Power to the People?

The Debate on the Constitution: Federalist and Antifederalist Speeches, Articles, and Letters During the Struggle over Ratification

edited by Bernard Bailyn
Library of America, Part II: January to August 1788, 1,175 pp., $70.00 boxed set

In 1787 many Americans were convinced that the “perpetual union” they had created in winning independence was collapsing. Six years earlier in the Articles of Confederation the thirteen state governments had surrendered extensive powers to a congress of delegates from each state legislature. Six years had proved the powers surrendered to be not enough. With no power to tax or to enforce its decrees, the Congress had been helpless to restore the credit of a nation heavily indebted to foreign powers, helpless to halt runaway inflation, helpless to prevent trade wars among the states. The famous convention of 1787 met in Philadelphia to define the additional powers needed to enable Congress to do its job effectively. Instead, the convention proposed a brand new national government. In the year that followed publication of its proposals in September, Americans had to decide, state by state, whether to abandon the old Articles of Confederation for this new Constitution, which was to go into operation when and if nine of the thirteen states approved it. Within a year ten states had done so.

That year was marked by fierce debate, in public assemblies, in the press, in private letters, and most importantly in the popularly elected state conventions through which, by the terms of the Constitution, official approval or disapproval was to be reached. Having lived through a revolution, the men and women who engaged in this contest brought to it more experience in making and breaking governments than any previous or subsequent generation of Americans. Their arguments, dissecting the terms of the document that still defines our government, are still worth listening to. In these volumes Bernard Bailyn has given us a sample of what they had to say, 1,862 pages of it (limited to the period from September 1787 to August 1788), along with 525 more pages of related documents, helpful notes explaining obscure references and allusions, an extensive chronology of related political events from 1774 to 1804, and brief but detailed biographies of the participants.

To serious students of the period, few of the texts will be new. Three hundred eighty-eight pages are devoted to selections from the well known Federalist Papers by Madison and Hamilton (the few by John Jay are omitted). Most of the pieces opposing the Constitution have been reprinted relatively recently in the seven volumes of Herbert Storing’s The Complete Antifederalist. And the whole collection is heavily indebted (as the editor generously acknowledges) to the volumes that have appeared in the ongoing Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, published by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin (eventually to reach nineteen volumes).

That the publishers of the Library of America should have thought it worthwhile to bring out this collection now, evidently intended for the general public, is evidence of the continuing vitality of the subject. Blurbs on the jacket from various public figures assure us that this is the case. Although it seems unlikely that many readers will persevere through the whole 2 …

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