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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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None of the major outlines of this history is new. What Maier has added to it is detail, nuance, and suspense. Never before have the stakes been so vividly evident. Never before have the modest figures who had their brief moments of historical significance gained the historical portrayals they always deserved. And never before have we been able to see with the clarity Maier brings to her story how remarkable a crisis this constitutional moment was and how penetrating were the arguments on both sides of the debate.

Those who already know some of this history and the arguments among historians that have long surrounded it will be surprised by one characteristic of Maier’s work. It is silent about one of the single most influential historical debates of the past century: whether the Constitution was the product of Enlightenment thought, of the political culture of the late 18th-century Anglo-American world, or of economic interests. The name of Charles A. Beard, who in 1913 inaugurated this enduring interpretive battle over the foundations of American government, does not even appear in the index, nor do the names of those scholars who did battle with Beard, reinterpreted the evidence he used, or took scholarship about the framing and ratification of the Constitution in new directions.

Beard sought to establish the capitalist and class basis of American constitutional government in order to call into question claims made for its universal timeliness and applicability. While Beard’s crude interpretation did not stand up to scrutiny, he indelibly established most, even if not all, of the bases on which historians still argue about the Constitution’s origins and significance.

Ratification suggests, by its silence about this debate, that an era—a full century—of historiography of the Constitution has come to an end. Yet it’s curious that Maier shows no interest in that debate one way or the other, because it’s hard to think of a time since the 1920s when a review of the constitutional foundations of American mis-government and market economies run amok would be more appropriate than it is now. Nor would it have been inappropriate for Maier to suggest the unfavorable implications for originalist interpretations of the Constitution embodied in her history.

But she has no axe to grind, no overarching argument to offer. Her intent, made all the more justifiable by the previous absence of a book like this, is simply to narrate the story of one of the most critical moments in American history in all its complexity and suspense. But doing so without connecting the story’s elements to a strong thematic or interpretive spine robs it of the clear place in the literature of its subject and, equally important, of a sense of its relevance to our times that it might otherwise have had. Hers is necessarily a story of often-dry debate, historical and legal back-and-forth, occasional moments of high oratory, but not of the kind of color, character, and pacing that makes naturally for exciting history. The book’s interest and value lie elsewhere: in bringing to life the contents of debate, a sense of what hung in the balance, and the enduring consequences of the outcome.

Surely her conclusion is correct: that both sides, the Federalists and Antifederalists alike, won their battles, the Feds the basic document, the Antis the Bill of Rights. William Findley, a Pennsylvanian who had fought as hard as anyone to defeat the Constitution, eventually came round to the view that the Constitution deserved to be seen as a testament of freedom. It gave the United States, he wrote, “the best government in the world.”

James M. Banner Jr., a cofounder of the National History Center, is the editor, with John R. Gillis, of Becoming Historians, a set of the memoirs of 11 historians.

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