Rough and Ready and Real

Ratification coverThe ratification of the Federal Constitution is a notoriously difficult historical event to categorize. On the one hand, it is a watershed moment; the creation of a consolidated federal government with extensive power is a clear break with the immediate post-Independence traditions of American governance. Yet at the same time, it is traditionally seen as the final achievement of a revolutionary generation—the fulfillment of the ideals of the Revolution.[1]

Even the participants of the ratification debate resolutely frustrate the historian in her search for order. Supporters of ratification called themselves Federalists, yet within a matter of years, many Federalists balk at the pro-administration party adopting the same name. The most ardent opponents of ratification, on the other hand, quickly accepted the outcome of the ratification. The New York delegates  who left Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 in fear of what would come to pass had, by the summer of 1788, admitted it was “his and every other man’s duty” to support the new government.[2]

Pauline Maier’s greatest achievement in Ratification was that she saw this confusion as an opportunity, or even an asset, in coming to terms with the past. Previous work on the Federalists has a tendency to focus excessively on the friends of the Federal Republican Committee in New York, or the authors of the Federalist Papers. Anti-Federalists range from Cecilia Kenyon’s “men of little faith” to Herbert Storing’s constructive critics to Saul Cornell’s split between elite, middling, and plebeian camps.[3] Maier, by contrast, embraces the complexity of the ratification debate without essentializing the opinions of any of the main actors.

Such an approach is only possible with a mastery of the detail of ratification. The narrative relies extensively on the Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution.[4] That attention to detail, praised elsewhere in the roundtable, makes this a fantastic reference work for anyone interested in the ratification process. But it is also much more than that. It allows for a book that celebrates history as a ripping yarn not because it has easily discernible morals to the tale, but because it doesn’t.

That means that figures who don’t get their due in consideration of constitutional debates (particularly in popular narratives) loom more largely in Maier’s narrative. James Wilson’s role in shaping the contours of the Federalist position is rightly foregrounded. There is a similar attention to the ways in which Federalists vacillated and disagreed among themselves about the necessity of amendments.

Most importantly of all, Maier never allows the reader to forget that the appellation ‘Anti-Federalist’ is an anachronism, and that we can’t understand the innovations of the Constitution, or the full radicalism of the establishment of a new order without recognizing the subtle differences that attended an ostensibly polarized debate. Impressively, Maier achieves this for the most part without becoming too bogged downed in constitutional or ideological minutiae.

Occasionally, though, this leads to excessively technical sections where the thrust of the narrative drags somewhat. Perhaps most surprisingly, the introduction’s focus on George Washington seemed both long-winded and overly deferential in contract to the well-paced depiction of a rowdy and unruly process that followed.[5] In other places, there’s perhaps an overwhelming and ever-changing cast of characters that shifts markedly from chapter to chapter. In places, that works very well. The abrupt news of Alexander Dallas being sacked as the editor of the Pennsylvania Herald for his reporting of opposition speeches in the Pennsylvania convention, for example, is a jarring intervention.[6] At other times, Maier is perhaps a little too faithful to the notion of showing debates, warts and all.

Another theme somewhat underplayed in Maier’s narrative is the constant threat of violence that pervades the debates. That’s not to say violent episodes, censorship and intimidation don’t feature in the story—they do, and at regular intervals. There is a constant reference, though, to a general spirit of consensus in favor of reform, that can at times elide the ways in which Federalists would lie, cheat and steal their way to victory at all costs. Perhaps that’s inevitable in a book whose central conceit is to show how the development and discussion of ideas materially affected debates on the ground.  But while Maier does not use the public sphere directly as an interpretive framework, there is an undertone of a fundamental (if rough and ready) rationality behind the ratification debates.

That, though, is a small quibble in comparison to the historiography Maier is reacting against, and the popular memory she is hoping to influence and inform.[7] The attention to detail, and especially the evident desire to treat each and every participant in the debates with respect for their views, is an approach that could easily tend to the arcane. Yet Maier writes with a verve and an evident passion for telling the story that can engage academic specialists with its attention to detail, yet also provide a gripping read for. It is easy to see that Maier had great fun researching, writing, and talking to others about this book— the same energy and verve I saw when she addressed graduate students at the Colonial Society of Massachusetts in 2009 leaps out of every chapter.

In conclusion, it’s perhaps not surprising, as other participants in the roundtable have highlighted, that such a prominent member of the ‘Harvard Circle’ would write a book where the instincts are to place ideas on something of a historical pedestal. As in her other works, though, Maier approaches the history of ideas with a keen eye for how they influence events, and the link between political arguments and political action is elaborated in a detailed, substantiated, but nevertheless engaging and entertaining way. That would be a tough achievement in a purely academic study of ratification. To have done so in a book aimed at a popular as well as a wider audience is a remarkable achievement. Ratification will set the tone for understanding of the legacies and meanings of the Constitution for many years to come.

____________________

[1] Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992), 321-81.

[2] Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 433. For a longer view of the way Anti-Federalists become participants in the new regime, see David Siemers, Ratifying the Republic: Federalists and Anti-Federalists in Constitutional Time (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004).

[3] Cecilia Kenyon, The Anti-Federalists (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1966); Herbert J Storing, What the Anti-Federalists Were For: The Political Thought of the Opponents of the Constitution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1981); Saul Cornell, The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism and the Dissenting Tradition in America, 1788-1828 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).

[4] The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, 26 vols., eds. John P. Kaminski, et al. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1976- ).

[5] For example, the section at the end of the chapter on Pennsylvania—in which the uncertainties of that state’s ratification are drawn out nicely, then given pace by much shorter references to the Delaware, New Jersey and Georgia conventions. Maier, Ratification, 122-4.

[6] Maier, Ratification, 101.

[7] I have written on this theme with relation to public memory in regards to the designation of September 17 as ‘Constitution Day’ in all educational institutions receiving federal funds. http://observationandinspection.wordpress.com/2012/09/17/happy-constitution-day/

2 comments on “Rough and Ready and Real

  1. Michael Blaakman says:

    Really insightful post, Ken! I’d love to hear your thoughts on the WMQ’s roundtable forum discussion of *Ratification.* The discussion there ended in a pretty weird place, I thought, with people basically disagreeing about the extent to which the book was elite political history. Where would you come down on that question–and, more importantly, what do you make of the fact that that’s the direction the debate took?

    • R. B. Bernstein says:

      I was a participant in the WMQ Forum in RATIFICATION, and I was perplexed by those participants who insisted on stigmatizing the book as elite political history, when I thought that it was perhaps the ultimate example of Pauline Maier’s deft integration of all levels of public thought and action and public and private political discourse into one vast, complicated story. In the pages of RATIFICATION, the common people and their advocates get full and respectful coverage. Further, one of the truly iconoclastic aspects of Pauline Maier’s interpretation of the ratification controversy is her dismissal of the “paper war” that drew such close attention from such scholars as Herbert Storing.

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