John Kaminski | Madison, WI
From there I just started reading more and more on my own. When I was a kid there were television shows that had history in them, and I watched those all the time. I was particularly interested in the adventure of establishing this new country and learning about all the physical and political problems that the founders faced. In middle school, I had a teacher who nurtured my interest in early American history. I remember that she saw I was reading about the American Revolution, so she gave me an assignment to write a paper on the causes of the American Revolution.
I was raised in Chicago and attended Lane Technical High School, an all-boys school with 6,500 students. When I graduated, my plan was to eventually get a teaching degree and teach history at the high school level. I went to Illinois State University, which was an excellent teacher education institution. I met and married my wife there. Going to college was a brand-new thing for our family. My mother dropped out of high school when she married my father. He dropped out of high school after two years and went into the Coast Guard during World War II. Neither one ever went back to school.
After I got my bachelor’s degree in social sciences, I went to the University of Wisconsin to study history. I came to Madison because Merrill Jensen was a professor at the University. I had read a lot of his works when I was in college, and I was quite taken by his interpretation of the revolutionary era. When I was pursuing my Ph.D., Merrill Jensen let me know that he was going to be the Director of the Documentary History of The Ratification of the Constitution and offered me an associate editor position. Since my wife was from Northern Illinois and I was from Chicago, staying in Madison was a beneficial thing for us both. So, I accepted the offer.
This Ratification Project was first thought about in the 1890s, and then again in the 1930s. In 1936 the National Historical Publications Commission suggested a documentary history of the ratification of the Constitution in order to know as completely as possible what the founders understood the Constitution to mean, why they ratified it, and what the political struggles were at the time during the fight for ratification.
I am part of a small group of historians that has been engaged in the monumental task of documenting the drafting and ratification of the Constitution. For the first ten years, I worked with Jensen and we published the first three volumes together. When he died in 1980, I became the Director of the Ratification Project and the next year founded the Center for the Study of the American Constitution, at the University of Wisconsin. We have since published another 31 volumes in the Ratification Series. We have gathered and edited copies of more than 70,000 documents ranging from records of town meetings, convention journals, newspaper clippings, bible verses, poetry, personal letters and diary entries.
It has been a real honor for me to work with all this original material, to be part of this documentation and to present it in a fashion that can be used. The writing and adoption of the Constitution were extraordinary historical events that continue to shape our daily lives, and this Ratification Series is for anyone who wants to better understand the Constitution in its historical context. For me personally, editing the Ratification Series for over fifty years has allowed me to live every day in a distant world that I first came in contact with as a child.
The Constitution required ratification by nine of the 13 states. It was a bitter fight between Anti-Federalists (who wanted states to retain power) and Federalists (who wanted a stronger central government.) So, while the signing of the Constitution in 1787 was a milestone in creating our government, the act of signing itself did not create a government. There were nearly 1,700 members of the thirteen state legislatures that called ratifying conventions to consider the Constitution and decide its fate. The delegates to these conventions (about 1,650) were local and state officials, people of influence who did not hold public office, and private citizens of all descriptions. Our project was to find the letters and documents that each one of them left behind. The words found in original letters, diaries, speeches, and newspaper articles help historians like me understand what people thought at the time and how they interpreted and debated the Constitution. Reading their arguments in their own words is the best way to understand the dangers and opportunities that the founders saw in the Constitution. It was a gigantic effort to try to find these needles in haystacks all over the world.
I have been doing this research and editing for the past 50 years. I would say 90% of our research for annotation had been done either at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison or at the University Memorial Library. Now 90% of our research for annotation is done via the Internet. We follow up on every reference cited in a letter. It is not an easy thing to track all those down. We want to place each person’s arguments for or against the Constitution in its historical context. So, we do painstaking research and cross-referencing to explain obscure references or put people and events in their context. Abigail Adams is a good example. She wrote over 2,500 letters in her lifetime; about 1,160 letters to and from her husband, John Adams. In her letters, she’d often give citations to sources to make her point. So, we try to find the quotation, where it was from, when and where it was published and give the passage if it was necessary to understand what was being said in the letter. Shakespeare was cited often by the founders. In New England, they regularly cited the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. The Bible was less cited by the founders in Virginia, they favored literary works. When Abigail Adams cited the Bible, she drew heavily from Psalms and Proverbs. You can understand why she did, those books are so beautifully written. Whenever she is talking about trying, difficult times, she’ll cite the book of Job. When these citations appear, it is good to have somebody on your staff who knows the Bible. But tracking down literary and biblical citations got much easier with the Internet. Instead of guessing, “Is this Shakespeare or not,” we go to the computer, google it, and usually find the answer right away.
One of my favorite figures in the ratification story is Elbridge Gerry (the man who gave his name to the term “gerrymandering”.) Gerry was a Massachusetts delegate to the Constitutional Convention and stressed the danger of the excesses of democracy. It wasn’t that he thought people lacked virtue, but that they “are the dupes of pretended patriots”; they were “daily misled into the most baneful opinions by the false reports circulated by designing men, and which no one on the spot can refute.” By the end of the Convention, Gerry refused to sign the Constitution and he campaigned against its ratification because he felt that it would create a dangerous government. Yet, with the adoption of the Constitution, Gerry agreed to live peacefully under it. He even reluctantly agreed to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. He eventually became Vice President under James Madison’s presidency. Gerry showed the need to compromise when it comes to politics.
It has been a very interesting thing for me to be able to read people’s letters from this particular generation. I get to look over their shoulders and see what they thought about the origin of our country. When you go through someone’s papers, whether that be a George Washington or Abigail Adams, you see what they wrote and what they felt on a daily basis. It really transports you back there, as if you were one of them, and you learn a great deal. Doing this Documentary History has let me get to know that generation so well, as if I were one of them
When I say original intent shouldn’t be the end-all, it is because it’s very hard to determine what the original intent is. There were differences of opinion among the founders and the framers of the Constitution. Since there is not one point of view, the question is, which point of view do you use? Do you use a Federalist who is a supporter of the Constitution or do you use an Anti-Federalist, who opposed the Constitution? Does a northerner have more importance and more clout about original intent than a southerner? And how should we weigh all these different sources?
There is still a lot to be learned from how the founders assessed the Constitution’s strengths and weaknesses. They were part of an insightful generation. They were aware of what had been written previously, they had been through a great deal, they’d studied other countries’ constitutions, and they wrote constitutions for their own states, so they were quite knowledgeable. What they came up with was a good starting point. The Constitution wasn’t flawless, and the founders understood it had problems. It’s one of the reasons why they put Article Five in the Constitution, that allowed for amending the Constitution. It’s why they also allowed for judicial review and that the courts would interpret the Constitution.
I think capital punishment is a good example. The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. When we look at capital punishment now, do we think it is cruel and unusual? Well, back when the Constitution was being drafted there were forty different capital offenses. If today we say we ought to abide by the founding fathers and what they propose for capital punishment, that would mean we would execute folks for burglary and robbery. So, it’s a good place to start, to see what the founders felt should be in the Constitution, what protections should be there. But also, to understand that our situation has changed over the course of 200 years, and we ought to be willing to accept that. The founding generation expected that they would need some changes. Every generation must reinterpret the Constitution.
Every single generation had its problems. When we look back at what the founders thought about slavery and race relations, we condemn that generation for their racism. And yet we see it today. We have our own problems with racism. Even after 230 years have passed, we haven’t solved that problem. Many of the same issues that are issues today, were issues back then.
How do you set up a system of government that works, and won’t break down and end up in separate confederacies or perhaps even a civil war? As we can see, our generation is really struggling right now. But the Constitution has always been there. When the problems have become insurmountable, we’ve been able to amend the Constitution and interpret it, so that it fits the time. Whether it’s a good thing or not, this has been a fascinating thing for me, to see up close how the structure of our government has played out over the years.
Currently, we are at a stage in our history where people are interested in what the founders had to say and what they meant when they drafted the Constitution. The Ratification Series has been cited in many different places. We are used quite extensively in history and political science books. The Supreme Court and appellate courts have all cited our volumes on some of the most important issues of the day. Civil rights, women’s rights, federal-state relationships, gun control, and on and on. Our volumes are the starting point.
We want our research to be used. The Ratification Series volumes are each about 600 pages and fairly costly, so it’s not something that everybody would buy. The great research libraries in the country, the law school libraries and a handful of people, particularly judges, use our volumes. The Wisconsin Historical Society Press has published the series, but for the last 10 years or so, the documents that we produce are also available for free electronically. We have really democratized the availability of this founding period of American history so that anybody in the world can look at this material.
Part of what we do at the Center for the Study of the American Constitution is outreach. We host a founders’ vision for America student essay contest, we create lesson plans for high school students and we hold seminars for professional development for teachers. I believe that a good government needs an educated citizenry, which is why civics education is critical. Knowing what the founding generation felt about the Constitution they created is a good starting point to understand our government today.
-John Kaminski | Madison, WI
John Kaminksi is the Director of the Center for the Study of the American Constitution at the University of Wisconsin. You can find state maps of the Ratification of the Constitution and a video series on the American founding period on their website.
This story was funded by the ‘Why It Matters: Civic and Electoral Participation’ initiative, administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.