The Anti-Federalist Luther Martin of Maryland is known to us—if he is known at all—as the wild man of the Constitutional Convention: a verbose, frequently drunken radical who annoyed the hell out of James Madison, George Washington, Gouverneur Morris, and the other giants responsible for the creation of the Constitution in Philadelphia that summer of 1787. In Bill Kauffman’s rollicking account of his turbulent life and times, Martin is still something of a fitfully charming reprobate, but he is also a prophetic voice, warning his heedless contemporaries and his amnesiac posterity that the Constitution, whatever its devisers’ intentions, would come to be used as a blueprint for centralized government and a militaristic foreign policy.
In Martin’s view, the Constitution was the tool of a counterrevolution aimed at reducing the states to ciphers and at fortifying a national government whose powers to tax and coerce would be frightening. Martin delivered the most forceful and sustained attack on the Constitution ever levied—a critique that modern readers might find jarringly relevant. And Martin’s post-convention career, though clouded by drink and scandal, found him as defense counsel in two of the great trials of the age: the Senate trial of the impeached Supreme Court justice Samuel Chase and the treason trial of his friend Aaron Burr.
Kauffman’s Luther Martin is a brilliant and passionate polemicist, a stubborn and admirable defender of a decentralized republic who fights for the principles of 1776 all the way to the last ditch and last drop. In remembering this forgotten founder, we remember also the principles that once animated many of the earliest—and many later—American patriots.
What They're Saying...
"While the trials and tribulations of the Republic's most eccentric anti-Federalist are well within Kauffman's purview, this is his first book-length biography, something that could make even the most adoring fans skeptical. But if you enter a skeptic, you'll leave a firm believer in Kauffman's versatility. Maintaining the usual wit of his previous offerings, Kauffman treats us to a barrage of quips and insights we've come to expect from the folksy patriot of Batavia, New York, all the while keeping an eye on the seriousness of the project at hand. . . . No doubt a book like this is a tall order. . . . And yet Kauffman succeeds as he so often does, hurdling the mountainous myths of history with ease, and painting a sympathetic portrait of cause lost, but now at last, not forgotten."
— Dylan Hales Charleston City Paper
"Kauffman’s latest offering Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin proves not only his mettle as a formidable researcher and archivist, but foreground his relentless awareness of the hermeneutical dimension of history. Without sacrificing cogency and maintaining a consistently cool voice, Kauffman plumbs history in its diffuseness to round out historical models. . . . Kauffman never thinks he is revising an inappropriate history, but rather sees himself as extending our current knowledge of the Constitutional Congress and the subsequent 18th century. Never the explicit apologist, Kauffman delicately and humorously weaves a more complete portrait of Martin. . . . [I]t becomes apparent that Kauffman is not just writing a story about a forgotten founder, he is writing a story about Anti-Federalism and the nature of history at large."
— Erik Hinton PopMatters
"Kauffman doesn't flinch in offering this judgment. His aim is to rehabilitate Martin, not to prettify him. one of his most impressive feats is to make his subject sympathetic even after relating the ugliest moments of Martin's life. . . . By letting us into the mind of one flawed, fascinating, and ultimately tragic figure, Kauffman has not just reminded us that Luther Martin of Maryland deserves a place beside the other giants of the founding generation. He has made a compelling case for a disreputable but worthy movement, for the men so committed to what we now call constitutional principles that they refused to accept the Constitution itself."
— Jesse Walker The American Conservative
"It figures that local patriot Kauffman is skeptical about the Constitution… Kauffman, the liveliest conservative wit of our time, tells Martin's story with great relish and principaled rue for federalism lost."
— Ray Olson, Booklist
"The Anti-Federalists are often seen as parochial, self-interested dimwits obstructing an epochal achievement. With Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet, Bill Kauffman launches a full assault on this caricature. . . . This playfully written, highly entertaining book will probably not inspire a new constitutional convention, but, if it convinces some readers that critical and unsentimental examination of the nation's founding need not be unpatriotic, it will have performed a valuable service."
— Stefan McDaniel First Things
"In Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet, a short and engaging biography of Luther Martin (1748-1826), Bill Kauffman shows us a sot, a quarrelsome bore, a butcher of the English language, an outspoken abolitionist who himself owned slaves—and a man who advanced opinions at the Constitutional Convention that desperately needed to be heard. . . . Mr. Kauffman tells this harrowing tale with a proper recognition of its farcical elements. He is a rollicksome stylist. . . . But throughout Mr. Kauffman shows a sympathetic regard for his subject. An appreciation of Luther Martin is perhaps overdue; a respect for the Anti-Federalists certainly is. Both ends are well served by this entertaining and instructive work."
— Alan Pell Crawford, The Wall Street Journal
"What distinguishes the prescient prophet Luther Martin from the other architects of the Constitution is that he correctly foresaw, 'that the Constitution, whatever its devisers' intentions, would come to be used as a blueprint for centralized government and a militaristic foreign policy.' And he was right on the money. . . . Kauffman helps us understand through the thoughts and words of 'black-sheep founder' Luther Martin that the problem lies with the sacred document itself, not with the execution."
— Thomas H. Naylor, The Second Vermont Republic
"Kauffman properly avoids undue somber adulation of either the rest of the Founding crew or his hero Martin, and remains vividly entertaining in chronicling both the power and the ideological plays that went into the making of the Constitution—and the making of the way we now remember the making of it. . . . But we're also cheered to realize that those who were right in their warnings even centuries ago can see their foresight and sense survive, with the help of light-handed but wise chroniclers such as Kauffman."
— Brian Doherty Senior Editor Reason Magazine
Interview with Bill Kauffman, author of
Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin
If Luther Martin was so significant a figure in American history, then why haven’t we heard of him?
Because he fought on the losing side, and in America we flush losers down the memory hole. The Constitution, though it is routinely violated today by government officials, remains a sacred cow, at least in the abstract. There’s no future in being its sharpest critic—ask Luther Martin.
How could any sane or decent man object to the Constitution?
Ask Patrick Henry. Ask Sam Adams. Ask James Monroe. Like Martin, they opposed the ratification of the Constitution.
What were Martin’s objections?
The Constitution, he said, transferred far too much power from the states to the central government. States would become weak, the central government strong. The tax-gatherer would assume a new and threatening role in the lives of Americans. And without limitations on the size and function of the army, politicians would someday send Americans to distant places to fight wars of no direct concern to the United States.
Did many Americans share these objections?
Yes—so much so that ratification of the Constitution was in real doubt in 1788. In Virginia, New York, North Carolina, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, it is likely that more citizens opposed the new Constitution than supported it. Its eventual ratification was a triumph of the superior political strategy of James Madison et al.
Was he really a drunk?
Is the Pope German?
Was he really a prophet?
If you think that Washington, D.C., is out of control he was.
Is there anything we can learn from Martin today?
Yes—guard your liberties fiercely, for once lost they are awfully difficult to recover.