The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788

Book - 2010
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The dramatic story of the debate over the ratification of the Constitution, the first new account of this seminal moment in American history in years.
Publisher: New York : Simon & Schuster, 2010
Edition: 1st Simon & Schuster hardcover ed
ISBN: 9780684868547
Characteristics: xvi, 589 p., [16] p. of plates : ill., maps ; 25 cm


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Mar 11, 2016

Maier’s book does not go into great detail on the Constitutional Convention itself so anyone looking for in-depth history on the creation of the Constitution shouldn’t start here. What you do get is the story of most states’ ratification process, from receiving the proposed Constitution through ratification conventions. In addition to the “big names” mentioned in the excerpt above, there were many “lesser” names that provided important contributions and Maier provides mini-biographies on many of them. The repetitive nature, as many states go through similar processes or raise the same objections or provide the same support feels a little tedious at times. Fortunately each state proves to have enough differences to keep the reader’s interest and Maier’s narrative keeps the tension building (even though you know it will be ratified).

One of the running “jokes” about ratification centers on the uniqueness of the document and the process. Starting with the Confederation Congress, the question “What are we supposed to do with this document?” gets asked at various stages. Was Congress supposed to endorse the new Constitution? Since the document would dissolve Congress, should they hand it over to the states without comment? For the states, was ratification a simple “yes or no” vote? Could they recommend a second convention to fix perceived shortcomings? Could they make their approval contingent on the adoption of amendments? Or should they approve it but recommend amendments? For states meeting after the requisite nine states had already approved the Constitution (making ratification a done deal), what risks did they run in not ratifying and staying apart from the new union?

The secrecy rule for the Constitutional Convention, in some respects, slowed the ratification process as many states went through the same topics and arguments that the convention had already dealt with and achieved compromises. Also, support for and opposition against the Constitution did not easily fall into Federalist and Anti-Federalist labels. Feelings toward the proposed Constitution ran across a broad spectrum with the large middle portion, including those that realized it was better than the current Articles of Confederation yet thought it could be improved, proving to be an extremely fluid and changing group.

It’s fun to watch the progression as the conventions occur. States holding their ratification meetings later in 1788 avoid or adapt tactics and arguments from previous states’ meetings. Never underestimate the power of money. The clause on taxation proved to be one of the hotly discussed articles in most states. Even after ratification, Washington (and others) worried about initial proposed amendments attempting to strip the government of the power of direct taxation.

And there's so much more. A wonderful book that supports James Madison's claim that if you want to understand the meaning of the Constitution read the state ratifying conventions. Pauline Maier has provided such a service.


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