A few years ago I wrote about my annual pre-Independence Day liberty ritual. Every year I watch the six-hour series Liberty! The American Revolution. I follow that up with A More Perfect Union, which depicts the constitutional convention.

I actually watch these documentaries while working out in the morning. It's kind of funny, but I have great difficulty sitting down and watching anything on TV for more than a few minutes. I say that it's funny because I grew up being quite a TV connoisseur.

Nowadays I get antsy if I watch TV for any length of time. I can't stop thinking about all of the other things I could be doing. TV programs can't hold my interest for long. It's OK to have the TV on in the background while I do something else, but I just can't bring myself to devote much time to sitting down and watching TV. It isn't interactive enough.

This year I have added to my liberty ritual the reading of Pauline Maier's recent book, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788. Maier is recognized as one of the foremost authorities on the American Revolution and the early history of the United States.

I am currently about two-thirds of the way through Maier's book. I tend to agree with this Washington Post review of the book, which says:
"In contrast to historians who see the ratification of the Constitution as the result of elites' manipulation of the masses, Maier tells a far more suspenseful and complex story. Her superb work provides an object lesson in the value of the deliberative process and the extent to which moderation and compromise are at the very foundation of our government. As Maier convincingly shows, the Constitution's preamble did not simply represent a rhetorical flourish or an abstract philosophical theory. It was the very means by which "We the People" chose to embrace a peaceful revolution in government."
There is some evidence that more than half of the general population of the states opposed ratification of the Constitution in its original form. Its ratification was far from a sure thing. The story Maier tells shows how close the document came to not being ratified in many states. It is somewhat of a miracle that it happened at all.

However, opponents of the Constitution were also far from united in their views. A relative minority seems to have thought that the document was irredeemably flawed. Most opponents appear to have been in favor of remedying problems prior to its implementation. They understandably felt that they would be in a worse position to negotiate such changes once the document had gone into effect.

Maier shows that the deliberative process that occurred in very different ways in different states produced a general understanding of the people's perception of the Constitution's most egregious flaws. The result was that the Bill of Rights became the first item of business for the 1st U.S. Congress. It was championed by many that had previously argued against the need for such amendments.

In fact, most Americans quickly accepted the legitimacy of the new national government and recognized the value of the amended Constitution. While fights broke out on occasion when the Constitution was being discussed by people prior to its ratification, hardly anyone seems to have given serious thought to opposing the new government once the document was ratified. It was quite common for leaders of the opposition movement to run for Congress.

While it is all the rage in certain circles to pooh-pooh the idea of American exceptionalism nowadays, I believe that such a view requires one to willingly don blinders. The U.S. undeniably has its flaws, some of which are quite glaring. But the overwrought focus on those imperfections is as irrational as the unwillingness to acknowledge them.

I believe that a fair reading of history shows that the U.S., as far as nations go, has been the most consequential force for good known to mankind to date, notwithstanding its problems. Some of the best features of the American system have been successfully copied around the globe. Yet no other nation has yet so successfully generated so much liberty and prosperity among its citizens.

As a grateful beneficiary of this system, the story of how it all came about fascinates me. Regardless of whether one believes that this process was divinely guided or not, it must be recognized as quite remarkable. This is what I will be thinking about this weekend as we celebrate our nation's independence.

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