From Parchment to Power

Written for my “Introduction to American Politics” course, this is a review of Robert A. Goldwin’s From Parchment to Power.

From Parchment to Power is a fascinating narrative on both James Madison’s personal journey into supporting a Bill of Rights and on the actual creation of the Bill of Rights that is now present in the Constitution of the United States. It serves as a good introduction to the thought processes of our federal leaders in the years surrounding the Constitution’s ratification and an analysis of the early political atmosphere. Unfortunately, it also suffers from not knowing its documentary purpose with sufficient clarity: Is it a historical narrative, a college-level introduction to the Bill of Rights, or an academic analysis and argument about the Bill of Rights and its formation?

There are many reasons to think the book is meant as a historical narrative: It covers a specific topic for a period of about 5 years in 180 pages and discusses many of the debates and conventions in great detail. The Continental Congress sent the drafted Constitution to the States after a week and apparently without much debate, yet Goldwin spends 6 pages on it and quotes a number of letters discussing the voting. The Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York Constitutional ratifying conventions are each treated to 3 pages of discussion on the debate and relative strength of the Federalists verse Anti-Federalists despite the fact that the book’s focus is on the Bill of Rights. The change in Madison’s view on a Bill of Rights, from strong opposition to solitary and strident insistence upon, is given in chronological order, with quotes from letters and speeches. And while excerpts from drafts of the Bill of Rights are present throughout the book as chronologically appropriate, while the entire document recommended by the federal House and Senate is shown, the Bill of Rights as it stands today is never once printed.

Yet if the book is a historical narrative there are a number of glaring flaws. We do not learn the makeup of the House of Representatives – the number of Federalists and Anti-Federalists – until page 144, despite the House’s being the primary area of debate and discussion starting on page 74. Discussion of the Committee of Eleven – those 11 Representatives who looked at Madison’s proposed amendments and issued a report to the entire House – is virtually nonexistent: We are told that they took a week and submitted Madison’s amendments (nearly unchanged, except for the doomed “pre-Preamble”) to the House of Representatives; we are not told the members of the Committee or if they had any debate on the Amendments themselves; the only thing we learn about the representation on the Committee is that five of its members were delegates at the Constitutional Convention, and we learn this only in a portion of a quoted speech 14 pages after the Committee is discussed chronologically. A historical narrative seems as though it should include the voting records at least from every state, but some of the states which ratified the Constitution are never mentioned as having done so. Lastly, there is a sense almost of black and white idol-worship that seems out of place in a historical narrative: The Anti-Federalist leaders are depicted as malcontents seeking only power for themselves; Madison is a white knight rushing in to save the Federalists from their arrogance and the Constitution from popular discontent; even Patrick Henry (an Anti-Federalist leader) is once referred to as “omnipotent.”

So perhaps Parchment to Power is meant as a collegiate introduction to the Bill of Rights. An introduction should necessarily discuss formation, and taking a chronological approach is often the best way of organization. Selecting a central figure and then relating a history primarily from their point of view is often the most interesting way to present a series of events, and chronicling James Madison’s beliefs about the Bill of Rights, the Anti-Federalist arguments against the one presented by Madison, and the reaction of the populace all contribute to a knowledge about the Bill of Rights, its purpose, and the method by which it was formed. The tendencies toward a historical record are then well-explained. The “Reflections” at the end of each section make sense in the context of a college introductory text as a chapter summary and brief discussion on the larger meanings of previously detailed events. And some of the analysis of the intended meaning of the Amendments (particularly those inspiring the “separation of church and state” and the “right to bear arms”) would make the most sense in an introduction, showing how we have deviated somewhat from the original meaning.

Yet the book also has some qualities that make it unlike an introductory text, and it is missing some things that should be discussed if it were meant as one. Goldwin in several places sets about refuting academic arguments which somebody needing an introduction would never have heard, and which somewhat derail the tempo of the rest of the book. Likewise, the fairly detailed discussions on the details of the Anti-Federalist version of the Bill of Rights are unnecessary for an introduction. Missing elements include the final form of the ratified Bill of Rights, which should be included if the book were meant to serve as an introduction to them; even a cursory discussion of how the Bill of Rights has been interpreted throughout history, despite mentioning that it was eventually extended to the State governments as well; and a more detailed discussion of what use the Bill of Rights has been.

From Parchment to Power could also be interpreted as an academic text with failings, mostly for reasons previously mentioned. A few academic arguments creep in, but most of the book is otherwise independent. The motives of a few characters are discussed in great detail with supporting documentation, but many (presumably important) offscreen characters are barely mentioned. There is an academic tone to much of the book, particularly with regard to its discussions of soothing the population and uniting them under the Constitution, but the idolatry is in flat contradiction with academia’s standards. And in an academic text a more detailed discussion of the other rejected Amendments would be included.

So what exactly is From Parchment to Power? It serves as an exciting and refreshing presentation of Goldwin’s viewpoint on Madison and the Bill of Rights: That Madison and his contemporaries felt the Constitution itself was a bill of rights, but that widespread opposition to the Constitution – chiefly for its lack of a bill of rights – convinced Madison that a carefully constructed Bill would do a great deal of necessary good for the cause of unity in this country, and that moreover, while initially a Bill of Rights would be nothing but “a parchment barrier” it could eventually become ingrained as part of a national conscience. Goldwin then demonstrates just how right Madison was: how public support for the Anti-Federalists and worries about the Constitution abruptly ended, so much so that the final ratification of the proposed Bill of Rights was almost unannounced. And the continuing (and lately renewed) debates over freedom of the press, over where the line between church and state lies, over which arms we have the right to bear demonstrate that the Bill of Rights has indeed become part of our national mind.