Book Review: The Debate On The Constitution: Part Two

The Debate On The Constitution:  Part Two:  Federalist And Antifederalist Speeches, Articles, And Letters During The Struggle Over Ratification, edited by Bernard Bailyn

Reading a book like this is the sort of pleasure one knows one is likely going to enjoy very much going into it.  It happens to be the second volume of a series from an author who is reliably excellent [1].  It features the writings of Federalists and Anti-Federalists, as well as interested international observers, as part of a larger conversation rather than in isolation as is generally the practice in contemporary volumes.  It features some what you expect–namely long and ponderous speeches in ratification conventions and polemical editorials and letters by people who are marginally literate trying to figure out what is going on, but there are some surprises here as well.  Perhaps the most enjoyable surprise to me was reading a comment in the New York ratifying convention where someone realized that Alexander Hamilton was as eloquent as Publius in the Federalist Papers, perhaps showing that the nom de plume had been at least somewhat uncovered.  Besides this it was interesting to see the inevitable momentum that the constitution seemed to have by the time only North Carolina and Rhode Island were left out of the states and realized they were going to have to join on the best terms possible.

This particular volume, like the previous one, is over 1000 pages and is divided into several parts.  The first part of the book contains debates in the press and in private correspondence over the Constitution from January 14 to August 9, 1788.  Included are anonymous writings by lonely federalists in Rhode Island, the letters of famous Americans (and the occasional foreigner), as well as the usual broadsides in the press and the attempted prognostications of various people at the time along with a few well-known writings like those of the Federalist papers and Brutus, their eloquent if flawed rival in the New York press.  After this comes a record of the debates in the state ratifying conventions of South Carolina, Virginia, New York, and North Carolina.  This part of the book ends almost anticlimactically because once Virginia and New York accept the constitution with demands for a Bill of Rights from those who approve of it, the remaining states had to accept it more or less as a fait accompli.  After this the book contains various supplemental material for context like the text of the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, letter from the Constitutional Convention to the President of Congress, Resolutions of the Constitutional Convention concerning the ratification of the Constitution, as well as the Constitution, biographical notes of the known writers/speakers, chronology of events, and detailed notes on state constitutions from 1776-1790 as well as the texts included.

If you know Bernard Bailyn and his encyclopedic knowledge of the relevant texts of the period, it is little surprise that this book is so demonstrative of that knowledge.  This book is an unusual one, though, even if one knows that it is going to be a good one, largely because one gets the feeling that both sides in the dispute were in their own way right.  In order to become a great nation, it was necessary that the United States form a stronger central government that could compel obedience to national laws and make sure the United States was able to ensure a good reputation abroad through military and diplomatic means and provide the security that allows for economic success through the rule of law.  Unfortunately, any government that is strong enough to do these things is also strong enough to oppress the people and step beyond its legitimate boundaries, as our government has clearly done in recent decades.  This book is thus relevant in the best possible way, in showing some of the origins of contemporary political perspectives on government, and in pointing out how two sides of a contentious issue can both be right at the same time.

[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 Two

  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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