History 233 Reading Guide

FRAMING THE NEW REPUBLIC: Federalists, Anti-Federalists, and the Constitution

  • Isaac Kramnick, “The Great National Discussion: The Discourse of Politics in 1787,” William and Mary Quarterly 3d Ser., 45.1 (1988), 3-32.   JSTOR
  • Alfred F. Young, “The Framers of the Constitution and the ‘Genius’ of the People,” Radical History Review 45 (1988), 8-18; reprinted in Sean Wilentz, ed., Major Problems in the Early Republic, 1787-1848 [1992], 53-60).  (e-reserve)
  • Further reading:  Stephen E. Patterson, "The Federalist Reaction to Shay's Rebellion," in Robert A. Gross, ed., In Debt to Shays:  The Bicentennial of an Agrarian Rebellion (1993), 101-118.  (e-reserve)
  • Jan Lewis, "'Of Every Age Sex & Condition': The Representation of Women in the Constitution," Journal of the Early Republic 15 (1995): 359-387.  (e-reserve)
  • Fun fact for casual conversation: "For Practical Workers: How Betsy Ross made a Five-Pointed Star with one Cut," Popular Science Monthly, 88.4 (April 1916), p.597.

The readings consider the efforts to craft a government and a document—The Constitution of the United States—that would create a unity out of the separate states, which both within and among themselves comprised a diversity of social, economic, political, and cultural interests, experiences, and expectations. The traditional debate about the framing of the Constitution focused on whether it was created out of a conflict or a consensus between the two sides at the convention—the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. The readings, asking those questions in a new way, offer different frameworks for understanding how the framers articulated their visions and ideals, and how the "people" responded.

Isaac Kramnick examines the "several languages of politics" and the "confusion of paradigms" that the framers brought to the discussion. What were the roots of each of these modes of discourse? How had they evolved, both separately and in combination, within the world of ideas of Americans during the revolutionary era? What did the use of these several languages allow or enable at the Constitutional Convention? What kind of document did this mixed discourse produce?

Alfred Young analyzes the influence of a third constituency in the shaping of the constitution—the "people out of doors" whose popular support the framers had to win, not only for ratification but for the implementation of the new government. What was the "genius" of the people? How did the constitution conform to that?