Book Review: The Debate On The Constitution: Part One

The Debate On The Constitution:  Federalist and Antifederalist Speeches, Articles, and Letters During the Struggle over Ratification:  Part One, edited by Bernard Bailyn

This monumental book, clocking in at over 1000 pages, is merely part one of a two part series of primary texts relating to the struggle over the ratification of the Constitution of the United States by noted Atlantic historian Bernard Bailyn [1].  While this is a long book, for the most part it was a very enjoyable one to read, as one could get a sense, mostly, of the skill of the debaters on the constitution, on their hopes and fears, their intense interest in matters of ancient history and current events, and their full involvement as a peripheral state in the Atlantic world.  While there are accessible volumes that provide the Federalist papers and that provide a separate list of anti-federalist papers as a contrast, there are few books I am aware of that deal with the complex interplay and connections between the two in the way that this book does.  One gets the feeling in reading this monumental work of scholarship that flame wars and pamphlet wars were at a far more elevated level in the late 18th century than they are at present.

This particular volume is divided into two parts.  The first part, taking up the vast majority of the material, looks at the debates over ratification in the press and in private correspondence from September 17, 1787 to January 12, 1788 (I).  The second part of the book looks at the debates in the state ratifying conventions of Pennsylvania between November 20 and December 15, 1787, Connecticut between January 3 and 9, 1788, and in Massachusetts between January 9 and February 7, 1788.  Included in the discussions are transcriptions of speeches, private letters (including one particularly bad example of hooked-on-phonics written to James Madison from one of his not particularly eloquent neighbors), as well as pamphlets, many of them written under elegant and classical pseudonyms that reflected the fears and concerns of Americans at the time over whether the Constitution was a necessary response to pervasive anarchy and a broken government that was incapable of defending the people of the United States or providing to the reputation of the fledgling republic abroad, or whether the Constitution would create a dangerously expansive federal government that would run roughshod over the people.  As a reader I found both perspectives to be pretty persuasive.  Appended on to the lengthy primary documents from characters as diverse as George Washington and Samuel Adams and Noah Webster (of dictionary fame) to obscure members of ratifying conventions in rural Massachusetts and Western Pennsylvania is a detailed chronology of the period by the editor and a thoughtful and expansive set of notes on the sources as well as short biographies of all of the senders and recipients of correspondence and speakers included in this volume.

There are a variety of reasons why someone would want to tackle this book even though it is a large one.  For one, this book puts the debate over the Constitution in the context of its then-contemporary politics, where we can see the fears and desires of the community caught up in a complicated moment of history.  We see how political conditions encouraged compromise and elegant statesmanship and how despite fierce partisan divides that the political community as a whole was able to overcome its mistrust and create institutions to support a shared commitment to freedom as well as order.  We see some prescient warnings about corruption in government and the reminder that populism itself was a problem even at our nation’s founding, and that local elites were not always willing to easily support a government that would represent the commonweal of the American people as a whole.  This is a rare book that both provides a detailed look at the practice of politics in the early American republic, that places those local politics in a context of interest in the larger body of political tension involving nations like Switzerland and Sweden as well as more familiar Atlantic powers like Britain and France, and that is relevant to our own contemporary concerns about a lack of trust in government officials and a large divide among the populace.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Book Review: The Debate On The Constitution: Part One

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Atlantic History: Concept And Contours | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: The Politically Incorrect Guide To The Founding Fathers | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Audiobook Review: Great Courses: Origins And Ideologies Of The American Revolution: Part Four | Edge Induced Cohesion

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