- Contested Conventions: The Struggle to Establish the Constitution and Save the Union, 1787–1789 by Melvin Yazawa
In the last few decades, a wave of research has effectively undermined Gordon S. Wood's argument in The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787 (Chapel Hill, 1969) that "the struggle over the Constitution … can best be understood as a social one" (p. 484). More specifically, works by scholars such as Peter S. Onuf, Lance Banning, and David C. Hendrickson have established that widespread preoccupation with a fortified union was the primary reason that representatives of the new American states constructed and ratified the Constitution. Although Melvin Yazawa does not mention, oddly enough, this historiographical context, his new book contributes to the ascendant unionist interpretation by skillfully surveying the politics of union during the Constitutional Convention and state ratifying conventions.
The great strength of Contested Conventions: The Struggle to Establish the Constitution and Save the Union, 1787–1789 is that, in combination with its engaging narratives of the various debates, Yazawa's narrow focus on unionism reveals just how crucial fears of disunion were to the establishment of a constitutional regime. For instance, the author deftly demonstrates that the Connecticut compromise, which was initially thwarted, was agreed to only after states threatened to establish separate confederacies and only because some advocates of population-based representation in both legislative branches [End Page 141] reluctantly determined that concessions had to be made in order to secure a stronger union. In like manner, Yazawa explains that even though Edmund Randolph had initially refused to sign off on the Constitution because his motion near the conclusion of the Philadelphia federal convention to allow states the "'power to adopt, reject, or amend'" the proposed document was defeated, the Virginia governor nonetheless later endorsed adoption during his state's ratifying convention out of fear of a "'dissolution of the Union'" (pp. 104, 150). Concerns about dissolution and its consequences—foreign meddling, civil war, anarchy, and despotism—not only repeatedly surfaced but also, at pivotal moments, impelled a sufficient number of individuals to accede to what they considered disagreeable, if not foolhardy, unjust, and potentially dangerous, constitutional arrangements.
The underlying factual basis (or lack thereof) of prevailing anxieties about disunion is not something that Yazawa addresses at length. Or rather, he addresses it by taking seriously the "sense of crisis" that many felt by viewing commonplace perceptions as a dynamic reality that generated the preconditions for otherwise unlikely historical developments (p. 3). This sense of crisis was so pervasive and intense that it affected numerous opponents of the Constitution. Federalists did not persuade Antifederalists that their objections to the Constitution were wrongheaded; instead, they persuaded enough of them that the Constitution was the best available option and that rejecting it entirely or accepting it conditionally would result in disunion or injurious, unsustainable isolation for a particular state. In that sense, many Antifederalists were unionists at heart, which explains not only why Melancton Smith and Zephaniah Platt subjected themselves to criticism by reversing course and voting to ratify the Constitution at New York's convention, but also why they justified their votes with allusions to "'the preservation of the Union'" and the "'choice of evils'" that delegates faced (pp. 204, 205). The clash between Federalists and Anti-federalists was thus a dispute among allies with the same practical objective and relatively mild in comparison to the impending 1790s partisan divide. In light of the underlying common ground, it is unsurprising that opponents of the Constitution supported it after it was ratified.
By homing in on fears of disunion, Yazawa has written one of the best introductions to the struggle over the Constitution, to what people at the time believed was at stake, and to how exactly Federalists achieved their victory. This relatively concise, well-written, and narration-filled book should accordingly be of interest to many historians and would work well in their classrooms.