Ratification: The Great Debate, State by State
The 2020–21 school year is the most difficult year of teaching in decades. Only the tumultuous years of desegregation compare. But teachers, parents, kids, and Teaching American History have all adjusted – making the best out of a difficult situation. We shortened our One-Day Seminars, moved them online, and developed creative topics, presented in new ways to keep feeding history teachers’ passion for their subject. One recent example is a new series on the Ratification of the Constitution, presented in a state-by-state format, just like the real thing in 1787–88. The first seminar in the series – North Carolina – was held the first week of March. Next up are Virginia, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and New York.
Dr. Todd Estes, a history professor at Oakland University in Michigan, leads the discussions for this seminar series. An expert on early American history, Todd is currently writing a book on the remarkable story of the Constitution’s ratification.
The seminar is divided into two one-hour sessions. Session One focuses on documents widely circulated among the several states as conventions in each state met to consider the new frame of government. Session Two zeroes in on Federalist and Antifederalist primary sources from the specific state under discussion. In the recent seminar, we read several speeches Federalist James Iredell made to defend the Constitution during North Carolina’s convention.
Todd introduced these readings with some interesting context. North Carolina initially rejected the Constitution, one of only two states to do so (Rhode Island being the other). A second convention was held in which the state easily ratified the Constitution – but not until after George Washington took office as the first President of the United States.
Estes also explained that North Carolina Federalists, the ratification winners, controlled the narrative passed down in the historical record. Although Federalists James Iredell and William Davie hired a transcriber to record the delegate’s speeches, their hired hand did a poor job. Storms, passing horses, and some delegates’ weak voices contributed to a haphazard job. This led Iredell and Davie to reconstruct the transcripts of their own speeches.
Unsurprisingly, the speeches by Iredell and Davie are clear, concise, and remarkably persuasive. (Perhaps proving the adage that there is no such thing as good writing – only good rewriting!) Iredell’s defense of the Constitution is exceptional in its simplicity and clarity. His speeches respond to each of the Antifederalists’ objections: that the Constitution contained no bill of rights; that the United States was geographically too large for a republic; that the Senate would become an aristocratic body; and that adopting the new frame of government would inevitably lead to one consolidated national government, destroying any role for the states. Iredell counters each objection convincingly.
The seminar participants were struck by one objection to what most of us today view as a wise provision of the Constitution – that there be no religious test to hold public office. North Carolina’s Antifederalists worried that non-Christians, pagans, Muslims, Jews, or – worst of all, in their view – Catholics might be elected. What would they make of today’s religiously plural society? Would they accept the seminar participants’ assessment that it is impossible to gauge the sincerity of a candidate’s religious faith?
One point James Iredell made in his defense of the Constitution was the need to delegate to Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce. He noted that North Carolinians had grown disgusted with Virginia’s practice of imposing duties on goods imported from North Carolina. Clearly, if the Union remained united, commerce among the states had to be regulated by the national government.
As a teacher, I had found it difficult to explain why the Founders gave Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce. The Iredell excerpt answered the question, helping me understand why, in the thinking of the day, the Articles of Confederation were too weak to deal with the issues confronting the new nation.
This demonstrates the power of Teaching American History’s approach. Our scholars, experts in the topics our seminars cover, will show you documents you may never have seen – then lead you in discussions that will answer your own and your students’ questions. Join us in a ratification seminar and see what nuggets you can discover.