Writing this series of posts about Teaching American History’s Core Document Collection: Documents and Debates in American History and Government has caused me to ask myself, what is the most significant debate in American history? The struggle over the constitutionality of secession must be near the top of the list, since that debate led to a protracted war that killed over 800,000 Americans. The proper role of the federal government in regulating the economy is a continuous source of tension, and for that reason it deserves consideration as the most significant debate in United States history. So does the long struggle to make the Declaration of Independence’s promise of liberty and equality real for all American men and women, regardless of race, religion, ethnic background, or sexual orientation.
Yet the Ratification debate during the winter of 1787-88 may earn the title of Most Significant Debate. Americans rightfully celebrate the tradition of a peaceful transfer of power when the opposition party defeats an incumbent president. However, that tradition began only after the peaceful outcome of the ratification debate. That the debate occurred at all is remarkable. In the words of Gordon Lloyd, “What other country prior to the United States is informed that its government doesn’t work, sits for four months in convention, comes back for an entire year and debates and debates, and not a drop of blood is spilled?”
The lack of bloodshed as Americans transplanted one government for another may have been on the mind of Alexander Hamilton when, in Federalist 1, he posited that “it seems to have been reserved” for Americans to decide ‘the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.”
I always used this Hamilton quote with my students when teaching ratification. I told them I could imagine Hamilton emphasizing the little word “the” in the important question – as in THE important question. I believe it is important that we see the republic as the Founders did, an experiment requiring each generation’s input to sustain it.
Article VII of the new Constitution framed the ratification process itself as one of “reflection and choice.” Each state would select delegates to their state ratification conventions. Delegates were to vote the Constitution up or down without offering amendments; however, Massachusetts ratified with proposed amendments, and other states followed suit. The process made “The Founder’s Constitution,“ in the words of Akhil Reed Amar, “not merely a text but a deed.”
Remarkably, not a single state made eligibility to vote for state ratification delegates more restrictive than those for regular elections. Instead, they broadened categories of eligible voters, making the selection of delegates the most democratic vote yet to occur in America. The delegates to the Philadelphia convention of 1787 debated in secret, behind closed doors and shuttered windows. Now the debate exploded into taverns and homes, and in newspapers and pamphlets throughout the country. The result, argued the late historian Pauline Maier, was “one of the greatest and most probing debates in American history” involving “more than a handful of familiar ‘Founding Fathers.’ ”
Maier further argued in her book, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788, that the ratification debate “inaugurated a dialogue between power and liberty that has continued, reminding us regularly of the principles of 1776 … that have given us direction and national identity.” Teaching American History honors and celebrates the secondary school teacher’s essential role in continuing a “dialogue between power and liberty” predicated on first principles.
The documents in our Core Document Collection, Chapter 7: The Debate over Ratification from Volume I of Documents and Debates in American History illustrate some of the fundamental differences between those who favored ratification, the Federalists, and those who opposed ratification, styled Antifederalists by their opponents. Historians have searched in vain for a single delegate to the Constitutional Convention who emerged satisfied with the final product. Even James Madison, best known as the Father of the Constitution, objected to the Senate’s composition and the lack of a Congressional veto on state legislation. However, Madison concluded that “the degree of concord which ultimately prevailed” must be considered as no less than a miracle. He famously joined forces with Hamilton and John Jay to write The Federalist, a collection of essays supporting ratification of the near miracle with what today would be called political spin.
The Antifederalists’ chief concerns were that the new Constitution would inevitably lead to the consolidation of all power in one national government and that the lack of a Bill of Rights threatened liberty. The Federalists won the debate in 1787-88. Eventually, all thirteen states ratified the new plan. Many of the suggestions made by Antifederalists in 1787-88 found their way into the Constitution through the Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791, and the Twenty-Seventh Amendment, ratified in 1992.
Documents in this chapter include:
- (Robert Yates), Brutus 1, October 18, 1787
- Publius (James Madison), Federalist 10, November 22, 1787
- Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, “If we cannot secure all our rights, let us secure what we can,” October 1788–March 1789
We have also provided audio recordings of the chapter’s Introduction, Documents, and Study Questions. These recordings support literacy development for struggling readers and the comprehension of challenging text for all students.
Teaching American History’s We the Teachers blog will feature Documents and Debates with their accompanying audio recordings each month until recordings of all 29 chapters are complete. In today’s post, we feature Volume I, Chapter 7: The Debate over Ratification. On December 22, we will highlight Volume II, Chapter 22: The New Deal: Social Security: We invite you to follow this blog closely so you will be able to take advantage of this new feature as the recordings become available.