Americans revere their Constitution Few, then, would describe the writing of it as a process fraught with highly improbable circumstances, coincidences, compromises, and largely unexpected outcomes As Benjamin Franklin keenly observed, any assembly of men, no matter how talented, bring with them all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests and their selfish views One need not deny that the Framers had good intentions in order to believe that—inevitably—they also had interests Based on prodigious research and told largely through the voices of the participants, Michael Klarman's The Framers' Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution tells the story of how the Framers' interests shaped the constitution, and what that means for our use of the document todayThe Philadelphia convention could easily have been a failure, or not happened at all Without the heroic efforts of James Madison, George Washington's lastminute decision to attend, and the countless negotiations in the midst of debate and gridlock, the constitution we know today may never have been ratified Had anything gone wrong and the convention been dissolved without consensus, any number of events may have occurred, such as a civil war, or reversion to monarchy Klarman's narration of these events is full of colorful characters and riveting stories: the rebellion by debtor farmers in Massachusetts; the deal that induced John Hancock to support ratification; the secretive dealings of Alexander Hamilton and John Jay at the New York ratifying convention that produced an improbable victory The constitution, he shows, was not created by rousing national consensus—an impractical concept at the time—but by the personal preferences of its creators Moreover, the convention produced a constitution very different from what most Americans anticipated How did the Framers convince Americans to approve a scheme so unrepresentative of national opinion? And to what extent should Americans rely on it today?Towards the end of his life, Thomas Jefferson noted that each generation has a right to choose for itself the form of government it believes most promotive of its own happiness, and that constitutions should not be deemed, too sacred to be touched As Jefferson would have recognized, and as Klarman depicts in this captivating retelling of one of America's most famous stories, the Constitution is and has always been used as a tool to defend particular interests, and its sanctity should not go unchallenged

10 thoughts on “The Framers' Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution

  1. robin friedman robin friedman says:

    A New Study Of The Formation Of The Constitution

    Americans continue to be fascinated by the early history of our country and by the Framers of the Constitution. The Founding era has always presented a fertile area for scholarship as well. Michael Klarman's new book, The Framers' Coup: the Making of the United States Constitution (2016) presents a history of the making of the constitution remarkable for its breadth and depth. Klarman, Kirkland Ellis Professor at Harvard Law School, teaches Constitutional Law and American Constitutional History. His book From Jim Crow to Civil Rights received the 2005 Bancroft Prize.

    The Framers' Coup is a long, dense book that demands sustained reading. It will reward serious students of the constitutional era but is probably not for those readers with only a casual interest in the subject. Klarman gives the following three goals of his study, all of which are borne out by the text. First, the book tells the entire story of the Founding, from the history of the Articles of Confederation through the enactment of the Bill of Rights. Most prior single-volume studies have not attempted to cover the Constitutional period in this breadth.

    Second, Klarman tells the story making heavy use of the writings of the participants. In so doing, the book uses formal speeches and writings derived from the Constitutional Convention and other proceedings. But Klarman also makes extensive use of letters and private correspondence not intended for publication. The book is full of quotations from letters from participants in the Constitutional Convention to one another and to people who were not in attendance, such as Thomas Jefferson. It offers a running private commentary on the course of events. These private communications add a great deal to this book while they considerably slow down the flow of the story. These types of private, candid communications are valuable but probably should be taken with a degree of caution.

    Third, Klarman advances an interpretation of the Constitutional Era that he claims differs somewhat from those previously offered. Klarman does not make icons of the Founders but his interpretation remains within the scope of many studies of the era. Klarman emphasizes the undemocratic, conservative aspect of the Constitution and of those who formulated it. He writes: I have been especially drawn to the view, long advanced by others, that the Constitution was 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, which they diagnosed as a symptom of excessive democracy. Klarman further explains that he was drawn by two questions: 1. why the delegates to the Constitutional Convention wrote a constitution that differed from the likely expectations of most Americans and 2. how the Framers (the Federalists) were able to secure the ratification of a document that severely restricted popular participation in government.

    The book is indeed remarkable for its broad scope, its detail, and its interpretation. Klarman begins with a through exploration of the Articles of Confederation and its flaws. He describes early divisions in America focusing on an abortive treaty with Spain regarding the navigation of the Mississippi River and on Shay's Rebellion in Massachusetts. He explores the difficulties resulting from the lack of a strong central government. Klarman also describes the conflict in the states between debtors and creditors over the issuance of paper money. He argues that the Founders became alarmed at what they perceived as the threat to property by the poorer classes of people. His interpretation of the Constitution makes a great deal of the Founders efforts to protect private property. In this regard, Klarman maintains throughout his study, the Founders might have made different choices than they did as there were good, reasonable arguments on the other side.

    The middle chapters of this extensive study discuss the drafting of the Constitution and the Constitutional Convention. The book offers a detailed discussion of the issues faced by the Convention, how the Convention came close to breaking-up without reaching a decision, and how compromises were reached. There are extensive discussions of the role of the Senate, the Judiciary, the president, the coining of money, and much else. The discussion includes much in the way of both process and substance. It emphasizes the compromises that were reached, and the over-arching interest in property and skepticism about broad, popular democracy. An extended separate chapter of the book explores the many issues in the Constitution related to slavery. Klarman is properly skeptical about claims that the Founders could have agreed to a Constitution without accepting the role of the peculiar institution in the South.

    The book proceeds with two lengthy chapters about the ratification of the constitution. Particularly valuable was the discussion of the antifederalists, the opponents of ratification. Klarman makes a great deal of how the antifederalists tended to be from the backcountry, less well-educated, and less articulate than the Federalist supporters of ratification. In addition, the Federalists had the support of the media. Still, Klarman argues, the antifederalists had important criticisms to offer and came near to defeating ratification. The contrast between elite, educated Americans and their less sophisticated countrymen continues to resonate in American politics, as shown, perhaps in the 2016 presidential election. Klarman offers a lengthy, individualized discussion of the ratification process for the constitution in each of the thirteen states. The process frequently was not pretty or elevated but instead involved the sharp politicking that will be familiar to modern students.

    In the final chapter of the book, Klarman describes the period immediately after the ratification of the Constitution, with George Washington as president and the enactment of the Bill of Rights. The Federalists had at first opposed the Bill of Rights, but the importance of amendments came into focus during the ratification process. Klarman shows that the Bill of Rights did not change the structure of the strong Federal government, as opponents had hoped, but instead were regarded at the time as soft provisions with no lasting import. History would show differently.

    If there is a single hero and main character in this study, it would be James Madison. Klarman describes his role in the Confederation period, his persistence in calling for the Convention and for focusing its agenda, his role in the ratification process, and his almost single-handed role in securing enactment of the Bill of Rights. Madison is not made an icon in this book but rather, as are the other participants, is shown as moved by day-to-day political concerns more than by political philosophy. If there is a lack of coverage in this book, it is in the scant treatment of The Federalist which receives only relatively brief, passing mentions rather than sustained treatment.

    The book is organized into eight chapters with factual discussion in the early sections of each chapter followed by more interpretive sections at the conclusion of each chapter. The book is critical but not deflationary or mocking. I came away from my reading with, I think, more sympathy and appreciation for the Federalists and their achievement in constitution-making than the author's. I learned a great deal from this massive book. It requires patience and slow reading but the effort will be rewarded by those who wish to think closely about the constitution and about the Founders.

    Robin Friedman

  2. Mark Mark says:

    The drafting and ratification of the Constitution of the United States is one of the most heavily mythologized parts of American history. For many people, what happened in Philadelphia was nothing less than a divinely-inspired blueprint for a national government, with the wise men who created it lionized as the Founding Fathers with all of the majesty implied by the use of the capital letters. Though this image has not gone unchallenged, it's endurance reflects its patriotic usefulness, an example of the national exceptionalism of which Americans are so proud.

    Michael Klarman's book offers a very different view of the creation of our nation's governing document. Drawing upon a vast range of contemporary writings, he argues that the creation of the Constitution was driven by fears for the effects of democracy on economic policy. The key concern was debt. During the American Revolution the states and the Continental Congress had accumulated an enormous amount of debt in their fight against the British. Though the United States had won the war, in its aftermath the country was plunged into a severe economic depression that exacerbated the economic problems of thousands of Americans. Pressured by high taxes to service the debts, voters in several states elected officials who pursued a variety of measures designed to ease tax burdens and make debts easier to pay off, many of which threatened to destabilize national unity.

    It was concerns over this which Klarman sees as driving the push for a new national governing structure. As he explains, the government provided in the Articles of Confederation lacked authority to address the problem, and was itself virtually prostrate from the burden of debts and the lack of any reliable means of paying them off. For many of the people behind the push for a stronger national government, the heart of the problem lay with the disproportionate power possessed by the smaller states, which enjoyed equal representation in the Confederation Congress. It was this problem which James Madison's Virginia Plan sought to address by creating a new legislature with power residing in a lower house with representation apportioned by population. His efforts to bully the delegates from the smaller states failed, though, and after a compromise was reached establishing an upper legislative house that maintained the principal of equal state representation, the desire of Madison and his allies to empower the embryonic government waned considerably. It was a fortuitous failure, though because such were the concerns of many people about the final document that even with all of the advantages the Constituion's advocates possessed, ratification was a close-run thing, with the support of the smaller states (who never would have gone along with a structure that would have diminished their representation to the degree Madison proposed) decisive to its success.

    Deeply researched and clearly argued, Klarman's book is a masterpiece of historical writing. While his argument echoes the one famously advanced by Charles A. Beard in his book An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States , Klarman makes a more convincing case by nuancing his arguments in ways that acknowledges the complex range of factors involved. Contingency is at the heart of his tale, as he shows the interplay of arguments and how decisions played off of each other in ways that determined the outcome. It makes for an origin story for the Constitution that is more akin to the grimy details of sausage making than the high-minded debates of demigods, but it is one that is truer to the reality of politics than we would like to admit. For that reason alone it is essential reading for anyone interested in learning about the history of our country's founding or how our national government came to be what it is today.

  3. Nick Van Brunt Nick Van Brunt says:

    Michael Klarman has masterfully told the remarkably serendipitous story of the framing of the Constitution, using James Madison as its protagonist. Relying heavily on primary material, but also on an extensive bibliography of secondary sources, Klarman weaves it all into a compelling narrative about the antecedent events that led to the Constitutional Convention, the Convention itself, and the intersection of luck and opportunity that led to its ratification and the subsequent Bill of Rights, and the many characters who had a hand in all or some of the foregoing. Simply put, the Federalists were both lucky and good.

    It’s not a read that one can reasonably finish over a weekend, but with slow and steady pacing, the reader might emerge with both an astonishment that such an imperfect document built in principles of compromise and competing transitory interests could be sacralized as it is today and a seemingly contradictory appreciation of its living, breathing and enduring nature, despite its rather messy origins.

    If there is a criticism, I would say that there is some necessary repetition, but also some unnecessary redundancy, which one might expect in 631 pages of text, but which an editor could have even more finely honed. That said, highly recommend this to anyone who is interested in learning (or relearning) about the genesis of the American experiment.

  4. Mark Baier Mark Baier says:

    Road to the Constitution

    We all have learned something about the constitution through school. But like many things, there is so much more to the story than the little we learn in US history classes in high school. The adoption of what we now know as the constitution was a complex undertaking, embarked on by men from different regions of the country with different needs and perspectives on what good government looks like. The Framers' Coup provides a look into the constitutional convention, the influential players, and perhaps just as importantly, each of the state ratifying conventions. A worthwhile read.

  5. Chris Damon Chris Damon says:

    I can’t imagine a more informative one-volume treatment of the reasons for the drafting of the US Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation, the issues at debate in Philadelphia over major provisions of the new Constitution, the process of ratifying the Constitution in each of the 13 states, and the reasons for the first ten amendments – the Bill of Rights. The book is very clear in its assertions, documents them, and quotes liberally from the writings and speeches of the important political actors of that time. It explains the how and why of the original US Constitution and Bill of Rights: why our federal governmental structure looks like it does and how it was intended to operate.

    The principal point emerging from the book is that absolutely nothing about the Constitution that has formed the basis of the US government for over 200 years was assured to be the way it ended up, including its very existence. Important sections of the document and specific words and mechanisms could have easily been very different. Economic interests were a big factor in the positions men took. Circumstances and luck played a role in the final outcome, as well as political shenanigans. In general, urban, coastal, educated elites favored the new Constitution, while backwoods, less-educated, rural interests in in the hinterland opposed it. But there were exceptions, especially Virginia, where many in the educated urban elite also opposed it.
    Those who wished to cure the defects of life under the Articles of Confederation ended up creating a government much more national than state-oriented in nature, and less democratic than what was happening in the states under the articles. The author argues, convincingly, that not only was the new Constitution one that bestowed much more power on the national government and was much less democratic in its features than the system it was replacing, but it was more national and undemocratic than most Americans would have preferred at the time. But it was also clear that continued existence under the Articles was not feasible, and the only option the Framers gave the people was the new Constitution as it was drafted in Philadelphia: no intermediate middle-ground system nor any conditional amendments agreed to in advance (other than what ended up being the personal liberty amendments of the Bill of Rights; but none of those amendments related to the structure of the new government.)

    I was heartened to learn that the number one divisive issue at the Philadelphia convention, reported by participants at the time to be a bigger issue than all other issues combined, was the notion of giving small states like Delaware and Rhode Island the same representation in the US Senate (2 Senators) as much more populous states like Virginia and Pennsylvania. Most of the convention delegates HATED this, and it was clearly non-democratic as it did not accurately reflect numbers of voting citizens in the various US states. But they had to swallow it as a necessary compromise to get the Constitution approved by the small states (the author does not say this, but I guess we can blame the British for establishing colonies that ended up so unequal in size and population.) Why was I heartened to learn of the widescale detestation of two senators per state? Because in my view that is one of the chief defects of our current system of federal government, and I’m glad that at least our revered Founders recognized the problem back at the beginning. Depressingly, however, the author points out that it is virtually impossible to foresee this provision of the Constitution ever being changed since the process of amending the Constitution requires supermajorities in Congress and among the states for ratification and any such amendment would always be blocked by the smaller states who would lose representation in a Senate proportioned by population as the House is.

    While I don’t regret that I had the perseverance to plow through this door-stop of a book (880 pages), I really cannot recommend it to the general reader, or frankly anyone beyond professors of Constitutional Law and federal judges, and Supreme Court Justices and their clerks. The book is a tough row to hoe. While it is written in clear and concise lawyerly prose, the writing style is very dry and wooden – like reading a very long encyclopedia article. It lacks any verve or sparkle or wit. One could make a drinking game out of the frequency of the author’s beginning a sentence with the word “Moreover.” Similar frequency is found with “Thus” and “To be sure.” It can become a little mind-numbing.

  6. Stephen Harrison Stephen Harrison says:

    This is monster-long book is incredibly well-researched and correspondingly mind-numbingly detailed. Its main argument is that the framers saw the chaos of democracy in state government in the mid-1780s, so they designed a form of government that would prevent those democratic excesses. That argument is hard to refute, given the monumental amount of primary document Klarman uses to support it. He goes issue by issue in the Constitutional Convention and then the ratification process, looking at what the various sides argued and counter-argued.

    Klarman has a second argument that he makes only relatively sparingly, but still very persuasively - we give too much reverence to the Constitution. It was written by men (admittedly extraordinarily talented men) who had their own agendas and interests. In the end, it was a compromise that satisfied no one. So we should be more willing to look into its deficiencies rather than treating it as holy scripture.

    There were some surprises for me in the book, even though I've read a fair bit on this subject already. The first was how contentious the issue of the executive was. I knew representation in Congress was a difficult issue, but the convention almost broke up over the executive as well. Another issue was in the ratification process, where the judicial branch was the most attacked.

    This is a very interesting book, but you have to be really into the subject. The details Klarman provides are more than enough to support his argument, but he was apparently going for the definitive history of the process. I would almost certainly give it five stars if it were a little more concise. But it is still worth the read, if the creation of the American form of government is something you are passionate about.

  7. Justin Evans Justin Evans says:

    To say that this book is detailed is a bit like calling the sun warm or a black hole poorly lit. Klarman (or Klarman's research associates) have read pretty much everything written by anyone important to the creation of the constitution, and have distilled it all down into one lengthy, exhausting book. Do you need to read this? I'd have to say no, unless you're doing research, or you're a junkie. For those two types of people, though, this is a goldmine: very well organized, convincing, and almost Walter Benjaminite in its willingness to tell an entire story through other people's words. It's not really that different from other interpretations, but it does give you all the evidence you'll ever need to show that the constitution and its makers probably aren't as great as everyone says.

  8. Joe Joe says:

    Covers the history of the conception and ratification of the constitution from the discontent with the Articles of Confederation to the addition of the Bill of Rights. This is the second book I've read recently that shows that petty and partisan politics are nothing new within the United States. Both the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists resorted to (or attempted to resort to) every political and procedural device they thought would work to their advantage. The author also refuses to flatten the debate over constitution into a single dimension: the reasons for support and opposition to the constitution were varied, although they were generally tied to the self-interests of the delegates and constituents.

  9. Tommy Tommy says:

    With all the views and opinions on our US Constitution and what it actually means Klarman has done a great job in describing the discussions and events surrounding the writing and ratification of our Constitution. He also the impact and contributions of Madison in the final product. Great book. Good reference for anyone wanting to know the issues and events of our early American history.

  10. Dan Cotter Dan Cotter says:

    This is an amazing book about the constitution from the need for Changes through Bill of Rights. As someone who spends a lot of time reading and writing about the constitution and its origins, even I learned some things from this very thoroughly researched and well written book. Everyone should be required to read this book especially in the current debates.