When Politics was the National Sport.
August 9, 2013
It was a conspiracy. The Adams cousins and their sinister cabal of patriots conspired to commit independence. That was July 2, 1776, and now it’s September 1787 and the major league baseball playoffs begin soon. Wait, the World Series begins in October. Author Pauline Maier draws a timely and accurate comparison of the process of getting thirteen bodies to accept the work of the Federal Convention to baseball. In the Introduction to her latest book, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788, she identifies politics as America’s first national game.
It seems that Americans (as well as others) have a penchant for watching the same game played night after night, week after week, so it’s only natural that the ratification process would garner so much attention in the 18th century. One Massachusetts observer commented that newspapers filled with news of the Constitution were “read more than the bible.” I wonder if his last name was “Lennon.”
A significant exception exists in the analogy. Suppose that the teams got together before each playoff series and re-wrote the rules. Talk about drama! Would the fans go for that? No wonder the individual state conventions and elections captivated the voters so thoroughly!
Maier begins the story near Christmas in 1786 as a retired general in Virginia rips open a letter that has awaited his hand several days, due to a winter storm. Readers will find it easy to suspend disbelief and take a step back in time as though reading fiction rather than well documented fact. Maier’s writing is a confirmation of Barbara Tuchman’s idea that a writer can build suspense even when the readers know how the story ends. Simply mention the outcome in it’s proper place.
As the narrative continues through the individual state conventions, we are reacquainted with familiar famous names (Washington, Hamilton, Jay, and Richard Henry Lee) and we meet some of the less well known locals from the states (Elbridge Gerry, Nathan Dane, James Wilson, and William Findley among others). There was a Governor Clinton back then, too.
Maier’s thorough research and planning (over ten years) along with her captivating writing style make for a compelling read with a story that will hold the reader’s attention throughout its 400 plus pages.
Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788, contains over a dozen pages of glossy black and white photos and illustrations, six maps, and of course, the Constitution and First Ten Amendments. [Note: The Preamble to The Constitution is often included in collections of great writing and was something we had to memorize in high school forty years ago. I hope today’s high school kids know it, too.]