Reviewed by John R. Vile, Professor of Political Science and Dean, University Honors College, Middle Tennessee State University. Email: john.vile [at] mtsu.edu.
As Gordon S. Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic (1969) indicates, the period from the writing of the Declaration in 1776 through the writing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 is a primary focus for many individuals who study American history and American political thought. As states experimented with strong legislatures and weak executives, both with short terms, leading Americans came to see the need for greater balance to preserve the liberties that the Declaration of Independence had proclaimed. These dates, however, have both a prelude and a postlude, each of which merits attention in its own right. The Declaration of Independence grew out of more than a decade of concern over what the colonists considered to be unwarranted assertions of authority by the British Parliament, and obstinacy on the part of the British Crown. Once written, the Constitution had to be debated, ratified, and implemented, and it was amended in actions so contemporaneous that they are part of the original story.
The book under review was originally published in German as part of the bicentennial celebrations of the Constitution by a scholar of American history (since deceased) who had taught at the University of Tübingen and the University of Cologne. This publication is an English translation by Jerry Neeb-Crippen edited by John P. Kaminski and Richard Leffler of the Center for the Study of the American Constitution at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where Heideking did most of his research. He drew from the treasure-trove of primary resources connected to the Center’s ongoing projected 30-volume Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution; two other volumes, both collections of essays, Gillespie and Lienesch’s Ratifying the Constitution (1989) and Conley and Kaminski’s The Constitution and the States (1988) have similar origins.
R.R. Bernstein describes Heideking’s book on the back cover as “an instant classic destined for a long and useful life,” but however valuable it is, the English translation suffers in part because its publication follows so closely on Pauline’s Maier’s Ratification: Americans Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (2010), which is probably the more valuable work both because the style is livelier and because it focuses on each state separately rather than by trying to deal simultaneously with developments in each. Heideking was drawn to the U.S. experience in writing and ratifying the Constitution partly because of his own interest in European integration, but, at least as [*193] edited, this goal would not have been apparent had the editors not mentioned it in their introduction. Although the title might seem to suggest some kind of divine inquiry, the “judgment seat” Heideking had in mind is that of public opinion, which he believes received one of its first national articulations in the course of the ratification controversy.
A variety of factors make it difficult to know whether the U.S. Constitution had the support of the majority of white males who participated in the ratification process. These factors include: the intrigue that surrounded the process; the dirty tricks on both the part of Federalists and Anti-Federalists during ratification debates and conventions; the mal-apportionment of delegates to some of the state ratification conventions; the leadership of key Federalists; and the serendipity in the ratification proceedings – for example, Elbridge Gerry’s discomfort with fellow Antifederalists (some of whom had been involved in Shay’s Rebellion which he detested) in Massachusetts and Luther Martin’s laryngitis at the Maryland Convention. What Heideking makes absolutely clear, however, is that the nation engaged in a free-wheeling debate that, in contrast to the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention’s closed proceedings, was widely publicized. Moreover, because Heideking moves beyond the debates to describe ratification celebrations and the adoption of the Bill of Rights, he is able to explain how such a highly-contested document quickly became the symbol of the new nation.
It is not a new insight, but Heideking demonstrates that Federalist supporters of the Constitution not only transformed debates by shifting the focus from a “national” to a “federal” government but that they were masters of the art of the possible. Steadfastly resisting any idea that states might ratify the Constitution conditionally upon the addition of a Bill of Rights, they wisely compromised midway through the debates at the Massachusetts Convention to allow recommendatory amendments that eventually allowed Antifederalists to believe that their voices were being heard. Heideking justly highlights the role of James Madison, who, due to the machinations of Governor Patrick Henry and his allies, had to campaign for a seat in the first Congress against James Monroe. Madison had to convince his own constituents of his own commitment to civil liberties, and then shepherd the Bill of Rights through Congress, and see that it focused on the protection of civil rights and liberties rather than on further structural changes that might undermine the new document. Heideking shows how Madison’s attitude toward the Bill of Rights was influenced by his correspondence with Thomas Jefferson and how Madison was already beginning to differ on some matters with many of his Federalist cohorts, who were far less dedicated to placating the Anti-federalist opposition than he was.
One of the fascinating aspects of the Constitutional Convention is that delegates spent the first few weeks debating as a Committee of the Whole. Once this Committee (which consisted of all members who had been present) compiled its recommendations and made its report to the convention, the delegates then proceeded to debate everything over again, almost as though the Convention had been bicameral rather [*194] than unicameral. Similarly, this book tells the story of ratification multiple ways. Heideking begins with debates in Congress as to whether to forward, and/ or recommend the Constitution to the states; proceeds to discuss debates within each state over the appointing delegates; continues with electioneering within each state (including newspaper reports and personal correspondence among leading participants); and then discusses debates within each convention, celebrations within each state, and debates within the first congress on the Bill of Rights.
Although the emerging picture is encyclopedic, it can become tedious. Unlike other treatments, which devote separate chapters to each state’s ratification, readers must trace each state’s actions through several chapters. As a consequence this is likely to be one of those books that is universally praised but seldom read, at least not cover to cover; it is more likely to be sampled by individuals interested in the contribution of an individual delegate or state to the ratification debates. Fortunately, it has a great index, and can be easily used for such a purpose. The book also includes a useful timeline of events from 1787 through 1791 (omitting dates of key votes by the Constitutional Convention itself), which might wisely have been supplemented with some charts describing dates of state conventions, votes by state conventions, the evolution of the Bill of Rights, and the like.
One of the most provocative statements that James Madison ever made about constitutional interpretation, a quotation that often figures prominently in modern debates over original intent, centered on the importance of finding “the meaning of the instrument . . . not in the General Convention, which proposed, but in the State Conventions, which accepted and ratified the Constitution” (Congressional Address of 1796 quoted by Heideking on p.252). In carefully detailing such debates, however, Heideking shows, at least in this reviewer’s judgment, how difficult, if not nigh to impossible, this is to do. What the debates typically revealed was a fairly strong consensus by most citizens that the situation of the Articles was not good and that powers of the existing government needed to be strengthened. Debates further reveal Federalist convictions that the proposed Constitution strengthened the central authority in a responsible manner and nagging fears by Antifederalists that one or another of the new institutions that the Convention had created might be too strong, and that centralized power might ultimately threaten civil liberties (a problem ultimately addressed by the Bill of Rights) or state sovereignty. Antifederalist critics often made exaggerated charges against individual provisions within the Constitution, the denial of which by Federalists often lead to little true understanding of what the provisions did mean or were designed to do. Moreover, by Federalist insistence, ratification of the Constitution was an all-or-nothing affair, modified only by the prospect of future amendments under Article V of the new Constitution.
By contrast, in examining notes of the Federal Convention, one can generally trace the individual who introduced a provision, the objective of the provision, various alternatives that delegates proposed, their stated reasons for proposing them, and (in many cases) compromises that split the differences. Analysis of the debates at the [*195]Constitutional Convention will hardly answer all interpretive questions, but I cannot help but believe that such study is comparatively more productive, at least for that purpose. By contrast, discussion of ratification debates might tell far more about contemporary politics, particularly within individual states, and it is, of course, invaluable for understanding the background of the Bill of Rights.
In Heideking’s judgment, Federalists were generally more elitist than Antifederalists, but both groups were strongly committed to republican principles. Although Federalists who supported the Bill of Rights chiefly sought to forestall a second convention that might reverse the work of the first, their doubts about such a bill centered not on the desirability of protecting such rights but on the degree to which the new government posed a threat to such liberties and on whether such a bill could protect them. Heideking argues that support for the Constitution was strongest in the coastal areas and in areas where farmers were connected by commerce to national markets and far weaker in the hinterlands, but, while he constantly visits the issue, he does not think that supporters and opponents can be easily divided on the basis of social class or income. While the debates over the Constitution helped form the emerging party system, Heideking recognizes that debates varied widely in the states, and arguments were sometimes contradictory. Thus, some opponents in the Northeast portrayed the Constitution as proslavery, while southern opponents expressed fears that it did not adequately protect their “peculiar institution.” Ultimately, Heideking describes the debates an “a fusion or an amalgam of republican, liberal, and religious ideas” (p.426) whose own thinking often changed in the course of process.
Heideking’s book is unlikely to have the same appeal to general audiences as Jeffrey St. John’s journalistic account in A Child of Fortune (1990) or Maier’s own hefty Ratification, but it will be an essential addition to every serious scholar’s collection of works on the subject. Its scholarship is prodigious, and its judgments are balanced and fair. In Federalist No. 1, Alexander Hamilton posed the questions “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.” Heideking’s examination of the ratification debates suggests that the former is indeed possible.
Conley, Patrick P. and John P. Kaminski (eds.). 1988. The Constitution and the States: The Role of the Original Thirteen In The Framing and Adoption of the Federal Constitution. Madison, WI: Madison House.
Gillispie, Michael Allen and Michael Linensch (eds.). 1989. Ratifying the Constitution. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
Maier, Pauline. 2010. Ratification: Americans Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788. New York: Simon & Schuster.
St. John, Jeffrey. 1990. A Child of Fortune: A Correspondent’s Report on the Ratification of the U.S. [*196] Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Ottawa, IL: Jameson Books, Inc.
Wood, Gordon S. 1969. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787. Williamsburg, VA: Institute of Early American History and Culture.
© Copyright 2012 by the Author, John R. Vile.