Posted: September 15, 2011
auline Maier's new book, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788, may be her best yet—and that is saying something. A professor of American History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Maier has written three previous books on late 18th-century American politics, each a classic in its own right: From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776 (1972), The Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams (1980), and American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (1997). Ratification is the product of a mature historian's mind steeped in the history and historiography of its period. Perhaps not all historians improve with age, but increased experience and expertise do help many develop deeper, broader, and subtler insights into both human nature generally and the particular facts of their fields of study.
More importantly, Ratification is not merely a book about its topic. It is the book. There is no single-authored work of scholarly heft—none—on the Great American Debate of 1787-88. The Constitution is one of the most important texts in world history, yet until now we did not have a unified narrative history of the actual day-by-day process by which it became the supreme law of the land.
True, we have had many—too many—books about how the Constitution was drafted behind closed doors in the Philadelphia Convention that met during the summer of 1787. What happened behind closed doors was that a mere proposal was drafted for the consideration of the American people. What happened in the following year—Maier's year—is that for the first time in world history a vast continental populace got to debate and decide by a peaceful vote how they and their posterity would be governed.
This was a giant leap forward from the politics of the 1760s and 1770s, the period at the heart of Maier's earlier books. In that period, patriots moved from resistance to revolution to war. Thus, one of the most gripping recent accounts of the American Revolution—David McCullough's 1776 (2005)—is entirely a military history, disregarding the political and intellectual events of that fateful year. The Declaration of Independence was not put to any sort of special popular vote. Many who vigorously opposed independence in 1776 permanently exiled themselves to Britain or its North American colonies. The revolution's opponents who chose to stay on American soil were, politically, internal exiles. With very few exceptions—typically involving those who recanted and joined the patriots before war's end—no arch—loyalist ever went on to any position of political significance in independent America.
By contrast, in the Great American Debate that Maier's new book brings back to life, the losers were not cast out into the political darkness. Several vigorous opponents of ratifying the Constitution went on to the highest echelons of public trust and political honor, including James Monroe, who became the fifth president; George Clinton and Elbridge Gerry, future vice presidents; and Samuel Chase, elevated to the Supreme Court by President Washington in 1796.
After ratification's year, which featured an extraordinary series of ratification conventions and popular votes across an entire continent, the world was never the same. The possibilities of democracy on a vast scale were on display for all to see—across the globe and through the centuries. A democratic people could think hard, debate fiercely, vote (pretty) fairly, and accomplish something. The losers could graciously accept this defeat rather than resort to bullets. The winners could graciously admit that their plan could be improved by an ambitious modification. (Today we call this renovation "the Bill of Rights.")
Happier still, what was accomplished in that year ended up enduring, providing an inspirational model for later Americans and for other peoples around the world. In 1786, democracy existed in very few places on planet earth, and had never before been a dominant form of government. Today, democracy reigns over half the planet and is on the march in the other half. Seen from this angle, the story of Maier's new book is the hinge of human history, the year that changed everything not just in America but beyond. From resistance to revolution to...ratification!
* * *
To her credit, Maier is analytical rather than triumphalist about democracy in America. Lawyers, judges, and law professors are prone to "winner's history," since the winners generally end up writing the laws. Historians by instinct and training work hard to understand both sides—indeed, to understand that there are usually more than two sides.
Thus she generally eschews the term "Anti-Federalist" because this was an epithet-imposed on those who opposed the Constitution by the other side of the debate, the self-described "Federalists"—not the self-description chosen by most ratification opponents themselves. She also believes that the label oversimplifies, masking important differences among the Constitution's skeptics and blurring similarities between moderate opponents and lukewarm proponents. She emphasizes that many of those who opposed the document were not entirely "Anti." Many skeptics admitted that the Philadelphia proposal might be somewhat better than the impotent Articles of Confederation, but these skeptics thought that a still-better and safer system should be crafted—a series of amendments to and revisions of the Philadelphia plan should be agreed to—before any Constitution was formally adopted. In Maier's view, dividing the world into two tidy camps, as do the conventional labels of "Federalist" and "Anti-Federalist," obscures strong similarities among various men who ultimately ended up on different sides of the final vote—including "old revolutionaries" such as Sam Adams, who voted yes despite misgivings, and George Mason, who voted no despite having supported earlier drafts of the Constitution at Philadelphia.
Unlike Maier, who is generous to a fault to the side that lost in 1787-88, I am inclined to side more openly with the Federalists' vision and even to accept their labels as the legitimate spoils of victory. The legalist in me says that that compared to the plan on the table in 1787 any alternative requiring the convention's proposal to be amended or revised before it was ratified would have doomed the whole enterprise of replacing the Articles of Confederation with a viable constitutional framework. Realistically, it was yes or no, up or down.
This is often how law and legislation work. Not that the final vote is ever really final in a truly democratic society. Tomorrow is another day, and we are free to repeal and replace. But had the Constitution been voted down—had the Anti-Federalists (my harsher word) actually prevailed, the amendment rules of the Articles of Confederation, which required state unanimity, would have been utterly unworkable. Anarchy loomed as the alternative; and the "Antis" had no clear realistic program. In many cases, these naysayers were rebels (or old revolutionaries, if you prefer) without a clue. The most decisive reason to favor the Constitution was precisely that, once ratified in a clean yes vote, this document would be infinitely easier to amend in a straightforward way than would the Articles of Confederation.
* * *
It remains to ask the obvious questions: If Maier's topic is indeed so important, why has no previous single-authored book ever tackled this topic? Why have so many individual authors focused instead on the Philadelphia convention? What does Maier's narrative add to the multi-authored collections on the ratification process that do exist?
I suggest that Philadelphia stories generally abound simply because they are easy to write. A century ago, Max Farrand collated in three handy volumes the core primary sources—the official Philadelphia convention journal, Madison's copious notes, and various papers from other delegates. Thus much of the primary source material that must be summarized and analyzed is within easy reach of any would-be author. And there are precious few relevant newspaper pieces or private letters to be hunted down and parsed, because the Philadelphia deliberations were secret.
By contrast, Maier's project required her to range across the continent and to wade through an enormous pile of public and private sources—a far more difficult endeavor, and one made doable only (as she graciously acknowledges) because of the recent collation and publication of a vast array of primary sources in the 23-and-still-growing volumes of the "Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution" (DHRC) project. But DHRC and not Farrand is the right place to start, if we care about the Constitution as law. What matters for proper legal interpretation today is not what was said behind closed doors at Philadelphia, but what was said by and to ordinary citizens pondering whether they should, say, embrace the proposal that emerged from Philadelphia. (Of course, the secret drafting history might still be invaluable for nonlegal scholarly purposes; and even legal interpreters might find the Philadelphia debates of indirect evidentiary importance, containing various arguments that may well have been made publicly during ratification, but in conversations for which no reliable transcript survives.)
Before Maier, at least two prominent multi-authored books did try to give readers a sense of each of the relevant ratification conventions: The Constitution and the States, edited by Patrick T. Conley and John P. Kaminski (1988), and Ratifying the Constitution, edited by Michael Allen Gillespie and Michael Lienesch (1989). But the gains of specialization, with each chapter written by an expert in the legal history of a given state, were counterbalanced by a loss of narrative cohesion. How did the debates early on in Pennsylvania affect later deliberations? To what extent did various arguments and counterarguments evolve as the year of ratification unfolded? These and many other related questions fall between the cracks of the multi-authored volumes, but are central threads of Maier's detailed narrative. Compared to these other scholarly works, Ratification offers a far more satisfying account of the year that Americans ratified the Constitution, a year that changed the world even more than 1776 did.