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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.
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on December 9, 2010
We owe a huge debt of thanks to Professor Pauline Maier for taking the time to review the records of the various state ratifying conventions that led to approval of the U.S. Constitution. In college we read The Federalist Papers, and we talk about the constitutional debates (often from James Madison's notes), but we really do not focus upon the fact that what the men in Philadelphia did has nothing to do with what the various state conventions thought the constitution meant. From the beginning, the conventions were taken aback by the phrase "We the People," in the preamble, because of the significance it had for the creation of a government. Whether the people had such authority when the congress had authorized a mere tightening of the Articles of Confederation was not a foregone conclusion. It was clear that the Articles would not work. But, since the Articles often required unanimity, could something else be offered which did not? What impact would this new central government have on the economic or political well-being of a state. How would peculiar insitutions such as slavery be impacted. Is it necessary to have a list of protections from federal governmental action in the same way that many state constitutions had a bill of rights against the states? All of these questions are addressed by Professor Maier in a most approchable manner. Whether the reader is a scholar who reads the footnotes and makes additional personal commments; or, like me, someone who reads a lot of history and reviewed the footnotes for more detail, or for location of an interesting source; or, for many, who ignore the footnotes and just enjoy the book, this work is a pleasure. I have studied and written about Constitutional Law, in one way or another, for 37 years. It can be so dry that just the thought of picking up a text makes me thirsty. But, not so Professor Maier. I cannot honestly say that I had to stay up all night every night to finish the book. BUT, I can say that I kept wanting to find another stopping point, and another, until I realized it was so late I just had to stop if I was going to function the next day. This is virtually the only work of its kind. Professor Maier has filled an abyss in ratification material, and has made it fun to do so along the way.
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on January 17, 2011
It's our story, citizens of the United States, but we have converted it into a simplistic myth. Maier shows us the details, the messiness, the fears and fights - and after it is done, we have a more interesting story than when we started.

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
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on October 31, 2011
I add my voice to those who give this book five stars. I am a lawyer who has always liked con law. I have long been suspicious of the way the Supreme Court seemed to have only two sources of authority when construing the Constitution; the text and Federalist Papers. It is truly a miracle that after 223 years Pauline Maier has finally given the "anti-Federalists" the voice they should have had in every Supreme Court decision since Marbury v. Madison.

This is a spectacular piece of legal history. The cover says it is one of the 100 best books of the year. I disagree; it is one of the 10 best books in American history of the last decade and it is the best book on the history of the Constitution in at least 50 years. Ms Maier's presentation of the objections made by the "anti-Federalists" at the Massachusetts convention will resonate among those in the Tea Party as well as Occupy Wall Street.

To my mind, implicit in Ms Maier's work is that Charles Beard ("An Economic History of the Constitution") was wrong 100 years ago; it was not money but power, a certain contempt for and fear of common people who retained too much liberty that drove the Federalists. The "anti-Federalists" were wrong only in that they thought it would take 50 years, not 220 years, to get where we are now.
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on November 21, 2010
I am only in the fourth chapter of this book (just as the public debate is heating up) but want to write this review, because 1) I can see the general form and substance of it so far, and (more importantly) 2) I get the feeling neither of the previous two reviewers have fully read it. (I say this because it is a long dense book but it was reviewed within a few days of publication, with neither review going into any details of the substance of the debates, nor how Maier distinctively presents them.)

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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Over time, I have had a real interest in the founding period of the United States. The battle over ratification is one of those points in which I am especially interested (I have even done some professional research on the subject, to the extent that that has any relevance). This book, though, delves nicely into the ratification struggle after the Constitutional Convention concluded its business in 1787.

The author begins by placing the work in context (Page xi): ". . .the ratification process was the first national election, although it was more like a series of primaries than a presidential election since the votes were cast not on a single day but successively, in one state after another." Indeed, Rhode Island did not accept the Constitution until it was already in effect!

Then Constitutional Convention created a draft document. However, it would not become the "law of the land" until it was approved by state ratifying conventions. The heart of this book is exploring how the states actually discussed and voted on the Constitution. It was not a foregone conclusion that the document would be accepted. As the book notes, even George Washington was nervous that the Constitution would fail to get the requisite number of states approving it.

The book is well detailed, discussing the events in the various states' ratification conventions. The process was highly political. Some of the contests in states were bruising; others were easy triumphs for those supporting the Constitution. One of the real contributions of this book is showing the differing dynamics across the American states at that time.

These were not Greek philosophers involved; they were practicing politicians and, in many cases, they played hardball. For example, in some states, supporters of the Constitution controlled newspapers. Guess what? Arguments against the Constitution never appeared.

At any rate, this is a fine historical work that fills a need in the larger literature on the Constitution's origins.
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on June 25, 2017
I LOVE this book, and I honestly can't say enough good things about it. It is easy to read and comprehensive in both the breadth and depth of its subject matter. That said, it is not a casual read. This was fine by me since I was motivated to actually learn the history and not some fairy-tale, romanticized version of it. The prose is clear, and the author does a tremendous job or helping you put aside your own prejudices on the subject prior to reading the book and puts you in the mind of our fellow citizens at that time and place. WONDERFUL!
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on October 24, 2015
I have taught Civics and History for over 30 years and I have found it difficult to find books that detail the struggle to get the Constitution ratified. Almost always, historians focus on the difficulty in writing the document and then they mention that Federalists supported it and anti-Federalists opposed it. But, in the end it was ratified with cheering and fireworks. Pauline Maier's book fills in the struggle and compromises to get 13 separate states to see beyond their own narrow self-interest and take a gamble that the Constitution was better than the Articles of Confederation. The serious debates about political power and the nuances of rights is absolutely fascinating. I, especially liked, how she explains how the delegates in each state were chosen to attend each states Constitutional Convention. Loved the book and she has filled in some questions that as a historian, I have always had about this remarkable part of our nations history.
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on October 22, 2013
With the current political rhetoric continually referring to the creation of the United States and the government under the Constitution, attention needs to be paid to the ratification process. Since Constitutional originalists insist on purity in their concept of what the Constitution means, it is only right to study how the Constitution was created. To that end, the ratification process is just as important to that issue as the Constitutional Convention itself. The Convention was only one phase of the process of changing the government of the United States. Getting the Constitution ratified was the second part and as the documents of the past show us, far more difficult than the creation was.

Pauline Maier, the William Rand Kenan, Jr. Professor of American History at MIT has written what is the most exhaustive examination of the ratification process to date. Utilizing records from the conventions and state legislatures, private letters from delegates, and newspaper accounts she has reconstructed what took place at the conventions and more importantly, why events occurred as they did. The result is a very detail oriented book that explores what the men who attended the conventions were thinking as well as the factions in the states that were for and against ratification. She makes it perfectly clear that ratification was not a slam dunk affair, but instead a very iffy proposition that came very close to failing.

We know today that eleven of the thirteen states ratified the Constitution and commenced operating under it in March of 1789. What most people do not know is that this almost did not occur. Quite possibly a very different national history could have transpired, potentially one that created multiple nations instead of the America we know today. The Constitutional Convention was not employed to create a totally new government, and Congress could easily have decided not to send the proposed Constitution to the states for their legislatures to decide upon calling for a ratification convention or not. However, Congress did decide to send it on as they deemed it was legal to do so under the Articles of Confederation. Had they thought it was not legal, they certainly would not have done so.

Once the states received the Constitution with its proposed national government, the legislatures had to decide whether they should call for a ratification convention or not. One state, Rhode Island, decided not to do so and its legislature voted against ratification. The rest of the states did call for conventions and set forth voting parameters and delegate qualifications. Maier covers this as the process was important and resulted in delegates being elected on the basis of being for or against ratification while in some states a great many were elected because they had not made up their minds and wanted to do so at the convention based on what they learned. Maier also reminds us repeatedly that this was the late 18th century where communications were only as fast as a horse could carry a rider. She also points out how unusual it is to modern readers that delegates in that era were elected to make up their minds later when they went through the information instead of staking out a position one way or the other in many cases. The contrast between that idea and today’s election process stands out.

Maier covers each convention in the order they happened. While some conventions were smaller and a large majority predisposed for ratification, important questions were asked. Maier points out the basic arguments which were brought up in each convention as well as the defenses which countered them. She also addresses where deviations from the discussion took place and why. She does not invent an interpretation, but rather relies on solid work with primary source documents to construct her interpretation of the process. While some states had sparse records of their conventions for political reasons, Maier dug up additional sources which show there was a solid core of opposition in most states. She delves into the background of the prominent delegates who took part in the process, but she also brings many of the minor delegates to the forefront, men who could be considered as minor Founders. These delegates played a role albeit secondary to the main figures, but still important as in a few states the voting came down to several men who either switched their votes from their original positions or made up their minds on the last day.

Maier’s book contends that while the Federalist Papers were written during this period, their impact on the various conventions was slight. She refers to it in explaining what James Madison, John Jay, or Alexander Hamilton thought of the Constitution, but does not use it as a means of explaining what everyone thought. In fact, she goes to great lengths to show that there were many different opinions on both sides of the argument and that even the men who signed the Constitution at the Convention had differing opinions on most of the articles in it. This is important because the concept of originalism is dependent upon the idea that the Founders were in agreement on what they were doing. The complete opposite is true. Often they agreed that something needed to be done in a certain way, but they disagreed on why it should be done.

All in all, this is an outstanding book for any student of the Constitution to read. Readers will finish it with the realization that ratification almost failed. They will also emerge knowing that unlike today’s politicians who continually fight and work to impede the progress of legislation that has already been made law, the men of the ratification conventions worked to create a national government regardless of how they voted at the conventions. They worked together once the votes were finished in order to create a more perfect union. They disagreed on many issues, but once the voting ended they abided by the results and worked to make things better. Maier shows this result as well as how each person’s individual beliefs and personalities influenced each other. Many historians of this period remark on this as well.

This book is highly recommended for students of this era as it is quite informative in explaining how the Constitution became the frame for the new national government and why certain events occurred as they did. Quite often the personalities of the people played important roles in those events. The example of James Madison barely being elected to the first House of Representatives is a good example of how personalities clashed over ratification. Also, the fact that George Washington favored ratification and the fact that practically every delegate assumed that Washington would serve as the nation’s first president is brought up in several chapters. In the end, that could have been one of the factors that changed a few delegate’s minds about ratifying the Constitution. As stated earlier, Maier’s depiction of the events brings them to life and makes the participants human. That in turn makes this book a great read and a worthwhile addition to any history scholar’s library.
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on December 30, 2015
The core of this book is nearly 500 pages, the unavoidable result of its breadth of coverage and great attention to detail. If you have a genuine interest in understanding the life and times in which the US Constitution was born and eventually ratified, it's unlikely you'll find a single source of information that is superior to this book. People today mention "the Founding Fathers" and think about the select few whom history has told us were vitally important to all elements of the Revolution and the birth of the USA. Ms. Maier makes it clear there are a huge number of more obscure Founders whose input was equally vital to the ratification process, regardless whether the arguments and positions they took during the various stages of ratification turned out to be "correct" or "incorrect" in light of the final result. We owe them all a debt of gratitude for the system of government that emerged, a system many of them could not have envisioned in the late 18th century.
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