In September, 1784, a deputy sheriff in South Carolina attempted to serve debtor Hezekiah Maham with a writ ordering him to answer a debt collection lawsuit filed by his creditor. "Maham did not simply refuse the writ," writes historian Woody Holton, "he made the deputy eat it, graciously supplying him a beverage to wash it down."
The years between 1783, when the Revolutionary War ended, and 1787, when the US Constitution was framed, were ones of fateful conflict between American debtors and creditors. Described in impressive detail by historian Woody Holton in Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, this conflict – raging in newspapers, state legislatures, and the Constitutional Convention – would help define the form of the United States government.
It's an unusual lens through which to view the shaping of the US Constitution, but Holton, an associate professor of history at the University of Richmond, makes a sharply compelling case in "Unruly Americans" (recently nominated for a 2007 National Book Award.) And as Holton makes clear, at that time concerns about debt collection were more than justified.
"Unruly" debtors across the nation took up arms and closed courthouses, thereby suspending debt collections and foreclosures. In Massachusetts, the most infamous uprising occurred in 1786 when an army of indebted farmers led by Daniel Shays (a Revolutionary War vet) closed courthouses throughout the western part of the state. Although Shays's Rebellion was ultimately suppressed, it alarmed creditors everywhere.
Then, as now, wars soaked up national treasure and created financial burdens. The 1780s witnessed a debt crisis, as farmers feared foreclosure, while creditors feared nonpayment. Holton describes how both groups dealt with the conflict as individuals, collectively, and through demands for governmental action.
Debtors didn't just rely on armed opposition. Much to the horror of men like James Madison and George Washington, they also successfully lobbied their state legislatures for debt relief. Under the national "Articles of Confederation," states held nearly all power over debt and taxation. States could, and did, pass laws mandating the issuance of paper money, allowing strapped debtors to pay back their creditors with rapidly depreciating currency. Many states also allowed debtors to pay with property or labor.
With calls for debtor relief spreading in the states, creditors sought to strike back against the "mobocracy" of governments such as Rhode Island's, which passed paper-money legislation that forced creditors to accept worthless state currency. Holton describes the US Constitution itself as the high point of the 1780s creditor backlash: "From the Founders' perspective, the policies adopted by the state legislatures in the 1780s proved that ordinary Americans were not entirely capable of ruling themselves."
Holton shows that the Framers' focus on protecting the security of creditors turned into an effective, antidemocratic, assault on the powers of state legislatures. The states, with their "overindulgence" of the grievances of debtors, could not be trusted. The Constitution eliminated the power of the states to issue paper money or otherwise interfere with private contracts. These restrictions on state power, notes Holton, provided the real reason for the 1787 Philadelphia Convention.
The Founders' suspicion of unrestricted democracy didn't stop with state debt-relief laws, notes Holton: "No law that passed the one elected branch, the House of Representatives, would take effect without the approval of the indirectly chosen Senate. The president, who would also not be elected directly by the voters, could block any legislation that failed to garner the support of two-thirds of both houses."
Ultimately, with the new Constitution ratified and state legislatures restricted, creditors felt safe entering into new contracts or lending money. So did foreign investors looking to profit in building the nation's economy.
In Holton's view, traditional interpretations of the origins of the Constitution are too simplistic. "[T]he multifaceted, intertwined crises that beset the United States in the wake of the Revolutionary War do not prove what both the Framers and their historians have so often taken them to prove: that the reins of government reside most safely in the hands of the few."
The author's irreverent approach to the Framers, backed by his breathtaking amount of scholarly research on the debt crisis of the 1780s, should provoke much-needed discussion among historians about the economic background of the Constitution.