Michael J. Klarman, Kirkland and Ellis Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, spoke about the contributions he hopes to make in his new book on the creation and ratification of the U.S. Constitution, how the U.S. Constitution differs from most people’s expectations, and how the Federalists managed to get it ratified.
Klarman opened the talk with an explanation of why he wrote his new book, “The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution.” He noted that there are many excellent books on the Constitution, but “no one has written a comprehensive account from the Articles of Confederation ... to the Bill of Rights,” he said.
Another contribution he thinks his book has made is his method of writing, which tells the story through the voices of the participants, adding vibrancy to the work.
“It allows readers to see for themselves if they agree with my interpretation,” he said.
According to Klarman, his final contribution is adding a sharper edge to an not-novel interpretation “that the constitution was a conservative counter revolution against force of equality and distribution that was set in motion by the revolution.”
Klarman moved on to discuss two ways in which the Constitution differs from our expectations. First, he said, the Constitution was very nationalizing.
“National government had virtually unconstrained power on taxation,” he said. “Congress went from having no taxing power to unlimited taxing power.”
Other examples mentioned to demonstrate the Constitution’s nationalizing power were the implied powers, or the Necessary and Proper Clause, and mechanisms for enforcing federal supremacy, such as the Supreme Court and a substantive provision of law that would constrain states from making paper money laws.
According to Klarman, the second way in which the Constitution differs from our expectations is that it was anti-populist.
The Constitution was meant to “suppress populist economic relief efforts,” he said. Many delegates to the Constitutional Convention wanted longer terms in office, and some even proposed lifetime tenure for the President. The framers adopted indirect elections, whereby the House of Representatives was the only body to be directly elected. For this reason, Klarman said, they created a very small House of Representatives — only 65 people.
Klarman next addressed the question of how the framers managed to make the Constitution so nationalizing and anti-populist. To answer this, he said one needed to understand why Federalists were overrepresented at the Constitutional Convention. State legislators chose the delegates and these delegates were the well-educated, reputable elite.
“By virtue of picking the most famous people around, they introduced a bias,” he said.
Another reason for the lack of anti-Federalist support at the convention was that there was no reason to mobilize in advance, because they had no way of knowing what the convention would be like. What made the convention so revolutionary, he said, was the background work of James Madison.
“He sat down in advance and spent months working through the problems in the Articles of Confederation,” Klarman said. Madison also brought delegates from Virginia to Philadelphia early and began working on what would be known as the Virginia Plan, which set the stage for all future alterations.
Other reasons the Federalists succeeded at the Convention included anti-Federalists leaving the Convention early, turning down appointments, and closing doors at the Convention, which disabled political opponents from rallying forces.
Klarman concluded by noting factors that allowed the framers to get the country to approve, through a democratic process, a document that constrained democracy and the people’s influence on government.
He first noted that ratification nearly failed. In Virginia, for example, the Constitution was ratified with a narrow 89 to 79 vote.
To explain how the Federalists ended up winning the battle, Klarman pointed to malapportionment, the advantageous geographical distribution of Federalist attitudes in cities and on the Eastern seaboard and miscalculations by their opponents. He also noted that “the better sort” overwhelmingly supported the Constitution.
At the Convention, “anti-Federalists could not compete with those who could quote Cicero in the original Latin,” he said.
Klarman ended by describing the creation of the Constitution as a “coup against public opinion.”
He took questions from the audience and signed books after concluded his talk.
The lecture took place on Tuesday, Dec. 6 at 4:30 p.m. in 101 McCormick Hall. The talk, part of the Program in Law and Public Affairs’ Hot-Off-the-Press Book Talk Series, was co-sponsored by the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions and the Program in American Studies.