A century after its iconoclastic origin in Charles A. Beard's Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, progressive history is at loose ends. The Progressive narrative posited fundamental conflict between the people as a whole and property-minded businessmen. This was a durable theme as long as a concept of national unity existed as the political context in which the people and the interests did battle. Since the 1960s, however, the demography and economics of relentless modernization have disaggregated the people into a multitude of preference-seeking racial, gender, and cultural groups, defying even the most determined effort to "imagine" a coherent national community. At the same time a post-progressive generation of scholars defended the framers' constructive republican statesmanship. Even latter day Beardians were forced to take note: Edward Countryman's has described the popular celebration of the Constitution's ratification as expressing the understanding of American society presented in Federalist 10.
Unruly Americans, by University of Richmond historian Woody Holton, is a tendentious and unapologetic neo-populist fable that dismisses the favorable view of the founders advanced in recent scholarship. A historian with "attitude," Holton aims to write the good name of the people into the story of the Constitution to show they were not simply "‘passive spectators' of the Miracle at Philadelphia." Denying that the Constitution was intended to correct the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, Holton asks: "What do we really know about the motives that set fifty-five of the nation's most prominent citizens...on the road to Philadelphia?" He does not find the answer in the writings of Anti-Federalist opponents of the Constitution on whom past Progressive historians relied. The Anti-Federalists, besides being elitist politicians at the state level, agreed with the Federalists that the national government needed to be strengthened and the public credit restored. Holton turns for political inspiration instead to uneducated farmers and ordinary Americans, a natural populist constituency whose instinctive radical democracy, he believes, is the key to understanding the founders' intent.
Holton's historical method, loosely conceived, is that of literary-social discursive analysis. In the revolutionary era an explosion of periodical literature occurred, producing "a cornucopia of documents" in which "freemen of all walks of life" were able to express their opinions. Conscious of their newly won equality as republican citizens, ordinary Americans flooded the state legislatures with petitions concerning a wide range of policy proposals. "After more than two centuries," Holton observes, "many of their ideas retain the power to stir the imagination."
Clearly Holton's historical imagination has been stirred. Articulating an ingenious populist version of original constitutional intent, he writes: "From the complex struggles of the 1780s, the Founding Fathers extracted a simple lesson: that the uneducated farmers who seized the ship of state during the American Revolution had damn near driven it aground." The Constitution's overriding purpose was to prevent this, and permanently to reduce the force and effect of radical democracy. Holton says contemporary Americans don't know this, however, because the traditional account that enshrines the Constitution and magnifies the framers has "become as powerful an institution as the Supreme Court or the Electoral College." It has given wealthy and well-educated Americans "a breezy sense of political entitlement," while having "the opposite effect on ordinary citizens, chipping away at their self-confidence."
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From the standpoint of uneducated farmers, the political condition of the country in the 1780s was good because the Revolution made America a democracy. Economic conditions were bad, however, because of a decline in productivity, loss of overseas markets, heavy public and private indebtedness, scarcity of hard currency, and high taxes. Under the Articles of Confederation Congress had no real authority and states in effect made public policy for the nation. The condition of economic distress therefore suggested the need to create a national government with authority to adopt fiscal, tax, and commercial policies for the country as a whole. This was the view of the Madison-Hamilton educated framer faction that Holton says wrote the Constitution on the premise that "ordinary Americans lacked the capacity for self-government."
Taking the part of the farmer-ordinary American faction, Holton contends that the real problem was the failure of the state legislatures to listen to the voice of the people. States imposed oppressive taxes and demanded payment in specie. They redeemed at face value war bonds bought by speculators from original farmer-soldier recipients at a fraction of their face value. Rather than grant relief, state lawmakers cracked down on debtors, whose misery and distress Holton chronicles in exacting detail. Worse still, the few who benefited from this injustice did so "not by selling goods and services in an open marketplace but by obtaining favorable policies from the government." Himself an educated populist, Holton nevertheless understands the uneducated populist mind. Blaming deliberate government policies for their distress, farmers "naturally looked to the government for redress." They demanded tax and debt relief through established political procedures. When this didn't produce results the farmer-ordinary American faction "felt compelled to play the trump card of rebellion."
Holton describes a populist mindset that appeals to the democratic virtues of emotion, passion, and fellow feeling as the basis of political action, in contrast to elitist insistence on the faculty of reason which is not equally possessed by all citizens. "Americans who favored tax and debt relief," he explains, believed "the greatest threat to proper representation came not from uneducated or overly emotional representatives, but from those who could not sympathize with the plight of their constituents." Although no explanatory political anthropology is offered, it appears that powerful emotivist tendencies, rather than rational reflection, disposed unruly Americans to regard rebellion as a legitimate policy-making "mechanism."
Imagination stirred, Holton adopts a promiscuous conception of rebellion that includes any form of refusal, disobedience, protest, resistance, or demand for redress, whether individual or collective, actual or threatened, rhetorically aggressive or physically violent. Rebellion breaks out when angry farmers burn down the county jail, declare themselves victims of great injustices, form an association refusing to pay taxes, overpower the sheriff to rescue a fellow rebel, or force the repeal of an oppressive tax by the threat of an expanding insurrection. Although Shays's Rebellion is well known in the history books, Holton claims "there were actually multiple revolts up and down the seaboard" that had a decisive effect on the course of American politics. In the Virginia backcountry alone there were 155 recorded cases in which sheriffs and deputies attempting to seize property of delinquent debtors were "kept off by force of arms." In about half the states debtors and taxpayers assaulted the county court, the symbol of government power. Holton observes: "No one could say for sure who set fire to several Virginia courthouses in the 1780s—that was what made arson so attractive."
Not that as a historical empath he cares much about it, but Holton raises an important theoretical question. The right to revolution formed the basis of the American claim to national independence. How to recognize the right of revolution, reconciling it with limited constitutional government, was a central issue in republican political theory. The untroubled inference drawn in Holton's account is that populist rebellion was a legitimate form of political action for achieving the ends of republican government. The Revolution placed government in the hands of the people. The farmer revolts expressed the conviction that the Revolution had failed to bring about the fundamental changes the people desperately desired. Holton says the populist mind "believed that sometimes a rebellion could lead to a truly democratic election." Americans seeking tax and debt relief therefore "often found that threats of rebellion could be tremendously effective." As if attesting the "rationality" of populist disorder, Holton notes that "The most organized rebellions of the 1780s were attempts to threaten violence without actually using it."
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In Holton's telling the wave of farmer-ordinary American uprisings struck fear into the minds of delegates to the Constitutional Convention, motivating them to contain radical democracy and render it politically innocuous. He claims modern Americans don't know this, however, because Convention delegates were in a "pattern of denial." They avoided express reference to agrarian rebellion and blamed the country's political troubles on the vices of the state governments. Influenced by "simple masculine pride" and reluctance to admit "they had simply replaced British imperial officials in the saddle," the framers reasoned that insurrections were nearly impossible to prevent, whereas it was "relatively easy to make government institutions less responsible to popular whimsy."
Distrust of democracy was expressed in structural devices such as the separation of powers, appointment of senators by state legislatures, and indirect election of the president. The most insidious restraints on popular influence were those "least visible in the Constitution itself." In Holton's view the principal barrier was extension of the sphere of republican government from the states to the country as a whole. By this means many of the states' most important functions were transferred to the national government. Holton asserts that by uniting Americans in a single polity, the framers divided the community into a multitude of interests and parties, making it practically impossible for "an angry populace" to control the government. In the words of a Connecticut populist, the design of the Constitution "was calculated to induce the freemen to imagine themselves at liberty, while they are destined to be allured or driven around as if impounded."
Although a majority according to historical estimates, ordinary Americans opposed to the Constitution were outmaneuvered in the ratification debate. At every step of the way Holton sees the framers combining subtlety, deception, and indirection with prudence, candor, and moderation to craft a winning strategy. Their desperate desire to curb the power of the people "forced them to drop or moderate some of their favorite restraints on grassroots influence." Shrewdly, the framers never approved an inflammatory proposal "if they could accomplish the same object using a mechanism that their fellow citizens would find easier to swallow." Almost accusatorily, Holton says the framers created a government "substantially immune to popular influence—and yet sufficiently democratic to be ratified."
Taking a broader view, however, Holton claims that the people made their mark on the Constitution. True, the "accusation of plebeian incompetence" was written "into the fabric of the nation's founding document." Nevertheless insurgent Americans' voice was heard. The "greatest compromise" in the making of the Constitution was between the framers and the American people. "In a real sense," he writes, "Americans who tilled the soil were present in the Pennsylvania state house that summer." Their opinions and just demands were expressed in the rebellions of the 1780s. Holton says that if the convention delegates "had not feared the nation's agrarian majority would reject it, they would have created a more considerably elitist document."
The framers, then, were neither cynical economic self-aggrandizers as Beard argued, nor enlightened statesmen seeking the common good as recent scholarship has depicted them. In Holton's view they were frightened aristocrats, attempting to reverse the course of democratic revolution, who "disguised their antidemocratic intentions." Holton concedes that the Constitution "offered something of value to nearly every free American" and brought economic prosperity to the nation. But it came at the enormous political cost of overthrowing rule by the people for rule by educated national elites.
Holton intends a story of hope and inspiration, not an elegiac reflection. The message of the book is that although they are no longer an uneducated majority, the people still have the right and the power, the wit and the wisdom, to govern themselves by their own devices—including rebellion and the threat of rebellion—as they see fit. By being true to their ungovernable inner self, Americans can reclaim the spirit of populist originalism so imaginatively presented in Unruly Americans. Woody Holton does not aspire to serious constitutional scholarship, but without intending it he provides an always timely reminder of the peril of popular sovereignty thinking.