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Pauline Maier has written the first coherent account of our Constitution’s ratification debates.
(Page 2 of 2)
They refused to be told that the issues of the day were beyond their competence. They put their minds to complicated problems, tried to reconcile the ideals of the Revolution with the needs of the nation, and considered the impact of contemporary decisions not just on their own lives but for the future — for “millions yet unborn,” as one person after another put it. They were engaged, often remarkably well informed given the primitive communications of the day, and… honored majority rule, even when it went against them.
Maier is scrupulously fair to the Anti-Federalists, and refuses to call them that. Because of objections from men like William Findley, who called it “a name of reproach,” she “preferred to type out ‘critics of the Constitution’ and its synonyms over and over.” Moreover, she believes, the Federalists enjoy an advantage routinely denied to their opponents by historians:
Let me be clear on this: I have no doubt that we need to understand the Federalists’ understanding of the Constitution… they provided the intellectual foundations of American government. For that we tend to believe everything they said.… The Federalists were intelligent and articulate, the kind of people with whom historians tend to identify, and so to trust.… What they said seems wise and persuasive, which is to say true.
From a certain perspective they won, and winners generally tell the stories.
And they had the means to help shape those stories:
[T]he Federalists also controlled the documents on which historians depend. They owned most of the newspapers. They sometimes paid those who took notes on the convention debates or subsidized the publication of their transcripts. In some places… Federalists forcibly blocked the circulation of literature critical of the Constitution.
However, she writes:
They were not trying to distort history. They were struggling to win a very tough fight on behalf of what they understood as the nation’s welfare in a world where the rules of the political game were different from those of today.
And in fact, Maier believes, casting the fight for ratification in terms of a struggle between proponents and opponents of strong central government, as conventional history would have it, is misleading. Nearly everyone, she maintains, was for a federal government stronger than the one provided for by the Articles of Confederation. But the reluctance of the Federalists to allow amendments before ratification aroused opposition among those who saw in it a threat to the rights won during the Revolution.
In the end, the Federalists won. But Maier believes their opponents also won a good deal more than historians acknowledge or perhaps realize. Congress met many of their concerns by expanding the House of Representatives, approving the Judiciary Act of 1789, modifying the plan to levy direct taxes except in times of war, and proposing a series of amendments.
“Without their determined opposition,” Maier writes,
the first ten amendments would not have become a part of the Constitution for later generations to transform into a powerful instrument for the defense of American freedom. “We the People” of 1787 and 1788 inaugurated a dialogue between power and liberty that has continued, reminding us regularly of the principles of 1776 upon which the United States was founded and that has given us direction and national identity. Their example might well be their greatest gift to posterity.
In her concluding section, Maier gives the last word to William Findley, who in 1796 recorded how his thinking had changed.
In the end, like so many onetime critics of the Constitution, William Findley “embraced the government as my own and my children’s inheritance.” He knew that the Constitution had defectS.… In his mature judgment, the Constitution was, however, not just good or maybe good enough.
Findley came to believe that it was “capable of being well administered, and on the whole, the best government in the world.”
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online