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on January 22, 2011
Ratification, by MIT historian Pauline Maier, presents a detailed history of the debates in 1787-88 that preceded the ratification of the US Constitution. Today, two centuries plus two decades after the Constitution was ratified, it has long since achieved the status of holy writ, sacred scripture, never to be questioned. Part of its durability lies in the fact that it was questioned, vigorously, by many of prominent leaders at the time of its ratification. Dr. Maier has provided a detailed, state-by-state, history of the issues debated by these leaders in the 13 state ratifying conventions.
Some of these state-by-state histories may be of interest primarily to the dedicated student of the early years of the republic. However, the issues and the "parties" (forerunners of the first political parties) are important to anyone who hopes to understand the Constitution and the thoughts of those who wrote and ratified it as the basis for the US federal government.
The primary issues at the time of the Constitutional Convention included the following:
* Under the Articles of Confederation, the Federal Congress could print paper money (but not coin) and incur debts but had no power of taxation. Not surprisingly, inflation destroyed the value of the currency, and the government was insolvent. Something needed to be done.
* The Constitutional Convention was called by the Continental Congress to propose changes to the Articles of Confederation, not to replace them with a new charter. None-the-less, it the Convention drafted an entirely new Constitution and proposed that it be approved directly by the states, bypassing the Continental Congress. How should the Continental Congress respond to being sidelined in the approval process, its mandate ignored, and its existence threatened?
* Should a Bill of Rights be added to the proposed Constitution? If so, should it be added before ratification or after?
* Leaving revision of the Constitution to the states prior to ratification would likely result in a plethora of proposed changes. The 13 states might well approve 13 different version of the Constitution. Then what?
* Postponing changes until after ratification presented the states, people and their ratification assemblies with the stark choice of "Take it or leave it". That might be hard to sell.
The "Parties" that formed with respect to the above issues ranged from those strongly supportive of the Constitution as written to those unalterably opposed to ratification. With some over simplification, they might be described as follows:
* Arch-Federalists (Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Henry Knox) who supported ratification of the Constitution as written. This group may have also hoped to create a strong national government, even at the expense of the power of the states, perhaps even to the extent of eventually merging the states into a single republic (although this could hardly be called "federal")
* Federalists (James Madison): Ratify the Constitution as written with power vested in both the federal government and the states. Some members of this group also favored a federal power to veto state laws and objected to the equal representation of states in the senate.
* Moderates: (Edmund Randolph) Seek modifications to the Constitution, including a Bill of Rights, prior to ratification, but support ratification even if the modifications are not included.
* Anti-Federalists: (Richard Henry Lee, George Mason, Elbridge Gerry): Support ratification after appropriate amendments are made to the Constitution. Examples include: Add a Bill of Rights, enhance the representation of the voters by expanding the size of the Congress, curtail the powers of Congress and the federal judiciary.
* Arch Anti-Federalists (Patrick Henry, Luther Martin, Robert Yates and John Lansing): Reject the Constitution. Keep the Articles of Confederation as the basis of the federal government, perhaps with some minor changes. Structure the Federal Government as an agreement among the states with the federal government having no power over the people. Only the states would have power (taxes, civil law, criminal law) over the people. The states would have equal votes in all parts of the federal government (like the current Senate, unlike the current House of Representatives).
The two most interesting state Ratification Conventions were those held in Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Pennsylvania Federalists made a vigorous effort (too vigorous, in fact) to become the first state to ratify the constitution. To speed ratification through the assembly, they refused to allow entries into the official records of any dissent to ratification and restricted distribution of the text of the constitution to parts of the state that were reliably pro-ratification. Not surprisingly, these tactics energized the opposition in Western Pennsylvania who, ironically, belonged to the state's "Constitutional Party", which had been formed a few years earlier to support the ratification of the Pennsylvania state constitution. These strong-arm tactics greatly prolonged the assembly's deliberations, allowing Delaware to become the "first state". Delaware's approval was a foregone conclusion since the constitution would prohibit Pennsylvania from taxing Delaware on imports entering the country through the port of Philadelphia and then shipped to Delaware.
The Virginia Convention was significant in the number of prominent leaders and thinkers who participated: James Madison, James Monroe, Patrick Henry, George Mason, Edmund Randolph, Richard Henry Lee, and Henry ("Light Horse Harry") Lee were all present. Absent, but still highly influential via their extensive contact with Convention delegates, were Thomas Jefferson (serving as ambassador to France) and George Washington.
As we all know, the Constitution was ratified and a Bill of Rights was soon added in the form of the first 10 amendments. They have both served us well for two plus centuries.
The wonderful thing about reading history is that there is no end to the possibilities for further research. Reading Ratification raised two questions that linger in my mind, but are clearly beyond the scope of the book:
1. Could the US have survived the foreign challenges from Britain, Spain, and France that arose in next decades if the Constitution had been rejected? The national government under the Articles of Confederation was probably too weak to deal with these challenges. For details of these foreign challenges, see my Amazon reviews of the several books by Samuel Flagg Bemis (Jay's Treaty, Pinckney's Treaty, and John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy).
2. What were the intentions of the authors of the Constitution regarding states' rights and state secession? In addition to the obvious example of the Civil War, consider the earlier examples of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1799 which declared the Alien and Sedition Acts unconstitutional and void, the Hartford Convention of 1814-15 in which the New England states debated secession as a response to their opposition to the War of 1812, and the nullification of the "Tariff of Abominations" by South Carolina in 1832. The Civil War put a final answer to these issues in place, but it did not clarify the intentions of the founding fathers.