NPJ Book Review: The Debate on the Constitution

The Debate on the Constitution. Two Volumes, Library of America. (1993)

Federalist and Antifederalist Speeches, Articles, and Letters During the Struggle and Ratification

Part One: September 1787 to February 17 1788, Part Two, January to August 1788. Including the Debate in the Press and in Private Correspondence and the Debates in the State Ratifying Conventions

My thoughts: These documents offer a brilliant landscape of the colonial mind and the struggles endured in pursuit of liberty within the confines and context of creating a representative government. 

Benjamin Franklin in a speech at the Conclusion of the Constitutional Convention stated in part, that he did not approve of the constitution, but realized that he was open to change his opinion, by younger minds but also warned, “most men indeed as well as most sects in Religion, think themselves in Possession of All Truth, and whenever others differ from them it is so far Error.”

The Federalist and Anti-Federalist positions are astute and insightful and yet as Franklin intimates, differences in positions on a topic are,  that one thinks their position is infallible and the other thinks they are never wrong.

The well known figures are present along with Franklin, include James Madison -“father of the Constitution,” and  George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and others such as Brutus and the Federal Farmer to name but a few. Pseudonyms were used in the Press. 

Intellectual arguments were multifaceted, and in the process define the nuances of the colonial spirit. To appreciate this labor of love, angst, chagrin, vision, and intellectual discernment these participants had for their work and the government they were creating was evoked in words of concern about a government that might impinge upon or give them greater liberty. The air was filled with excitement. Conversation in writing and talking were the mediums of communication. The language was poetic at times. It was the language of the 18th century.

The reader will find a deeper appreciation of the fluidity of thoughts and writings…the Constitution was  not written on stone tablets but  paper that is meant to serve as a beginning point for continued experiment and survival. But for how long? Who had the right to vote? The arrogance was not lost on the participants as property owners led the way. 

These two volumes are an invaluable reference for the person wanting to know about the intricacies of a creating a nation. The speeches, articles and letters are written by ordinary men unordinary times who were thoughtful, intelligent, and literate. The colonial era enjoyed a comparatively literate public. They had within them the spirit of the Enlightenment.

The US Constitution was written with the idea as one person (Brutus) notes – no one has the wisdom to foresee all the struggles our descendants will endure. The Bill of Rights were written to answer the deeper concerns of the new republic  but also with the understanding that it was written in a specific place and time but not meant to represent the nature of government for all time. The roles of the three branches of government, was of extensive deliberation. 

This is a work to be consulted as a reference not as the final word but as a founding document. The Debate should be readily accessible to all those wishing a better understanding what it took to ratify the Constitution of the United States and the challenges the country faces today as a Republic and a representative democracy.