CHESTERTOWN, MD—Americans, including both ordinary citizens and political leaders, have been arguing about the Constitution for more than two centuries. It’s a debate that began almost as soon as the ink was dry on the document in 1787, according to a recent book by Pauline Maier, the winner of this year’s $50,000 George Washington Book Prize.
Maier, whose prizewinning book is Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788, will speak about her work on Friday, September 16, when she is honored at the Seventh Annual George Washington Book Prize Celebration at Washington College. She will share insights into a series of debates that played out after the drafting of the Constitution, as citizens, journalists, and politicians argued state by state over whether to ratify the nation’s founding document.
Hosted by the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, which administers the Prize, the event begins at 4 p.m. with a book signing in the lobby of the Daniel Z. Gibson Center for the Arts. Following at 5 p.m. in Decker Theatre is “Making History: A Conversation with Pauline Maier,” where Adam Goodheart, director of the Starr Center, will lead an interview and audience Q&A. The conversation will be followed by a reception in the Underwood Lobby. All events are free and open to the public.
By special arrangement with the Maryland State Archives, a replica of the ship Federalist will be displayed at the September 16 event. The Federalist was the centerpiece of a grand parade in 1788 marking Maryland’s ratification of the Constitution, and later sailed to Mount Vernon to be presented as a personal gift to George Washington. Audience members will also receive facsimile copies of rare 18th-century Maryland documents related to the Constitution.
Washington College, which was founded in 1782, has special historic ties to the Constitution’s creation, notes Goodheart: “Our founding patron and member of the Board of Visitors and Governors, George Washington, presided over the Constitutional Convention of 1787. And no fewer than six other members of our Board were delegates to Maryland’s state ratifying convention — five voted in favor of the Constitution, one against it. Here, as in much of the nation, the debate was passionate and sometimes vehement.”
Maier is William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of American History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is the author of several previous books on American history, including From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776 (W.W. Norton, 1992); The Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams (Knopf, 1980); and American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, (Knopf, 1997), which was on the New York Times Book Review "Editor's Choice" list of the best 11 books of 1997 and a Finalist for the National Book Critics' Circle Award.
The jury that chose Ratification as a finalist from among 59 entries called it “a tour de force of extraordinary research and scholarship.” Ratification has received praise from innumerable reviewers and readers, including the eminent American historian Richard Beeman, who called it “a magnificent, comprehensive account of the political contests by which the people of America, in James Madison’s words, breathed ‘life and validity’ into the United States Constitution.” Historian Jack Rakove said, “One finally comes away from Maier’s story with a profound respect for the political enterprise and intellectual commitment that made ratification a sublime inaugural moment of American democratic politics.”
“It’s been the work of my life to explore the popular components of the Revolution,” Maier said. “We tend to think that it is the contribution of a very few well known heroes but I think there’s a bigger story going on. I am impressed always with the intelligence and the eloquence that comes out of ‘ordinary people.’ People were following events. They understood that their fate and the fate of their children was involved in it and they were very capable of expressing their views. And it’s part of the story we need to know.”
Created in 2005 to honor the year’s best book about America’s founding era, the George Washington Book Prize was presented that year to Ron Chernow for Alexander Hamilton. Subsequent winners were Stacy Schiff (2006) for A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, Charles Rappleye (2007) for Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution, Marcus Rediker (2008) for The Slave Ship: A Human History and Annette Gordon-Reed (2009) for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, which also won the Pulitzer Prize for History, the National Book Award and the Frederick Douglass Prize. Last spring, the 2010 prize was awarded to Richard Beeman for Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution.
The College co-sponsors the Book Prize with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate.
About the Sponsors of the George Washington Book Prize:
Washington College was founded in 1782, the first institution of higher learning established in the new republic. George Washington was not only a principal donor to the college, but also a member of its original governing board. He received an honorary degree from the college in June 1789, two months after assuming the presidency. The C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, founded at the College in 2000, is an innovative center for the study of history, culture and politics, and fosters excellence in the art of written history through fellowships, prizes, and student programs. www.washcoll.edu.
Founded in 1994, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization supporting the study and love of American history through a wide range of programs and resources for students, teachers, scholars, and history enthusiasts throughout the nation. Gilder Lehrman creates and works closely with history-focused schools through its Affiliate School Program; organizes teacher seminars and development programs; produces print and digital publications and traveling exhibitions; hosts lectures by eminent historians; administers a History Teacher of the Year Award in every state and US territory; and offers national book prizes. The Gilder Lehrman website, www.gilderlehrman.org, serves as a gateway to American history online with rich resources for educators designed specifically for K–12 teachers and students.
Since 1860, over 80 million visitors have made George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens the most popular historic home in America. Through thought-provoking tours, entertaining events, and stimulating educational programs on the Estate and in classrooms across the nation, Mount Vernon strives to preserve George Washington’s place in history as “First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Hearts of His Countrymen.” Mount Vernon is owned and operated by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, America’s oldest national preservation organization, founded in 1853. A picturesque drive to the southern end of the scenic George Washington Memorial Parkway, Mount Vernon is located just 16 miles from the nation’s capital. www.MountVernon.org.