Wait long enough and, sometimes, your introduction writes itself. In an earlier incarnation of this post, I had an overlabored point on how the average Americans’ civics and US history background is lacking. Yesterday, former Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin, in the span of thirty-three seconds illustrated the point perfectly. Play the video below for her unique interpretation on Paul Revere’s midnight ride.
Lest we rush to judgment too quickly, Palin is a college educated former elected official. Her lack of knowledge on a well known moment of early American history is an indication she is not alone in being unaware of the opening days of our struggle for independence.
That is why a book like Pauline Maier’s “Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788” is so important. While dry and a slog of a read, it is an impeccably researched retelling of a period of American history that seems to be overlooked. I bet it is safe to venture that a sizeable percentage of the American population is unaware of the year and a half in time between the close of the Constitutional Convention and the first meeting of the federal government, let alone the eight years that passed between the Battle of Yorktown and George Washington taking the oath of office as America’s first president in New York City.
“Ratification” takes the reader from the months leading up to what turned into the Constitutional Convention through each state’s ratification convention, with most of the focus being on the major states in the process: Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York. Maier’s thesis is that for the first time in America’s short history, it wasn’t just the founding fathers and the landed elite who played critical roles in the ratification. Many towns throughout the states sent their elected delegates to their respective conventions with explicit instructions to either vote for or against the constitution as it stood.
Before diving into each state’s town elections and state conventions, Maier provides an overview of where the American confederation stood in 1787. Under the Articles of the Confederation, the central government was weak, a direct response to the centralization of power under the British Monarchy. The Articles’ flaws were evident as early as the Revolutionary War and in 1787, the states decided to convene a convention to strengthen the system they had. That convention, instead, created a new system of government that divided the delegates. This was an action that fell outside the purpose of the convention’s existence. A majority supported the constitution. Opponents either left the convention like Maryland’s Luther Martin while others stayed, but did not sign the document.
At times, Maier gets lost in the weeds as she explains the role of newspapers and broadsides in the dissemination of opinions on the constitution after it is released to the public before the state conventions. While the most famous is The Federalist Papers, she cites other articles and writers whose reach in the eyes of high school history classes may not have been as broad, but played a role within limited geographic regions.
The context for and the events of each convention are as varied as the populations and terrain of those very states. However, with Pennsylvania leading the way as the first state to start its convention, those favoring the Constitution – Federalists – realized the actions of that state’s supporters of ramming the document through without alteration would do more harm than good. Federalists in Massachusetts and Virginia were able to ensure ratification by agreeing to amendments that their representatives would push for in the first session of Congress.
Most conventions saw debates over similar issues: the government’s ability to tax, state sovereignty, the lack of a bill of rights, and a litany of fears of centralized government. Even after nine states had ratified the Constitution, making it the law of the land in those states, New York’s convention addressed the same issues, though, in that instance through the prism of whether it made sense to reject the document and be outside of the fledging country.
Most convention delegates agreed for the need of a vigorous central government, but the constitution’s opponents feared the document would steal individual liberties and destroy the states. Looking back, the fear that a centralized federal government could wipe the states off the map is laughable. In the wake of throwing the yolk of the British monarch, “anti-federalists” were weary of a strong centralized force in the new national government.
It is in the Massachusetts convention where the Federalists open the door to amendments. Those proposed are not mandatory. Having learned from the mistakes of the Pennsylvania convention and worried about the potential closeness of the vote, supporters of the constitution were willing to give up some ground in the name of getting the Bay State on board.
Two other New England states were not as quick to join the Union. Rhode Island, considered persnickety by the other states, wouldn’t join America for a few more years until the threat of port duties from Congress lit a fire under them. New Hampshire’s convention, meets around the same time Massachusetts did, and adjourns until later in 1788 where they too ratify the document.
The two other major states that Maier focuses more than a third of the book on are Virginia and New York. Virginia, whose convention is filled with great thinkers, experts in oratory, and Founding Fathers. Imagine intellectual giants like James Madison squaring off against Patrick Henry. It is moments like these that I like to think of Back to Future Moments. Instances in history, that are so astounding, it would be on the short list of places and times visited if time travel was possible.
To anyone familiar with the state of New York politics and its archaic rules and procedures in the 21st Century, it is amusing to see how the New York State convention was fraught with similar complexity in the late 18th Century. Many of the states, New York included, spent time debating the lack of a Bill of Rights. In many respects, the Bill of Rights, so revered today, was an afterthought in the early days of the United States. Despite repeated efforts by James Madison, the first House of Representatives spent the opening days of their first session putting the new government into place. Even when voted on by the House and Senate to be sent to the states, a host of recommendations from conventions were removed, trimmed, or shortened to the dismay of some, particularly Madison. Maier points out that the Bill of Rights wasn’t event referred as such until after the Civil War.
Maier’s book tells the story of the ratification of the constitution. The debates held in Convention Halls, taverns, and the press aren’t too far off from the political discourse flooding the blogosphere and the 24-hour cable news networks of today. It is this constant torrent of news that ups the expectation from pundits, talking heads, and in turn, us, the viewers, for immediate change. If we can see some events play out instantaneously, then certainly, their resolution should happen just as quickly. If legislation takes too long to come to a full vote, it is because leadership is dithering, not because the legislative process was intended to be slow and deliberative.
This affliction of immediate news expectation is of greater concern in international affairs. It took eight years after the Battle of Yorktown for the colonies to find a government that worked. It took a nail-biting year and a half after the constitution was made public for George Washington to be sworn in as president. It has been a few months since the protests of Tahrir Square in Cairo and the fight in Libya is ongoing. Despite the short passing of time, it is easy to find prognosticators citing an event or comment as a sign that these uprisings have failed. While our species’ ability to create technologies that speeds up the dissemination of information continues unabated, history is different. The stories of Egypt and Libya are far from over. While reading “Ratification,” I wondered how Fox News, MSNBC, the litany of blogs, and daily newspapers would cover the ratification process. Its worth thinking about when considering what the folks on TV are telling us about current events across the globe.