The Magazine

Closing the Deal

Framing the Constitution was one thing, ratifying it was quite another.

Nov 29, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 11 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
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Closing the Deal

Photo Credit: Getty Images

The People Debate the
Constitution, 1787-1788
by Pauline Maier
Simon & Schuster, 608 pp., $30

As hard as it is to believe, this is the first complete history ever written about the American people’s acceptance of the Constitution written in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. That fact alone makes Pauline Maier’s book pathbreaking. It is also authoritative, masterful, and definitive.

Maier is known for her earlier studies of the coming of the Revolution, of the older figures among the revolutionaries, and, most recently, of the Declaration of Independence and its many sister declarations—the last a work of many surprises. Few know the revolutionary era as well as she, and few are as dogged in their research. With characteristic modesty, Maier credits the close-to-complete letterpress edition of the state-by-state record of the Constitution’s ratification in 1787 and 1788 for making possible the newest of her works. Those volumes are truly extraordinary in exhaustiveness and accuracy. It remains the case, however, that it is Maier and none other who has used the contents of the existing volumes to write this particular book, and then made up in archival digging and broad scholarship for those volumes that have not yet appeared.

That we have had to wait roughly 225 years for such a work has much to do with the place that the Declaration and the Constitution hold in Americans’ minds. The first spelled out our enduring commitments, the second the basic structure of American government ever since. But while the Declaration was adopted in a moment of revolutionary passion, the Constitution was the product of a more sober, disenthralled time. It was also the product of two distinct, if linked, sets of acts: first, of the celebrated gathering that wrote and adopted it; second, of the independent state conventions that ratified (and in two cases did not ratify) the text agreed to earlier in Philadelphia.

Since then, Americans have vaunted the “miracle at Philadelphia”—the writing of the Constitution by a group of “demigods”—but paid little attention to the second act of that world-historical drama: the debate about whether the proposed constitution warranted the people’s backing. That battle was, in Maier’s words, “one of the greatest and most probing public debates in American history,” one that took place “in newspapers, taverns, coffeehouses, and over dinner tables,” and engaged Americans, women as well as men, of all ranks and status everywhere. Ratification was, of course, fought out formally only among adult white men, for only they were authorized to exercise political power in the 18th century. Yet modest as well as great men participated in this public battle, and voices that rarely break through the record of great constitutional events made themselves heard with clarity and force.

“One excellent effect produced by the constitution,” one contemporary New York newspaper reflected, was “that almost every man is now a politician, and can judge for himself” the merits of the proposed constitution. The whole nation was involved in constitutional debate as rarely, if ever, it has been since. Maier captures all of the debate with unvarying balance and skill.

Yet notwithstanding widespread engagement in this high-stakes drama, ratification was never guaranteed. We forget how narrowly the Constitution won approval, by what whisker’s breadth the United States has not been governed since the 1780s under another kind of constitutional regime. For had the proposed constitution gone down to defeat in the ratification conventions, as often it nearly did, the United States would have continued to be governed, at least for a while, under the weak Articles of Confederation.

And then by what? Who knows. It’s hard to imagine that a second attempt would not have been made to replace the Articles, but any constitution emerging from a second convention would not have been the one we know now. It is Maier’s purpose to relate the tale of how ratification secured this Constitution, the longest-lived written national constitution in the world.

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