Monday, November 14, 2011

Book Review: RATIFICATION: THE PEOPLE DEBATE THE CONSTITUTION, 1787-1788 by Pauline Maier (Simon and Schuster, 2011)

There are many, many books on the shelves about the writing of the U.S. Constitution, but surprisingly few on the contentious process by which the document was ratified by representatives in the various states. Maier's book admirably fills that gap, managing to make the lengthy, and frequently dry, debates in the ratification conventions come to life. In the course of winning the war of words, the pro-Constitution forces were forced to achieve a higher level of understanding of the meaning of the historic document, a vantage point that would serve the new United States well, most significantly in the adoption of amendments which would ultimately become known (though not until a while later) as the Bill of Rights. They also learned that simply relying on an urban-dominated majority to quickly ram ratification through (as was the case in Pennsylvania) could not serve as a global strategy. In the tense, near-run ratification fights in Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York, in particular, argument and persuasion, plus a healthy respect for the legitimate points raised by the "Anti-federalists" -- points that managed to breach the dike of a largely biased and hostile popular press -- were required to carry the day. Maier is at her best when describing the struggles in these three key states, in which old Revolutionary War allies frequently found one another on opposite sides of the debate. She also explains in some detail why the proponents of ratification found the sledding to be the toughest of all in Rhode Island and North Carolina, both of which took a while to accept the reality of the Constitutional regime. This is a highly readable and important contribution to the historiography of the early American republic.

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