Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution

Woody Holton

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

384 Pages



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A National Book Award Finalist
A Washington Post Best Book of the Year
A Boston Globe Best Book of the YearA George Washington Book Prize Finalist Woody Holton upends what we think we know of the Constitution's origins by telling the history of the average Americans who challenged the framers of the Constitution and forced on them the revisions that produced the document we have now. The framers who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 were determined to reverse America’s post–Revolutionary War slide into democracy. They believed too many middling Americans exercised too much influence over state and national policies. That the framers were only partially successful in curtailing citizen rights is due to the reaction, sometimes violent, of unruly average Americans. 
If not to protect civil liberties and the freedom of the people, what motivated the framers? In Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, Holton writes that the primary purpose of the Constitution was to make America more attractive to investment. The linchpin to that endeavor was taking power away from the states and ultimately away from the people. In an eye-opening interpretation of the Constitution, Holton captures how the same class of Americans that produced Shays’s Rebellion in Massachusetts (and rebellions in many other states) produced the Constitution we know today.


Praise for Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution

"In his previous book, Forced Founders, [Holton] argued that Washington, Jefferson, and other members of the Colonial elite joined the Revolution in response to grassroots rebellions. With Unruly Americans, Holton carries that thesis forward to the making of the Constitution, arguing that ‘the rebellions, threats, and warnings of the postwar years’—which he explores in detail—‘cast light on the origins of the Constitution’ . . . But if that seems ungenerous to the Founding Fathers, Holton carefully builds his case that it was the tax-and-debt issue that led at least indirectly to convening the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The debts were incurred from the bonds issued to finance the Revolution—bonds that were frequently held by speculators—and the taxes were needed to pay off those debts. The insurgent farmers, Holton writes, ‘extorted substantial tax and debt relief from reluctant state legislatures.’”—Michael Kenney, The Boston Globe

"Early American historiography has sometimes suffered from a monochromatic focus on a small group of elites, as though George Washington and company invented a nation all by themselves. In Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, Woody Holton adds color to the group portrait of the Founders, and the primary color on his palette is green—the color of money . . . Through careful archival research, he documents the contribution of previously unknown Antifederalist farmers such as North Carolina's Herman Husband, and tavern keepers such as William Manning in Massachusetts, and Adonijah Mathews, James Madison's alter ego in Virginia. By so doing he broadens the historiographical picture beyond 'the leading Anti-Federalists.' Holton also corrects Charles Beard's simplistic and inaccurate characterization of the major Framers as exclusively creditors and bondholders. His book sheds new light on Abigail Adams and Madison, who, contrary to the conventional portraits of them, come off as a bond speculator and potential debtor, respectively . . . Throughout, Holton pulls no punches. Though it has a 'sinister beauty,' the Constitution's safeguards are 'insidious,' and a 'slur' on the abilities of ordinary citizens. Historians who do not share his interpretation of the Framers' motives are not merely mistaken; in 'the damage they do American civic life' they are worse than ignorant."—Jeffry H. Morrison, Regent University, The Journal of American History

“Woody Holton’s book represents a sophisticated modern attempt to resuscitate the thesis of Charles Beard’s famous Progressive-era classic, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913) . . . In his study, Holton seeks to redirect the discredited focus on the bondholding pattern among elites and turn to examine the sentiments and interests of more ordinary people, the ‘thousands of Americans who rejected the Framers’ view that the Constitution was the only way out of the economic crisis of the 1780s.’ Drawing on a rich variety of newspapers, pamphlets, and political tracts, Holton does a fine job of elucidating the conflict between the people’s desire to regain their economic footing in the aftermath of war at the same time that Congress, working through the states, attempted to impose new taxes. He shows the various ways in which complex economic problems vexed individuals, states, and the nation.”—Rosemarie Zagarri, American Historical Review

"This is an important work, sure to be extensively read, and debated. It will quickly find its way onto graduate reading lists and scholarly bibliographies. Woody Holton argues that historians have too often perpetuated the Madisonian understanding of the early 1780s: that the crisis that precipitated the federal Constitution was caused by irresponsible laws passed by state legislature that were far too responsive to popular pressures from farmers seeking tax relief . . . In forcefully rejecting the Madisonian view, Holton sides with the farmers over the framers. He joins the emerging neoprogressive view of the founding recently articulated by Terry Bouton and Michael A. McDonnell and builds on his own previous book, Forced Founders, which argued convincingly that Virginia's founding fathers were besieged elites, pressured from below in the coming of the revolution. He presents an important corrective to the Madison-centric view of the crisis of the 1780s and the notion that farmers behaved irresponsibly and governed selfishly. He also offers thoughtful and detailed discussions of the state-level debates over tax policy, paper money, and the responsiveness of government to popular sentiments."—Todd Estes, Oakland University, William and Mary Quarterly

"Woody Holton wants historians to remember Charles Beard. He also wants Americans to forget James Madison. Unruly Americans is an attempt to bust two myths: one that, polemics aside, Beard was really on to something significant in his landmark 1913 study An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, and two, that Americans have done themselves a great disservice by taking the Founding Federalists at their word that the miraculous Constitution saved the new republic from utter disaster. This unfortunate willingness to buy what Hamilton, Jay, and Madison were selling, Holton argues, has given generations of Americans 'nagging feelings' that only bad things happen 'when ordinary folk get their hands on the levers of power.' One of the chestnuts of the history of Revolutionary America is the question of just how 'critical' was the so-called 'critical period' of the 1780s? In the two hundred plus years since then there have been two main answers to this question. For Hamilton and other leading Federalists, weakness in the private and public financial structures and mismanagement by state legislatures threatened America's political union and diplomatic standing. If not fixed quickly, these problems would likely lead to internecine war. On the other hand, opponents of the Constitution at the time and historians like Charles Beard and Merrill Jensen in the twentieth century believed that the crisis of the 1780s was hardly terminal. It was a natural postwar cycle; given a bit more time the state governments under the Articles of Confederation would flourish. According to this view, the creation of a strong central government was a devious overreaction that threatened the thrust of the American Revolution. The achievement of Unruly Americans is Holton's fleshing out the other sides to this long-standing disagreement. He shows how there were voices in several states that denounced state legislatures—the same ones that the Federalists complained were too democratic—as being not popular enough. Instead of seeing the recession as the fault of the irresponsible farmers or inefficient state governments, Holton amplifies those Americans who complained that the legislatures were acting far too responsibly: by trying to pay their Revolutionary War debt quickly, they created oppressive tax schemes that crippled the economy. Also, Holton shows that the failure to raise revenue under the Articles wasn't all the farmers' fault either. Alternative methods to raise cash, such as selling western lands or closing the trade gap, were blocked by resistant Indians and the Royal Navy. Unruly Americans consistently offers Herman Husband as the anti-Alexander Hamilton.  Husband, who Holton refers to at one point as the 'Allegheny prophet', was involved in rebellion before the Revolution in North Carolina and after in Pennsylvania. He also wrote pamphlets that called for tax relief and small electoral districts to keep government close to the people and fair for all. Ordinary Americans like Husband did have a vision for justice, for the purpose of government, and what the Revolution was about. And, according to Holton, they had a significant impact on the Constitution. Making themselves heard via a range of protests from elections and petitioning to uprising and rebellions (much of which Holton argues was quite effective in redressing popular grievances) 'the people' were present at the Constitutional Convention. Without their pressure, Holton concludes, the Constitution would have been much less fair, it would not have been sent out for ratification, and there would be no Bill of Rights. Our collective perception of the Constitution as the chief protector of the underdog is wrong—those guards he reminds us rightly, come from the Bill of Rights, the document that the Framers 'did not intend to write.' We should thank Herman Husband for our freedoms, not James Madison. Unruly Americans is a must-read for all students of the Revolutionary period. It offers fresh perspectives and nuance; its conclusion—which forwards a provocative perspective between how historians treat 'the people' in the 1780s and how they used to portray African Americans during Reconstruction—is a tour-de-force."—Robert G. Parkinson, College of William & Mary, Law and History Review
"According to Holton, when most people articulate their favorite parts of the Constitution, they actually list things found in the Bill of Rights. However, the Constitution was ratified without these rights attached to it. Holton examines why the Constitution was ratified absent those rights. One explanation is that the Founders considered the states too democratic and the state legislatures too willing to appease the will of the majority. The author resurrects arguments by lesser-known political players who thought that the Union could be carried without abandoning legislative rule, and in the process he gives Charles Beard's economic interpretation a second look with surprising conclusions. State legislatures granted tax and debt relief in the years between the conclusion of the revolution and the ratification of the Constitution. Many citizens who demanded the legislature respond to their distress thought that their rebellion would bring about a democratic solution. State legislatures, absent pressure from the people, wrecked the economy. The motivation for the Constitution, therefore, is not merely based on the Founders' own self-interest—broadly felt domestic economic turmoil necessitated a more perfect Union. Recommended. General readers, all undergraduates, and researchers."—E. S. Root, West Liberty State College, Choice 

"With his superb mastery of the secondary literature, a copious mining of the relevant primary materials, and an extraordinary talent for synthesis, historian Woody Holton has written one of the most important books on the origins of the Constitution to appear in decades."—Erik J. Chaput, The Providence Journal

“You simply can't read Unruly Americans without admiring the depth of Holton’s research into the financial and political debates of this brief period in the mid-1780s. Currency depreciation, bond speculation, economic policy, the war debt: these are the subjects that the players in Holton’s story most wanted to argue about—and did argue about in the greatest detail.”—Robin Einhorn, The Nation

“Holton describes the founders’ point of view this way: ‘From the Founders’ perspective, the policies adopted by the state during the American Revolution has near driven it aground. From the Founders’ perspective, the policies adopted by state legislatures in the 1780s proved that ordinary Americans were not entirely capable of ruling themselves.’ And from here Holton goes on to very persuasively argue the farmers’ point of view as it influenced the framers’ decisions. The route he takes, thoroughly researched and beautifully plotted, breathes fresh air into what sometimes seems a stale subject . . . This is magnificent history for the history buff, the academic . . . any inquiring mind, student or lover of good research and thoughtful conclusions . . . This is a challenging book, a fun book, a work that in the final analysis proves from its chronicle of bitter dissent more about the still viable mechanics of our democracy, and its hallowed blueprint, than any hackneyed historical tribute could ever achieve.”—Mary Garrett, The Advocate (Tennessee)

"The years between 1783, when the Revolutionary War ended, and 1787, when the US Constitution was framed, were ones of fateful conflict between American debtors and creditors. Described in impressive detail by historian Woody Holton in Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, this conflict—raging in newspapers, state legislatures, and the Constitutional Convention—would help define the form of the United States government. It's an unusual lens through which to view the shaping of the US Constitution, but Holton, an associate professor of history at the University of Richmond, makes a sharply compelling case in Unruly Americans."—Chuck Leddy, The Christian Science Monitor

"Holton successfully presents a new and intriguing angle on the origins of the Constitution and gives readers a sympathetic presentation of the political arguments of those outside the elites."—Carl L. Bankston III, Magill Book Reviews

"Holton demonstrates a lucid and systematic dismantling of the myths surrounding the making of our national government. His succinct account persuasively revives the economic interpretation of the Constitution in terms well-suited for our times, and it will surely become the essential work for students of the founding era. The Constitution enabled the ascent of the United States to great political and economic power, Holton makes plain, but at a profound cost to democracy. If Americans today find our national politicians entrenched in office, out of touch with their constituents, and responsive to lobbyists for the rich, they will understand why after reading this compelling book."—Robert A. Gross, James L. And Shirley A. Draper Professor of Early American History, University of Connecticut, and author of The Minutemen and Their World

"Woody Holton reframes the coming of the Constitution, revealing the rich debate Americans conducted over the cause of capital in the new land.  In this account, real people—farmers, soldiers, taxpayers, speculators, creditors and entrepreneurs—replace images of the Founders, and intimate issues like tax fairness, economic effects, and electoral accountability matter far more than abstractions.  The result is a new and compelling history."—Christine Desan, Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

"Woody Holton invites us to revise most of what we think we know about the origins of the United States Constitution. In this account the Founding Fathers do not appear as selfless philosophers journeying to Philadelphia to explore competing theories of republican government. Rather, Holton describes them as deeply anxious men, determined to contain a surge of popular democracy that seemed to threaten their financial interests . . . Holton thus revives an economic interpretation of the Constitution and in the process reminds us that ordinary American farmers after the Revolution imagined a strikingly different nation from the one that the Founders gave us."—T.H. Breen, Director, Center for Historical Studies, Northwestern University

"The small farmer takes center stage in this defiant but scrupulously researched and documented history of the American Constitution's much-debated genesis. Economic interpretations of the document are no doubt far from rare, but University of Richmond associate professor of history Woody Holton may be the first author to attempt to dispel, for a nonacademic audience, common, antiseptic myths about the Framers' intent and, at the same time, to champion the ordinary, uneducated, and occasionally destructive citizens who, in the end, were largely unsuccessful in their position to then-privileged and now-legendary figures like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton . . . A clearly better-than-competent history."—Kenneth W. Krause, Wisconsin Lawyer

"Here is a book that helps answer the puzzle of how in 1787 the framers of the Constitution curbed what they considered 'the excess of democracy' in the states and at the same time accommodated democratic pressures. Using a vast array of little appreciated contemporary sources, Holton constructs a fresh, sinewy argument that unfolds with a mounting sense of excitement. The result is a tough, realistic way of thinking about the founders. Unruly Americans is . . . rich with insights into the American Revolution and the Constitution."—Alfred Young, author of Liberty Tree: Ordinary People and the American Revolution

"It turns out that average Americans from the 'unruly mob' had more to do with insuring the personal liberties we Americans now hold dear than did the Framers we so revere. Woody Holton's fascinating and energetic new book makes us take a fresh look at the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights. The populist underpinnings of our Republic are real, and this has clear implications for the role that citizens ought to play today in reforming American democracy. Holton's lesson: If the establishment won't change the system, the people can. They've done it from the beginning."—Larry J. Sabato, Director, Center for Politics, University of Virginia

"The motivation of the framers of our constitution is a constant and often hotly debated topic among historians. At one extreme are those who see the framers as brilliant, democratic politicians who did a masterful job of juggling competing interests while remaining true to the ideal of personal liberty. At the other extreme are the economic determinists who view the founders as members of the privileged classes, insistent upon protecting their interests from the encroachments of the masses. Holton certainly would be most comfortable in the latter camp, but his arguments here are free of dogmatism, and he offers some interesting twists on old assertions. He maintains that the delegates to the convention were attempting to limit the democratic tendencies of the individual state legislatures by curbing their powers to issue paper money and offer relief to debtors. Faced with vehement popular opposition to ratification, the Bill of Rights, Holton claims, was promised only to tip the balance in favor of ratification . . . he makes a credible case that some delegates feared the dangers of democracy."—Jay Freeman, Booklist

“Economic interpretation of the Constitution is not new, but Holton’s makes for particularly fascinating reading . . . Surprisingly compelling at every turn and awesomely researched; highly recommended.”—Library Journal (starred review)

"Is the Constitution a democratic document? Yes, says University of Richmond historian [Woody] 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 post-revolutionary 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."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Thirteen North American colonies left the British Empire in 1776, but that was not really the birth date of the American colossus. History’s wealthiest and most powerful nation-state was not actually launched until the summer of 1787, at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Revolutionaries the world over have cribbed from the Declaration of Independence, but the successful ones, those who manage to overturn the social order and establish regimes of their own, find their inspiration not in the Declaration but in the Constitution. Anyone seeking the real origins of the
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  • Woody Holton

  • Woody Holton is an associate professor of history at the University of Richmond and the author of the award-winning book Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia.
  • Woody Holton Copyright Hil Scott