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Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788

by Pauline Maier

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In modern times, the Constitution of the United States has been held by its citizens in such esteem (when they pay attention to it at all) as to put it in the category of a “sacred text.” But that was by no means the case in 1787 and 1788, when the newly-drafted Constitution was sent to the states for ratification.

The fledgling nation was in terrible shape in 1787. The Articles of Confederation, under which the young republic had operated, were inadequate. Most pressing was the issue of revenue. The Federal government could not raise revenue directly, but only through requisitions on the state governments. Some paid at least part of their obligations, but most did not, thanks to war-time debts and wide-spread disruption in the economy resulting from the War for Independence. As a result, the United States was in danger of defaulting on its loans (what else is new) and had no money to pay its bills.

But revenue was not the only issue. The country had no army, and was totally dependent on poorly trained and equipped state militias. There was real danger from hostile Native Americans and threats from the British and Spanish. The legislative process was cumbersome.

As a result, a convention was called to meet in Philadelphia in order to amend the Articles of Confederation. But it soon became clear that it was better to write a whole new Constitution, since there was no real hope of salvaging the Articles into a workable document.

While the arguments for ratification were compelling, there were equally strong, valid arguments against adopting the Constitution as written, which was what was being asked. While different states raised varying numbers of objections, the ones on which all opponents agreed were direct taxation, representation, and a lack of specific guarantees or a Bill of Rights such as existed in many (but not all) state constitutions.

Maier tells the story, state by state, of the struggle for ratification and it is fascinating. No two state conventions and ratification processes were like. They ran the gamut from Pennsylvania, were ratification was ramrodded through the state convention and there was violence against opponents in Philadelphia after ratification, to Rhode Island and North Carolina who abstained from ratification and joined the new Union later. But in all 13 states, the debate was on real issues, with real concerns and with true patriots on both sides. Clearly much has been lost in the intervening years.

While absorbing, Ratification is not a fast read. But it is definitely a worthwhile one. Highly recommended. ( )
  Joycepa | Aug 2, 2011 |
This is a fascinating book about the ratification of the Constitution. The author, Pauline Maier, states in her preface that this is one of the few books whose sole topic is the ratification of the Constitution in all thirteen of the original states. Given the importance of this event it seems unusual that it took so long for someone to write this book. A very important tool that made it possible is The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution. This project which is being done by the Wisconsin Historical Society began in 1976. At the time this book was written twenty-one volumes had been completed. It is anticipated that the completed work will be thirty-one volumes. The author states that without this collection it is doubtful she could have written this book.
The author tells the story with a sense of real life immediacy which imparts to the reader the excitement and suspense of living through the events as they happened. Ms. Maier attributes this perspective to the use of an idea she first heard in a lecture by Barbara Tuchman when she was in graduate school. A writer can build suspense in telling a story even if the reader knows how the story turned out so long as the writer never mentions the outcome until it happens at the proper point in the story. The author's use of this idea with a wealth of carefully selected primary sources makes the historical narrative come alive for the reader just as a great artist is able to convey an experience with a two dimensional representation. The author's skill maintains this level of involvement for the reader throughout the book.
The author begins with the story of George Washington's decision to attend the Constitutional Convention. Washington is hesitant to attend the convention because he has told the Society of Cincinnati that he will not attend their meeting in Philadelphia the first Monday of May 1787. The membership of the Society is divided on the question of hereditary membership and while Washington is opposed to this idea he does not want to confront many of his old friends who support it. His decision to attend the convention provides an encapsulated debate over the need for a new form of government for the country. After the Constitution is signed the author returns to Washington as he follows the beginning of the ratification process.
Prior to the state conventions a variety of newspaper articles and pamphlets begin the "war of written words" which combine to give us many of the ideas discussed during the time of ratification. The author points out that the writings were done largely on a local level. Today we may think that the Federalist papers were read across the country. Actually several states had ratified the Constitution before they began publication. They were primarily read in New York City and did not gain a wider audience until they were published in book form. The men who wrote for and against the Constitution showed a good understanding of the issues involved and command of a wide variety of sources dealing with those issues. Some of the questions they found important such as the presence of a standing army during peacetime are not as important to us today. One other issue they discussed, the "necessary and proper" clause in the powers of Congress, is debated in cases before the present Supreme Court. I doubt the present Congress could carry on a debate about the Constitution at the level shown during the period covered in this book.
Several of the states determined their decision on the Constitution on strictly local political issues. Delaware was the first state to vote for ratification and did so after only four days of debate. They wanted to end the taxes imposed by Pennsylvania on goods they imported from Philadelphia. The last state to ratify the Constitution was Rhode Island on May 29, 1790. By that time the national government had passed a bill prohibiting the twelve other states from trading with Rhode Island. Rhode Island was opposed to slavery and the slave trade and wished to continue to print paper money which is prohibited to the states by the Constitution.
I found the debates in the Virginia and New York conventions very interesting. Virginia elected a group of delegates that were evenly split on the question of ratification. James Madison and Patrick Henry were key figures in the debates. The author does not provide a flattering portrayal of Patrick Henry. He was a great orator but not well educated or knowledgeable about the law. She had several pithy quotes from Thomas Jefferson who loathed Henry. Madison was the great mind. The force of his knowledge and reasoning was irresistible to many.
When Virginia and New York began their conventions only eight states had ratified the Constitution. Each state felt theirs' could be the deciding vote. New York had elected a group of delegates strongly opposed to the Constitution. George Clinton, the Governor of New York, felt the Constitution created a consolidated government which he strongly opposed. Alexander Hamilton was strongly in favor and was a brilliant and energetic debater.
The suspense of the vote in the Virginia convention was palpable. Those opposed had argued for a strong list of amendments to be adopted before the Constitution could be ratified. Delegates from what is now Kentucky were strongly opposed to the Constitution. Ratification was passed by ten votes and numerous amendments were recommended to be included. Shortly after their vote the Virginia convention learned that New Hampshire had been the ninth state to vote for ratification. The Virginia vote had not been as critical as the members thought at the time. The New York convention learned of the votes of the New Hampshire and Virginia conventions before their final votes. They had a choice to either ratify or stay out of the union. Many of the New York delegates still opposed the Constitution. Led by Melancton Smith a group of Anti-Federalists compromised and voted for ratification with a list of recommended and not conditional amendments.
The author covered all these events and more in great detail. She introduced me to many previously unknown delegates to the conventions who played critical roles. A short chapter at the end tells how the lives of many of the delegates ended. James Wilson, a prominent delegate in the Pennsylvania convention, died broken and alone at the age of fifty-five. He had served two stints in debtor's prison while an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.
The Constitutional Convention was empowered by Congress to amend the Articles of Confederation. Instead they created a completely new government which was eventually accepted by the country. After the Constitution was ratified those who had opposed it felt bound to support it. The author does a brilliant job of describing the process that led to this result but she does not address what forces led to the acceptance of the drastic changes proposed in the Constitution. Was it simply a combination of the prestige of the convention delegates, led by George Washington, and the obvious need for improvements in the government? Or was it the collective genius of the American people aided by Providence? ( )
2 vote wildbill | Jun 7, 2011 |
Maier combines mastery of the subject with a novelists ability to plot a multi-threaded narrative, describing a mostly overlooked and inaccessible part of U.S. history. I was very glad to meet some of the lesser players in the Founding, names I hadn't heard before but am going to put right up there on the pedestal with Washington, Madison, Franklin, Jefferson, et. al.

Granted, the subject matter isn't for everyone, but this book is superb. ( )
  steve.clason | Jan 6, 2011 |
Pauline Maier begins her new book Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (Simon & Schuster, 2010) with an idea she remembered being promoted by the historian Barbara Tuchman: "A writer can build suspense in telling a story, she said, even if the reader knows how the story turned out, so long as the writer never mentions the outcome until it happens at the proper place in the story" (p. xvi). Maier adds that this book is an effort to test that theory, and at least to the thinking of this reader, that effort worked like a charm.

You could fill a shelf with books written about the Constitutional Convention (actually several shelves, as my living room will testify), but as Maier notes in her introduction, books on the ratification process are few and far between, and there has never been a narrative history that treats the entire sequence of ratifying convention (Maier writes that she sympathizes with those past historians who have shied away from tackling the subject: "It's no easy thing to tell the story of an event that happened in thirteen different places, sometimes simultaneously", p. x).

Drawing on the wonderful resource that is the Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution (and lavishing much well-deserved praise on that project), Maier has done what no one else has ever managed to do. Ratification is a tour de force display of a historian's skills: she has written a history of the ratification debates that is not only readable, but is also as captivating as any political thriller I've ever read. How'd she do it?

First, she includes a useful framing device: George Washington. In a prologue, Maier focuses on Washington's careful deliberations over whether or not he should participate in the Philadelphia Convention, and throughout the book, as the Constitution is debated from New Hampshire to Georgia, she returns to Mount Vernon to monitor Washington's efforts to encourage and support ratification of the Constitution (and to obtain information about the process as it happened).

Second, Maier brings in new characters. While the familiar participants in the debates (James Wilson, James Madison, Patrick Henry, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, &c.) take their rightful place here, a whole cast of new and intriguing characters are also brought to the front of the stage. From Amos Singletary, Dummer Sewall, Jonathan Smith, and Phanuel Bishop in Massachusetts to Zachariah Johnston in Virginia to Melancton Smith and Gilbert Livingston in New York, Maier plucks from the DHRC's vast archive new voices, some of whom had extremely interesting things to say about the Constitution and its potential impact on America's future.

Third, the narrative structure of the book brings the sense of contingency into the picture, and offers Maier an opportunity to present the ratification process in each state as it was: a totally different situation from those that had come before, with important consequences for those that would come after. The debacle in Pennsylvania, in which supporters of ratification basically tried to rush debate and shove through the Constitution over the objections of a very vocal minority, led future conventions to move much more carefully and deliberately (and, as in Massachusetts, caused the majority's delegates to take much more care to ensure that their opponents felt like their arguments were being considered). As more states ratified, the situation continued to shift, so that by the time later conventions met the question became not whether the Constitution would take effect, but whether the state would join the new government or stay outside it (this argument ended up playing a major role in several of the final conventions). Each state's convention was markedly different in terms of style, rules, tone, and method of debate (not to mention the reporting of its proceedings); that Maier has managed to bring together this vast amount of data into a coherent form is a true testament to her skill as a storyteller.

Beyond the conventions themselves, Maier turns her sharp eye to the press coverage of the ratification process, both in terms of how the press in different states handled the debates over the Constitution (some refusing to print anti-ratification essays, others refusing to print unsigned or anonymous submissions), and how the newspaper coverage was received by the population at large and how the essays did (and, perhaps more importantly, did not) shape the convention debates.

I think the most fascinating aspect of the story to me was the level of attention which convention delegates in various states (and non-delegates too, for that matter) brought to the discussions of the proposed Constitution. These people knew the document, they understood what its provisions meant, and they brought keen eyes and sharp minds to the table. How many of us (or of our current crop of legislators) could decipher the objections leveled against the proposed Constitution by the town meeting of Belchertown, Massachusetts: "1st. there is no bill of Right[s]. For other Reasons See artical 1 Section 2-3-4 and 8[,] artical 2d Section 1 & 2[,] artical 3d Section 1 and [Article] 6. With many other obvious Reasons" (p. xvi). Now, to be fair, if we were in their shoes we (well, some of us, anyway) might pay a similar level of attention, but Maier offers a glimpse of just how involved and devoted "we the people" were to making sure their rights and liberties were guarded by the new framework of government they were charged with approving or rejecting.

It seems to me that the ratification process is one of those historical moments where we think we know the story, but we really only know that it all worked out in the end. I was shocked to learn that Rhode Island first submitted the Constitution to the people for a public referendum, instead of calling a convention to decide its fate: the vote, held in March 1788, failed 237-2708. It was not until May 1790, after Congress had passed a bill prohibiting all trade with Rhode Island and demanding repayment of a $25,000 debt (prompting Providence to open discussions about seceding from the rest of the state), that a convention voted in a squeaker (34-32) to ratify the Constitution. I'd known RI was the last to ratify, but the specifics really bring home just how powerful the opposition there was (the same could be said, I must note, for most of the other states, where ratification was anything but a sure-run thing).

A final chapter ties up the loose ends, covering the organization of the federal government (bringing Washington back into the picture), and the actions of the first Congress in proposing and submitting to the states the first round of amendments (recommended by a number of the state conventions). In a postscript she revisits the characters from the conventions, examining their future careers and, generally, their conversion to support for the Constitution as it took effect.

Sure to stand the test of time, this is a must-read book for the political junkie, or for anyone interested in the Constitution's origins and the debates which eventually - but not inevitably, as every page makes clear - led to its adoption by the people of these United States.

http://philobiblos.blogspot.com/2010/11/book-review-ratification.html ( )
1 vote JBD1 | Nov 7, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0684868547, Hardcover)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:27:00 -0400)

The dramatic story of the debate over the ratification of the Constitution, the first new account of this seminal moment in American history in years.

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