Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet

Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin
© 2008 Bill Kauffman
227 pages

There isn’t enough whitewash in the world to create a Luther Martin hagiography, Bill Kauffman admits, but in the spirit of lost causes he does his best. Billed as a biography, Drunken Prophet is truly more about Martin’s role in the Constitutional debates, in which he warned the assembly that the Constitution they were debating would destroy the States altogether  Few realize today that the Constitution – -regarded as a guardian of our liberties, however much a token now — was rightfully feared in its day as a tool of big-government enterprise.  In this biography of Martin, Bill Kauffman gives voice to one of the Constitution’s chief opponents, a man who refused service in the government it created.

When the delegates invited to reform the Articles of Confederation chose instead to create an entirely new government, Luther Martin took a stand against it. He could do no other.  He wasn’t alone in being suspicious of the Constitution; Patrick Henry wouldn’t even attend the convention, claiming to smell a rat. The convention contained radicals who wanted to do away with the States themselves, men like Hamilton, and Martin was their steady opponent.  He promoted the New Jersey plan against the Virginia plan, arguing that Virginia’s bicameral legislature was beyond the scope of what was necessary. A government that need so many checks and balances was oversized to begin with.

Following the conclusion of the convention,  Kauffman’s usual energy and the book’s point drift. Technically, this is a biography of Martin, but little of import happened in his life  beyond the convention, other than a couple of court cases. Oddly, the staunch anti-Federalist became a defender of Federalist politicians, defending Sam Chase in the first-ever Supreme Court impeachment, and later defending Aaron Burr. (Kauffman notes that Burr’s only crime was invading the Southwest too early, and shooting Hamilton too late.)  Kauffman suspects that Martin’s defense of Federalists owed principally to his hatred for Thomas Jefferson.  Another case Martin participated in was the famous McCullough v. Maryland, arguing against the expansion of Federal powers.   Martin was evidently regarded well-enough in Maryland that the state imposed a tax on all lawyers just to give the aging attorney fiscal support after stroke and alcohol forced him to retire.

Drunken Prophet is the first Bill Kauffman book I’ve read that didn’t absolutely bowl me over, but those interested in the anti-federalist or republican case against the Constitution will definitely find it of interest.

The Anti-Federalists stood for decentralism, local democracy, antimilitarism, and a deep suspicion of central governments.  And they stood on what they stood for. Local attachments. Local knowledge. While the Pennsylvania Federalist Gouverneur Morris ‘flattered himself he came here in some degree as a Representative of the whole human race’, Anti-Federalists understood that one cannot love an abstraction such as’the whole human race’. One loves particular flesh-and-blood members of that race. ‘My love must be discriminate / or fail to bear its weight,’ in the words of a modern anti-Federalist, the Kentucky poet-farmer Wendell Berry. He who loves the whole human race seldom has much time for individual members thereof.

From the introduction, “The People Who Lost”.

Previous books in the Forgotten Founders series:
American CiceroCharles Carroll (Brad Birzer)
The Cost of LibertyJohn Dickinson (William Murchinson)

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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2 Responses to Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet

  1. Tim Davis says:

    Thanks, Stephen, for introducing me to the “forgotten founders” series. I hope to find and read some soon.

  2. Stephen says:

    I've enjoyed them all so far. I believe there are two more I haven't read — one on Oliver Ellsworth, and another on Gouverneur Morris.

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