Americans have engaged in many great debates over the years: What to do about slavery. Whether to extend full rights to women, blacks, the disabled and gays. Whether to fight in Mexico, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Through these debates and others, Americans have argued about what the framers of the Constitution really meant -- and whether their words should be interpreted for changing times.
What many people don’t realize is that none of these fights was as vital as the question of whether to ratify the Constitution itself.
For two years, in 1787 and ‘88, Americans argued over the nature of democracy, the structure of government, the relative power and prerogatives of the three branches, the relationship between federal and state powers. No more important questions have ever been taken up by the American people -- everything else, including the Bill of Rights, flowed from this battle -- and yet we know almost nothing about these debates.
Pauline Maier, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the most thoughtful historians of the colonial period, has filled this gap with “Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution.” This book is a stunning examination of what Maier calls “the beginning of American national politics” -- the debate that explains the way we Americans govern ourselves, resolve disputes, conduct diplomacy, choose leaders and protect our freedoms.
This great debate was conducted in political assemblies but also in tracts, newspapers, essays and broadsides -- often written quickly, sometimes written badly, mostly with extremely limited circulation. Indeed many of these arguments, put forth by authors known only as “Centinel,” “Brutus,” “Publius” and “Federal Farmer,” are far more widely available today than they were at the time.
And though the Constitution established a national outlook, most of the debates were local.
The opponents had few unified arguments or tactics. There was bitter criticism of individual elements of the document, particularly over the size and composition of the two houses of Congress. Some critics wanted to retain the doomed Articles of Confederation, which provided for only a weak central government. Some wanted to change the new Constitution before it was ratified. Some wanted to ratify it but amend it afterwards. Some wanted to ratify it but add a bill of rights.
Value of Democracy
Accounts of these debates are hard going for the modern reader, but amid detailed discussion of the power to tax and the process of approving treaties are broad questions about principles such as the character, or even the virtue, of federalism and democracy themselves.
These were more than theoretical questions, and the very act of asking them was part of creating the country. “Under pressure,” Maier points out, even ratification’s most ardent supporters “developed new understandings of the Constitution.”
This process -- and the book which for the first time examines it in detail -- introduces us to many new characters in the early post-colonial history of the United States and reintroduces us to some of the hardy perennials of the period, including Hamilton, Washington, Madison and Jefferson, the men who need no first names.
Perhaps the most vivid characters are New York Governor George Clinton, a devout opponent of ratification, and Patrick Henry, the great skeptic of the Constitution, whom Maier says “hijacked the debates” in Virginia.
With ratification came a sense of satisfaction -- and, as Maier puts it, “a surprising quiet set over the land.” But the battles, which had several twists and turns (and, in New York, some suspense), didn’t really end with ratification.
The debates over how we govern ourselves are far from over. They are being played out right now in the midterm elections and in the coffee-shop and cable-television conversations of our own time.
“Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787- 1788” is published by Simon & Schuster (589 pages, $30). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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