Saturday, August 13, 2011

History of the United States: Counterfactuals in the Prequel

I am about 1/4 through a remarkable book, historian Pauline Maier's Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (2010).  What's remarkable about it is that, so far at least, Maier has delivered precisely on the narrative premise she posed in the introduction:
A writer can build suspense in telling a story, [Barbara Tuchman] said, even if the reader knows how the story turned out, so long as the writer never mentions the outcome until it happens at the proper place in the story. This book is, among other things, an effort to test that theory.
     For the experiment to succeed, however, requires readers who are willing to play a game. They need to forget for the moment much of what they know about the American past, and return in imagination to another time when there was no Constitution, when the federal Convention had not even met, and watch events occur, step by step, unaware of how they would turn out (p. xvi).

This is precisely what's so fascinating about the book. Maier's narrative sympathies, if not her settled judgment, are with those who objected to the Constitution in the form in which it was presented for ratification.  State by state, she relates the objections and anxieties of those who rejected or had serious reservations about the Constitution or about the ratifying process (people complained, with some justice, that the Constitution was being "rammed down our throats"!). These included the little matter of the absence of a bill of rights, the nonrepresentative nature of the Senate, the new Congress's powers of taxation, the lifetime tenure of judges, and the lack of provision for trial by jury in civil cases.

What really makes the tale exciting is the scope of people's quite reasonably grounded fears. Prior to the Constitutional convention, many feared that the union was devolving into anarchy, that the states would turn on each other in civil war, that the colonial powers Spain and England would pull some of them into their orbit or gobble up new areas of settlement. 

Conversely, faced with the new scheme for a strong central government, and forced to accept or reject it in toto with a straight up-or-down vote in ratifying conventions that effectively bypassed the relatively trusted (or at least familiar) state governments, many feared that the Constitution was a prescription for tyranny. Opponents forecast that it would spell the death of the states (which some proponents hoped for); that perceived close ties between the president and the Senate would create a governing aristocracy; that Congress would crush people with federal taxes; that standing armies would be foisted on the populace; and that once the bit was taken, it could never be spit out.

Stoking the fears of an entrenched aristocracy and despotic central government was the ratification process itself. In Pennsylvania and other states, proponents really did try to ram ratification through before the Constitution was widely disseminated and without due deliberation.  At the time, the norms of civil discourse (currently fraying...) and opposition presumed loyal were not fully established. Both sides freely impugned the motives and character of their opponents, but the preponderance of firepower was on the side of the federalists. The Constitution's framers were widely respected as heroes of the revolution but also resented and feared as a nascent aristocracy mapping out a blueprint for their continued dominance.

Maier's sympathies are with those who cried halt or go slow in part because the winners controlled the narrative.  She is at pains to point out the full spectrum of opposition, from those who considered the Constitution a blueprint for despotism to those who sought to open up a process of pre-ratification amendment, such as a second convention to consider amendments proposed by the states, and those prepared to accept the Constitution with some changes, by whatever means they could be secured.  And the critics of the Constitution -- Maier refuses to call them anti-federalists, since most acknowledged the need for a stronger central government -- did win a signal victory with regard to the most salient objection, as several states ratified only upon agreement that the Constitution would be amended to include a bill of rights.

It is not hard to follow Maier's directive and "forget for the moment much of what [we] know about the American past," because we are reminded on every page of what the protagonists do not know.  Here too I would second the narrative blueprint laid down in the introduction:
But the real delights of this broad-based story, I think, are the local figures whom almost nobody has ever heard of before...We owe them our attention, and they reward us richly for hearing them out (p. xii).
The effect is what you might call reverse narrative suspense. We get multiple takes on what the U.S. might look like in prospect, a kind of polyphonic counterfactual.

It may be well be, too, that those in our current political landscape who deify the Constitution as they imagine it have more in common with those who rejected it out of hand, clinging to their ancient liberties as they perceived them, than they do with the strongest proponents of ratification, many of whom were quite ambivalent about their creation before the ratification battle pushed them into fierce advocacy. More on that at a later point.

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