- The Bill of Rights: The Fight to Secure America’s Liberties by Carol Berkin
In The Bill of Rights: The Fight to Secure America’s Liberties, Carol Berkin argues that the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution were meant to “weaken, if not crush, the continuing opposition to the new federal government” (p. 3). She emphasizes the persistent criticisms of the Constitution coming from Antifederalists such as George Mason and Richard Henry Lee of Virginia and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. They maintained that a bill of rights was necessary in order to protect the rights of the people—as well as those of the states—from the federal government. Her main point, however, is that Federalists under James Madison’s leadership co-opted the Antifederalists’ arguments and reframed them in order to undermine Antifederalist sympathies across the country. The Bill of Rights, in her view, was constructed as a defensive measure designed to limit the ability of those like Mason to roll back the powers granted to the federal government under the Constitution. Thus in Berkin’s view, Madison guided the Bill of Rights through the ratification process because he wanted to “secure the loyalty of citizens [who were] wary of their new federal government” (p. 1). He feared, in short, that if he did not appease those dissatisfied with the Constitution, the whole American experiment might go up in flames.
Unlike many political histories of this period, Berkin gives the Antifederalists as much space as they deserve. She shows how those opposed to the Constitution refused to concede defeat even after it was ratified. Antifederalists demanded a bill of rights, Berkin notes, because they continued to believe that local and state governments could promote virtue and protect individual liberties in ways that a national government could not. Their calls for a second constitutional convention demonstrated their commitment to undermining the very successes that Madison and the Federalists had recently celebrated. Berkin also illuminates the concerns of the Federalists by showing how tenuous the Federalist victory might have been if the instability that marked the era had persisted into the 1790s. She masterfully weaves that kind of historical context into her narrative, showing how the political history of the Bill of Rights was dependent on certain economic and cultural realities.
The Bill of Rights is well written, gripping, and full of wonderful anecdotes that even established scholars will enjoy. While it does not contribute as much to the historiography of the period as some of her other books, Berkin shows that she can tell a great story. This volume is therefore most useful for upper-division undergraduate classes. With less than 150 pages of [End Page 665] text, scholars will have difficulty finding a more efficient or more enjoyable history of the Bill of Rights.