Power  /  Book Review

Were the Framers Democrats?

Review of The Framers' Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution, by Michael J. Klarman.
Junius Brutus Stearns/Wikimedia

Michael Klarman’s magisterial book has two central goals. The first is to de-deify the framers of the United States Constitution – to demonstrate that they were practical men, “not demigods; they had interests, prejudices, and moral blind spots. They could not foresee the future, and they made mistakes” (p. 5). And while Klarman greatly admires the framers, his second goal is to show that they were elitists, in a sense even aristocrats, skeptical about the very idea of popular sovereignty.

James Madison, the father of the Constitution, thought that “the people could not be trusted to intelligently rule themselves” (p. 4). Klarman urges that committed to this belief, the framers undertook a kind of coup, and it was anything but a democratic one. The framers believed in “the natural aristocracy of virtue, talent, and education – men like themselves” (p. 600). They were affirmatively hostile to democracy (p. 606). Their invocation of popular sovereignty was strategic, not sincere. More particularly, “the Constitution was designed in part to block legislation for tax and debt relief,” and therefore “represented a victory for one party in a debate that genuinely had two sides” (p. 5). Modern Americans are entitled to hold the framers in the highest regard, but they should not revere them, or refrain from asking about the inconsistency of their handiwork “with our basic (democratic) political commitments.”

The Framers’ Coup might well be the best book ever written on the founders and their handiwork. With impressive, even loving detail, and mostly emphasizing historical facts rather than his own opinions, Klarman conjures up the framers’ whole world – their despair about the breakdown of governance under the Articles of Confederation; their acute fear, in 1786-1787, that the union was on the verge of disintegrating; the perceived risk of a return to monarchy; the dubious legality, questionable legitimacy, and sheer ballsiness of their decision to abandon the Articles altogether; the piercing intelligence of Madison, that big brain with the astonishing work ethic, without whom almost certainly no constitution, and certainly no bill of rights.