The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788

Book - 2010
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From the distinguished historian of Revolutionary-era America and author of the acclaimed American Scripture comes this fresh and surprising account of a pivotal moment in American history--the ratification of the Constitution.

When the delegates left the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in September 1787, the new Constitution they had written was no more than a proposal. Elected conventions in at least nine of the thirteen states would have to ratify it before it could take effect. There was reason to doubt whether that would happen. The document we revere today as the foundation of our country's laws, the cornerstone of our legal system, was hotly disputed at the time. Some Americans denounced the Constitution for threatening the liberty that Americans had won at great cost in the Revolutionary War. One group of fiercely patriotic opponents even burned the document in a raucous public demonstration on the Fourth of July.

In this splendid new history, Pauline Maier tells the dramatic story of the yearlong battle over ratification that brought such famous founders as Washington, Hamilton, Madison, Jay, and Henry together with less well-known Americans who sometimes eloquently and always passionately expressed their hopes and fears for their new country. Men argued in taverns and coffeehouses; women joined the debate in their parlors; broadsides and newspaper stories advocated various points of view and excoriated others. In small towns and counties across the country people read the document carefully and knew it well. Americans seized the opportunity to play a role in shaping the new nation. Then the ratifying conventions chosen by "We the People" scrutinized and debated the Constitution clause by clause.

Although many books have been written about the Constitutional Convention, this is the first major history of ratification. It draws on a vast new collection of documents and tells the story with masterful attention to detail in a dynamic narrative. Each state's experience was different, and Maier gives each its due even as she focuses on the four critical states of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York, whose approval of the Constitution was crucial to its success.

The New Yorker Gilbert Livingston called his participation in the ratification convention the greatest transaction of his life. The hundreds of delegates to the ratifying conventions took their responsibility seriously, and their careful inspection of the Constitution can tell us much today about a document whose meaning continues to be subject to interpretation. Ratification is the story of the founding drama of our nation, superbly told in a history that transports readers back more than two centuries to reveal the convictions and aspirations on which our country was built.
Publisher: New York : Simon & Schuster, c2010.
ISBN: 9780684868547
Characteristics: xvi, 589 p., [16] p. of plates : ill., maps ; 25 cm.


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Mar 11, 2016

Maier’s book does not go into great detail on the Constitutional Convention itself so anyone looking for in-depth history on the creation of the Constitution shouldn’t start here. What you do get is the story of most states’ ratification process, from receiving the proposed Constitution through ratification conventions. In addition to the “big names” mentioned in the excerpt above, there were many “lesser” names that provided important contributions and Maier provides mini-biographies on many of them. The repetitive nature, as many states go through similar processes or raise the same objections or provide the same support feels a little tedious at times. Fortunately each state proves to have enough differences to keep the reader’s interest and Maier’s narrative keeps the tension building (even though you know it will be ratified).

One of the running “jokes” about ratification centers on the uniqueness of the document and the process. Starting with the Confederation Congress, the question “What are we supposed to do with this document?” gets asked at various stages. Was Congress supposed to endorse the new Constitution? Since the document would dissolve Congress, should they hand it over to the states without comment? For the states, was ratification a simple “yes or no” vote? Could they recommend a second convention to fix perceived shortcomings? Could they make their approval contingent on the adoption of amendments? Or should they approve it but recommend amendments? For states meeting after the requisite nine states had already approved the Constitution (making ratification a done deal), what risks did they run in not ratifying and staying apart from the new union?

The secrecy rule for the Constitutional Convention, in some respects, slowed the ratification process as many states went through the same topics and arguments that the convention had already dealt with and achieved compromises. Also, support for and opposition against the Constitution did not easily fall into Federalist and Anti-Federalist labels. Feelings toward the proposed Constitution ran across a broad spectrum with the large middle portion, including those that realized it was better than the current Articles of Confederation yet thought it could be improved, proving to be an extremely fluid and changing group.

It’s fun to watch the progression as the conventions occur. States holding their ratification meetings later in 1788 avoid or adapt tactics and arguments from previous states’ meetings. Never underestimate the power of money. The clause on taxation proved to be one of the hotly discussed articles in most states. Even after ratification, Washington (and others) worried about initial proposed amendments attempting to strip the government of the power of direct taxation.

And there's so much more. A wonderful book that supports James Madison's claim that if you want to understand the meaning of the Constitution read the state ratifying conventions. Pauline Maier has provided such a service.


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