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2007 National Book Award Finalist, Nonfiction
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Photo © Hil Scott
Woody Holton
Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution
Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus & Gioux

About the Book and Author

Altering what we think we know of the Constitution’s origins, Holton tells the history of the average Americans who challenged the framers of the Constitution and forced on them the revisions that produced the document we now venerate.

Woody Holton is an associate professor at the University of Richmond, where he teaches early American history, and his previous book, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia, garnered much praise from the academic community. His work has been included in the Organization of American Historians’ Best American History Essays 2006, and his articles and reviews have appeared in American Historical Review, Journal of American History, Reviews in American History, William and Mary Quarterly, Journal of Southern History, among others.

Before he went into teaching, Holton directed numerous campaigns and was founding director of the environmental advocacy group “Clean Up Congress.” He now lives in Virginia with his wife, Dr. Gretchen Schoel, and their daughter, Beverly.

Suggested Links

Richmond Research Institute

Excerpt from Unruly Americans and the Origin of the Constitution by Woody Holton

Copyright © 2007 by Woody Holton. Published in October 2007 by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

Thirteen North American colonies left the British Empire in 1776, but that was not really the birth date of the American colossus. History’s wealthiest and most powerful nation-state was not actually launched until the summer of 1787, at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Revolutionaries the world over have cribbed from the Declaration of Independence, but the successful ones, those who manage to overturn the social order and establish regimes of their own, find their inspiration not in the Declaration but in the Constitution. Anyone seeking the real origins of the United States must begin by asking why it was that, scarcely a decade after the free inhabitants of thirteen British colonies proclaimed each of them an autonomous state, they decided to meld those thirteen sovereignties together and launch an empire of their own.

Today politicians as well as judges profess an almost religious reverence for the Framers’ original intent. And yet what do we really know about the motives that set fifty-five of the nation’s most prominent citizens—men like George Washington, Ben Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton—on the road to Philadelphia? The Framers’ motivations remain nearly as obscure today as they were that muggy summer of 1787, when the Constitutional Convention delegates voted to maintain the strictest secrecy—and thwarted eavesdroppers by keeping the fetid chamber’s doors and windows closed and latched.

High school textbooks and popular histories of the Revolutionary War locate the origins of the Constitution in the nasty conflicts that kept threatening to tear the federal convention apart—and in the brilliant compromises that, again and again, brought the delegates back together. Should every state have the same number of representatives in Congress, or should representation be weighted in favor of the more populous ones? Solution: proportional representation in the House of Representatives and state equality in the Senate. Should the national government be allowed to abolish the African slave trade? Solution: yes, but not until 1808. In apportioning congressional representation among the states, should enslaved Americans be considered people, giving their owners bonus representatives? What about in allocating the tax burden among the states—should slaves be counted as people there? Solution to both controversies: count each slave as three-fifths of a person.

Excerpted from Unruly Americans and the Origin of the Constitution by Woody Holton. Copyright © 2007 by Woody Holton. Published in October 2007 by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.


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