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A hardy Constitution

In Ratification, historian Pauline Maier uncovers the contentious debates behind a political document that many Americans once opposed.
Image courtesy of Simon & Schuster
Pauline Maier, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of American History.
Pauline Maier, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of American History.

On July 4, 1788, about 50 men gathered in Albany, N.Y., to celebrate Independence Day in their own way: They burned copies of the United States Constitution.

Few Americans today would contemplate doing the same thing. But for these men, burning the Constitution was “a perfectly patriotic act,” writes Pauline Maier in Ratification (Simon & Schuster), her new account of the contentious process through which Americans approved the Constitution in 1787 and 1788. After all, the document burners believed that the Constitution threatened all that Americans had fought for in the Revolutionary War.

Indeed, when the founding fathers concluded their Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia on Sept. 17, 1787, their work was hardly finished. Specially elected conventions in at least nine of the country’s 13 states needed to ratify the Constitution for it to take effect. This process generated heated public debate. Along the way, several state conventions recommended amendments, some of which were later adopted and became what we now call the Bill of Rights.

“There was no precedent in the history of the world for something like this,” says Maier. “For over a year, the people of a country spent a good deal of their time thinking and arguing about how they and ‘millions yet unborn’ would be governed in the future. The ratification of the Constitution was a foundational event for the United States. It stood between our feeble national existence in the 1780s and what we’ve become since. This is the linchpin of American history. It was also a landmark in the history of government across the globe.”

That history has resonance today, given the high-profile political role of the “Tea Party,” the affiliation of generally anti-tax, small-government groups that seeks to link its views to those of America’s 18th-century founders. Maier, however, notes that the ratification debates do not accord with the Tea Party image of the era.

“One woman in the Tea Party movement said that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and Benjamin Franklin all wanted limited government,” says Maier. “To some extent that’s true, but if you look at what the Tea Party proponents want, they are much closer to the critics of the Constitution than to those who favored it.” Citizens who wanted ratification, she notes, “insisted on having wall-to-wall taxing power in the federal government. Why? They thought it was necessary to make the United States attractive to creditors. The Unites States was bankrupt prior to the Constitution. It had no credit.”

All told, says Maier, “I think many Tea Party people today would be shocked to understand where they would stand on the political spectrum of 1787-88.”

Before the constitution was a ‘divine document’

As important as ratification was, Maier’s book is the first comprehensive narrative of the process written for a general audience; historians have been impeded by the wide dispersal of documents — papers, memoirs, letters, newspaper articles — on the subject. In the 1970s, scholars at the Wisconsin Historical Society began collecting and publishing those documents in a series of volumes, The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, which, though still ongoing, made Maier’s book possible.

Historians have tended to focus on the Constitutional Convention itself, which is both well-documented (James Madison took detailed notes) and features many of the best-known figures in American history. Doing so, however, minimizes both the role more typical Americans played in the intense struggle to approve the document. “The biggest anachronism we struggle with is our sense that the Constitution is a virtually divine document and that the people who created it were almost holy, giants of intellect like nobody who has walked the Earth since,” says Maier. “The implication is that anyone who disagreed with them had to be beneath contempt.”

And yet, disagree the people did, at the state conventions and in pamphlets, letters and public protests. “The Constitution was anything but a divine document in 1787 and 1788,” says Maier. “It was a proposal from a convention that had not been authorized to make that proposal. And it was the subject of intense criticism. Not even its most devoted supporters approved everything in it.”

The ratification process has often been described as a contest between “federalists” who favored ratification and “anti-federalists” who opposed it. Those terms make the lines of debate seem clearer than they were, says Maier. Organized national political parties did not exist, and citizens were faced with many reasons for supporting and opposing ratification.

Everyone recognized that the Articles of Confederation, the country’s initial constitution, ratified in 1781, which only loosely bound the states together, did not give the U.S. government enough power to function effectively. Its shortcomings were clear during the war, and again in the mid-1780s, when Britain had largely stopped purchasing American exports, plunging the country into economic crisis. “In cities and towns involved in international commerce, you found tremendous enthusiasm for the Constitution,” notes Maier. “They thought a federal government that had power to protect American commerce would only be for the good. It would salvage American trade and make work for city dwellers, from the most humble dockworkers to merchants and retailers.” Most public figures, starting with George Washington, supported ratification, as did most newspapers, which were published in coastal towns and cities.

Some opponents of ratification felt the Constitution needed to protect basic rights more specifically (as it eventually did). They also argued that the extensive taxing powers the Constitution gave Congress was dangerous because its provisions on representation were vague or inadequate. It therefore violated the basic right of “no taxation without representation.” Every state convention that recommended amendments asked for a modification of Congress’ power to levy taxes and for adjustments to the Constitution’s provisions or representation.

Other historians have praised the way Ratification draws out the contours of this debate. “I think it’s a wonderful contribution,” says Gordon Wood, Professor Emeritus of History at Brown University. “What’s amazing is that the anti-federalists did as well as they did, when so many prominent people supported ratification.” That said, Wood notes, “the dilemma of the anti-federalists is that they could not offer an alternative” to the Constitution, leaving delegates to the state conventions to support ratification.

The wisdom of the people

To be clear, Maier began researching the book in 1990s, long before current Tea Party politics made the ideas of the founding fathers newly topical. As her research progressed, she increasingly came to see ratification as a gripping story enriched by people who — unlike the famous founders — would otherwise be lost to history.

“What I love is the way people we have never heard of got up at critical points in the conventions and made marvelously moving and important speeches,” says Maier. On other occasions, men who had reservations about the Constitution offered political advice that was extraordinarily wise, Maier thinks. Consider Nathan Dane, a Massachusetts delegate at the Confederation Congress who advised a friend and colleague, Melancton Smith, who led the anti-federalist majority at the New York ratifying convention in the summer of 1788.  At that point nine states had already ratified, and the Constitution would go into effect over the ratifying states no matter what New York did. Under the circumstances, Dane said New York should vote to ratify rather than remain outside the new government. Non-participation, he argued, was a failed tactic. Had several of those who refused to attend the Constitutional Convention participated in writing the Constitution, it would have had fewer problems. Only by ratifying could New York’s representatives work at the First Federal Congress for those amendments that both Dane and Smith considered necessary for the future of the republic.

Faced with an uncertain future for his country, Maier notes, Dane said: “‘It’s going to work out all right. The American people have proven time after time they are intelligent, and while people are going to try to snooker them, they see through it, they do the right thing.’ I find his affirmation of our basic political intelligence very moving.”

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