Introduction

The timing of Professor Michael Klarman’s The Framers’ Coup is fortuitous. Under a never-used constitutional provision,1 twenty-eight states have asked for a convention to write a balanced budget amendment.2 Should six more states ask for a convention, presumably Congress will call one. Such a convention could lead to a simple amendment on this issue. But it could also lead to a full-blown attempt to rewrite the Constitution. Klarman’s book is an important contribution to this conversation. While I disagree with some of Klarman’s arguments, if we have a new constitutional convention, this book—along with Professor Richard Beeman’s elegant Plain, Honest Men3—ought to be required reading for every delegate.

Klarman’s mammoth book is reminiscent of Professor Charles Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States.4 Like Beard, Klarman has a conspiratorial tone. His title—The Framers’ Coup—implies that James Madison and company stole liberty and self-government from the American people. Beard sought to discredit the Constitution (and by implication, Supreme Court decisions) during the Lochner era. Like Beard, Klarman argues that the Framers ignored populist sentiments and that ratification was the result of “calculations of material interest” (p 615). Beard’s Framers were motivated by narrow economic self-interest, while Klarman sees the Convention as a coup and ratification as a result of “interest-based thinking” (p 615).

This Review challenges Klarman’s argument that the Philadelphia Convention was essentially an antidemocratic coup that produced a document that ran counter to the wishes of the American people. Klarman and I agree the Constitution of 1787 was deeply flawed. However, unlike Klarman, I argue many of these flaws stem from the nationalists’ inability to overcome populist opposition to democratic values, and thus the Constitution’s flaws result from the very populism that Klarman embraces. Rather than a coup, I argue that the Constitution was an incomplete and imperfect revolutionary transformation that gave most voters the political, economic, and diplomatic stability they wanted and the military security they needed.

  • 1. See US Const Art V.
  • 2. See Michael Leachman and David A. Super, States Likely Could Not Control Constitutional Convention on Balanced Budget Amendment or Other Issues (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Jan 18, 2017), archived at http://perma.cc/3XWW-N7CC (arguing that “[a] convention held today could set its own agenda” with “no guarantee that a convention could be limited to a particular set of issues”).
  • 3. See generally Richard Beeman, Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution (Random House 2009).
  • 4. See generally Charles A. Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (Macmillan 1913).