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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.