The Constitution Before the Judgment Seat: The Prehistory and Ratification of the American Constitution, 1787-91 by Jürgen Heideking (review)
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U.S. Constitution, Ratification, Federalists, Anti-Federalists

The Constitution Before the Judgment Seat: The Prehistory and Ratification of the American Constitution, 1787-91. By Jürgen Heideking, ed. John P. Kaminski and Richard Leffler. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012. Pp. 584. Cloth, $45.00.)

The Constitution Before the Judgment Seat is a revised version of Jürgen Heideking's award-winning 1988 book, which was originally published in German. Heideking was preparing the manuscript for release in English in 2000, the year he died tragically in a car accident. Twelve years later, thanks to editors John P. Kaminski and Richard Leffler, Heideking's work is finally available in English.

The long delay in the appearance of this book prompts some unusual questions: Can a book nearly a quarter-century old make fresh contributions to the study of the ratification of the Constitution? Have its arguments been replicated (or refuted) by other scholars? Can a book retroactively achieve the status of a classic work in the field if few scholars have ever had a chance to read it? In short, what is the status and utility of a book which, because of very unusual circumstances, appears before us as if out of a time machine?

Gladly, this book shows few signs of wear. The Constitution Before the Judgment Seat instantly becomes the most definitive one-volume account of the Constitution's ratification. It becomes so not just for its accuracy but also because of its scope. Heideking admirably sets context, providing background information on conditions in the immediate post-Revolution period, on public and elite attitudes and ideologies, and on the nature of private correspondence and public dialogue during the era. He also extends his analysis forward, including chapters on the "festive culture" that celebrated ratification and on the process that eventually produced the Bill of Rights. In between are two long chapters on "Party Formation and Convention Elections" and "State Ratifying Conventions."

In each matter it tackles the book is full of original quotes from a breathtaking array of sources. Heideking was among the initial set of scholars to take advantage of the compilations offered by several modern documentary history projects, and it shows. His own observations are rigorously backed by the documentary record, rarely speculative, and almost always sound. Because it appears now, however, the book is not [End Page 371] particularly path breaking. With few exceptions Heideking reinforces what we already know (or at least what we think we know) about the ratification era. Thus established scholars may find this book's use primarily as a quicker reference to essential source material than the Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution and as a source of clear, sound summary quotes.

Nevertheless, a generation of graduate students will be reading this book with great profit. They will also, no doubt, be assigned projects that will outline the subsequent historiography of one of the topics it treats and then define a new project of their own in that area. The work's sheer breadth opens many such avenues. By contrast, recent scholarship has tended to break down the Constitution's founding into smaller constituent pieces. That is a logical historiographical progression, as scholars produce more fine-grained analyses. The appearance of The Constitution Before the Judgment Seat is a reminder of the significant integrative value of more comprehensive approaches.

So many works pertaining to the subject matter of this book have been written since 1988 that it is impossible to do justice to them. The theses that have been offered on individual subjects like the ideologies of the actors involved, popular opinion during the founding period, public processionals, and election processes offer some differences of emphasis but rarely a fundamental dispute with Heideking's conclusions.

Let me take one example for illustration. Heideking divided both Federalists and Anti-Federalists into two different groups—strong and moderate variants (175). This is a perfectly functional distinction, useful in describing attitudes toward ratification and willingness to compromise. In the meantime Saul Cornell distinguished three groups of Anti-Federalists, based on socioeconomic background: elite, middling, and plebeian. Cornell's approach also offers a meaningful distinction...