cover image Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution

Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution

Woody Holton, . . Hill & Wang, $30 (370pp) ISBN 978-0-8090-8061-8

Is the Constitution a democratic document? Yes, says University of Richmond historian Holton (Forced Founders ), but not because the men who wrote it were especially democratically inclined. The framers, Holton says, distrusted the middling farmers who made up much of America’s voting population, and believed governance should be left in large part to the elites. But the framers also knew that if the document they drafted did not address ordinary citizens’ concerns, the states would not ratify it. Thus, the framers created a more radical document—“an underdogs’ Constitution,” Holton calls it—than they otherwise would have done. Holton’s book, which may be the most suggestive study of the politics of the Constitution and the early republic since Drew McCoy’s 1980 The Elusive Republic , is full of surprising insights; for example, his discussion of newspaper writers’ defense of a woman’s right to purchase the occasional luxury item flies in the face of much scholarship on virtue, gender and fashion in postrevolutionary America. Holton concludes with an inspiring rallying cry for democracy, saying that Americans today seem to have abandoned ordinary late-18th-century citizens’ “intens[e]... democratic aspiration,” resigned, he says, to the power of global corporations and of wealth in American politics. (Oct.)