Sorry to my faithful readers that I did not have the post ready for today. I am not sure if Saturday’s article will make it up at midnight either. I am now on the road and did not have enough of a stock of article to post during my trip. I also don’t have Beck’s “Broke” with me so I can’t continue with that series until I get back to Vegas. I will probably have some other comments on the debt ceiling talks that are ongoing now on Saturday. But on with today’s post…
There are many books out in the wide world that discuss the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The book I just finished reading is one of the first comprehensive books written on the battle for the Constitution’s ratification. Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 by Pauline Maier published just last year. Pauline Maier is a professor of American History at MIT and has written many books and has appeared on numerous documentaries about the revolutionary era of U.S. history. The review of this book will follow the format of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The good are things that were excellent in the book. The Bad are the things I wish she would have done differently. The Ugly are things which I believe she just got plain wrong.
There is a lot of ground to cover here. To begin with, she starts the book explaining the events that transpired after the Revolutionary War and lead to the Constitutional Convention. This Prologue is from the perspective of future president George Washington from his estate in Mount Vernon. A lot of this chapter focuses on the correspondence he had with people like James Madison, Governor Randolph, Henry Know and others. Most of the discussion centers around whether he will be a delegate in the Convention from the state of Virginia. It does a good job of outlining the issues at stake and ends, with him starting to make the fateful trip to Philadelphia. It them continues on to the day after the state voted unanimously to accept the new constitution and the actions of the Confederation Congress when they received the Constitution from George Washington.
Secondly, the level of detail that she goes into about the different debates and conventions is unbelievable, even down to the vote counts of important motions at that state ratifying conventions. You get a real sense of what the debates were about and what issues the opponents had with the Constitution and how willing to Federalists eventually came to compromise with them in the conventions, even if they could have reneged on their word once ratified. She clearly points out the stances of the key players and the issues the debate, which is why I get pissed off at people who clearly don’t study history and say we can’t know what the founders meant by any of the phrases or words in the Constitution.
For example, a few weeks ago the media jumped all over representative Michelle Bachman for saying that the founding father were ardent fighters against slavery. This book and the debates of the Constitutional convention prove it. At every convention, the three-fifths clause and continuation of the slave trade were big issues in almost all states, even southern slave holding states. I won’t bore you with more information about slavery and its place in the Constitution because I have written ad nauseam about the topic in more than one post. Just do a search on slavery in the blog and you will find plenty of information about that topic.
Thirdly, she avoids bias. Many history writers like to write their books to make people of our past look one way or another based on their research. They leave out specific facts to prove their point. Pauline Maier avoids all that and just presents us with the facts of the debates, using the words of the delegates many times to show us what was going on. The book does not come across as a book meant to paint the founders and the delegates to the state ratifying convention in any particular way. She leaves that to the reader to decide.
The bad parts of this novel have nothing to do with the content or the writing but things that were left out or not included. First, while the author includes period proper maps in the book when discussing the different state ratifying conventions, those are the only visual aides provided. She mentions over and over how the newspapers got involved in the ratification but fails to offer even cursor visual examples of the newspapers. I am sure their were plenty of political cartoons and front pages that could be shown visually in the book.
Secondly, there is a huge glossing over of many of the debates. She focuses her time on Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Virginia and New York. Part of the problem with this is either a lack of records or they were unavailable at the time of her work. She mentions in the Introduction that what made the book possible was “The DOcumentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, DHRC for short (Maier xii). But while she was writing it was still incomplete and lacking information from some states before she published. So fault cannot be found with her for that.
“American rights and American freedom were not a gift of the country’s “founding fathers.” They have and have always been a work in progress” (Maier 467). This is the main problem with doctor Maier. There is no basis for the argument that the rights of Americans are a work in progress, at least from the views of the founders. She makes a point earlier in the book that the first ten amendments to the Constitution were never called “the Bill of Rights,” until recently in U.S. history. U.S. citizens did not see the amendments as a proper bill of rights, just a few of the amendments that they requested be added to the Constitution before or after its ratification. Because it was not a bill of rights, most Americans viewed our first national founding document, the Declaration of Independence, as our bill of rights. She says:
It was the only federal document that said “all men are created equal” and that they were “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” for the protection of which the people had created governments whose power came exclusively “from the consent of the governed.” In effect, lacking a “bill of rights” that suited their expectations, Americans recycled a document written for another purpose and made it a sacred statement of their fundamental rights and beliefs. And so it remains (Maier 464).
If our rights are from God they are unchangeable and cannot necessarily progress. This could be a case of misunderstanding about what he means as a work in progress. The God-given rights of all Americans have not always been equally enforced and over time the Constitution, our laws and court decisions have ensured that those rights apply equally to all citizen, but that has not fundamental changed those many Creator given rights. It just means that the citizenry has progressed to make sure that all people enjoy the rights that God has given us.
This book is very well written and worth of a read. If you are a fan of the “Critical Period,” a student or teacher of U.S. history or government it is worth your time to read this book and add it to your library. It is interesting to note the role of the newspapers in the ratification debates. Many were hardly unbiased in reporting of the Federalist and the Constitution’s opponents. Some newspapers even got their subscriptions dropped because they printed articles in favor or against the Constitution. It just goes to show that bias in news reporting is not a new thing, for either side of any debate.
Questions? Comments? Concerns? Class dismissed!