J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Pauline Maier’s Ratification Process

Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 is Pauline Maier’s logical follow-up to American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, published in 1997.

The earlier book discussed the Declaration not as the product of Thomas Jefferson’s mind, or the collective genius of the Continental Congress, but as the culmination of a nationwide process that produced many similar suggestions, resolutions, and local declarations. And Maier had the documents to make her case.

In Ratification, Maier chose to skip the oft-told story of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to look at the longer and in many ways more complex process by which the states debated and accepted the product of that convention.

A supermajority of states had to ratify the Constitution in some way for it to take effect. Yet many Americans opposed the idea of a stronger national government, and even some members of the Constitutional Convention went home saying the final document was badly flawed.

States that called special ratifying conventions opened the debate up to politically minded citizens who weren’t wealthy or prestigious enough to have yet served in national or state legislatures. Many of the local meetings that elected those delegates also gave them detailed instructions about what the community liked and disliked about the new document.

I’ve read Ratification’s two long chapters on Massachusetts, though not the whole book, and I’m impressed by the level of detail. The volume has 472 pages of text, 69 of notes, and 29 pages of index—one of the most thorough indexes I’ve seen in a while. There are six maps and a pictorial insert. Most important, Maier’s intellectual analysis of what really went on is sharp as always.

Here, for instance, is her take on the heroic story Massachusetts federalists told themselves after the ratifying convention had ended with the delegates conditionally approving the new Constitution by a vote of 187-168:

“It is now no secret that on the opening of the convention, a majority were prejudiced against” the Constitution, Henry Knox told [George] Washington after the vote was in. Federalists liked to say that (and historians tend to repeat their conclusion) because it made their triumph seem all the greater. They forget that they were unable to calculate the number of delegates against ratification when the convention opened, in good part because many delegates were undecided and, indeed, had often been told by their towns to listen to the convention’s debates before drawing conclusions. Nothing that came later could change that well-founded initial uncertainty.
And that close, uncertain vote was only one approval out of the nine needed for the Constitution to take effect.

TOMORROW: The real story of the Bill of Rights.

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