Statesmen Divided: The Contentious Nature of the Ratification of the United States Constitution

Image Courtesy of the National Constitution Center – Find more information at https://constitutioncenter.org/

The formation of a constitutional government in the United States did not smoothly transition from a foreign entity into a seamless governmental structure. Whether through the viewpoint of state legislatures or a stronger national unifying government, the government developed the design of the United States Constitution with an added Bill of Rights. The debate surrounding the development of these American legal principles was discordantly gaping and contentious—the initial salvo into American jurisprudence laid in the Articles of Confederation. With an overwhelming belief in state sovereignty, the Articles of Confederation stated, “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every Power.”  With the Articles of Confederation’s significant weaknesses to regulate trade, raising funds through taxation to help pay for the American Revolution, or conducting foreign policy, it became apparent that changes or a new form of government would be needed. The Articles of Confederation only allowed for thirteen independent states, not united in one central government. What ensued during the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia and subsequent ratifying conventions would drive the debate of American legal philosophy. Both philosophical differences saw the protection of rights as key to the early republic. These statesmen were divided on what this new Constitution would look like and how the United States would proceed forward.

The Federalists’ argument was a conceptual call for unity under the new Constitution passed in Philadelphia in 1787. Unity under this unique document would take coercion in convincing delegates to ratify in their states, and Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison penned the argument of the Federalists under the Federalist Papers. The growing fear of foreign enemies and external attacks called for a robust central government due to the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. After Shays’ Rebellion’s events, the uprising was a precipitating moment that required more government control that could not be feasible under the Articles of Confederation. The Federalists saw the complexities established in the United States Constitution as safeguarding the rights established within the document. While all inherent rights were not enumerated, they felt as though there were significant protections afforded to the individual. The Federalists believed that the national government did not have the right to assume powers that it did not explicitly have within the Constitution. Therefore the arguments of the Anti-Federalists of a despotic, overbearing, and tyrannical government getting established was misstating the established government. The United States Constitution proposed establishing a constitutional government that could care for insurrections and foreign enemies.

Federalists did not believe in humans, and distrusted individuals as corruption would become the nature of constitutionalism in the American framework. In the Federalists’ eyes, the Constitution was created because humans could not be trusted. They believed the people possessed enough virtue for self-government where government abuses would come with power, and sovereignty within the people was required. Their influences on ancient history and political philosophy showed them that human nature could not be trusted, and corruption would ensue. There was also a fear of the future of the country, especially in western lands. Federalists, especially Hamilton, felt as though there needed to be an arbitrator or it could devolve into conflict. The central government could help be the decision-maker between state disputes such as land. 

The Anti-Federalists presented the opposition to the ratification. This group was not as united as the Federalist group but considered themselves the Federalists due to their conceptions to keep the ideals of republicanism intact. Some wanted to make changes to the Articles of Confederation, while others wanted to keep state sovereignty in a new document, but the Constitution did not hold to that belief of the power to the states. Ratification of the United States Constitution required nine of the thirteen states to approve by the state legislatures. In opposition to the document’s structure, individuals like George Mason called for significant structural changes to the Constitution. These structural changes would place more power on the state governments due to the ongoing fear of establishing too much power in the central government.

On the other hand, the Anti-Federalists believed that a republic with the size and scope of the United States could not work. The examples of past republics showed the demise of oversized and bloated governments. They feared that the government would turn into a despotic form of government. Trusting in someone like George Washington would undoubtedly happen due to Washington’s stature in society. Still, the Anti-Federalists did not want to have a large national government after the Washington administration. The Anti-Federalists felt that human nature would lead to corruption in government.

Both groups appealed to the public and believed in the ideas of the consent of the government. Sovereignty within the people was a crucial tenet among the Federalists and Anti-Federalists. The Anti-Federalists felt as though the idea of this new Constitution was a problem, as with a vast amount of land, representatives could not know the complete will of their constituents. The consent of the people, therefore, could not take place due to the concept of sovereignty. True sovereignty could not take place in the proposed system. Both groups were focused on the notion of political society and nation-building. The perceptions of what would be best and the best structures within the government framework established intense debate at the Constitutional Convention.

The dissension among the two groups would delay the ratification of the Bill of Rights. Anti-Federalists refused to ratify the United States Constitution due to the lack of rights they perceived were not in the original document. They were in favor of ensuring these individual rights that were lacking. Federalists were touting the complexity of the document and the government established as keeping individual rights safe and secure. While the call for these individuals’ rights, state constitutions had declarations of rights familiar to what would eventually become the Bill of Rights. The Pennsylvania Declaration of Rights from 1776 states, “That all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences and understanding: And that no man ought or of right can be compelled to attend any religious worship, or erect or support any place of worship, or maintain any ministry, contrary to, or against, his own free will and consent.” This clause is similar to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution in granting individuals the right to exercise their religious beliefs freely. The Massachusetts state constitution from 1780 states, “And every subject shall have a right to produce all proofs, that may be favorable to him; to meet the witnesses against him face to face, and to be fully heard in his defence by himself, or his council, at his election.” This clause is similar to the protections stated within the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution regarding the accused’s right after arrest and criminal trial protections.

Federalists believed that various bills of rights were dangerous to the sanctity of the United States Constitution and would be dangerous and unnecessary. In Federalist 84, Alexander Hamilton is clear about the inherent dangers of having changes to the Constitution at such a juncture of the early republic. The feeling among most Federalists was that changing or adding to the Constitution could open the door to significant structural changes. Hamilton also states that there are already individual rights protected such as habeas corpus, no title of nobility, ex post facto laws, and others that the Constitution provides. The Federalists were clear that adding a Bill of Rights to the Constitution would be nothing more than a “parchment barrier” in federal law. 

Due to political problems in his district and challenges, James Madison proposed a federal Bill of Rights that would provide for small changes adding twelve, then changed to ten, amendments to the United States Constitution. The language provided in the Bill of Rights was made non-controversial and provided protections that would ease the minds of staunch advocates of individual and state government protections. The political society of the early republic was divisive as factions; eventually, political parties were beginning to form.

In Washington’s Farewell Address, he states, “The Unity of Government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so; for it is a main Pillar in the Edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home; your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very Liberty which you so highly prize.” Washington’s call for the unity of government and appealing to the peace and tranquility of the nation was prevalent after the contentious debate on the ratifying of the United States Constitution. The dissension would lead to the formation of political parties and set the course of American political history for over two hundred and thirty years. The Federalists served as the builders of this new Constitution, while the Anti-Federalists were the inspectors ensuring that the foundation was secure.

Differing Perspectives on the Progressive Era

*The below analysis is from a section of my research on the Progressive Era and how historians have perceived this period. For more in-depth information, fill out the contact information. I am also available for zoom sessions with groups.

At the turn of the twentieth century, American civilization made a significant shift out of an industrial revolution. The latter portion of the nineteenth century often termed the “Gilded Age,” presented critical issues such as child labor, economic inequalities, rising radical groups, problems of overcrowding in urban areas due to increasing immigration, et cetera. The turn of the century often termed the “Progressive Era,” approached these issues to take corrective measures. Historians have debated how this era should be defined. The contexts of the historiography get to the heart of when and who are the origins of the Progressive Era. The “Progressive Era” was a time of a liberal explosion of new ideas and promoting democratic ideals but failed to meet all of its objectives due to rising conservative beliefs, “The Great War,” and rising utopian forms of economic and governmental applications. While different, these discussions allow for a comprehensive understanding and in-depth analysis of a significant shift in American history. These “impulses” defined a generation to better their world through their ways, morals, and practices.

The origins of the “Progressive Era” can be complicated to understand which route correctly identifies its beginnings. Whether through the eyes of Victorian Americans, intellectuals, artists, farmers, radicals, or elitists, the era took on a major shift in the development of twentieth-century United States government policies, economics, politics, and social/cultural changes. Defining the era, its impact, and the means of their actions gives insight into this monumental development in American historiography. Whether one takes the beliefs of Michael McGerr, Elizabeth Sanders, Daniel Rodgers, Shelton Stromquist, or any other historian/political scientist of the “Progressive Era,” there is no denying the impact that it had on the history of the United States and the world. 

The Ponderings of an APUSH Teacher

Every year, tens of thousands of students from across the nation gather in May to take the Advanced Placement United States History (APUSH) exam. APUSH is the equivalency of a marathon at a sprint pace. The content required to cover goes from 1491 until the modern-day. It is an extensive amount of information that high school students must attain and be able to implement in a timed atmosphere. It is high-stakes poker, and we have finally made it to the end of the line. Once you get to the end of the race, you are physically, emotionally, and intellectually drained. After all of the projects, document analysis, DBQs, LEQs, SAQs, presidential biographies, contextualization, memorizing rubrics, and perfecting our thesis, today is that day. I sit here and wait. I continually ask myself, “Did I do enough?” Could I have focused on other aspects for the success of my students? The answer to these questions will come in time as we wait for early July and the release of scores. My students have put in the work deserving of the highest score imaginable. As I sit here and ponder over the last ten months of work, I can say that only one word comes to mind when I think of the work we have done: PRIDE. I am so ultimately proud of their work and proud of the sense of accomplishment.

To my students: I am proud of you. You know I deeply care for each of you and am with you in the room in spirit. You are exceptional individuals that have made this one of the most remarkable professional years of my career. Love you all!

Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder

Bloodlands 1st edition 9780465031474 0465031471
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder. New York: Basic Books, 2010. 524 pp. $29.95.

The history of the rise of totalitarian regimes between World War I and World War II creates intrigue among researchers, historians, and other stakeholders in the field of history. The research over this historical period can incorporate many different methodological strategies and areas, whether economic, military, social, political, et cetera. One significant aspect of the interwar period in history is the mass murder between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin and the strategies and reasons they enacted their murderous terror. In Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Timothy Snyder presents a new outlook on the killings of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union that requires historians to look at the period from a different perspective. Snyder’s work can unveil an uncomfortable and challenging history of death that is crucial in understanding the interwar period and multiple aspects of World War II as millions of innocent civilians perished. 

Bloodlands is an expose that focuses on the starvation, incarceration, concentration, and execution of millions of individuals in Hitler and Stalin’s totalitarianist governments. The story describes both regimes as they push for a rise of power and connects the two in similar formats. “During the years that both Stalin and Hitler were in power, more people were killed in Ukraine than anywhere else in the bloodlands, or in Europe, or in the world.”1 Snyder presents the scope of death associated with Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union as both took dramatically and, what they considered, necessary efforts to eradicate less than desirables. The book focuses on the steps that both men took to take over their country and promote their brand of government. Snyder concentrates solely on the mass murder efforts of the two and does not traditionally go down the military or conflict routes associated with this time in history. “This study brings the Nazi and Soviet regimes together, and Jewish and European history together, and the national histories together. It describes the victims and the perpetrators.”2 Snyder wants to focus on the planning and execution of the regimes to eliminate millions of people for their purposes. These ideological decisions were made for what was considered the best for their governance model. Millions of people would be shot, starved, executed, imprisoned, or tortured for this ideological belief. 

Bloodlands provides an appropriate scope in the period and does not overextend its content as Snyder analyzes this crucial aspect within European and world history. Unlike Tony Judt’s Postwar, Snyder does not exceed too many various topics regarding the historiography of a period. Bloodlands focuses on two regimes and their intent to destroy and annihilate certain groups, such as Stalin’s focus on Ukrainians, Poles, and civilian deaths. To introduce the book’s setup, Snyder describes both regimes and their strategies and models for takeover and what occurred once power and control were attained. The book can explain the rise of Stalin from an officer of the Red Army to the General Secretary of the Soviet Union. It also can use the basis of the Treaty of Versailles as a base that would help for the rise of Hitler as the four major powers at the end of World War I, “The French … wanted the Germans punished and France’s allies rewarded.”3

Timothy Snyder is not afraid to mince words and provide examples of the deprivation and horrendous nature that was a characteristic of both Hitler and Stalin’s government as a brilliant analytical tactic. In Chapter 1 – The Soviet Famines, Snyder describes the starvation under Stalin’s regime and the policies that demolished the Soviet Ukrainians during the early 1930s. Snyder describes appalling situations towards Ukrainians as they starved to death. The book discloses the Soviet policy towards theft where a person would be executed for stealing food. “Thus a starving peasant could be shot if he picked up a potato peel from a furrow in land that until recently had been his own.”4 Also, Snyder can describe the horrific tales of cannibalism that occurred due to Soviet policies in Ukraine that further the thesis provided in Bloodlands.

Snyder uses evidence throughout the book to accentuate his analysis of the terror within the Hitler and Stalin governments. The extensive list of quotes, doctoral dissertations, books, case studies, and varying primary and secondary sources allows Bloodlands to expound upon the historiography and changing perspectives. For example, Snyder uses quotes from March 30th, 1933, in the New York Evening Post to describe the brutality towards Poles in the Radom district by the Nazi government. These quotes accentuate the speed and treatment of individuals deemed a “danger to German security” as individuals were taken, sentenced, and transported quickly out of the district. Snyder cites the primary source, “3:30 binding, 3:45 reading of verdict, 4:00 transport.”5 In using this form of the primary source application, Snyder can develop his thesis while giving evidence that effectively supports his analysis as he describes deplorable situations. His detailed bibliography shows the careful research that presented detailed analysis through primary and secondary sources. 

Snyder’s primary focus is his attempt at correcting the way historians and others remember this time in history. While Bloodlands focuses on multiple aspects surrounding the mass death involved in both regimes, Snyder’s work is culturally historical. “Cultures are organized by round numbers often; but somehow the remembrance of the dead is easier when the numbers are not round, when the final digit is not a zero.”6 Snyder is pressing on the importance of the lives that were lost. The people were not a number but rather a person, a story, a life. Their stories are important as they provide insight, and historically the individuals have been lost to the stories of the leaders, but these cultures have been lost. “Ukrainian villages had been deprived of their natural leaders by the deportations of kulaks to the Gulag.”7 A generation of leaders was lost due to ideologies that cost countries millions of their fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters. 

Snyder’s work is an excellent representation of the interwar period. It gets to the heart of the matter as leaders took to their brand of government and created governance and control by any means necessary. Bloodlands can challenge preconceived notions and myths that have been incorrectly purported, including Chapter 11 – Stalinist Anti-Semitism. Adolf Hitler is closely associated with forms of antisemitism, yet Snyder can unveil the antisemitism and Stalin’s version of it between the two leaders. “If the Stalinist notion of the war was to prevail, the fact that the Jews were its main victims had to be forgotten.”8 As an ally of Hitler, Stalin wanted this to be forgotten.

Finally, Bloodlands compare the two totalitarian regimes under the same guise: death. Both were focused on doing whatever they felt was necessary to further their cause. Neither was opposed to ethnic cleansings or liquidation of human beings or institutions so that their own personal gain of power and control had been met. For Hitler and Stalin, their acts were justified because their ideological beliefs were evil. Timothy Snyder presents that narrative beautifully and illustrates a detailed description of the death and destruction that Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin left in their wake. 

Footnotes

  1. Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, New York, Basic Books, 2010, 20.
  2. Snyder, Bloodlands, xix..
  3. Snyder, Bloodlands, 8.
  4. Snyder, Bloodlands, 38-39.
  5. Snyder, Bloodlands, 147-48.
  6. Snyder, Bloodlands, 408.
  7. Snyder, Bloodlands, 29.
  8. Snyder, Bloodlands, 345.

Historiography and Social History

American historiography has seen growing shifts that equate to changing historical interpretations in academia. Historians need to focus on the aspects of “social history” to present the layers within the context of a historical event. These layers allow for an in-depth analysis rather than an individual narrative. This “history from below” approach provides comparable data and presents the analysis within quantitative history.1 Sarah Maza in Thinking About History states, “every time we reframe part of the historical picture to take account of another set of people, the whole image changes.”2 It is fascinating to take this approach, and it is valid to the stories of all, rather than only particular groups. The changing ideologies of slaves, women, and/or the LGBTQ+ community are ever-evolving as more scholarship is presented. The perceptions of how certain people were treated create new interpretations of new information explained. Historians have led the vital question of “where” regarding the analysis. The “where” plays a critical component because geographies create nationalistic emotions and responses. Historians have allowed the populace and academia to understand “the many aspects of the past that are either neglected or distorted if we confine ourselves to national contexts.”3 The “what” of history revolves around the “who.” As Maza states, “History is about human beings.”4 There is no denying this notion. We have to conceptualize these individuals, but on the other token, we also must inquire into their activities. Whether they reacted to the weather and their environment, these notions are just as essential to study and understand. Much of history has focused on male elites dominating the narrative, where in recent memory, more minorities and women are presented within scholarship.

Footnotes

  1. Sarah Maza, Thinking about History, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2017, 17.
  2. Maza, Thinking About History, 44.
  3. Maza, Thinking About History, 51.
  4. Maza, Thinking About History, 83.