We are unable to display your institutional affiliation without JavaScript turned on.
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Find using OpenURL

Buy This Issue

The Constitution Goes Public: Politics and the Ratification Debate

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 41, Number 2, June 2013
pp. 213-219 | 10.1353/rah.2013.0056

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

This is a propitious time to be studying the U.S. Constitution and its ratification. The invaluable Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, an ongoing, multivolume project based at the University of Wisconsin, makes available to scholars nearly everything published or written, publicly or privately, pertaining to ratification. Pauline Maier’s impressive study, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution (2010), which draws heavily on the Documentary History, provides a solid analytical narrative of the process of ratification focusing on the state conventions. Still other works—some recently published, others in progress—address related constitutional matters and offer additional perspectives. And now comes this book, originally published in German in 1988, its content only partially available until now, and its publication long anticipated by students of the Founding.1

These newer works are welcome because the ratification debate, despite its significance, has had a spotty and frustrating historiographical record. Robert Rutland’s The Ordeal of the Constitution (1966; rev. ed. 1983) was uneven, extremely quirky and impressionistic, largely undocumented, and it focused mostly on the anti-Federalists. Some of the best work came in a pair of edited collections on ratification in the individual states that appeared around the time of the bicentennial of the Constitution. Both collections contained able treatments but neither offered a larger interpretive overview of ratification. Various articles and dissertations, the fugitive chapter or two in random collections, and some review essays all made contributions here and there, but there was still no comprehensive treatment of ratification until the fortuitous appearance of Maier’s book and of this volume.2

The story of this book’s publication history is marked by both persistence and tragedy. The original work was published in German in 1988 after the author had spent considerable time in Madison in regular contact with the Documentary History editors, who included John P. Kaminski and Richard Leffler. Following German publication, Heideking again worked with Kaminski and Leffler to revise the work and sought grants to publish in English, originally with Madison House, then Rowman and Littlefield. But, tragically, Heideking was killed in an automobile accident in 2000, and the project stalled until Kaminski and Leffler stepped back in as editors and helped secure funding and then publication from the University of Virginia Press. Heideking’s original efforts, and subsequently those of his Wisconsin friends after his death, have now paid off in this significant work.

With a grasp of the history that is impressive and sure-handed, Heideking locates the debate over the Constitution against the broad sweep of early America from the Revolution through the early republic and is also alert to the place of U.S. history in the grand scheme of world history. His account of ratification connects the debate back in time to the Revolution and then traces its story past ratification into the celebratory festivals of 1788, the first congressional elections, and the debates over amendments.

This book makes a number of specific, contextualized arguments about various aspects of ratification rather than pushing a single overarching thesis. But if there is a larger argument to the work, it is that Heideking casts the Federalists as “the revolutionaries of 1787–88 . . . [who] knew they would have to break with all established modes of thought and political language to succeed” (p. 134). But theirs was a revolution ironically intended (almost conservatively) “to achieve stability, order, security, and predictability” (p. 134). The anti-Federalists, in contrast, were still fastened to an older world-view and were anxious rather than hopeful about change. To their minds, Heideking writes, “America was on the verge of imitating all the mistakes already endured by Europeans” (p. 133), and this drove their opposition to the document. Rather than being a social or a class struggle, ratification “was more a clash between two distinct attitudes, mentalities, and political cultures shaped by the divergent way the opposing groups experienced life” (pp. 425–26). But if the Federalists were the revolutionaries, Heideking sees ratification as a dialectical process in which the innovative Federalists “needed the ideological-political counterweight provided by the Antifederalist party” (p. 429). Their objections ensured that the revolution toward government did not go too far and...

You must be logged in through an institution that subscribes to this journal or book to access the full text.


Shibboleth authentication is only available to registered institutions.

Project MUSE

For subscribing associations only.