Unruly Dharmanians will love this book on the Constitution

Ported by request

An old political friend of mine – whom I describe after the jump – has written a book on the 1780s, the decade that led from victory in the Revolutionary War to the enactment of the Constitution.  It’s called Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution; I think it’s brilliant.  Given that it’s by an old friend, you shouldn’t take my word for it; consider instead that it was up for a National Book Award last month and is now ranked #6111 at Amazon.

I have rarely seen a more perfect book for netroots bloggers, who are among today’s Unruly Americans.  It focuses on the period between victory in the Revolutionary War and ratification of the Constitution.  It argues that what we love about the Constitution – primarily the Bill of Rights – derives not so much from the political philosophy of the great and familiar Framers of the document, but from the common men of the time who refused to bend to them unless their interests were secured.  On reading it, you will recognize the arguments and passions of their day, which echo into ours.

(More below.)

I had hoped to interview Woody for a diary before I left for Asia, but haven’t had time, so I’m posting this review in time for you to order it as a Christmas gift for someone who loves history.  (I get no benefit from this other than bring you and his good work together.)

And, lest I forget, this diary is not affiliated with any candidate or campaign.

1. About the author: a brief personal memoir

In 1994, I headed to Washington D.C. when my former wife had a fellowship at Howard, intent on making myself of use in progressive politics.  It was too late to get involved in most campaigns during what was not yet clearly a terrible year for Democrats.  I somehow met a man named Woody Holton, son and namesake of a former progressive Republican Governor of Virginia, who was running a low-budget ragtag organization in Alexandria, called Clean Up Congress (“CUC”).  I had nothing much to for a few months, so I pitched in to volunteer with them.  The group’s target that fall was a name you’ll recognize: Oliver North.

North had been the central figure in the Iran-Contra Affair in 1986-87, first spearheading most of the criminal activities and screw-ups, and later turning the tide in Reagan’s favor with his brazen, moist-voiced televised testimony before a hapless Congressional committee.  The felony convictions for him and Adm. John Poindexter (more recently of Total Information Awareness infame) were ultimately reversed on technicalities.  North had become a rallying point for the wingnuts of the day, and was now running (and favored) against Sen. Chuck Robb; a third candidate, moderate Republican Marshall Coleman, ran as well.  CUC was non-partisan and intent on opposing North, which meant eventually calling for whichever candidate looked to be the spoiler to withdraw.

I wish you could have seen it.  If you could imagine Atrios and Hunter going after someone with grenades filled with ridicule, you’d have some idea. North was getting an unjustified and preposterous free pass from the press; CUC hounded him at his various appearances, finally eliciting the meltdown that woke the press up (a little) to the dangers of his campaign.  Woody’s idea was to produce a deck of playing cards – my guess is that they were the inspiration for the ones used in Iraq – called “Oliver North’s Pack of Lies.”  Each card recounted a different documented lie from North.  (Woody reminded me recently that I had come up with several of the nastiest zingers for card headlines.  That was a fun afternoon.)  At the end of the race, we shifted gears and called on Coleman, who was polling at about 10%, to withdraw.  I conceived of a fake Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper front page from the day after the election, entitled “Coleman Hands North Victory” (subheads: “‘My God, What Have We Done?’ Ask Many Coleman Voters” and “North Unveils Presidential Bid”) to make the consequences of failing to vote for Robb real to people.  The flyer was the focus of our leafleting in the last days; we also blew it up to poster size and dry-mounted it on foam board to show it on TV.  I’ve had that big board on display wherever I’ve lived ever since.

North, who had been favored, lost that race. As I recall, Robb did better and North worse than expected in the Northern Virginia area where we operated.  I think Woody’s organization had as much to do with Robb’s victory as he did.  People now don’t remember how prominent North was at the time; while this was the year of the Gingrich revolution, the election of North to the Senate would have been the headline of the day: “North leads GOP takeover of Congress.”  The charming scoundrel and fascistic nutjob might well, after more than two terms in the Senate, be the leading contender for the Republican nomination this year.  Woody Holton made the difference that year and it echoes to the present day.

So now you know who wrote this book.

Woody is a now an associate professor of History and the University of Richmond (for the benefit anyone who wants to conduct the interview I didn’t.)  His agent got in touch with me a while back, after I had mentioned online my having worked with Woody, and offered to comp me a copy of the book.  I said I’d be happy to read it, but started without expectations of any kind; just because someone is a good political provocateur doesn’t make them a good writer.  What I found was a book that not only gripped me, but that struck me as being a perfect fit for the ethos and spirit of Daily Kos.

2. Framing the Framers

Back when I was a Political Scientist teaching American Government, the formation of the Constitution was an important part of my course.  To me, one of the most interesting things about it was its illegality under the Articles of Confederation; it might be described as a hijack, a coup, or more charitably a second Revolution.  I described the delegate (“do as your constituents want) and trustee (“do as you think best”) models of representation; Charles Beard’s criticisms of the Founders – predominantly public creditors – as driven to ensure that their bonds would be repaid, as well as some responses to Beard who argue that they acted out of principle rather than self-interest; the Madisonian arguments in Federalist 10 about district size and cooling of popular sentiments; the Anti-Federalists and development of the Bill of Rights; and a few others.  It was good enough for an introductory class and, besides, pretty much exhausted my relevant knowledge of the period.

This book, by contrast, would serve for the upper division class that would come next.  I found it most interesting in how thoroughly it undoes the fetishization of the documents such as The Federalist/, to which lawyers look for guidance about what the Constitution is supposed to mean.  Given my Poli Sci background, I would argue in law school (to puzzled stares) that /The Federalist was simply one side of an argument – the elite party against the populist party – that merited no supreme standing in a document that was ultimately forged by compromise, as most evident in the Bill of Rights.  The argument in response was, often, that this was the best documentation we had of the Framers’ intent.  Holton’s book shows how incomplete that sentiment is – despite the fact that it has so taken hold of our legal system that there is no ready way to dislodge it.  Holton shines a clear light on the actual conflicts of the time, and brings to the surface scores of forgotten voices – rendering the history of the time not only clearly, but in Technicolor.

3. The History of the Time

In brief summary, Holton explains that the predominant political issue of the 1780s was the need to pay for the Revolutionary War.  (This is only one of many stark similarities between that decade and ours – and the decade that will follow ours – that I’ll leave for the next section.)  He clearly explains the differences between an economy based on coined precious metal and one based on paper money.  Gold and silver were in short supply – partly due to Britain’s continued measures against the colonies, partly because wealthy Americans were moving it out of the country for protection – and yet those who had loaned money to the colonies for fighting the war wanted to be repaid in that coin, rather than with paper that tended to depreciate.  (Such currency was prone to hyperinflation, largely because it wasn’t backed by much.)  Similarly, military officers and troops who had been granted pensions wanted to be paid with “real” coin.  Creditors both public and private, meanwhile, wanted to avoid being repaid with potentially worthless paper currency.  So everyone wanted gold and silver – and few had it.

The states had payment demands put on them by both the federal government and state bondholders.  How were they to get this money?  Trade tariffs worked for some states, notably New York, but most states were left to resort to ruinous taxation.  Farmers did not have access to precious metal; they wanted to pay their taxes with produce or paper currency.  Farmers were also beset by tax collectors, who faced the choice of either bringing in the tax money due or surrendering their own property, and debt collectors who used the coercive power of civil courts.  Farmers responded demanding paper money, by turning people out of office when they were rebuffed (which the pro-Constitution party came to see as evidence of an excess of democracy), and by forcibly closing the civil courts.  As they revolted – Shays’ Rebellion being only one of countless small revolts against the political system – states were often pushed to capitulate by not collecting taxes, leaving the federal government in the lurch, or by refusing to fully honor the agreements to bondholders.

While the standard history depicts the genesis of the Constitution as deriving from the inability of the state governments to govern, Holton – who is clearly on the populist side of the 1780s debate – sees that so-called inability as deriving from the impossible situation in which the state governments were placed once the federal government pushed for them to repay war debt.  He disagrees with Beard in arguing that the Founders were not motivated primarily by personal avarice, but by the desire to create an economy that could attract investment (largely from Europe) by ensuring that those to whom debts were owed would be repaid.  They were fighting, as he puts it, for the right to lose a suit in court and be forced to pay debts.  It is populist resistance to the Constitution that requires the addition of the Bill of Rights to secure its enactment.

I’m giving the story of the book short shrift above, and failing to note the many areas in which is sheds new light on the era, because I want to note a few (by no means most) of the points in the book that I found to be real eye-openers.

4. Some eye-openers

A continual thought while reading the book – and I expect that Holton knew that readers would have this reaction, though he doesn’t belabor it – is the strong similarity and sometimes startling between the politics and culture of the 1780s and our own.  I offer just a sampler, in hopes of whetting your appetite for the full meal.

– Poor people of the time were reduced to selling their body parts – then live teeth instead of kidneys

– The fight over whether and how much to curtail legal process available to creditors mirrors the present fights over bankruptcy law and foreclosures.

– Populists did not much resent bond payments to the original holders of bonds, but highly resented – and fought to curtail the rights of – those who purchased the bonds (often at a steep discount) from those who had lend money or toil to the Revolutionary cause.  (Among the bond speculators discussed in detail: Abigail Adams!)

– People were concerned about a “casino economy,” where the easy money to be made from speculation – the “day trading” of the day – soaked up both capital and productive effort that might otherwise go into work.  (Among the critics: John Adams!)

– The “anti-extravagance movement” – now a subculture, perhaps to grow in time – opposed high fashion and conspicuous consumption, both blaming the poor for buying too many fripperies and trying to help the wealthy conserve coin by consuming less, but also brought forth defenses of a woman’s right to adornments.

– The tendency to foist blame for financial hardship on women, and the proto-feminist reactions.

– Media control by well-heeled creditors and “anti-malcontents.”

– Demands by conservatives for a less responsive government.

– Arguments over the role of sense and sensibility (empathy) in determining policy.  (One choice statement: “Few can reason, but all can feel.”  Holton confronts the notion that reason was all on the side of the elites, of course.)

– The supply-side/trickle-down economic theory of Robert Morris, who argued for the concentration of capital saying that money should go to people who could manage it rather than to the indolent.

And so on.

5. Conclusion

Not everyone enjoys reading American history, much less Revolutionary-era American history.  If you’re one of those who do, and you have a little extra to spend this year, you should find this a very satisfying book; ditto for anyone on your gift list.  You may also have the reaction I did, of finding kindred spirits among the writers Holton dredges up from history.  Populism has at least three political meanings: a sort of “nanny-state” anti-libertarianism, nativism, and opposition to economic elites.  Holton shows us the last and best of these forms of populism – one that fits quite well with the ethos of the progressive blogosphere.  Reading this book will leave you feeling closer to those who were involved in the creation of our nation. Having overextended our economy on war spending once again, and facing a credit crunch that may gives us a taste of the 1780s, it may also give you some insight into our present moment, as well as what may be waiting for us in the 2010s.


Skip to comment form

  1. if you read it!

  2. It looks as if your essay somehow was posted twice. Site glitch?  

  3. I think this looks like a very interesting book.

    I have often though blogging is like Revolutionary pamphleteering and Early Post Colonial news letters myself.

    You are very luck to know the author.

  4. for my dad who expounds at great length on the finer points of our country’s founding.  

  5. as this period in time often crosses my mind. Have read fiction set in this period but am a no nothing about the turmoil after the Revolution. The Bill of rights is too much absent in our current dialog, and always seems to me to be the democracy part that so missing, our constitution being document that the lawyers with guns all quibble over. Good to see you here Major.  

    • eugene on December 9, 2007 at 02:35

    I don’t exactly have time to delve back into the 1780s, when SF in the 1960s and 1970s commands my present attention. But his view of that period lines up pretty well with the one I’ve always had of that era, and the view I give when I teach the first half of the US history survey. Like you, I’ve always enjoyed tweaking the students’ preconceptions by pointing out the illegality of the actions of the Philadelphia Convention and the economic background – the Revolutionary War debt, conflict over economic policy, and issues of class empowerment.

    I also think you’re right that we’re going to be dealing with many of these same issues in the 2010s. America has already rediscovered populism, for better and for worse – I wonder if we’re also going to rediscover our pre-Constitutional past and, from that, the all-important realization that if the Constitution was made, it can be unmade, and it can be changed.

    Changing the Constitution – in significant ways – is, I believe, going to be a central political issue in the next two decades. In reaction to Bush’s secretive changes, there will be movements from the right and the left to make overt change. I think we ought to embrace this, and a rereading of the 1780s can help us understand how this might work.

Comments have been disabled.