Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Review: Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 by Pauline Maier

The state of civic disengagement in the United States today is not exactly news. It seems that almost every week a new poll is released that shows U.S. citizens don't know something that they should have learned in 4th grade social studies. I would argue that the one thing most people, even the most history-ignorant individuals, know is that our federal government was established by and is controlled by a Constitution. What many don't know is how the U.S. Constitution came to be. In Ratification, this is exactly what Pauline Maier attempts to chronicle in extreme detail.

Cut to 1787. The current system of government, the Articles of Confederation, is failing miserably. Hamstrung by a power structure which heavily leans towards state sovereignty, the federal government is struggling to pay its debts incurred during the Revolutionary War and fulfill its other duties set forth in the Articles. In addition, potential adversaries surround the states and are beginning to look hungrily at their territory. There is no doubt that if England or Spain attacked one of the states, the federal government would be almost entirely incapable of raising an army powerful enough to defend itself.

With all of this in mind, a convention is called to amend the Articles of Confederation to grant the federal government more adequate powers. Some of the greatest minds of this time, if not in the history of our country, gather to determine how to go about this. In the end, they determine that the Articles in their current form can not be amended sufficiently, and just decide to scrap it and start over. During this convention, what we know as the Constitution is first drafted and will be sent out to the individual states to be ratified.

This is where the story really begins. The states will all approach ratification differently; some will be overwhelming for ratification from the get-go, other overwhelmingly against. In most, however, the ratifiers just don't know what to think. Many are torn between giving the new federal government the powers it needs to operate and not giving it so much that it turns into an institution drunk with power which has no qualms about subjugating its citizens. Both the failures of the Articles of Confederation and the memories of British rule weigh heavily on the ratifiers' minds. It is with all of this in mind that the battle lines are drawn and the ratifiers, some names we all know and some who will be relegated to the dust bin of history, will determine whether the states will remain in union. This book follows the ratification conventions in each state to this final decision.


While extremely thorough, Ratification never seems to get bogged down in the details. The ability of Maier to clearly explain not only the nominating process itself, but the positions and beliefs of those individuals who took part in it, is absolutely amazing. While it was slow reading, the pace was dictated by the amount of information delivered, not the difficulty of it. The ordering of events in the book certainly made the process easier to follow. By keeping each state ratification convention to a different chapter, each of them is shown to be unique in both the processes followed and the beliefs held by the nominators.


Ratification profit immensely from the Wisconsin Historical Society's The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution (or DHRC, to be a bit more reasonable). This project was started in 1976 and aims to serve as a complete a collection as possible for the ratification process in each state.  The editors collected pretty much any documentation that they could find in any media available. They include writings not only from the most famous names of the time, but even those from "commoners". The twenty-one volumes of the series include documents from Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Virginia, Massachusetts, and New York. The twenty-one volumes are not spread evenly among these states, however. While Delaware, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut are combined into one volume, New York spans five volumes by itself.

For those five states not yet included in the DHRC (New Hampshire, South Carolina, Maryland, North Carolina, and Rhode Island), Maier's research admittedly was "old-fashioned" and "far less comprehensive" than those states included. Despite these sections' supposed flaws, I didn't notice decrease in the quality of the research at all. Everything is still comprehensively documented, with minutia represented.


I will say this: Maier is an excellent paraphraser. Since most of her sources are either primary in the form of journals and letters or secondary sources merely repeating speeches or other primary sources, there was the risk of turning this into a book of quotes. While this would have been informative, it most assuredly would have been unreadable. Instead, Maier does a masterful job working partial direct quotes into longer sections of summarizing and paraphrasing, always without editorializing or injecting her beliefs into the equation. Other than this, there isn't much to say for the prose. Rightfully, it exists as a vehicle to deliver others' words.

One complaint: the transitions between chapters are a bit hokey. I've always been of the persuasion than a transition should not be a cliffhanger, but an almost invisible segue to the next section or chapter. The high drama introduced at the end of many chapters always seems a bit manufactured. Not a huge deal, though.

Final Thoughts

Despite being a collection of a collection of facts and details about a potentially very boring topic, Maier finds a way to actually craft a compelling story. This is even more remarkable when one considers that the reader already knows the end of the story. We all know the Constitution was ratified. At least, I hope we all know the Constitution was ratified. What many of us don't know is how this ratification occurred. While it may seem strange to us over two hundred years later, ratification was not a sure thing. The states were at an existential crisis: they could unite under a stronger government that they greatly feared or they could dissolve and fall into civil war or be annexed by colonial powers. This was the mindset of many during the time. It is a grand story; a story which defines how we live today.

Who do I recommend this book to? I would say pretty much anyone with the reading comprehension skills to get through it. Anyone even remotely interested in American history or politics will find this enthralling. I know I did. I also believe this would make a great substitute for some of the more dry, boring high school and college civics textbooks. I'm not going to pontificate about the U.S. public's lack of knowledge about the country they live in. Many have done it and done it better than I possibly could. What I will say is that there needs to be more books like this one. When an author can get a reader looking forward to the next page when the topic is a group of old white dudes maybe signing a piece of paper, that is an achievement.

Accessible - ****
Scholarly-ness - *****
Writing/Prose - *** 1/2
Overall - ****


Because of the brief break I took, the RNG actually chose my next book, Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, last week. I am almost all the way through it now, so I'd expect a review late this week.

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