Mount Vernon welcomes author Michael J. Klarman to the Robert H. and Clarice Smith Theater to discuss his book The Framers' Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution on Tuesday, April 11, 2017.

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About the Book

Americans revere their Constitution. However, most of us are unaware how tumultuous and improbable the drafting and ratification processes were. As Benjamin Franklin keenly observed, any assembly of men bring with them "all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests and their selfish views." One need not deny that the Framers had good intentions in order to believe that they also had interests. Based on prodigious research and told largely through the voices of the participants, Michael Klarman's The Framers' Coup narrates how the Framers' clashing interests shaped the Constitution--and American history itself.

The Philadelphia convention could easily have been a failure, and the risk of collapse was always present. Had the convention dissolved, any number of adverse outcomes could have resulted, including civil war or a reversion to monarchy. Not only does Klarman capture the knife's-edge atmosphere of the convention, he populates his narrative with riveting and colorful stories: the rebellion of debtor farmers in Massachusetts; George Washington's uncertainty about whether to attend; Gunning Bedford's threat to turn to a European prince if the small states were denied equal representation in the Senate; slave staters' threats to take their marbles and go home if denied representation for their slaves; Hamilton's quasi-monarchist speech to the convention; and Patrick Henry's herculean efforts to defeat the Constitution in Virginia through demagoguery and conspiracy theories.

The Framers' Coup is more than a compendium of great stories, however, and the powerful arguments that feature throughout will reshape our understanding of the nation's founding. Simply put, the Constitutional Convention almost didn't happen, and once it happened, it almost failed. And, even after the convention succeeded, the Constitution it produced almost failed to be ratified. Just as importantly, the Constitution was hardly the product of philosophical reflections by brilliant, disinterested statesmen, but rather ordinary interest group politics. Multiple conflicting interests had a say, from creditors and debtors to city dwellers and backwoodsmen. The upper class overwhelmingly supported the Constitution; many working class colonists were more dubious. Slave states and nonslave states had different perspectives on how well the Constitution served their interests.

Ultimately, both the Constitution's content and its ratification process raise troubling questions about democratic legitimacy. The Federalists were eager to avoid full-fledged democratic deliberation over the Constitution, and the document that was ratified was stacked in favor of their preferences. And in terms of substance, the Constitution was a significant departure from the more democratic state constitutions of the 1770s. Definitive and authoritative, The Framers' Coup explains why the Framers preferred such a constitution and how they managed to persuade the country to adopt it. We have lived with the consequences, both positive and negative, ever since.

About the Author

Professor Michael J. Klarman is the Kirkland & Ellis Professor at Harvard Law School, where he joined the faculty in 2008.  He received his B.A. and M.A. (political theory) from the University of Pennsylvania in 1980, his J.D. from Stanford Law School in 1983, and his D. Phil. in legal history from the University of Oxford (1988), where he was a Marshall Scholar.  After law school, Professor Klarman clerked for the Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit (1983-84).  He joined the faculty at the University of Virginia School of Law in 1987 and served there until 2008 as the James Monroe Distinguished Professor of Law and Professor of History. 

Klarman has also served as the Ralph S. Tyler, Jr., Visiting Professor at Harvard Law School, Distinguished Visiting Lee Professor of Law at the Marshall Wythe School of Law at the College of William & Mary, Visiting Professor at Stanford Law School, and Visiting Professor at Yale Law School. 

Klarman has won numerous awards for his teaching and scholarship, which are primarily in the areas of Constitutional Law and Constitutional History.  In 2009 he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Klarman’s first book, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality, was published by Oxford University Press in 2004 and received the 2005 Bancroft Prize in History.  He published two books in the summer of 2007, also with Oxford University Press: Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Movement and Unfinished Business: Racial Equality in American History, which is part of Oxford’s Inalienable Rights series.  In 2012, he published From the Closet to the Altar: Courts, Backlash, and the Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage. He is currently working on a revisionist history of the Founding.

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