MAJOR events in American history have been recounted again and again, but many of the essential documents are often - save for the specialist - hard to come by. The general reader easily locates the most celebrated materials - the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, Lincoln's second inaugural address - but even important items one step down in visibility have remained rather fugitive.
Fortunately, these gaps in what's readily available are being filled. Publication of speeches, articles, and letters from the 1787-88 debate on the ratification of the United States Constitution by the Library of America is especially welcome.
Edited by Bernard Bailyn, a historian who has made important contributions to understanding America's founding, "The Debate on the Constitution" has everything the nonspecialist might want on the subject: along with the documents themselves, brief biographical notes on the various speakers and writers, a chronology of key events in American independence and the establishment of the new governmental system, notes on contemporary state constitutions, and notes explicating the text of the reprinted document s.
The Constitution was drafted in Philadelphia 206 years ago. Because of its exceptional longevity, constitutional scholars Robert Goldwin and Art Kaufman have written, "Americans are accustomed to thinking of constitution writing as something done hundreds of years ago by bewigged gentlemen wearing frock coats, knee breeches, and white stockings." In fact, the majority of the world's written constitutions have been drafted in the last two decades. The US Constitution's staying power is both remarkable and
Why has it lasted so long, fundamentally unchanged? The Constitution is superb political engineering. Granting the desirability of the core values that the framers sought to realize - constitutional democracy (not pure majoritarianism), and a national government that is strong and energetic and yet carefully limited through federalism and the separation of powers - it's hard to improve on what Madison, Washington, Franklin, Hamilton, Wilson, and others devised in the summer of 1787. Their one omission wa s quickly filled, with the ratification in 1791 of the Bill of Rights.
Ninety years after it was drafted, the great British Liberal Party leader William E. Gladstone, writing in the North American Review, paid the Constitution its most famous compliment. "But, as the British Constitution," Gladstone wrote, "is the most subtile organism which has proceeded from the womb and the long gestation of progressive history, so the American Constitution is, so far as I can see, the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man. It has ... certain ly proved the sagacity of the constructors, and the stubborn strength of the fabric."
Gladstone's assessment can be debated, of course, but it's not hyperbole. The Constitution is a brilliantly designed effort to establish constitutional democracy and then, what's harder, to maintain it. This is why the collection of documents from the ratification debate, published here, is so important: It remains instructive.
The Constitution was by no means a sure bet in 1787 and 1788. There was a vigorous debate on ratification and, indeed, the ranks of those opposed were probably the more numerous.
Supporters and opponents - federalists and antifederalists - shared the same general social and political values, which is the chief reason why they so quickly put behind them their differences over the Constitution itself, once the new institutions were in place. Still, as many of the documents reprinted in these two volumes remind us, the antifederalists' position was strikingly short-sighted, and it would have proved very troublesome to the new republic had it carried the day.
The antifederalists were not sturdy democrats valiantly resisting efforts by elites of wealth and privilege to stem the tide of American democracy, as they appear in the elaborate mythology concocted by Charles A. Beard, in "An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, 1913," and other Progressive historians. Rather, they were states' righters, worried that the new national government would be too strong. Their almost-leader was Thomas Jefferson who, in Paris and torn by conflicting assessments of the
new constitution, largely sat out the great debate.
In a letter to his friend James Madison written Dec. 20, 1787, Jefferson summed up his major misgivings about Madison's handiwork as the primary drafter of the charter: "I own I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive." That was the core of the antifederalists' concern.
In fact, as the next half century was to show, it was the states' rights position, declared in defense of slavery, that almost wrecked the American promise of a free society. But the national idea and government, set forth by the Philadelphia convention in 1787, proved strong enough to prevail in 1861 to 1865.