by John Pecoraro, Assistant Director, Manhattan Public Library
An important document in our nation’s history is having its 226th birthday this year. The supreme law of the land was adopted on September 17, 1787, and ratified on March 4, 1789. The United States Constitution has endured through flush times and recessions, through times of dynamic expansion and civil war. Over its history (and ours), this living document has been amended a mere twenty-seven times.
Ratification of the Constitution was never a foregone conclusion. The new Constitution was hotly debated by men in taverns and coffeehouses, by women in parlors, and by every newspaper in the country. In “Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788,” historian Pauline Maier tells the story of the yearlong battle over ratification. Maier’s is the first major history of ratification, drawing on a vast collection of documents to weave a dramatic narrative about the hundreds of delegates to the thirteen states’ ratifying conventions.
In “Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution,” Richard Beeman captures the dynamic of the debate and the characters of the men laboring during the Philadelphia summer of 1787. Men like the brilliant James Madison, combative Gourverneur Morris, pugnacious Luther Martin, and dignified George Washington, forged the world’s most enduring, revolutionary constitution through conflict, compromise, and finally consensus.
Akhil Reed Amar’s “America’s Constitution: A Biography,” explains not only what the Constitution says, but why it says it. The author, a scholar of constitutional law, demonstrates how the story of the Constitution reflects the story of America. The Constitution was as much a product of its environment as it was of the people who created it.
The series of essays in “The Federalist” comprise a key text in the democratic system created in the wake of the American Revolution. Writing under the pseudonym, Publius, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay promoted the ratification of the Constitution in a series of 85 articles published in 1787 and 1788. The majority of the articles first appeared in three New York newspapers, “The Independent Journal,” “The New York Packet,” and “The Daily Advertiser.” Later published under the title of “The Federalist; or, The New Constitution,” the articles described the ideas behind the American system of government.
In “Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution,” historian Woody Holton provides the startling discovery that the primary purpose of the Constitution’s framers was not to protect civil liberties and the people’s freedom, but to make America more attractive to investment. In this eye-opening interpretation of the Constitution, Holton explains how the same class of Americans that produced Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts (as well as rebellions in several other states) ultimately prevailed to produce the Constitution we now revere.
Was the purpose of the Constitution really to limit government? Why didn’t the framers of the Constitution include a Bill of Rights? These are samples of the provocative questions Ray Raphael asks in “Constitutional Myths: What We Get Wrong and How to Get it Right.” Instead of speculating about what the framers of the Constitution would do today, Raphael seeks to understand what they did during their own time, and on their own terms.
David O. Stewart traces the struggles among the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention in “The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution.” Just who were these men who make the Constitution? History paints them as colorful characters: Hamilton, Morris, Randolph, and many others now largely forgotten. At some point during the hot Philadelphia summer, half of the delegates threatened to walk out. A few did. Stewart’s book is a suspense story. The delegates struggled with difficult decisions as they tried to balance power in the hands of the people with a central government having the power to make decisions important for all.
Websites concerning the Constitution are plentiful. Begin at the National Archives site for the full text as well as facsimiles of the original document, and questions and answers about the Constitution and other landmark documents in American history.
You’ll find a highly accessible, easy to use version of the Constitution at http://constitutionus.com. Also visit the History Channel site at www.history.com/topics/constitution for speeches, videos, and photo galleries illuminating the Constitution. You’ll also find articles on the major characters, themes, and events in constitutional history.