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09/21/2018

Mary Sarah Bilder: The Constitution to "The Constitution"
Michael Ramsey

Mary Sarah Bilder (Boston College) has posted The Constitution to The Constitution at the Boston College Digital Library.  (This is an excerpt from a longer piece, The Ordeal and the ConstitutionThe New England Quarterly 91, no.1 (2018): 129-146.)  Here is the introduction: 

The Ideological Origins won the Bancroft and the Pulitzer prizes, but when I see Bernard Bailyn, we don’t talk about that book. It was, of course, brilliant, but I think of it as an artistic study for the book published seven years later, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson. Ideological Origins accomplished all sorts of things—investigating under-appreciated sources, laying out the revolutionaries’ ideas, recovering the way that arguments shifted and grew—but it did not worry overly about recapturing the uncertainty of the moment. Years later, Bailyn would revisit politics and the creative imagination to emphasize that these “aspirations had no certain outcomes,” but in Ideological Origins there was a certain inevitability. Indeed, Bailyn noted that there were articulate opponents, but “the future lay not” with such men. He bluntly called them, “the losers.”

Only in The Ordeal would Bailyn focus on these losers and, in doing so, come to articulate the historian’s quest: to see “the latent limitations within which everyone involved was obliged to act; the inescapable boundaries of action; the blindness of the actors—in a word, the tragedy of the event.” Without first writing Ideological Origins, Bailyn never would have written The Ordeal. It is The Ordeal that we return repeatedly to talk about and the fundamental historical problem of how to see the past in the moment in which the actors do not know what is going to happen—which arguments will win, which will lose, and which will come to be so important that they will obscure all other possibilities.

This insistence on the reality that people in the past could not see the future animated my exploration of Madison’s Notes. In Madison’s Hand, I explained that “Madison’s Notes recorded one man’s view of the writing of a constitution in which the politics and process of drafting the document deferred comprehension of the Constitution as a unified text.” The document that emerged out of the Convention in 1787 embodied these limitations and boundaries. Indeed, I have come to believe that the very concept of The Constitution postdated the Convention. In the penultimate paragraph, I wrote “The Convention could not see the Constitution until the final days.” And, over the first decade, “the Constitution survived and indeed began to become the Constitution.” These sentences began to take the Bailyn insight in a slightly different direction. What if we see the Constitution, not as the product of winning arguments, but still caught in this moment in which multiple possibilities could enfold.

In this brief essay, I return to Bailyn’s discussion of the idea of constitution in Ideological Origins and offer some thoughts on when did the Constitution become The Constitution.