post the Constitutional Convention. The author provides no serious analysis of the ratification debates, except for some out of context quotations made by several Federalist and anti-Federalist essayists and commentators; and provides no context whatsoever to try to explain Madison's conversion. Indeed, the idea that Madison flipped his views 180 is itself simplistic, since while Madison's views certainly evolved through the years and readjusted, it's a stretch to suggest that he became a genuine intellectual and political convert.
While Holton attempts to distance himself from the Charles Beardian thinking and interpretive framework, he doesn't fully succeed at it. For while he concedes that the Beardian framework was too simplistic and therefore erroneous, Holton doesn't himself supply the alternative, more realistic framework, all the while casting doubt on the mainstream scholarship.
Nonetheless, Holton does make some interesting points and arguments, that if fleshed out and analyzed in a more consistent, serious and penetrating fashion, had some potential to become a competing and realistic alternative framework to the mainstream scholarship.
The book is also not very well organized. For one, much of the facts and quotations are redundant throughout the book, as if Holton deliberately distributed them in this way to remind the readers of the information provided in earlier parts of the book. In fact, due to this disorganization, some chapters truly seem indistinguishable from one another.
In sum, if you are an early entrant into the Constitutional reading materials, this book may provide some interesting information and points. However, if you are a seasoned veteran - skip it.