Lordy, so many theories! If we look to the Founding, we make a big deal out of the Framers and the constitutional debates, mostly from the the famous notes James Madison took.
But wait---what's not so well-known is that Madison kept his notes unpublished until a competing version was to come out in 1821. Because to Madison, the Framers weren't the authorities on the meaning of the Constitution---it was the states and the people who ratified it:
"As a guide in expounding and applying the provisions of the Constitution, the debates and incidental decisions of the Convention can have no authoritative character.---Letter to Thomas Ritchie, September 15, 1821
However desirable it be that they should be preserved as a gratification to the laudable curiosity felt by every people to trace the origin and progress of their political Institutions, & as a source perhaps of some lights on the Science of Govt. the legitimate meaning of the Instrument must be derived from the text itself; or if a key is to be sought elsewhere, it must be not in the opinions or intentions of the Body which planned & proposed the Constitution, but in the sense attached to it by the people in their respective State Conventions where it recd. all the authority which it possesses."
The Framing debates, so well-studied and picked over (and argued in the Supreme Court!) are just a "curiosity"---it's the Ratifaction that gives the Constitution "all the authority which it possesses."
And so, Pauline Maier's new Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 is well overdue, as she is "the first American scholar to write comprehensively on these ratification debates," per John R. Coyne Jr.'s review over at AmSpec :
Maier is scrupulously fair to the Anti-Federalists, and refuses to call them that. Because of objections from men like William Findley, who called it "a name of reproach," she "preferred to type out 'critics of the Constitution' and its synonyms over and over."
And in fact, Maier believes, casting the fight for ratification in terms of a struggle between proponents and opponents of strong central government, as conventional history would have it, is misleading. Nearly everyone, she maintains, was for a federal government stronger than the one provided for by the Articles of Confederation. But the reluctance of the Federalists to allow amendments before ratification aroused opposition among those who saw in it a threat to the rights won during the Revolution.
In the end, the Federalists won. But Maier believes their opponents also won a good deal more than historians acknowledge or perhaps realize. Congress met many of their concerns by expanding the House of Representatives, approving the Judiciary Act of 1789, modifying the plan to levy direct taxes except in times of war, and proposing a series of amendments.
"Without their determined opposition, the first ten amendments would not have become a part of the Constitution for later generations to transform into a powerful instrument for the defense of American freedom. "We the People" of 1787 and 1788 inaugurated a dialogue between power and liberty that has continued, reminding us regularly of the principles of 1776 upon which the United States was founded and that has given us direction and national identity. Their example might well be their greatest gift to posterity."
So, as we see, according to Madison, the Ratifiers and the ratification debates are of highest importance next to the text of the Constitution itself, and "Anti-Federalist" turns out to be a pejorative plastered on them by the Federalists. The name stuck because the Federalists won and they got to write the history, as Maier shows.
I mean, just think of today's rhetoric. If you want to make somebody look bad---and unreasonable---just give them a name with "Anti-" in front of it. Enemies of Progress!
But as Coyne writes, "Meier believes casting the fight for ratification in terms of a struggle between proponents and opponents of strong central government, as conventional history would have it, is misleading. Nearly everyone, she maintains, was for a federal government stronger than the one provided for by the Articles of Confederation. But the reluctance of the Federalists to allow amendments before ratification aroused opposition among those who saw in it a threat to the rights won during the Revolution."
So, the Anti-Federalists weren't anti-Constitution after all. They just didn't think it was constitutional enough, and now we have the Bill of Rights, the first 10 Amendments passed immediately thereafter. The Ratification wasn't the Feds beating the Anti-Feds, not the brute exercise of the power of one faction over the other by majority vote. Ratification was achieved by reaching consensus, the true secret of good government and "consent of the governed."
It was a hard thing, but it was a beautiful thing. [Is not the Constitution a beautiful thing?] The United States of America's government is now the longest-running show on earth---often imitated, never equaled.
Pauline Maier is a highly respected, uncontroversial and mainstream scholar, so there's nothing really radical or revisionist here. That it's 230-odd years since the Ratification, and she's the arguably the first American scholar to take the ratification as seriously as James Madison did...
Well, it reminds us all that the ink on our history isn't yet dry even after all this time. This little blog keeps on ticking by looking back at the original documents. If a Pauline Maier could find new and important stuff in documents a couple centuries old---and she did!---shows that if you wanna do history, the best place to start is always the beginning.