An acclaimed scholar brilliantly tracks the fight over the Constitution’s ratification: Was the proposed new government a confirmation or a betrayal of the American Revolution?
After meeting throughout the stifling of 1787 summer for the express purpose of recommending changes to the Articles of Confederation, delegates emerged from their secret deliberations in Philadelphia with a startling new proposal for a more energetic federal government. To take effect, the Constitution would require approval from at least nine of the 13 states. The ensuing national debate revisited virtually all the contentious issues that had roiled the Constitutional Convention, only this time the arguments were public and even more politically charged. Today, our reverence for the Constitution obscures the passionate battle over its approval by 18th-century Americans. Relying heavily on the massive documentary record of the ratifying conventions compiled by the Wisconsin Historical Society, Maier (American History/MIT; American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, 1998, etc.) revives those intense emotions, demonstrating how the arguments were shaped by each state’s peculiar history and by the leading participants in the debate. The author also shows how the outcome in each state—with particular attention paid to the crucial conventions in Massachusetts, Virginia and New York—affected the terms of the argument as the process unfolded. Notwithstanding eventual unanimity, the debate was close-run, despite the many advantages held by Federalist supporters. They controlled the majority of newspapers and dominated the professional and commercial classes most desirous of a strong national authority, and they often resorted to steamrolling opponents, obscuring nuanced objections to the Constitution and painting adversaries—these “Antifederalists,” a term to which Maier objects—as dangerous anarchists. Most of all, the Federalists had the imprimatur of George Washington, the new nation’s most unifying figure. The author orders her wide-ranging, complex narrative by frequently checking in with Washington, charting the progress of the ratifying conventions through the missives and messengers to and from Mount Vernon.
A scrupulously even-handed presentation based on impressive scholarship.