Michael Klarman is Kirkland & Ellis Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. This interview is based on his new book, The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution (Oxford University Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write The Framers’ Coup?
MK: I have been interested in the Founding for a long time because I teach a few weeks on the making of the US Constitution in my Constitutional History class. There is no one-volume history of the entire Founding period—from the flaws in the Articles of Confederation, through the conflict over monetary and fiscal policy in the states in the mid-1780s, through the Philadelphia convention, the state ratifying conventions, the intellectual and political struggles between the Federalists and Antifederalists, and the making of the Bill of Rights (which, of course, was added a couple of years later). My initial idea was to write a short volume for the Oxford University Press series on inalienable rights. But as I got into the primary sources, the book got longer and longer, mainly because I thought there was some virtue to being comprehensive if this was to be the “go-to” one-volume history of the topic.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Framers’ Coup?
MK: In two sentences, here’s the argument: The Framers wrote a constitution that was more nationalist (that is, shifting power from the state level to the federal level) and democracy-constraining than most Americans expected or wanted. I see myself as addressing a two-part puzzle: (a) Why was the Philadelphia convention so unrepresentative of opinion in the nation; (b) how did they convince the country, in a fairly democratic (for the time) ratifying process, to approve a document that was so constraining of populist influence on the national gov’t?
JF: Why do we need to read The Framers’ Coup?
MK: I think anyone who is interested in the making of the document that still frames our system of government today would be interested in this book. People will be surprised, I think, to realize how much the ratifying contest resembles ordinary politics as we still experience it today: people pursuing their own narrow interests, attacking the character of their adversaries, engaging in political shenanigans, etc. And there are lots of colorful stories about some of the characters we identify as our most prominent Founding figures: Washington, Hamilton, Madison, Patrick Henry, etc.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
MK: So I am more of a law professor than a historian. I’ve taught in law schools—first the University of Virginia and then Harvard since 2008—for thirty years. I only got interested in history after law school. I spent three years in Oxford doing a D.Phil. in British labor/labor law history. When I started teaching at U VA Law School in 1987, I got interested in Constitutional Law and then Constitutional History. And both my teaching and my scholarship ever since have been in those areas. I mostly teach and write about how the Supreme Court in American history has tended to reflect the sociopolitical context of its times and how the Court’s decisions, in turn, affect that sociopolitical context.
JF: What is your next project?
MK: I’m going to take a year or two off from writing. Then I will probably tackle one of two projects, or perhaps both. I’ve always wanted to write a book about the history of race in America as told through the lens of baseball (and perhaps other sports). That would marry two of my great passions in life: race and baseball (I am a huge Red Sox fan). The other project would be a book on the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, taking a detailed look at how they were enacted, what people thought they would accomplish, and how they have been interpreted by courts over time.
JF: Thanks, Michael!