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Maier, Pauline. “Ratification: A Response to Responses.” The
William and Mary Quarterly 69.2 (2012): 402-403.
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Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture
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Wed May 25 20:07:25 EDT 2016
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Pauline Maier
For good reason R.B. Bernstein and Maeva Marcus had trouble reconciling
some of the other Forum contributors’ comments on Ratification with the book they
read. Would anyone guess from Todd Estes’ or Seth Cotlar’s descriptions of the
Prologue that it not only describes but discredits “the standard Federalist take on
the crisis of the 1780s” and, above all, on the popular insurgency of the period
(pages15—17)? Or that it endorses Rufus King’s interpretation of popular unrest as
a response to heavy, regressive poll and property taxes (page 15)---much as the
historians Max Edling and Woody Holton i do today? Perhaps the book is
“dominated by those who actually spoke” in the state ratification convention
debates, which are its main subject, but it is hardly confined to those debates or to
the proximate events that shaped them. It brings in, for example, the lingering
influence of tenant uprisings in upstate New York, the Regulators in North Carolina,
and what is remembered as Shays’s Rebellion in Massachusetts. That, I suspect, is
in part what Marcus meant when she said the book “includes extensive information
on disparate views in various classes of society, as well as sections of the country.”
She is of course also correct that another historian could investigate any of
those views in greater detail. I chose instead to write a general narrative in which
not only a handful of educated “founding fathers” but large numbers of more
obscure persons carefully scrutinized the Constitution and asked whether it would
serve their needs and those of their country or allow oppressive abuses of power
that would undermine the values and dreams of the Revolution. To be sure,
questions of institutional design were at the center of the ratification debates, but
that did not marginalize “broader issues or power and equity,” as Cotlar suggests.
Institutional design was the way revolutionary Americans of all shades of opinion
confronted and attempted to resolve those issues on behalf of themselves and future
No book is the last word on any subject, and certainly not one on so capacious a
subject as the ratification of the Constitution. Since the publication of Ratification in
2010, another volume of The Documentary History of the Ratification of the
Constitution, the first of three on ratification on Rhode Island, has appeared; others
on Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, and North Carolina are yet to come.
The DHRC literally reopens its subject for historians and facilitates research projects
that were previously impossible or profoundly difficult to carry out. Sometimes,
too, the documents it reproduces run against historians’ assumptions. To me, for
example, they bring into question the idea that the future of slavery was the central
issue of the ratification controversy for slaveholders (although it was profoundly
important for some non-slaveholders). Others will no doubt disagree. And with the
centennial of Charles Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the
United States on the horizon, scholars are virtually certain to ask again whether his
interpretation merits reconsideration. The dance goes on.
Holton, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (New York,
2007), esp. 213-14; Max Edling, A Revolution in Favor of Government (Oxford and
New York, 2003), esp. 158-62. Despite their different approaches and styles, these
books agree in their emphasis on taxation and credit as critical issues. Edling notes
that regressive state poll and land taxes “hit the lower and middle ranks relatively
more than those who were better off” and “taxed farmers rather than industrialists
and merchants,” which accounts for much of the rhetoric about the “few and the
many” that neo-progressive historians emphasize. Moreover, since the structure of
state taxes favored the holders of “personalty” over those of “realty,” the ghost of
Charles Beard keeps reappearing. Edling, however, carefully considers and rejects
previous interpretations of the struggle over the Constitution as politically or
economically interest-based. What the Federalists wanted above all, he argues, was
to resume payments on the debt because the claims of creditors were just and to
default on legitimate obligations was dishonorable, and because the faithful
payment of interest on old obligations was essential to the restoration of public
credit, without which the United States would be unable to borrow in the future. I
find his arguments persuasive. Critics of the Constitution did not question the need
to restore public credit but only whether that goal demanded the comprehensive
taxing powers that the Constitution gave Congress. Nobody was against the United
States’ becoming, in Washington’s term, a “respectable nation.” On the “publicspirited reasons” behind much support for federal taxation and the restoration of
federal credit, see also Holton, Unruly Americans, 214-15.