Pauline Maier's "Ratification," on debate over the Constitution

By Rosemarie Zagarri
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 4:27 PM


The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788

By Pauline Maier

Simon & Schuster. 589 pp. $30

The preamble to the U.S. Constitution, which asserts "the people's" right to establish a "more perfect union," is more often invoked than understood. It was the states, not the people of the states, that were represented under the Articles of Confederation. The state legislatures had been the agents for appointing delegates to attend the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Yet the Philadelphia convention decreed that it should be the people acting through state ratifying conventions, not the state legislatures, who should decide whether or not to accept the proposed new form of government. In this sense, the U.S. Constitution represented a wholly new form of government in which ultimate authority rested with the people rather than with the states.

Pauline Maier, the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of American History at M.I.T. and one of the nation's foremost scholars of the American Revolution, explores how the process of ratification worked in each of the 13 states. In doing so, she transforms our understanding of what representative government itself means.

Eschewing a traditional focus on great men and their political ideas, Maier investigates the complex route to ratification in each state. After receiving the Philadelphia Convention's proposal for a new Constitution, the Confederation Congress, in accordance with procedures described in the document itself, recommended that the people (meaning white, male property holders) in each of the 13 states hold elections for delegates to state ratifying conventions. (Always contrarian, Rhode Island held a referendum instead.) Again according to the document itself, it would take ratification by nine states for the Constitution to go into effect. Representatives ran on a platform of support for or opposition to the document. What was at stake was nothing less than this question: Did ordinary people believe that an entirely new system of government, never tried before in history, was the best means of ensuring the country's future - or was it a too-risky experiment that they dared not accept?

Far from the apathy that too often characterizes politics today, interest in the Constitution in 1787-89 was widespread. In print and at public meetings, would-be delegates to the state ratifying conventions waxed eloquent about the document's meaning. According to Maier, popular sentiment at the time resembled the present-day American "obsession with the final games of the World Series, but with greater intensity because everyone understood that the results would last for more than a season." In each state, newspapers scrambled to publish articles on the Constitution - and sometimes faced public disapproval for publishing unpopular views. People debated the document's meaning in taverns, on street corners and at polling places, where they sometimes came to blows. In the state conventions, delegates dissected the Constitution clause by clause while citizens crammed spectator galleries to witness the proceedings.

The outcome of the process, Maier emphasizes, was far from certain. Many people needed to be convinced that the proposed system offered the best solution to the country's problems. The precise issues differed from place to place, often influenced by local circumstances. In some states, opponents of the Constitution most feared the new government's power to tax people directly; in others, its power to create standing armies. Still others opposed the protection of slavery or argued that slavery was not well-protected enough. For many, however, the biggest stumbling block was the lack of a bill of rights. Although the Constitution gave the national government many new powers and significantly strengthened federal authority, it did not contain protections for individual rights and liberties. This was a troubling problem.

Drawing on the newly completed, multi-volume "Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution," Maier shows in gripping detail how a series of key compromises at the state conventions kept the ratification process on track. In Massachusetts, for example, opponents of the Constitution agreed to ratify the document without imposing conditions or requiring amendments after supporters of the document promised that amendments would be added as soon as the new government went into operation. With this issue resolved, supporters secured just enough votes to win approval, with 187 delegates in favor, 168 against and nine absent. Despite such compromises, when the new government went into operation in March 1789, North Carolina and Rhode Island still remained outside the union.

Maier also highlights other unexpected twists and turns in the ratification process. Initially, for example, James Madison and many other Federalists regarded the notion of amendments to secure individual liberties as unnecessary and superfluous. Critics of the Constitution, however, helped persuade Madison that such amendments would go a long way toward alleviating popular reservations about the proposed government and, not coincidentally, would preclude more substantial changes that might weaken the central government's authority. At the same time, certain delegates in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania promoted an alternative process of amendment, advocating the calling of a second Constitutional Convention. Only Congress's timely submission of amendments to the states prevented the second-convention movement from gaining momentum. Despite their defeat, former opponents of the Constitution quickly reconciled themselves to the new system. However disgruntled they might have been, unlike political losers in many other times and places, they did not resort to arms or call for secession. In fact, many former antifederalists chose to run for Congress.

In contrast to historians who see the ratification of the Constitution as the result of elites' manipulation of the masses, Maier tells a far more suspenseful and complex story. Her superb work provides an object lesson in the value of the deliberative process and the extent to which moderation and compromise are at the very foundation of our government. As Maier convincingly shows, the Constitution's preamble did not simply represent a rhetorical flourish or an abstract philosophical theory. It was the very means by which "We the People" chose to embrace a peaceful revolution in government.

Rosemarie Zagarri is a professor of history at George Mason University and the author, most recently, of "Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company