OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Terry Bouton

Portrait of Terry Bouton

Terry Bouton is associate professor of history at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. His work looks at the connections between economics and politics in the American Revolution. His book, Taming Democracy: “The People,” The Founders, and the Troubled Ending of the American Revolution (2007), uncovered the aspirations of small farmers and tried to understand why so many of them were disappointed with how the Revolution ended. Currently, he is working on a book that shows how European creditors demanded and got many key provisions in the U.S. Constitution.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

A look at how George Washington nearly bankrupted himself when he came home from the Revolutionary War through luxury spending and aggressive speculations. In this lecture Dr. Bouton uses Washington's self-inflicted financial problems to reframe how we think about the role of economic interests in the creation of the US Constitution of 1787. Nearly every history of Washington at the Convention identifies his motivations as selfless patriotism, but a close look at Washington's finances suggests that there was also a strong economic incentive. Teetering on the brink of ruin, Washington went to the Constitutional Convention, in part, to remake the national government in ways that would save his imperiled finances. And he was not alone: many of the men at the Constitutional Convention were in exactly the same boat through their own overspending and over-speculation.
There's been a lot of debate recently on the increasingly broken nature of American democracy: the electoral college, the structure and operation of the Senate, voting rights, etc. Most of that debate happens without much historical context, as if these problems are something new. My goal is to show how many of the undemocratic elements of our government aren't recently developed bugs in the system, but rather purposeful features, designed by the founding fathers to concentrate their political and stifle the ability of ordinary Americans to influence policy. We celebrate our system's checks and balances and the protections it gives to minority rights. However, at the time of the government's creation, the founding fathers saw themselves as the minority (wealthy creditors) and created the national government, in part, to protect their power and privilege by giving the affluent a strong check on democracy and the power of "the people."