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The Bourn Ultimatum: Popular Constitutionalism and Ratification Reconsidered

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 40, Number 3, September 2012
pp. 393-397 | 10.1353/rah.2012.0077

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Over the last few decades, interest in constitutional questions has waned among most historians. Scholarship on the Founding era remains vibrant, but most scholars now focus on questions relevant to the scholarly agendas of social and cultural history. In short, constitutional history has fallen on hard times. While historians have generally abandoned such topics, legal academics have churned out a steady stream of articles on virtually every aspect of the Constitution. Ceding the field of constitutional study to law professors whose training in history is often sketchy at best and who view the contextualist approach of historians as largely irrelevant has had profound consequences for the law. Often cast as a search for the original meaning of the Constitution, legal scholarship has influenced a number of recent Supreme Court decisions on questions as different as gun control and campaign finance reform.

The publication of Pauline Maier’s Ratification could hardly be more timely. Charting the political twists and turns of ratification is no easy matter, and Maier deftly spins a highly readable narrative. Maier concentrates most of her attention on the dynamics within the individual state ratification conventions. She is keenly interested in how the structure of debate within the individual state conventions affected the final votes in each state. Rather than demonstrate the inevitability of the Constitution’s triumph, Maier forcefully shows how remarkable the Federalist victory was, given the mood of the nation and the complex dynamics of the individual state contests. Indeed, Maier shows how Federalists’ early efforts to play hardball with their opponents often backfired. Had Federalists been more dogmatic and ideologically rigid, the Constitution might well have gone down to defeat. Conciliation and compromise were absolutely essential to Federalist victory.

Maier’s book is hardly a paean to the Federalist victors. The losers receive a fair amount of attention as well. Building on recent scholarship that has demonstrated both the vitality and heterogeneity of the opposition to the Constitution, Maier concludes that the very term Anti-Federalist confounds more than it clarifies. It is certainly true that the opponents of the Constitution were never happy with this label, and criticism of the Constitution was leveled from a broad spectrum of groups in American society. Still, jettisoning a construct that has been essential to historiography for almost a hundred years poses its own problems, and one wonders if other historians working on this period will follow her lead on the issue.

Many historians are likely to take issue with Maier’s rejection of the longstanding neo-Progressive interpretation of the origins of the Constitution. In her view, the struggle over the Constitution was not fundamentally a socioeconomic conflict. While her footnotes acknowledge this alternative conception, she does not engage with that rich body of scholarship. While it is hard to fault Maier for refusing to clutter her fluid and graceful narrative with distracting historiographical asides, it is a little surprising and even a bit disappointing that she chose not to address some of these debates more fully in her notes.

Having rejected socioeconomic conflict as the main organizing framework for understanding ratification does not mean that Maier’s framework has fallen back on a traditional top-down history. Ratification is not a tired rehash of a worn-out consensus history. The cast of characters in Maier’s narrative is large and diverse. She devotes ample time to well-known figures such as Washington and Madison. Lesser-known figures such as the New York Anti-Federalist Melancton Smith, a pivotal player in the outcome of ratification in New York, are elevated to their proper role as “Other Founders.” Even more significant, however, is her rediscovery of figures such as Thomas Bourn, a delegate from Cape Cod, Massachusetts. When the town of Sandwich proposed binding its delegates with specific voting instructions on ratification, Bourn threatened to resign, reminding his fellow townsmen that to deprive delegates of their voice would be to literally render them idiots. “Under the restrictions with which your delegates are fettered,” he wrote, “the greatest ideot [sic] might answer your purpose as well, as the greatest man” (p. 146). Bourn and scores of others like him provide a remarkable window into the ideas of the...



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