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Society Project Makes New Scholarship Possible

A painting by Albert Herter depicting the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787
WHI 44741

A recent important piece of historical scholarship, "Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788" by Pauline Maier, is shedding light on the importance of a longstanding editorial project published by the Society since the 1970s. Maier's book tells the story of the heated debates at state conventions and in newspapers about whether to ratify the newly framed Constitution. To do that, she relied heavily on "The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution," now 21 volumes strong after more than four decades of painstaking research, writing and editing. Eight more volumes are to come. Scholars at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for the Study of the American Constitution edit the series. Center director John P. Kaminski, along with colleagues Richard Leffler, Gaspare J. Saladino and Charles H. Schoenleber, edited the most recent volume in the series.

Project in the Works Since 1976

The Society published the first volume in the series in 1976, while the nation was celebrating its bicentennial. That and subsequent volumes meticulously document complete records of the individual state ratifying conventions. Included are their proceedings and debates, notes of the convention secretaries and delegates, correspondence and newspaper commentaries, and anything else that helps provide a comprehensive accounting of the process that culminated in ratification of the Constitution. Famed constitutional historian, the late Leonard W. Levy, underscored the importance of this scholarship, proclaiming the ratification series "the most important editorial project in the nation." Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian Gordon S. Wood went further, saying, it "is not only a national treasure, it is a world treasure."

'A Revolution in Our Understanding of the Ratification of the Constitution'

Many reviews of Maier's book make prominent mention of the Society's ratification series, and the author herself candidly acknowledges that the accumulated scholarship in the volumes made the decade-long process of writing "Ratification" possible. Maier, who teaches American history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, credits the series for allowing her to tell the story from the people's perspective: "In the end, the DHRC lays the foundation for something of a revolution in our understanding of the ratification of the Constitution. … [It] documents the grass-roots story of the people and the Constitution."

:: Posted January 19, 2011

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