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Pauline Maier's legacy in telling the Constitution's founding story

August 16, 2013 by Lincoln Caplan


Pauline Maier, the New York Times reported on Wednesday, died on Monday, August 12th, at the age of 75. She was a longtime professor at MIT. Here is MIT’s account of her career:

GWBookPrize.Maier400Her first book, which grew out of her PhD dissertation done under the great colonial historian Bernard Bailyn at Harvard, is called “From Resistance to Revolution” and was published in 1972.

The preface begins, “When the American revolutionaries first came to interest me nearly nine years ago [in other words, 50 years ago, in 1963], prevailing historical interpretation suggested they were not worth serious study.” The view then was that “propaganda” from “a handful of agitators” turned the heads of “the mass of colonists” and led to the American Revolution.

Instead, Maier found, “No leader, not even the most outspoken American partisan, was anti-British when the evolution of events that culminated in the revolution first began. Affection for Britain, her constitutional monarchs and government, pervaded the private correspondence as well as public pronouncements of the Sons of Liberty, who organized against Britain’s Stamp Act of 1765. Separation was to be shunned; independence was mentioned only as a gloomy possibility, which, hopefully, timely action would preclude.

Maier’s powerfully illuminating view was rooted in documentary evidence, “the personal letters and public statements” as well as “the newspapers they published and supported” of those “in the vanguard of opposition.”

“From Resistance to Revolution” is important because of its great intrinsic value as history and because of the standard it set for her career as a path-breaking historian.

She took a similarly fresh, disciplined, and enormously influential approach to understanding the shaping of the Constitution, in her 2010 book, “Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788.”

It is well known that just 55 people attended the four-month secret convention during which the Constitution was written in 1787. After Congress called for nine of the 13 states to ratify the Constitution, about 1,500 official delegates took part in the wide-open and intense debates about it.

Here is the opening to the introduction of “Ratification”:

“This book tells the story of one of the greatest and most probing public debates in American history, one that occurred at the end of the American Revolution and involved far more than the handful of familiar ‘founding fathers.’ It is the story of how ‘We the People’ decided whether or not to ordain and establish the Constitution of the United States.”

When New Hampshire became the ninth state to favor ratification, the vote was 57 to 47. The Constitution, it is widely agreed, was ratified by a very close margin. The fervor and force of the opposition became embodied in amendments to it, which were ratified in 1791 and became known as the Bill of Rights.

Maier’s book closes: “ ‘We the People’ of 1787 and 1788 inaugurated a dialogue between power and liberty that has continued …” That dialogue has often been especially contentious in times of war, including today.

“Ratification” underscored something crucial about the struggle over where to strike the balance between the power of the government and the rights of individuals protected against the government, whether liberty, privacy, or others: it has been a fundamental contest in the United States since the country’s birth.

 Lincoln Caplan is a visiting lecturer in law at Yale Law School and the author of “The Solicitor General and the Rule of Law,” among other books.

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