As his title suggests, Michael J. Klarman, who is a Harvard law professor, believes that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 engineered a nationalistic and anti-democratic "coup" that probably did not represent majority national sentiment, despite [End Page 663] ample flaws in the existing Articles of Confederation. Klarman devotes his opening two chapters to describing these flaws and the economic chaos they bred; two chapters to the deliberations at the convention, the second focusing on issues involving slavery; and single chapters to the anti-federalists, the state ratifying conventions, the adoption of the Bill of Rights, and a conclusion.
The central strength of this book is its deep familiarity with primary sources, which Klarman constantly quotes; citations of secondary sources are far more limited. Klarman's narrative of the convention focuses chiefly on the creation of individual institutions, like Congress and the presidency, and on issues—most prominently slavery—rather than on the chronological progression of the proceedings. Despite Mary Bilder's recent claims in Madison's Hand (2015) that Madison doctored his notes, Klarman relies constantly on them. They remain highly credible because they are so detailed and because they so ably show how individual speeches and debates reflected multiple perspectives and led to specific outcomes.
Klarman's central theme is close to that developed in Gordon Wood's classic The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787 (1969). In addition, the sheer length of The Framer's Coup makes it unlikely to capture the market for shorter, more focused narratives of the convention like David Stewart's Plain, Honest Men (2010) or Clinton Rossiter's 1787: The Grand Convention (1966). Klarman focuses far more attention on James Madison than on any of the other delegates, often resorting to long footnotes, which would be particularly disconcerting to general readers, to describe other major characters.
Klarman highlights the anti-democratic features of the Constitution, which include the perpetuation of slavery, the Electoral College, and equal state representation in the Senate, but I think it is more accurate to describe the convention as representative, or republican, than as anti-democratic. Under the Articles of Confederation, state legislatures chose delegates to a single house of Congress; no president represented the national will; and independent federal courts [End Page 664] were nonexistent. The Articles more democratically represented state interests, but its government was far more parochial than the government established by the new Constitution and was far more difficult to amend. Convention procedures were secret, but the procedures for ratifying the document were far more democratic than the congressional drafting and state legislative ratification of the Articles.
Although he does not cite him, Klarman's argument that the ratification process focused far more on local issues than on matters of constitutional theory differs from Bruce Ackerman's view in We the People, Volume 1: Foundations (1991) that the people were engaging in a grand "constitutional moment." Although Klarman rightly stresses the elements of compromise and contingency that were involved in both the writing and ratification of the Constitution, I believe that he underestimates its overall republican coherence.
Klarman's informative chronological discussion of the ratifying process within individual states in chapter six is far easier to read than some of the longer tomes on the subject but might test the patience of those who have read almost four hundred pages before getting there. I found myself drawing parallels between Klarman's description of anti-federalists and modern-day Trump supporters. Klarman's presentation of Madison as the mastermind of the Bill of Rights, who sought to avoid either major structural changes or the possibility of a second convention, is solidly in the mainstream of current scholarship on the subject and further highlights Madison's important role.
In short, despite some minor shortcomings, Klarman offers a lot of book for the money. [End Page 665]
JOHN R. VILE is a professor of political science and dean of the University Honors College at Middle...