Melvin Yazawa. Contested Conventions: The Struggle to Establish the Constitution and Save the Union, 1787-1789. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016. 312 pp. $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4214-2026-4.
Reviewed by Kevin Butterfield (University of Oklahoma) Published on H-Early-America (April, 2018) Commissioned by Joshua J. Jeffers (Middle Tennessee State University)
Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=49891
Melvin Yazawa, a distinguished historian of the American Revolution and the early American republic and now professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico, has produced a valuable book. He has added to the voluminous literature on the making of the Constitution with a provocative and efficient account of the process by which the Constitution was both framed and ratified. Yazawa covers both topics—ones that might be and often are addressed in separate, sizeable volumes—in a manner that is selective but thorough: the book, coming in at fewer than three hundred pages, is impressively slim, clear in its argument, and accessible for general readers and advanced undergraduates taking courses on the founding.
The year 2016 actually saw two authors attempt this sort of comprehensive account of both the framing and the ratification of the Constitution: Yazawa’s Contested Conventions was followed three months later by Harvard law professor Michael J. Klarman’s The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution. Klarman’s book is by far the longer (at 865 pages, it is nearly three times as long as Yazawa’s book), and it too is tremendously inclusive. Both books go beyond 1789 to also include accounts of the drafting and ratification of the Bill of Rights. And the parallels between the two books do not stop there. Both have two chapters devoted to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, split exactly the same way: a chapter on the challenges posed by the issue of slavery and a chapter on everything else. Both are deeply informed by the historiographic trends of the past generation, though Yazawa accentuates the unionist interpretation of scholars like David Hendrickson where Klarman’s emphasis is more emphatically and aggressively neo-Progressive. (Indeed, the title of each book is clear about the interpretive angle found within.) And both, of course, draw heavily from and are unimaginable without the remarkable work of the ongoing Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution project, edited by John P. Kaminski and others, which has just published its twenty-ninth volume, Ratification of the Constitution by the States: Confederation Congress and Vermont (2017).
But there is an essential point of distinction between the two accounts that might be most revealing of what Yazawa has produced. Klarman describes his main goal as being to “demythify” the founding generation, sure that the framers’ “deep distrust of the people” along with their “interests, prejudices, and moral blind spots” had led them and those who supported the Constitution’s ratification to work hard to produce a flawed and self-interested document. While there is nothing patently hagiographic in Contested Conventions, Yazawa leans the other way. He emphasizes not the ways of thinking that divided Federalists from many if not most of the American people but rather those attitudes and anxieties that they shared. Most crucially, this included the fear of disunion and an all-pervading sense of crisis through much of the 1780s. Yazawa takes it for granted that his readership is more than aware that the framers and supporters of the Constitution were both mortal and flawed, and he does not hesitate to point out many of their limitations. And he of course devotes nearly the entire book to situating their views on how to preserve the republic into the context of the real-world problems of the late eighteenth century. There is no mythologizing here. But he is also more than willing to see their accomplishments as truly extraordinary, to see their own priorities of avoiding disunion and civil war as worthy goals that help us to understand, if not excuse, the compromises—particularly on the issues of slavery and representation—that ultimately allowed them to produce a plan to save the union. This willingness to admire, but to do so in a qualified, contextualized way, informs the entire volume.
In fact, Yazawa introduces the book with an observation made by a recently elected John F. Kennedy, who in 1961 mulled over the unlikely existence of the “great geniuses of the eighteenth century” in a “backwoods country” like the young United States (p. xiv). What prompted Kennedy to make this point to Gore Vidal, Yazawa tells us, was that he looked all around himself in the world of American politics, at “all these great movers and shakers,” and “the thing” that he was “most struck by the lot of them is how second-rate they are” (pp. xiv, xv). And Yazawa establishes that there is much to be impressed by in the work of these framers and defenders of the Constitution of 1787. But he makes the point without glossing over flaws and, what is perhaps even more impressive, without repeating overly familiar anecdotes that can sometimes, even inadvertently, bring a saintly aura to the nation’s founding era. In Yazawa’s book, Ben Franklin never tells someone that he and his fellow conventioneers had just produced “a republic, if you can keep it,” and he never once ponders whether the sun on the back of George Washington’s chair is rising or setting. And yet Yazawa’s accounts of the tumultuous proceedings of the Philadelphia Convention and of the Massachusetts ratifying debates, for example, are full of drama and personality, and both are usefully distilled to bring out the key issues.
Because this book attempts to grapple with the ins and outs of multiple contested conventions, ranging from Philadelphia in 1787 to the much-belated effort of North Carolinians to ratify the Constitution and join the union in late 1789, Yazawa is right to be selective and to work hard to make the text manageable for the reader trying to comprehend multilayered, complicated debates. He does not cover all thirteen states, instead emphasizing particularly important and revealing ratification contests, with Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York given the most attention. And throughout an introduction, six chapters, an epilogue, and an insightful appendix titled “The Perils of Originalism,” Yazawa never fails to break the text into bite-size, teaching-friendly chunks. Each chapter is broken into an average of sixteen (!) sections, some no longer than a page or two, with headings ranging from the boring but helpful (“Virginia Plan,” “Melancton Smith’s Second Motion”) to the provocative (“We Are Now at a Full Stop,” “They Beat Us with Our Own Weapons”).
All in all, Yazawa’s book is a much-appreciated and reliable effort to condense the complicated series of debates, political maneuvers, and theoretical musings that produced the United States Constitution. The book does not replace the separate and more complete accounts by Richard Beeman (Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution ) on the Philadelphia Convention and by Pauline Maier (Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 ), which remain for me the definitive accounts. But it is not intended to replace them. Contested Conventions stands on its own as a short but highly effective account of the founding generation’s constitutional efforts to preserve the union.
Citation: Kevin Butterfield. Review of Yazawa, Melvin, Contested Conventions: The Struggle to Establish the Constitution and Save the Union, 1787-1789. H-Early-America, H-Net Reviews. April, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=49891This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.