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The Founding Fathers’ Power Grab

Was the Constitution designed to make the United States less democratic?

John Trumbull / Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the hot Philadelphia summer of 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention labored to replace the Articles of Confederation with a new frame of government. While the convention nearly broke down several times over slavery and the apportionment of representation among the states, by late September the delegates had achieved their goal and produced a new constitution—the one Americans still live with. No delegate was completely satisfied with the process or the results; of the 55 who attended the convention only 39 signed the finished document. Overall, though, the signers were pleased with the system they created. James Wilson of Pennsylvania judged it, “The best form of government which has ever been offered to the world.” Next, the Constitution was sent to the states to be debated and, the Framers hoped, ratified.

Oxford University Press, 880 pp., $39.95

Few people in the state ratifying conventions shared Wilson’s enthusiasm. 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.” More specifically, “the Constitution was designed in part to block legislation for tax and debt relief.”

How was the Constitution adopted in spite of vigorous and cogent objections from its democracy-loving critics? Klarman argues that the Federalists essentially cheated and strong-armed their way to ratification. The book seems intended as a bracing antidote to the phenomenon that Klarman has elsewhere labeled “constitutional idolatry,” his term for “our misguided tendency to blindly worship the Constitution” and the men who wrote it.

The idea that the Constitution was really about money is not new, although it has lost favor in recent decades to “ideological” interpretations that focus on the Framers’ moral worldview and political goals. Klarman draws the core of his argument from Woody Holton’s 2007 Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, which was inspired in turn by one of the great history books of the 20th century, Charles A. Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913). Roughly stated, these books argue that during the period after the Revolutionary War most state constitutions were highly democratic, at least for the era. At the same time, the country was suffering a post-war financial crisis that was ruinous to artisans and small farmers. Not surprisingly, common people began to use their new political influence to create economic policies that were favorable to themselves (and disadvantageous to creditors and wealthy citizens), such as inflationary monetary policy and progressive taxation. The Constitution, according to the economic interpretation, was the 1 percent’s revenge, a countermeasure designed to undermine the democratic governments in the states, thereby returning power to wealthy elites and insulating them from popular opinion.

Klarman’s contribution to the economic interpretation is twofold. First, he simply digs deeper into the primary sources than any of his predecessors. Beard acknowledged that his own work was “fragmentary,” designed merely “to suggest new lines of historical research.” And while many scholars have taken up the suggestion, no one has so carefully sifted the constitutional debates of the entire decade of the 1780’s and brought them into a single cohesive interpretation focused on economics.

Second, Klarman is more interested than his predecessors in the effects of the slave economy on the Constitution. It was evident from the beginning that the interests of slave owners had an outsized influence on the shape of the finished work, in obvious points like the Three-Fifths Compromise and Fugitive Slave Clause and in less obvious such as the Electoral College, which gave slave states a larger say in electing the president that their voting population alone would have warranted. Klarman takes the reader deep into the economic and political calculations of the southern delegates, many of whom were morally opposed to slavery and believed that it impoverished their own citizens, but who also personally benefitted from it and knew that their states would reject the Constitution if it seemed to undermine the institution. Klarman shows that nearly every clause of the Constitution was written and rewritten in fear of losing the support of slave-holding interests.

Much can be said in favor of Klarman’s overall interpretation. 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 problem with the economic interpretation, however, is that it tends to conflate elitism with selfishness. There’s no doubt that a primary goal of the Constitution was, in Klarman’s words, “to constrain the influence of public opinion upon government.” But this anti-democratic aim served many purposes. Protecting the Federalists’ wealth was perhaps one of them; for example, the Constitution forbids states from printing paper money and thereby inflating their currency. But, like Beard before him, Klarman gives little direct evidence that financial concerns were a primary motive when, as the quotations above suggest, much more was at stake in the minds of the people who wrote and supported the Constitution. Most of the Federalists believed, sincerely and with justification, that the United States was on the verge of widespread bankruptcy and a civil war or foreign invasion that would be disastrous for rich and poor alike. With national security, national unity, national economic development, and the future of republican government itself in the balance, it’s not quite believable that the Framers were primarily guided by a concern with interest rates on their war bonds and other such matters.

Moreover, once the Constitution was ratified, the new federal government’s policies were advantageous to poorer Americans. By assuming the states’ war debts and paying them off through import duties, the Treasury Department stabilized purchasing power and reduced the tax burden on typical Americans by up to 90 percent. It’s hard to see class warfare driving these institutions and policies. If the Framers had wanted to design a central government with the aim of exploiting the poor for their own advantage, they would have found no shortage of models around the globe. Instead, they created a novel framework for economic policy that led to unprecedented prosperity and security in the decade after ratification. In Philadelphia, for example, the daily wages of laborers doubled between 1790 and 1796. George Washington did not exaggerate in his 1795 address to Congress when he noted, “Our agriculture, commerce, and manufactures prosper beyond former example.”

The breakdown of American governance in the 1780s also helps explain why the Constitution was ratified in spite of legitimate criticism by its opponents. Even Anti-Federalists saw that the Articles of Confederation were leading to poverty and war. Thomas Jefferson is an instructive example. He had the strongest Anti-Federalist instincts of any eminent American, later writing of the constitutional system,

It must be agreed that our governments have much less of republicanism than ought to have been expected; in other words, that the people have less regular control over their agents, than their rights and their interests require.

Yet he supported the Constitution throughout the ratification debates and “sincerely rejoice[d]” at its eventual approval by the states. The question for him was not whether the Constitution was too aristocratic—it was—but whether that was a price worth paying to save the union. Many Anti-Federalists calculated along the same lines and, once they were confident a Bill of Rights would be added, assented to the Constitution as the best option in bad circumstances.

The idea that the Constitutional Convention was a coup d’état has circulated for a long time, although Klarman doesn’t say from where exactly he draws it. Robin Einhorn, for one, defended the proposition in her excellent review of Holton’s Unruly Americans, and Klarman’s work often reads like the book Einhorn thinks Holton should have written. In the end, however, I believe the coup thesis is more misleading than helpful. We cannot say that the Framers illicitly seized the power of the federal government; there was no government to seize. And only a few of them held office in the new national administration in any case. Moreover, Anti-Federalists like James Monroe and George Clinton went on to win the highest positions in the system they had initially opposed. No family, or cabal, or interest group, or political party grasped power through the drafting and ratification process.

More importantly, the Framers submitted their plan to the citizens for approval. The American founding was, in this sense, the opposite of a coup. While it’s true, as Klarman discusses at length, that the Federalists engaged in dirty politics at some of the ratifying conventions, he also makes clear that the Anti-Federalists were at least as guilty. There is no evidence that, had it been a clean fight, the Federalists would have fared any worse, or the Anti-Federalists any better. Moreover, the Framers demanded that the Constitution should be voted up or down at special ratifying conventions rather than by the state legislatures. And most states, in turn, lowered their voting qualifications for this one election—choosing delegates to the conventions. If the complex process of drafting and ratifying the Constitution is to be given an abstract label, it seems closer to a plebiscite than a coup.

Nonetheless, the Anti-Federalists were correct that one effect of the Constitution would be the “transfer of power from the many to the few.” And not everyone among the “many” was willing to accept it. While the ratification process was notably open for its time, it was not open enough, and the result was not unanimous enough, to win universal legitimacy for the Constitution. The Civil War broke out less than 80 years later, when individual citizens and states in the south wished to reclaim their powers from the federal government. The “excess of democracy” that concerned Elbridge Gerry again became a national problem. This time, deliberation and voting would not answer the purpose.