- Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787–1788 by Pauline Maier
U.S. Constitution, Constitional ratification, Federalism, Anti-Federalists
In Ratification, Pauline Maier writes to address a surprising gap in Revolutionary-era scholarship: how the various states ratified the federal [End Page 674] Constitution. Given the historical significance of ratification, Maier laments, we still do not know much about how the process of ratification unfolded. Maier’s focus, however, is not really on process. Instead, she presents ideas and rhetoric. Her book is successful in reporting the arguments for and against the Constitution in newspapers and at the state ratification conventions. Those who want to understand the stakes involved in the ratification process, how the Federalists managed to get the Constitution ratified, and why the ‘‘Antifederalists’’ lost will need to look elsewhere. This is a book about what some (usually elite) people said and how they said it, not process or meaning.
Maier bases her book almost entirely on the magnificent volumes in the Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution. This collection is the real star of the book, along with its primary editor John P. Kaminski, who has assembled such a comprehensive and wonderfully edited compilation.
Maier’s strength is in using those volumes to show how the arguments in the ratification debates unfolded over time. Presenting the ratification arguments is nothing new. Maier’s contribution is in showing how rhetoric repeated and changed as state after state debated the Constitution. The most interesting part is how delegates and writers in different states recycled the same basic points, but often refined them based on what seemed effective (or ineffective) in prior states and how they repackaged arguments for audiences in their own states. To this end, the book reads as an evolving set of talking points used by each side as the debate progressed from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts to Virginia to New York (the states that form the core of the book). We also see changes in strategy and intensity depending on whether a state rushed ratification, as in Pennsylvania, or was one of the last holdouts, as in New York. By showing this change over time, Maier offers some important context for understanding the debates.
Unfortunately, that is about the only context we get. Maier largely ignores parts of the story that would provide readers with a clearer understanding of the significance of the debates and why the process unfolded as it did. In part, it is a choice of economy: This is a long book and Maier’s focus is on words, not actions. That said, she misses much that would help inform our understanding of the debates. She offers only glimpses into the Federalists’ masterful and at times ruthless organizing strategy and its machinations, vote counting, and arm twisting. As Maier ironically demonstrates, this pre-convention gamesmanship was far more [End Page 675] important than the debates at the state conventions in shaping the contest. Indeed, the matter was nearly always decided before the delegates ever took their seats. She notes that in the case of New York, ‘‘Oratory and argument seemed to have accomplished little except to fill time while entertaining some spectators and alienating others’’ (348). One would think that the Federalist upper hand in organizing and publication as well as prior knowledge of victory or defeat shaped the subsequent debates in fundamental ways from the very outset. Maier, however, does not really consider why the debate was so limited from the start or analyze much of the change over time that she describes.
The lack of attention to process also makes for some unsatisfying explanations for why the Federalists won. For example, Maier is at a loss to explain how the Constitution was ratified in Connecticut, where, she notes, the ‘‘anti-federal party’’ had recently come into control of the lower house. Given that Connecticut voters had recently elected a slate of ‘‘dissidents,’’ Maier states that ‘‘Federalists were confident of victory for reasons that can only be described as puzzling.’’ She does little to...