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Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 Paperback – June 7, 2011
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A notable historian of the early republic, Maier devoted a decade to studying the immense documentation of the ratification of the Constitution. Scholars might approach her book’s footnotes first, but history fans who delve into her narrative will meet delegates to the state conventions whom most history books, absorbed with the Founders, have relegated to obscurity. Yet, prominent in their local counties and towns, they influenced a convention’s decision to accept or reject the Constitution. Their biographies and democratic credentials emerge in Maier’s accounts of their elections to a convention, the political attitudes they carried to the conclave, and their declamations from the floor. The latter expressed opponents’ objections to provisions of the Constitution, some of which seem anachronistic (election regulation raised hackles) and some of which are thoroughly contemporary (the power to tax individuals directly). Ripostes from proponents, the Federalists, animate the great detail Maier provides, as does her recounting how one state convention’s verdict affected another’s. Displaying the grudging grassroots blessing the Constitution originally received, Maier eruditely yet accessibly revives a neglected but critical passage in American history. --Gilbert Taylor --This text refers to the MP3 CD edition.
“Ratification is a gripping and eye-opening read. Maier is a member of that rare breed of historians who write vividly and with a flair for depicting dramatic events.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“Delightful and engrossing.”
—Richard Brookhiser, The New York Times Book Review
“Magisterial . . . it is unlikely that anyone will duplicate what Maier has done.”
—Gordon Wood, The New Republic
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She goes through the battle for ratification, state by state, giving time to the proponents and opponents alike. This means some degree of repetition of arguments, but that is inevitable.
What is fascinating with this and most good history is to try to get inside the minds of people and see how differently they saw things. What they worried about was much different than our issues.
Here are some of the things that emerge from her narrative:
- there was significant opposition to the constitution and its passage was by very close margins in some states. Rhode Island didn't come in until after Washington was installed as president and only in response to a threatened economic embargo if they didn't ratify. Some in a few states thought staying out of the union and going it alone would be just fine.
- the proponents of the constitution were active in manipulating press coverage to create a favorable climate for the debate
- the Federalist Papers had little impact on the debate outside of New York
- reasons to oppose the constitution revolved around the federal government's taxing power, the insufficiency of the number of representatives in the House, the excessive length of terms for national office holders, and the power of Congress to control aspects of how states managed elections. The absence of an executive council to advise the President was also a concern to some.
- proponents clearly intended to set up a strong federal government with sufficient power to operate independently and to secure the reputation of the U.S. in the world.
- George Washington took almost no part in the ratification debates
- Patrick Henry was one of the most forceful opponents of ratification
- opponents were fearful the constitution set up a tyranny that might well abolish the state governments
- we've all heard that agreeing to a bill of rights was the price of adoption, but few used the term, and the amendments proposed by state conventions bore little resemblance to the ten we now know as the Bill of Rights
I'll keep this short and simple for now and add an update when I finally finish.
What is so attractive about this book is how it purports to reveal a previously partially told story, one which we think is already complete and resolved, but is in fact still being debated today. Using extensive (all available) original sources, Maier turns her authoritative scholastic skills to perhaps the most important subject in our nation's history - the drafting and ratifying of our Constitution. For too long this has been an issue dominated by the (winning) Federalist protagonists - with scant or dismissive attention given to the (by implication disloyal, antagonist) "Antifederalists" (obviously not the name they chose for themselves), who ironically often took pseudonyms incorporating the name "federal", and were actually more federalist in really caring about a strong federation of states than the self-claimed "Federalists" were. The (centralizing) Federalist were unified mainly in wanting ratification to be a swift all or nothing proposal. The (decentralized) Antifederalist were anything but unified, which is why they lost.
One of the things I like about Maier's approach is that she doesn't obviously and overtly set up this dichotomy of ideologies and characters - as they (ideas and people) were apparently more complex and evolving in regard to this. It does become clear however that from the very beginning there were real and strong difference in people's vision for the new country. There was also an imminent need to 'make it work'. What resulted was a profoundly idealistic but practical and, yet also secretive, partisan and elitist, document pushed through without much faith or interest in the democratic process...
This is fascinating stuff! And it is perhaps even more important today as we look to move forward on a sound basis (needing to shore up our foundations), debating the same old issue of balance of powers between the government and the governed (expressed not just in the lopsided and formal arrangement of the separation of powers in the 'Three Branches of Government' - Legislative, Executive, and Judicial, but between the various States and the unified "Federal" government, and even more profoundly and directly between citizens and their elected & appointed officials and the hired bureaucrats (the 'hidden iceberg' part of the government) - how we actually express our individuality and exercise our power to check the collective realm by how we freely choose - think, speak, vote, rule on juries, shop and invest.)
Maier's writing style is dense and comprehensive, seeming authoritative to me (a nonacademic armchair historian), informed, thorough and balanced, yet also reading almost like a novel - a densely detailed, passionate and convoluted Russian novel.
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We assume things about the Constitution and its process of ratification that simply weren't true.Read more