Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010). ISBN-13: 9780684868547. 608 pages.
Review by David Sehat
Georgia State University
When I heard that Pauline Maier had just published a history of the Constitution’s ratification, I knew that it would be a definitive work. This is not only because it is by Pauline Maier, who is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of American History at MIT and widely regarded as a careful and sensitive interpreter of the Founding period. It is also the only comprehensive history of the event that exists. The task was so large that it took Maier a decade to write this book, and the result is well worth the wait.
Part of the problem in writing about ratification is that it was not just one event. It involved multiple state-level conventions, some of which occurred simultaneously. Each convention then influenced the debate in the conventions that followed. Sorting through the documentary evidence and simply keeping track of the players is a difficult task. Maier candidly acknowledges that her research was made possible, or at least easier, through an editorial project that gathers much of the material that is available on ratification into what is currently a twenty-one volume documentary series, The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution. I have used the Virginia portion of this series and can attest that it is indeed a remarkable resource. But Maier’s interpretive and writerly abilities in making sense of the raw material are what shine throughout the book.
In order to outline the relationships and issues at stake in ratification, Maier opts for a narrative approach in which she asks readers to bracket their knowledge of the outcome. By appreciating ratification as a series of moments in which the fate of the Constitution could have gone in multiple directions, Maier also changes the way that historians have typically viewed ratification, which is from the perspective of the Federalists. To counteract this bias, she must at least partially rehabilitate the so-called Antifederalists, a moniker that she refuses to use. She avoids the term because the Federalists invented the idea of an “Antifederalist” as an expression of opprobrium during the ratification debate. “To use the Federalists’ language—to tell the story in their terms—tends to give them the game, or at least to tip the story further in their direction,” she explains. And though she does employ the term “Federalist,” as the Constitution’s proponents called themselves, she is ambivalent about that term as well. “It tends,” she again explains, “to suggest that there was something called a Federalist party in 1787 and 1788, which there was not, at least in anything like the form that emerged later, and that the fight over the Constitution was a two-sided contest between them and the opponents they called ‘Antifederalists,’ which, again, it was not.”
This reframing changes our perception of the process by suggesting not just contingency but a certain amount of disorder. Boiled down to its most basic operations, ratification involved a fluid but still regular process in which each state convened, made up the rules that governed its convention, and then conducted a debate on the constitution that eventually culminated in a vote. The one exception was Rhode Island, which instead submitted the Constitution to a statewide referendum, where it was at first voted down. But rather than focusing on the final outcome of the process and reading backward through that lens, Maier undermines the tidy perception of ratification by depicting it as a contingent series of engagements that involved multiple parties with different ideas. Although a person eventually had to vote yes or no on the Constitution—a fundamental reality that the terms “Federalist” and “Antifederalist” do reflect—those were not the only choices for most of the debates. Even the strongest of the Constitution’s supporters, such as Madison, had reservations about the Constitution and would, in private, countenance the idea of amendments after it was ratified. Some opponents sought to conditionally ratify the Constitution because they were in favor of the union and disliked the Articles but did not believe that the Congress could be trusted to enact amendments after the fact. Some disliked the Constitution so much that they thought the process should be started over, though they did not want to go back to the Articles. Still others sought to remain under the Articles with perhaps a few tweaks.
To make sense of ratification as a contingent moment with sincere and diverse arguments on multiple sides, Maier proceeds carefully through each ratification convention, summarizing arguments, explaining alliances, and showing the effect of the debates on other conventions. There were times as she told the story that I might have wished for a shorter, less exhaustive book. But Maier’s careful attention to the many arguments is her greatest contribution. By recounting the debate in tight but elaborate detail, Maier offers possibly the most important reference manual in the ongoing controversy about the Constitution’s original meaning. As Jack Rakove has suggested, when we seek to determine original meaning we should not look just to the text of the Constitution, which is often ambiguous, nor should we seek to get into the heads of the constitutional framers, which is largely impossible and often not useful since they disagreed with other framers and also changed their own minds.* Instead, we should consult the ratification debates where the people’s representatives often went line-by-line arguing over the various constitutional provisions. When we do that, we see a range of meanings attributed to the Constitution, not a single and fixed meaning. Maier’s account, with its brilliant detail, validates Rakove’s argument by enabling scholars and jurists to determine this range of meanings at the founding moment in the larger development of popular constitutionalism. The result is a rare combination: a work of dispassionate scholarship with contemporary political and legal relevance that advances constitutional debate while preserving scholarly integrity. A magnificent achievement, indeed!
*See Jack N. Rakove, Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (New York: Vintage, 1996).