Carol Berkin is residential Professor of History at Baruch College and a member of the history faculty of the Graduate Center of CUNY, Emerita. This interview is based on her new book, The Bill of Rights: The Fight to Secure America’s Liberties (Simon & Schuster, May 2015).
CB: I wanted to challenge many of the myths that surround the first ten amendments. I knew that many Americans thought they were written at the constitutional convention, or that they were unanimously advocated by all the ‘founding fathers’ or that, from the moment they were ratified, they became the American credo. None of this was true — and the true story was far more fascinating. I knew I had to carefully read the debates in Congress over these amendments and to understand them in the context of 18th century America. Only then, could I share the story of these amendments with the reading public.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Bill of Rights: The Fight to Secure America’s Liberties?
CB: The Bill of Rights was Madison’s brilliant tactic to crush the strong opposition that continued even after the Constitution was ratified. In modern parlance, he hoped to separate the opposition's base [the many Americans who honestly worried about a strong central government and its potential for tyranny] from its leadership [men who wanted to eviscerate the power of the new government, taking away its right to tax and regulate commerce]. Madison believed a bold statement of the rights of the people would calm popular fears even though the federal government actually had no power to enforce those rights in 1789. Most of Madison’s fellow Federalists thought a bill of rights was unnecessary, even useless but Madison persisted and eventually won.
JF: Why do we need to read The Bill of Rights: The Fight to Secure America’s Liberties?
CB: I think readers will find the book tells a fascinating story. As the men in Congress debated Madison’s proposals, they drew on their memories of British abuses and expressed their anxiety over the future of the new republic. They argued over the proper balance of power between the federal government and the state governments, an argument that still resonates today. Tempers flared; egos were exposed; foolish comments abounded. Following these debates, we can see that these men understood what a great gamble the creation of a republic was, how fragile the peoples' liberties actually were, and how heavily the burden of preserving the new nation lay on their shoulders.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
CB: I decided to become an American historian while I was a student at Barnard College. I loved the idea that History was a form of time travel and I wanted to visit the past and try to understand people whose views and perspectives were so different from mine. I chose the history of my own country so that I could better understand the origins of issues that matter to us today.
JF: What is your next project?
CB: My next project, The Republic in Peril, is a reevaluation of the first decade of the nation under the Constitution. It looks at how fragile this experiment in representative government was and how worried its leaders were that the experiment might, despite their best efforts, fail. I am going to look closely at four crises the Federalist in power faced, two domestic challenges to the federal government’s authority and two foreign challenges to its sovereignty and independence. As in my two previous books— A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, which looks at debates at the constitutional convention, and The Bill of Rights: the Fight to Secure America’s Liberties— I want to show the men who founded the nation as ordinary human beings, aware of their great undertaking, concerned that they might fail but determined to persevere.
JF: Thanks Carol.
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author's Corner