Saturday, August 20, 2011

Polarized politics, 1787

In the United States, the bitter charge that a majority that wants to bring an ambitious project to a vote is trying to ram it down our throats has a long pedigree.  In Pennsylvania, the first state to ratify the Constitution, such was the lament of the minority who were either opposed to ratification, undecided, or in favor of making ratification conditional on the opportunity to amend.

Moreover, the minority was right, according to the narrative stitched together by Pauline Maier in  Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788.  Pennsylvania proponents of the Constitution wanted to be the first to ratify. They convened the ratifying convention in November, just two months after the framers completed their work, and before copies of the Constitution had had time to fully penetrate the enormous rural expanse of the state. In fact they scheduled the ratifying convention before Congress had decided the manner in which it would present it to the states.  That led a conditional supporter of the proposed new scheme of government, Robert Whitehill, to complain, "I don't know any reason there can be for driving [the Constitution] down our throats, without an hour's preparation"...unless it was "a plan not fit for discussion" (p. 61). 
Proponents had a clear 2-to-1 majority from the start, and they wanted the deed done. There was no blueprint for getting the Constitution ratified: many wanted to amend it, and there was no procedure laid down for considering amendments (some wanted a second convention to consider all amendments put forward by state ratifying conventions).  Federalists throughout the states insisted that the document had to be voted up or down.

When the Pennsylvania convention got down to business, a leading federalist, Thomas McKean, moved immediately that the Constitution be adopted, envisioning a vote following perhaps a week of discussion, a compressed schedule designed to foreclose any discussion of amendments. McKean said that while the convention could and should examine the Constitution's "principles in every section and sentence", the delegates had "no right to inquire into the power of the late Convention or to alter or amend their work" (p. 105). The delegates "agreed to go through the Constitution article by article, then almost immediately violated that agreement" as members on both sides gave way to an irrepressible impulse to bring up fundamental issues.  The convention was strongly polarized, and every vote taken reflected the approximate 2-to-1 division in favor of ratification

Meanwhile, intense pressure was brought to bear on newspapers not to publish opinion pieces critical of the Constitution or arguing against ratification. Early dissents were denounced as treason; later, proponents got the hang of canceling subscriptions to protest dissenting articles.  There was considerable pushback, and some brave and ornery publishers and editors insisted on publishing all points of view. While a strong preponderance of published opinion favored ratification, some strong dissents were widely disseminated.


Pennsylvania's quick-pitch approach to ratification left a bitter taste. Maier writes:
the [PA] Constitution's supporters had insisted on ramming it through, assuming losers would simply yield to a triumphant majority and ignoring indications to the contrary. They were wrong. They might have had a strong majority of voters on their side; and a knack for coalition building and support for the rights of embattled minorities might help explain their electoral strength in Pennsylvania politics. That trait was, however, conspicuously absent during the the September session of the state assembly and again in the Pennsylvania ratifying convention. The ham-handed politics of the Constitution's supporters left Pennsylvania in turmoil and awakened suspicions elsewhere that made ratification of the Constitution significantly more difficult" (p. 123).

The difficulty was reflected in the subsequent ratifying convention in Massachusetts, where proponents, while highly uncertain whether they had a majority, were  conscious of the need not only to prevail but to persuade the undecideds in the convention and hence a solid majority of the state's citizens. In many ways, they seem to have treated the Pennsylvania convention as a lesson in how not to do it. Indeed, Maier's narrative seems to be shaping up as a chronicle of the continuous development of democracy under the existential pressure of the ratifying process. More on the Massachusetts convention in an upcoming post.

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