Book Review: Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788

Note to reader: I wrote this book review last year for my Early American Political Course. Certain passages might be a bit dated as current circumstances have changed. Nonetheless, I think my review captures what the book is about and tries to do justice to it. 

The recent government shutdown showed that the clashes of ideas regarding the U.S Constitution are still present in American politics. Too many politicians took the stand in Congress and argued passionately about the U.S Constitution, what it does, and how did it come into existence. Unfortunately, some of them need to rethink what they were saying. A good start would be reading Pauline Maier’s Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788. This enlightening book provides a rigorous account of the ratification process and helps us better understand what our ancestors thought about the role of the government.

As I was studying the development of political thought in early America, I had the pleasure of reading Maier’s Ratification. Maier, the William Rand Kenan Jr. Professor of History at MIT, dedicated her academic career to the American revolutionary era and the founding fathers. Sadly, she passed away last summer, leaving behind a remarkable academic legacy of books in the revolutionary era, among them American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence.[i] 

As in Maier’s previous books, Ratification intelligibly reflects Maier’s ability to present information in a clear way. Ratification tells the story of how “We the People” decided whether or not to ordain and establish the Constitution of the United States.[ii] Located in the timeline of 1787 – 1788, the book offers a vivid account of the greatest public debates over the Constitution between Federalists – supporters of the Constitution – and its opponents, the “Antifederalists”, a term Maier is reluctant to use as it is a product of Federalists’ thought.

When the average American hears the terms “Federalists” and “Antifederalists,” the names of Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison and a book with 85 essays printed at the state of New York during the ratification debates come up. But, as shown in Ratification, New Yorkers weren’t the only ones debating the Constitution. It was a national debate, similar in some aspects with the one that concluded that reviewing the Articles of Confederation was a necessity.

Ratification begins with the aforementioned conclusion; it narrates the events leading to the Philadelphia Convention, briefly mentions what happened inside the convention and then focuses on public debates in the individual states and the politicking behind it. Throughout the book, Maier presents the reader with a large number of central figures in the state debates, ranging from prominent figures such as Patrick Henry or George Mason to ordinary Americans that for their first time are being part of a political question and want to decide the future of the Union. This highlights Maier’s theme of focusing the book more on the people rather than on eminent politicians. After all, the book is named Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 and not, Ratification: State Politicians Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788. Besides the prologue and the epilogue, Ratification is divided into 14 chapters. A chapter or more is dedicated to each state, mostly depending on the amount of information that Maier has been able to gather and also how much the people debated the Constitution in the respective state. The most prominent state conventions were those of Pennsylvania (chapter 4), Massachusetts (chapter 6 and 7), Virginia (chapters 9 and 10) and New York (chapters 12 and 13), meanwhile the chapters in between reflect on the ratification debates among other states such as Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maryland and South and North Carolina.[iii] The former conventions had a vital role in the ratification process and Maier makes sure that the reader is provided with large, solid information on what was going in the respective states.

Maier also covers the politicking behind all the conventions. Ratification reveals how the interest of a specific state played a vital role in the debates and how the goals of each state influenced the politics behind the convention of the respective state. For example, the Federalists of Pennsylvania were so obsessed with the idea of being the first state to ratify the Constitution that they dragged by force one of the state delegates to the convention in order to reach a quorum. Yet, Delaware was able to be the first state to ratify the Constitution as the delegates of Delaware realized that their state benefits more under the Constitution than under the Articles of Confederation. Similar patterns of thought were applied in other states. Delegates of each state were thinking on the local level rather than the national level, putting their interest on top of the list before that of the nation. However, there were also delegates that made a huge impact as ardent Federalists on the ratification process that Maier capably emphasizes such as James Wilson of Pennsylvania, John Jay of New York, and James Iredell of North Carolina.

Maier’s Ratification connects all the dots of the ratification debates on each state and offers the reader an enlightening view of the national debates over the Constitution. It connected perfectly with what I had been reading prior to it and made all historical events of the early American development understandable. Ratification connects events from Gordon Wood’s The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, Douglas Adair’s Fame and The Founding Fathers: Essays of Douglass Adair, Alfred Young’s The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution and with Joanne Freeman’s Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. Furthermore, chapter 14 of the Ratification narrates the convention of North Carolina and some thoughts expressed in the state convention can be traced also during the debates on the Civil War treated by Abraham Lincoln.

Ratification is the book that every individual interested in the Constitution should read. It is challenging, illuminating, refreshing and creative. However, as new documents are being discovered, scholars should attempt to discuss in more details the ratification process. The best source for them to start is Maier’s Ratification. As a final note, due to the current political climate where there is a renaissance of the Tea Party, or as I believe Maier would call them “The Destruction of the Tea Party”, it is essential that prospective and current supporters of the “Tea Party” read Maier’s Ratification as this extraordinary book will reveal an enlightening truth to them.

Courtesy of Amazon

Courtesy of Amazon

Work Cited:

[i] Maier, Pauline, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788, back of the book

[ii] Maier, Pauline, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788, page ix

[iii] I would like to say that the idea for the above template came from the Ratification book review that my professor R. B. Bernstein did.