The Framers’ Coup


The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution

By Michael J. Klarman 2016

About the Author

Michael J. Klarman is an American legal historian and scholar of constitutional law and the Kirkland & Ellis Professor at Harvard Law School. 

About the Book

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.

The following is a synopsis of the book’s content: 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 such as 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  Constitutional Convention almost didn’t happen, and once it happened, it almost failed. Even after the convention succeeded, the Constitution it produced almost failed to be ratified.  The upper class overwhelmingly supported the Constitution; many working class colonists were more dubious. 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. In terms of substance, The Constitution was a significant departure from the more democratic state constitutions of the 1770s. The Framers’ Coup explains why the Framers preferred such a constitution and how they managed to persuade the country to adopt it. 

I paraphrase from the Preface and Acknowledgments with the following: many books have been written on the Founding Story viz. the flaws in the Articles of Confederation, the conflicts over fiscal and monetary policy in the states in the mid- 1780s, the contrasting ideas and interests of the Federalists and Anti-federalists, the campaign for ratification of the Constitution, and, finally, the enactment of the Bill of Rights. Then Klarman says, “Yet it seemed to me that the absence of a single volume telling the entire story of the Founding between two covers was a gap that might be usefully filled.”

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Woody Holton, Bancroft Prize winner and author of Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution says, “The Framers’ Coup is the first comprehensive account of the entire struggle for the United States Constitution, from the inception of the amalgamating impulse in the early 1780s all the way through to the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791. A lot of us who write books about the Constitution are about to see our royalties trail off, because Michael Klarman, in a brisk narrative, deftly summarizes all the major interpretations in developing his own provocative and persuasive take. I for one will take my lumps, because this book is a beaut.”

Louis Michael Seidman, Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Constitutional Law, Georgetown University Law Center says, “At last, we have a definitive account of the entire Framing period. Klarman has brought to the task the narrative skill and situation sense of a historian, the attention to detail and language of a lawyer, and the wisdom and insight of the great scholar that he is.”

This book’s popularity is demonstrated in the fact that its Amazon rank is #284 in the “Constitutional Law” category. There, 138 Customer Reviews rate it an average of 4 out of 5 stars.