Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, book review

On July 4, 1788, in Poughkeepsie, New York, the good citizens of the town gathered together for a patriotic celebration and parade. The parade culminated in a giant bonfire. And at the top of the bonfire, they carefully placed a copy of the proposed Constitution of the United States. And everyone cheered as the Constitution went up in flames. Why would they do this? Why, for obvious reasons. These were freedom loving people, patriots all. And this newfangled Constitution thing was the most obvious possible threat to American liberty.

Reading this story was just one of the many pleasures of Pauline Maier’s splendid new book, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788. Maier’s book is exhaustively researched; as such, it’s full of surprises. We tend to think of our Constitution as kind of miraculous, as divinely inspired, even. Certainly nobody at the time thought so. Even it’s strongest defenders were convinced that it was a deeply flawed document, and in many cases, the best defense that could be mustered for it added up to ‘let’s try it, and in time, we’ll see clearly enough–and can amend–its most serious flaws.’ Heck, we could probably do worse, all things considered.

I did not know, for example, how much the Federalists (that loose coalition of people who fought for ratification), feared Patrick Henry of Virginia. Virginia was the ultimate swing state–the most populous in the union, the United States could not plausibly survive without it, and the ratification vote was likely to be very close indeed. And in part, that was because of Henry, Mr. “Give me Liberty or Give Me Death” (which he almost certainly never said). Henry was an extraordinary orator, inexhaustible and eloquent, and fiercely opposed to the Constitution. The fear was that that, all by himself, he could sway undecided delegates by the bushelful. And it turns out that what Henry probably wanted was essentially two independent American nations, one in the North and one in the South, with the Southern confederation retaining the peculiar institution of slavery.  I say ‘probably’ because he never quite was able to make that case explicitly–he seems to have been aware that it was too radical for most of his fellow delegates. So he limited himself to tying the convention in knots.

There was a general consensus that one fellow delegate might have the knowledge and eloquence to combat Henry, James Madison. Madison was not, however well, and initially didn’t even think he could manage to attend the ratifying convention. And when he did show up, his illness weakened him to the point that he was difficult to hear, apparently. (He was a slight man, physically, anyway). But even on the written page, Madison’s intellect just shines. The Virginia debate between Madison and Henry becomes one of those time machine moments; you wish you could have been there. (Understanding that Henry and Madison each spoke for hours at a time, in that multi-clause, densely punctuated 18th century prose).

The specific issues that the various ratifying conventions had with the Constitution read oddly today, though Maier does a brilliant job of putting them into context. In many instances, anti-Federalists were animated by local concerns, with issues specific to their own circumstances. One of the biggest worries is the brief reference in Article 2 Section 3 about ‘direct taxes.’ Those who opposed the Constitution often cited that provision as particularly odious. They felt that state legislators were more likely to tax people fairly, because of their close acquaintance with their circumstances; even then, the federal government was seen as too distant from citizens’ concerns. Nobody knew what ‘direct taxes’ were, or how they would function, but still they were feared. (Needlessly, as it happens; direct taxes were hardly ever collected, only at time of war, and were eventually superceded by the federal income tax after the passage of the 16th amendment).

Another major concern had to do with the office of Vice President. That office was seen as unnecessary and dangerous–in fact, the fear was that the Vice President would become uncontrollably powerful. That idea is amusing to us today. But since the Vice President breaks a tie in the Senate, and since the presumption was that Senators would disagree about everything, Anti-Federalists thought the VP would be breaking ties all the time, giving him near-dictatorial powers.

The biggest issue raised in all the ratifying conventions had to do with amendments. Pretty much everyone agreed that the Constitution was flawed, and would need to be amended. New York recommended dozens of amendments. For one thing, the Constitution didn’t have a proper bill of rights. And every state took issue with some provision or another, direct taxes being particularly controversial. So delegates at those state ratifying conventions had to decide; should they ratify now and amend later, or should they agree to ratify only if certain amendments were agreed to beforehand.

Our constitution might look very different today if those ratifying delegates had insisted on amendments as a precondition to ratification. Fortunately, no state did, though the margin was razor-thin in some states, most particularly New York, Virginia and Rhode Island.

If you love the Constitution, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. But don’t look for evidence of divine inspiration or miraculous interventions. Such were never part of the writing of the Constitution or of its ratification. Instead, what we had were a large number of intelligent and thoughtful men with very different agendas and priorities, arguing, discussing and eventually compromising their way to a document that none of them thought perfect, but which all agreed was probably the best they could come up with, given their circumstances. And it’s served us well. That’s miracle enough for me.


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