Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A Time of Civil Debate

A rowdy debate consumed nearly everyone in the United States between the Constitutional Convention and ratification. The population of the country was about four million and possibly a quarter of that number were activists during the Revolution and founding. What did people think about a constitution written in secret? We don’t have to guess. A prodigious number of articles and pamphlets were published by proponents and opponents.

Tempest at Dawn

The most popular opinion pieces of the period are called the Federalist Papers, but these newspaper articles represented only a sampling of proponent editorials. Many of the delegates to the convention returned to their home states to write articles supporting the Constitution, as did many who did not attend. None had the intellectual prowess of the Federalist Papers by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, but all reflected the thinking of proponents of ratification.  Opposition pieces from the thirteen states have been collected in an anthology called the Antifederalist Papers. The antifederalists show us what many people feared was wrong about the Constitution. In the short run, the antifederalists were too pessimistic, but in the long run they were more accurate in their criticisms.

Sermons are another source for investigating popular opinion of the day. An excellent reference book would be Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805.

Lastly, the ratification conventions in each state pitted both sides against each other in heated face-to-face debates. Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 by Pauline Maier is an exemplary narrative of these conventions of the people.

To study all of this documentation would take years. Those with less time might consider The Essential Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers.

Another great archive of information about the period is the essays on the Federalist Papers at Constituting America. At this site, you can also find essays on each clause of the Constitution. (My essays can be found here.)

Our nation’s founders left a prodigious amount of material. We do not need to guess original intent; it is all laid out in black and white. We not only know what the enthusiasts thought, we possess a vast trove of information from those who opposed the Constitution. The Constitution did not descend from Mount Sinai, it was debated and argued over by an entire nation until a strong consensus emerged to ratify it as the supreme law of the land. This was the real American exceptionalism—A nation founded by the people though arduous, but civil debate. The American Constitution is the crowning achievement of the Age of Reason.

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