It’s not every day that you read a book about American history that casts Abigail Adams as a villain. Perhaps “villain” is too strong a word, but in Unruly Americans, Woody Holton’s analysis of the origins of the Constitution, Adams appears again and again as a spokeswoman for antidemocratic elites. And not just any antidemocratic elites. The elites being attacked here were the speculators in government bonds and currency who, Holton argues, demanded, framed, defended and won the adoption of the US Constitution–for the forthright purpose of reversing the democratizing effects of the American Revolution. Abigail Adams is best known for urging husband John to “remember the ladies” in 1776, but Holton tells us about the Adams of the mid-1780s: a hardheaded businesswoman, an avid speculator and an articulate expositor of the classic shibboleth of investors that astronomical windfall profits are only their due.
Like everyone else who has ever written about the origin of the Constitution, Holton, a professor of history at the University of Richmond, sees very high stakes in how Americans look back on the politics of the 1780s. He is not so worried about the views of the relatively uninformed Americans who routinely confuse the Constitution with the Declaration of Independence. Holton points out, as historians always do, that the Constitution contains none of the Declaration’s soaring language about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” though he goes a bit further than usual in evoking the sinister character of the Constitution’s aspiration to “insure domestic tranquility.” He considers a government that is strong enough to crush popular violence to be inherently elitist, mainly because his idea of popular violence emphasizes events like Shays’s Rebellion in Massachusetts and the tradition of slave rebellions from Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment during the Revolutionary War to the Nat Turner rebellion in 1831 and John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. If Holton’s examples included the antiabolitionist riots of the 1830s, the anti-Catholic riots of the 1840s, racist pogroms like the New York City Draft Riot of 1863 and the terrorism that was so rampant in the South for a century after the Civil War (not least the lynchings), a government that could “insure domestic tranquility” might look rather better.
Holton’s real target is less the misty-eyed view of a democratic Constitution than the view of the more informed Americans–especially scholars–who agree that the Constitution was not democratic but side with the pro-Constitution Federalists anyway. In this Federalist view, the Constitution rescued the United States from an economic crisis that threatened its very survival. The causes of the economic crisis, in this telling, lay in the fact that during the mid-1780s incompetent plebeians controlled the state governments and gave their constituents what they wanted–relief from crushing taxes and onerous debts. Because nobody could discipline such “irresponsible” behavior under the feckless Articles of Confederation, the elites mobilized their considerable political and intellectual talents to replace the Articles with a better government in what was essentially a coup d’état. In this story, which Holton sees as prevailing among historians today, the Constitution was the handiwork of an energetic and talented elite who rescued the United States from democracy.
What’s dangerous about this narrative, Holton argues, is that it grants “well-to-do and well-educated Americans a breezy sense of political entitlement” while exerting “just the opposite effect on ordinary citizens, chipping away at their self-confidence.” Would that historians had such a direct impact on the public! It’s hard to believe that ordinary citizens can possibly lose their political self-confidence because of an interpretation of the history of the 1780s when there are so many more proximate problems–from Diebold voting machines to felon disenfranchisement, Bush v. Gore and the other ways majority rule has been systematically undermined in the contemporary United States.