Note: Once again, this is a hurried summary of the panel. Apologies in advance for errors of fact or interpretation.
Rosemarie Zagarri (George Mason University) chaired the Friday afternoon roundtable on the U.S. Constitution. The panelists were Richard Beeman (University of Pennsylvania); Pauline Maier (Massachusetts Institute of Technology); John Kaminski (University of Wisconsin); and Stephanie R. Hurter (Department of State). (A fifth panelist, Trish Loughran, was not able to present.)
Each panelist spent roughly 5-10 minutes identifying historiographical issues or avenues of future research. Beeman, who recently retired, made the connection between the founding era and the modern Tea Party, arguing that understanding the Constitutional Convention delegates and debates undermines the arguments made by modern Tea Party members. He also suggested that the moral judgments of the founders regarding slavery were overemphasized.
Kaminski, also recently retired, talked about his work the documentary editions of the state ratification debates. He mentioned four important issues to keep in mind regarding the Constitution: the fragility of the Union; the acquiescence of the constitutional opponents; the importance of timing in the ratification process; and the immediacy of the Constitution becoming a sacred document.
Maier discussed her book on ratification at length. She argued that the major problem the Confederation government faced was lack of money. She also explained why she dislikes the term “Anti-Federalists,” preferring instead “critics of the Constitution.” “Anti-Federalists” brings to mind political parties and a political dichotomy that didn’t exist.
Hurter identified several areas of future research in the founding period. They included the use of media saturation during the 1780s-1790s; the influence of media on nation building and identity formation; and the acquisition of a global comparative perspective, especially using diplomatic records to see how other countries viewed the process. She also noted the potential for using new technology (e.g., keyword-searchable databases) to examine the historical record.
The panelists then discussed some of the issues that they each had introduced. Beeman emphasized the contingency of the constitutional debate and suggested that the fear of democracy expressed by the founders was more about provincialism. Both Beeman and Maier argued that the founders questioned the “divine origins” of the Constitution.
Audience members asked several important questions. One question concerned the voices of the disenfranchised–especially women and African Americans–and their reaction to the Constitution. Maier and others agreed that they either don’t exist or are minimal because they were not recorded. Saul Cornell, a noted constitutional scholar in his own right, observed that at a time when we have more documents about the era published than ever before and just when the political discourse needs more knowledgeable scholars of the period, the historical profession has turned away from training constitutional scholars. Instead, that ground has been ceded to legal scholars, many of whom have never read the Constitution and have no idea of its historical context. Beeman agreed that the public need is not being met by historians. Kaminski argued that modern judges need to look at the contemporary collective debate about the Constitution, not just the document itself, when rendering judicial decisions pertaining to the Constitution. All of the panelists seemed to agree that “original intent” was much messier than legal scholars and some judicial officials would have us believe.
A final question asked whether there was anything left to be written about the period. All four panelists agreed that there was. Kaminski recommended looking at the indices of the documentary edition volumes to find topics. Hurter suggested looking at old issues from new perspectives. Maier said to start with the primary sources.
This panel was very informative and helpful, especially for someone whose interest in U.S. political history is geared more toward post-1820 politics. I appreciated the panelists’ optimism and advice about future avenues of research.