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The voice of the people

Ratifying the Constitution

Created date

February 22nd, 2011

To this day, the U.S. Constitution is a model of democratic government, a symbol of power in the hands of the people, an emblem of freedom hard won more than two centuries ago. And in her latest book Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (Simon & Schuster, 2010) historian Pauline Maier shows readers how it came to be. Ten years in the making, Ratification puts us by the average family s fireside, in the town halls, streets, and taverns all of those places where Americans debated what would become the core structure of their nation s government.

Surprising revelations

Maier s book, which is the first detailed account of the ratification process, offers up several surprising revelations. For one, the Constitution s adoption was far from the harmonious experience that we might assume. The states, at the time just recently colonies, still functioned as highly individual groups with valid concerns about an overly powerful central government. The wounds inflicted by the English monarchy and its army were fresh, and Americans fear of repeating the same evils in their new government remained strong. Some of the most fiercely debated topics included the size of the House of Representatives, Congressional elections, the right to levy taxes, the role of a federal judiciary, and, most importantly, the critical balance of power needed to prevent one branch of government from overpowering the others.

Past comes to life

Using the Wisconsin Historical Society s The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, a 21-volume collection of period newspaper columns, state convention debates, and the view points of countless forgotten Americans, Maier brings to life the inception of the Constitution down to the grass-roots level. Have any favorite books you ve read recently? Give us your suggestions In publications like Philadelphia s Freeman s Journal, anonymous citizens outlined what they believed were the Constitution s shortcomings, while the Independent Gazetteer published fiery responses suggesting that the people honor the document s critics with a coat of TAR and FEATHERS. As Maier demonstrates, between 1787 and 1788 Americans reflected on why they had fought a war against England and how best to make this great democratic experiment a success. For those familiar with her earlier workAmerican Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (Vintage, 1998), this latest book only solidifies Maier s reputation as a writer with a gift for clearly explaining some of history s most complex events. Ratificationshows us that the Constitution was not the exclusive product of elite statesmen but rather a national charter in which all Americans had a hand. The details surrounding this fact alone will give readers a new appreciation for a document that stands for so much.