Ratifying the Constitution: Democracy in action

On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the proposed Constitution. This was an act for the ages because it not only marked the technical implementation of the new law of the land but, in the words of James Madison, written on April 6, 1796, the “instrument” — the Constitution — “was nothing more than a draught of a plan, nothing but a dead letter, until life and validity were breathed into it, by the voice of the people, speaking through the several state conventions.”


Article VII of the proposed Constitution, written by delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, provided that the “instrument” would go into effect as soon as nine of the 13 specially held state ratifying conventions approved it. The ratification debate not only marked the opening sequence in the debate about national politics, representing as it did, the first national election, but introduced the most democratic, deliberative forum for choosing a form and style of government the world had ever seen.


Imagine in our time, an American citizenry, drawn from all stations and orders fully engaged in an exciting and intense debate, in alehouses and coffee houses, newspapers and pamphlets, about a simple, but crucial question of transcendent importance for the future of the nation: Shall the citizenry ratify, that is, approve, the proposed Constitution, or not?


It is easy for Americans in the 21st Century to take for granted the founders’ history-making decision, their close study of the proposed Constitution, and to discount or ignore what the ratification debate represented, then and now, for the possibilities of self-governance. But let’s not for, say, just 15 minutes, succumb to that state of ingratitude and oblivion. Instead, let’s embrace what “We the People” were thinking.


The grand debates over the Constitution — “the war of printed words” — up and down the  and into the hinterlands, constituted a necessary part of transforming America into what George Washington called, “a respectable nation.” Whether or not it was an exaggeration for an observer to say at the time that more people read the newspaper debates over the proposed Constitution than “read the Bible,” the remark was telling, for it reflected the nation’s deep-seated concern about its future.


The founders’ plan to submit to the people, for their consideration, the question of a governing plan, meant that ordinary citizens were being asked, as Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 1, “to deliberate on a new Constitution” by an “election” that would create worldwide precedent. The act of empowering “We the People” to deliberate on their preferred form of government, that is, the submission of a plan “to the voluntary consent of a whole people,” Hamilton added in Federalist No. 85, “is a prodigy.”


This earth-shattering precedent is not to suggest that the Constitution or even the ratification process was as “democratical” as it could have been, or should have been, but only to say that it was groundbreaking for its emphasis on the right of the people to engage in deliberation about the proposed Constitution. The crude societal limitations of the time, anchored in the pervasive racism and sexism that pockmarked America, precluded the sort of expansive democracy that most of us favor today, but the application of our values to the founding period traps us in an intellectual cul-de-sac that generates a question with a circular answer: At what point, if any, did America become a democracy?


For Madison and fellow delegates to the Constitutional Convention, as for the rest of the world, the concept of a deliberative forum for the American people to consider the question of approval of a Constitution to be the law of the land of their country, represented a breathtaking step in placing flesh on the premise and promise of the Declaration of Independence that people enjoy an “inalienable right ”to consent to government, rather than having government imposed upon them.


The success of the founders’ gambit in laying before the people a proposed law of the land, and the anticipation that both the people and the government would take the Constitution seriously, raises for us, a profoundly important question: Does this dream live on in the United States?


As we approach the anniversary of the signing of the document that declared our nation’s independence, can we, as a nation, summon the ghosts of 1776, and resurrect the spirit of a country that so deeply believed in reason, facts and evidence as guideposts for our discussions and debates about policies and programs? Let us hope that we can once again work to fulfill the very premise that compelled the founders to submit to the people a proposed Constitution to govern our country?