The drafting and ratification of the Constitution of the United States is one of the most heavily mythologized parts of American history. For many people, what happened in Philadelphia was nothing less than a divinely-inspired blueprint for a national government, with the wise men who created it lionized as the "Founding Fathers" with all of the majesty implied by the use of the capital letters. Though this image has not gone unchallenged, it's endurance reflects its patriotic usefulness, an example of the national exceptionalism of which Americans are so proud.
Michael Klarman's book offers a very different view of the creation of our nation's governing document. Drawing upon a vast range of contemporary writings, he argues that the creation of the Constitution was driven by fears for the effects of democracy on economic policy. The key concern was debt. During the American Revolution the states and the Continental Congress had accumulated an enormous amount of debt in their fight against the British. Though the United States had won the war, in its aftermath the country was plunged into a severe economic depression that exacerbated the economic problems of thousands of Americans. Pressured by high taxes to service the debts, voters in several states elected officials who pursued a variety of measures designed to ease tax burdens and make debts easier to pay off, many of which threatened to destabilize national unity.
It was concerns over this which Klarman sees as driving the push for a new national governing structure. As he explains, the government provided in the Articles of Confederation lacked authority to address the problem, and was itself virtually prostrate from the burden of debts and the lack of any reliable means of paying them off. For many of the people behind the push for a stronger national government, the heart of the problem lay with the disproportionate power possessed by the smaller states, which enjoyed equal representation in the Confederation Congress. It was this problem which James Madison's Virginia Plan sought to address by creating a new legislature with power residing in a lower house with representation apportioned by population. His efforts to bully the delegates from the smaller states failed, though, and after a compromise was reached establishing an upper legislative house that maintained the principal of equal state representation, the desire of Madison and his allies to empower the embryonic government waned considerably. It was a fortuitous failure, though because such were the concerns of many people about the final document that even with all of the advantages the Constituion's advocates possessed, ratification was a close-run thing, with the support of the smaller states (who never would have gone along with a structure that would have diminished their representation to the degree Madison proposed) decisive to its success.
Deeply researched and clearly argued, Klarman's book is a masterpiece of historical writing. While his argument echoes the one famously advanced by Charles Beard in his Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, Klarman makes a more convincing case by nuancing his arguments in ways that acknowledges the complex range of factors involved. Contingency is at the heart of his tale, as he shows the interplay of arguments and how decisions played off of each other in ways that determined the outcome. It makes for an origin story for the Constitution that is more akin to the grimy details of sausage making than the high-minded debates of demigods, but it is one that is truer to the reality of politics than we would like to admit. For that reason alone it is essential reading for anyone interested in learning about the history of our country;s founding or how our national government came to be what it is today.