When American leaders, dissatisfied with the Articles of Confederation, decided to get together in Philadelphia in 1787 to rewrite the rules under which their government would operate, they unleashed a political process unlike any the world had ever seen.
Little did they know that the back-and-forth bickering and compromising and deal-making at Independence Hall that summer would be merely a prelude to the greatest political debate in history.
The ratification of the Constitution often seems like a distant and obscure ritual undertaken by people having little in common with 21st-century Americans. In reality, the state-by-state campaigns conducted in 1787 and 1788 resemble nothing so much as they do our modern presidential primary system.
Those campaigns are elegantly retold in Pauline Maier’s “Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788.” Maier has spent her entire career writing about the founding generation. In “Ratification,” she has capped it with a masterpiece.
The story of the Constitutional Convention has been often told. What came after, however, has usually been conveyed to modern readers in bits and pieces, in dissertations on the Federalist Papers or in books that focus on the famous personalities and the big debates in the big states.
Here, Maier takes another tack. She goes chronologically, state by state, and in doing so she gives the reader both a sense of the ebb and flow of the contest that ran through all of the debates and a sense of connection with modern politics. There is, it turns out, political continuity across the centuries.
Much as with modern presidential primaries, states voted in no particular order in ratifying the Constitution — or, rather, an order of their own choosing — with rules unique to each state. Big states mattered, but sometimes small states that voted early in the process mattered more, because what happened in one state affected the debate in states voting later.
Putting this puzzle together was no mean feat of historical research. Some states’ actions are well-documented. The record in others is threadbare. Another problem in reconstructing the debates is that the press was hardly impartial. Newspapers did a fine job of recording the arguments of those in favor of ratification. But they paid little attention to the arguments put forth by those who opposed the Constitution. The pro-ratification forces quickly took control of the terms of debate — they were the Federalists, their opponents merely anti, for example — and were thus able to control the narrative the people were exposed to.
So the record is uneven. Reams of material are available for Virginia, New York, Massachusetts, much less for Georgia or Maryland. But each state gets its due in Maier’s telling. Pennsylvania went first, and the ratification forces effectively rigged the rules to overcome what was likely a majority in opposition. That left a bad taste in everybody’s mouth, so states down the line made extra effort to avoid the appearance of ramming ratification through over the objections of the people.
The exertions of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison are known to most students. Famous opposers such as Virginia’s George Mason and Patrick Henry and Massachusetts’ Elbridge Gerry also have a certain modern fame. What makes Maier’s story so engrossing is her vivid renderings of others, less well-known but no less crucial, on both sides of the debate — James Iredell of North Carolina, William Findley and James Wilson of Pennsylvania, Melancton Smith of New York.
The debates were usually disorganized, often raucous. Aside from substantive objections, of which there were plenty, debate quickly centered on the question of whether amendments should be made before ratification or after — or not at all, although that idea seemed not to carry the day in many precincts. Few if any thought the Constitution perfect in the form in which it emerged from Philadelphia.
Some of the topics most hotly debated across the states have lost all meaning for modern America. The power of direct taxation, for example, was among the most divisive questions in state convention after state convention. Once the new government was in place, it hardly came up again.
But the broader debates about the relative powers of the states and the federal government, the role of government as the protector of liberty, and the meaning of liberty itself, endure to this day. In this, Maier has given us a masterfully researched, beautifully written mirror into our past that reflects, and illuminates, our own political conundrums.