What were the founding fathers actually thinking when they made the Constitution?

That question, among others, is what UNM history Professor Emeritus Melvin Yazawa seeks to answer in his latest book, “Contested Conventions: The Struggle to Establish the Constitution and Save the Union, 1787-1789.”

Yazawa hosted a discussion about “Contested Conventions” at the UNM Bookstore on Tuesday, where he talked about the kinds of questions the Revolutionary War poses for historians such as, “What does the establishment of a new society mean?” or “Why did the founding fathers allow slavery in the Constitution?” and how he attempts to answer them in his latest novel.



The Daily Lobo spoke with Yazawa to find out more about what inspired “Contested Conventions.”

DL: It’s clear you have a passion for writing books and novels about American history. How did you get into this?

MY: I don’t know if I have a good answer for that. As an undergraduate I took history classes primarily because I intended to go to law school. But then as a junior and a senior, I didn’t think I quite liked the idea of being a lawyer. 

Some of the history classes intrigued me, mainly because I think most people have an idea of history being (something for which) you just need a good memory ... But, as a junior and senior, I saw that it actually is more important to have an ability to reason your way through sources ... and try to arrive at some conclusions based on the sources themselves. 

It requires a lot of logic, a lot of interpreting and some storytelling. Writing and working in a university environment convinced me that I (didn’t) want to be a lawyer, I’d rather teach (history) at a university.

DL: What kinds of questions inspired you to write your latest book?

MY: There’s a much larger project ongoing, but every time they came to a crisis in the period from 1776 until 1815, prominent people talked about just separating from the United States and creating their own federation. ... They always talked like that, but why didn’t they follow through on it? It’d look like they were on the verge of seceding, then they won’t. 

That was a question that inspired the larger project and this book as well. How come they quarrel so feverishly ... but they don’t end it? They threaten to walk out, but they don’t. How come they make the compromises in the end? That’s the question that is behind all of the things that they agreed to in this book, and in the larger project. It goes from the beginning of the revolutionary crisis, (when) they have a hard time forging a union. 

Their default position is disunion ... the wartime coalition is a kind of coalition of necessity and convenience. But once the war is over, ... they’re beginning to quarrel again with one another instead of being united. So how come they can still meet in convention and form a more perfect union? Why do they do that?

DL: Why is it important for Americans today to understand the environment of the time the Constitution was ratified?

MY: Because I think the fundamental assumptions that Americans have now are just the opposite of what they had. Their assumption was that unless we forge a stronger union ... the United States would fall apart. 

Our assumption today is we have a union, but it’s too strong so we need to break it apart a little bit and have stronger states. The assumption is that the union is a given and always will be strong. But you can’t willy-nilly dismiss the fears of the founding generation.

DL: So what can we learn today from those assumptions?

MY: Just having an appreciation for the debates themselves is kind of important. ... An appreciation for the quality of the debate that took place in that period (is important because) there’s nothing like that today. It’s not just worshipping of the founders. 

I think if you read the debates that took place, they are far more serious in their objections and their refutations and their answers. Today, what passes for political dialogue strikes me as kind of buffoonish. There’s not thoughtfulness. Shouldn’t we be mindful of that? They made all kinds of sacrifices — some of it perhaps not commendable. 

These compromises were struck, again, when assumptions were fundamentally different. Was it more important to deny the slave-holding states — .any consideration of their slaves — at the risk of fragmenting the Union? Or was it better to make the compromise? We can blame them for that, because it was morally wrong. 

But if you believed, as they did, that unless you struck a compromise, the United States was over, would you have made that concession? It’s a question I think the reader should contemplate himself or herself.

DL: What's the main thing you hope readers take out of “Contested Conventions?”

MY: Well, that (question I just mentioned above), but also I hope to illuminate certain points that I think readers should keep in mind. The Federalists are revered... but you should not confuse that with significance in the ratification debate. 

Reverence is one thing — significance is another. As several historians have pointed out, the reverence for the Federalists has increased as time has passed... And people think it must have been the crucial factor that swayed ratification. It is not.

The other thing is the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights was tossed out as an “empty tub to the whale” for the anti-Federalists. It’s not something that they knew from the outs would be the most important thing in the Constitution.

DL: What makes this book different from other publications about the creation of the Constitution?

MY: For one thing there are very few books — in fact, I can’t think of any — that, in the space of 300 pages, will deal with both the Philadelphia Convention and the state ratifying convention.

But unless you take the two into consideration as a single episode, you’ll miss the storyline. There have been numerous books written... dealing with the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention. You’ll find fewer, but quite a few still, dealing with the ratification debates. 

But if you deal with each individually, you miss part of the storyline I think. The issue is still, “We need a stronger union. What are the consequences if we don’t arrive at this?” ... If you take the two components — the creation and the ratification — as a single story, then you begin to see that their underlying concern is with union and disunion. Many of those books lose sight of the fact that there is an underlying thread.

“Contested Conventions” is available for purchase at the UNM Bookstore.

Skylar Griego is a culture reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at culture@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @TDLBooks.