The People Debate the Constitution

The People Debate the Constitution
Pauline Maier
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
October 11, 2011

The ratification of the Constitution is usually treated as an afterthought. There are dozens of books about the Federal Convention, and history textbooks conventionally deal with debates in the convention, but few studies deal with the critical process through which the Constitution was ratified by the states in a succession of state conventions. Ratification, as she makes clear, was not at all certain. The Federal Convention had exceeded its mandate to propose changes to the Articles of Confederation, and its secret proceedings aroused mistrust. Antifederalists—opponents of the Constitution—included some of the most prominent political leaders in the new nation. In some states, ratification was achieved by slim majorities. In this lecture, based on her book Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, Pauline Maier puts ratification—which gave the Constitution the force of law—at the center of the story of the U.S. Constitution. In the process she poses an important challenge to constitutional originalists: whose intent really matters—the intent of the draftsmen, or the intent of the delegates whose votes made the Federal Constitution the foundation of American law?


About the Speaker

Pauline Maier was a professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is the author of From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of Opposition to Britain, 1765–­1776 (1972), The Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams (1980), American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (1998) and Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787–­1788 (2010). People Debate the Constitution is the 2011 George Rogers Clark Lecture. Dr. Maier passed away in 2013. Learn more about Pauline Maier’s life and career in an American Historical Association article written by her friend and fellow historian Mary Beth Norton.


Continue the George Rogers Clark Lecture series with the 2012 lecture, The American Revolution in the South.