Book Review: Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution

Unruly AmericansWoody Holton. Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007.

Woody Holton’s Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution should be a work of interest for scholars of the American Constitution and all that surrounds it, as well as students of early American history who have a solid bit of background already.  His argument appears to be twofold: that the delegates sent to Philadelphia to draft and revise the Constitution did so to create less of a democracy, taking direct power away from the people and thus forming a republic, but it was also because of the demonstration of power from the populace through rebellions against the states’ taxes and repayment demands.  Thus, as a result of these uprisings the Framers of the Constitution took a finite amount of power, especially financial power to extract tax from citizens, from the states and placed it in the central government.  Essentially, for about ten years, the newly formed United States had a true democracy with limited power in the central government until they discovered this democracy was a losing game financially and that “the American Revolution had gone too far” leading to “an excess of democracy” (5).

Holton takes an interesting look at the class issue through his economic argument surrounding the framing of the Constitution, bringing the common man into the Pennsylvania courtroom with the elite men.  He often stakes a case against the Framers, basically labeling them as members of the elite class with anti-democratic sentiments when they stepped into that courtroom to impact the future of the nation.  However, at the same time, Holton paints a painful picture between the creditors and debtors and the fate of the nation with the state governments’ failure to pressure people into paying their debts, both those to their creditors and those to the state.  Everyone was acting in their own self interest, including many of the Framers who were also credit holders to these farmers in rebellion. My impression is that the Framers and Holton were arguing that had they not drafted and proposed the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the United States would have been headed for civil war with outcome unknown.  The sense of the populace rising against being supposedly outrageously taxed by their own state echoes some of the arguments against the Crown prior to the Revolution.

I think much of Holton’s argument surrounding the creditors and debtors still rings true today, as he notes briefly around the Civil War in his epilogue.  The rhetoric of the elite claiming that the farmers “were responsible for their own predicament” sounds much like claims on those discussing the classic stereotype of the “welfare mom” or seniors on Medicaid or Social Security who did not save enough money (53).  Also, the belief that many Americans hold regarding the men and women in government positions come from an elite class who form the laws to govern and hold the lower and middle classes back.  Likewise the claim that people were being overtaxed is still a war cry today in every election in every state, but especially the presidential election.


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