Sunday, November 07, 2010

Book Review: "Ratification"

Pauline Maier begins her new book Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (Simon & Schuster, 2010) with an idea she remembered being promoted by the historian Barbara Tuchman: "A writer can build suspense in telling a story, she said, even if the reader knows how the story turned out, so long as the writer never mentions the outcome until it happens at the proper place in the story" (p. xvi). Maier adds that this book is an effort to test that theory, and at least to the thinking of this reader, that effort worked like a charm.

You could fill a shelf with books written about the Constitutional Convention (actually several shelves, as my living room will testify), but as Maier notes in her introduction, books on the ratification process are few and far between, and there has never been a narrative history that treats the entire sequence of ratifying convention (Maier writes that she sympathizes with those past historians who have shied away from tackling the subject: "It's no easy thing to tell the story of an even that happened in thirteen different places, sometimes simultaneously", p. x).

Drawing on the wonderful resource that is the Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution (and lavishing much well-deserved praise on that project), Maier has done what no one else has ever managed to do. Ratification is a tour de force display of a historian's skills: she has written a history of the ratification debates that is not only readable, but is also as captivating as any political thriller I've ever read. How'd she do it?

First, she includes a useful framing device: George Washington. In a prologue, Maier focuses on Washington's careful deliberations over whether or not he should participate in the Philadelphia Convention, and throughout the book, as the Constitution is debated from New Hampshire to Georgia, she returns to Mount Vernon to monitor Washington's efforts to encourage and support ratification of the Constitution (and to obtain information about the process as it happened).

Second, Maier brings in new characters. While the familiar participants in the debates (James Wilson, James Madison, Patrick Henry, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, &c.) take their rightful place here, a whole cast of new and intriguing characters are also brought to the front of the stage. From Amos Singletary, Dummer Sewall, Jonathan Smith, and Phanuel Bishop in Massachusetts to Zachariah Johnston in Virginia to Melancton Smith and Gilbert Livingston in New York, Maier plucks from the DHRC's vast archive new voices, some of whom had extremely interesting things to say about the Constitution and its potential impact on America's future.

Third, the narrative structure of the book brings the sense of contingency into the picture, and offers Maier an opportunity to present the ratification process in each state as it was: a totally different situation from those that had come before, with important consequences for those that would come after. The debacle in Pennsylvania, in which supporters of ratification basically tried to rush debate and shove through the Constitution over the objections of a very vocal minority, led future conventions to move much more carefully and deliberately (and, as in Massachusetts, caused the majority's delegates to take much more care to ensure that their opponents felt like their arguments were being considered). As more states ratified, the situation continued to shift, so that by the time later conventions met the question became not whether the Constitution would take effect, but whether the state would join the new government or stay outside it (this argument ended up playing a major role in several of the final conventions). Each state's convention was markedly different in terms of style, rules, tone, and method of debate (not to mention the reporting of its proceedings); that Maier has managed to bring together this vast amount of data into a coherent form is a true testament to her skill as a storyteller.

Beyond the conventions themselves, Maier turns her sharp eye to the press coverage of the ratification process, both in terms of how the press in different states handled the debates over the Constitution (some refusing to print anti-ratification essays, others refusing to print unsigned or anonymous submissions), and how the newspaper coverage was received by the population at large and how the essays did (and, perhaps more importantly, did not) shape the convention debates.

I think the most fascinating aspect of the story to me was the level of attention which convention delegates in various states (and non-delegates too, for that matter) brought to the discussions of the proposed Constitution. These people knew the document, they understood what its provisions meant, and they brought keen eyes and sharp minds to the table. How many of us (or of our current crop of legislators) could decipher the objections leveled against the proposed Constitution by the town meeting of Belchertown, Massachusetts: "1st. there is no bill of Right[s]. For other Reasons See artical 1 Section 2-3-4 and 8[,] artical 2d Section 1 & 2[,] artical 3d Section 1 and [Article] 6. With many other obvious Reasons" (p. xvi). Now, to be fair, if we were in their shoes we (well, some of us, anyway) might pay a similar level of attention, but Maier offers a glimpse of just how involved and devoted "we the people" were to making sure their rights and liberties were guarded by the new framework of government they were charged with approving or rejecting.

It seems to me that the ratification process is one of those historical moments where we think we know the story, but we really only know that it all worked out in the end. I was shocked to learn that Rhode Island first submitted the Constitution to the people for a public referendum, instead of calling a convention to decide its fate: the vote, held in March 1788, failed 237-2708. It was not until May 1790, after Congress had passed a bill prohibiting all trade with Rhode Island and demanding repayment of a $25,000 debt (prompting Providence to open discussions about seceding from the rest of the state), that a convention voted in a squeaker (34-32) to ratify the Constitution. I'd known RI was the last to ratify, but the specifics really bring home just how powerful the opposition there was (the same could be said, I must note, for most of the other states, where ratification was anything but a sure-run thing).

A final chapter ties up the loose ends, covering the organization of the federal government (bringing Washington back into the picture), and the actions of the first Congress in proposing and submitting to the states the first round of amendments (recommended by a number of the state conventions). In a postscript she revisits the characters from the conventions, examining their future careers and, generally, their conversion to support for the Constitution as it took effect.

Sure to stand the test of time, this is a must-read book for the political junkie, or for anyone interested in the Constitution's origins and the debates which eventually - but not inevitably, as every page makes clear - led to its adoption by the people of these United States.

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