Constitution, Ratification of

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When the members of the Philadelphia Convention signed the proposed U.S. Constitution on 17 September 1787, the struggle to reform the federal government was far from over. To ensure success, the advocates of reform—the so-called Federalists—had to secure the support of the people. Without it, the Constitution stood no chance of survival. Adoption was by no means a foregone conclusion, and only after almost a year of political campaigns was the Constitution ratified by the requisite nine states. The historical significance of the struggle for ratification lies not only in its outcome, however, but also in the great public debate to which it gave rise. In this debate the Constitution was interpreted and given meaning for the first time, and it is to this record that latter-day interpreters have turned to recover the "original intent" of the founders.

the ratification process

With the exception of Rhode Island, which held a popular referendum, the decision to adopt or reject the new Constitution was made neither by the state assemblies nor by Congress, but by ratifying conventions elected directly by the eligible voters in each state. Although there were restrictions on the right to vote in all states, a majority of white, adult men nevertheless had the right to vote for delegates to the ratifying conventions. On this widespread male suffrage rests the claim that the Constitution was adopted by "the people."

From the Federalists' perspective, the ratification process began very favorably. Within little more than a month—from 7 December 1787 to 9 January 1788—five states ratified the Constitution with little or no opposition. Only in Pennsylvania did the Constitution's opponents—the so-called anti-Federalists—make themselves heard, despite a large Federalist majority in the ratifying convention, held in November and December 1787. Pennsylvania's anti-Federalism was important because it set the tone, together with the early critiques raised by delegates to the Philadelphia Convention and the Confederation

Ratification of the Constitution by the States
Delaware7 Dec. 178730-0No
Pennsylvania12 Dec. 178746-23No
New Jersey18 Dec. 178738-0No
Georgia31 Dec. 178726-0No
Connecticut9 Jan. 1788128-40No
Massachusetts6 Feb. 1788187-168Yes
Maryland26 Apr. 178863-11No
South Carolina23 May 1788149-73Yes
New Hampshire21 June 178857-47Yes
Virginia25 June 178889-79Yes
New York26 July 178830-27Yes
North Carolina2 Aug. 178884-184Yes
21 Nov. 1789194-77Yes
Rhode Island29 May 179034-32Yes

Congress, for much of the opposition that would follow in other states. Thus, the objection that the Constitution lacked a bill of rights and the demand that it be amended by a second constitutional convention came to resonate widely beyond Pennsylvania. Many other objections to the Constitution that would later become standard anti-Federalist fare—such as criticism of the fiscal and military powers, representation, the judiciary, and the supremacy clause—also made their appearance here.

The Massachusetts convention heralded the end of easy Federalist victories. Opposition to the Constitution was strong there and compromise was required to secure adoption. Moderate Federalists proposed that the Constitution be adopted together with recommended amendments. This proposal won over enough anti-Federalists to allow the ratification of the Constitution by 187 to 168 on 6 February 1788. Recommended amendments would henceforth be the foremost means of the Federalists to placate the opposition. With only one exception, Maryland, every state that ratified the Constitution after Massachusetts also proposed amendments. The narrow vote in Massachusetts was followed by a setback in New Hampshire, where the Federalists escaped defeat only by accepting a four-month adjournment. Maryland in April 1788 and South Carolina the following month proved to be solidly Federalist, however, and in June 1788 New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution, thereby putting the new government into effect.

Without ratification by New York and Virginia, however, the future of the Union was still in doubt. In Virginia, Federalists and anti-Federalists were equally strong, whereas New York was overwhelmingly anti-Federalist. Both states came to ratify by narrow margins, Virginia by ten votes in June 1788 and New York in July by only three. In both states the vote was influenced by the late hour of the ratifying conventions. When they convened it seemed certain that at least nine states would adopt the Constitution, so New York and Virginia were faced with the stark choice between ratification and disunion. With New York and Virginia in favor, it mattered little that North Carolina and Rhode Island at first rejected the Constitution. Eventually, both states called new conventions that ratified it in 1789 and 1790, respectively. Three years after the adjournment of the Philadelphia Convention, all of the original thirteen states had accepted the new compact.

If anti-Federalism is regarded only as a movement to reject or amend the Constitution and not as a political ideology, it died a quiet death after the Constitution's adoption. A campaign to call a second constitutional convention was soon abandoned, whereas the adoption of the first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, stifled the demand for more far-reaching changes. The Bill of Rights is often presented as an anti-Federalist victory. Yet if the Bill of Rights is compared to the amendment proposals of the state ratifying conventions, it is clear that most major anti-Federalist objections to the Constitution went unheeded.

political interests

Historians have long asked who supported and who opposed the Constitution and why they did so. In answering these questions, scholars have looked either at the political interests of the Constitution's supporters and opponents or at their political ideas. At the start of the twenty-first century, the field is characterized by competing interpretations rather than consensus, and very few certain conclusions have been drawn.

Political interests in support of ratification can be investigated either at the state level or at the level of the individual delegates to the ratifying conventions. At state level, the degree of support for the Constitution—measured in terms of how the vote split in the states' ratifying conventions—was influenced by size and geographic location. States that were small in population or area were more favorable to the Constitution than large states. There were several reasons for this. In the Confederation, the small states had often depended economically on their larger neighbors. The Constitution's promise to nationalize the customs service and to ban interstate restrictions on trade would benefit many of the small states. Furthermore, with the exception of Georgia, which was small in population but large in land area, small states lacked western land claims. The development of the West under federal control would allow their citizens access to land and would also make land sales a common source of income for the Union.

A state's location in the Union also affected its disposition toward the Constitution. The ratifying conventions of the mid-Atlantic states—New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland—experienced little or no anti-Federalist sentiment. To this group should be added New York City and the rest of southern New York, which were overwhelmingly Federalist. Economically, this area was dominated by international trade. A stronger national government meant that the United States would be able to retaliate against the mercantilist policies of Britain, France, and Spain. To the southern states, in contrast, a more vigorous commercial policy seemed a threat. They feared that a federal government under mid-Atlantic and northern control would sacrifice western expansion in favor of international trade, a danger recently demonstrated by the Jay-Gardoqui negotiations over the rights of U.S. shipping on the Mississippi. Coupled with concerns about the future of slavery in a union where the slave states would form a minority, this fear accounts for the relative strength of anti-Federalist sentiments in the South.

With regard to individual delegates to the ratifying conventions, progressive and neoprogressive historians have claimed that the division between Federalists and anti-Federalists had an economic basis. In its most refined version, this interpretation argues that people took their stance on the Constitution depending on their degree of integration into the market economy. Merchants and the urban population tended to be Federalists, as did farmers and planters who produced for the market. Among the anti-Federalists, in contrast, can be found what progressives call subsistence farmers, those who did not produce for the market either because they lacked enough land or labor or because they were located too far from markets and communication routes. The progressive interpretation has always been controversial. Critics have denied that economic or social status influenced people's position on the Constitution in any consistent way. Recently, however, an exhaustive analysis of voting behavior in the ratifying

conventions has corroborated basic progressive claims. Although the progressives did not hold slave-holding to influence delegates in any clear-cut way, Robert A. McGuire's study also found that delegates representing constituencies with a high concentration of slaves were far more likely to vote against the Constitution than were other delegates—this despite the fact that Federalists like Charles Cotesworth Pinckney in South Carolina and James Madison in Virginia underscored how the Constitution protected slavery in order to gain support for the document. At the same time, in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania, many anti-Federalists complained bitterly about the "three-fifths" clause, the slave trade provision, and other proslavery aspects of the Constitution.

political ideas

The ratification struggle gave rise to a public debate of unprecedented scope. Historians studying this debate have only rarely taken an interest in the social and economic basis of the ratification struggle. The major exception is the progressives, who have assumed a link between economic and social status, on the one hand, and political ideas, on the other. According to the progressive interpretation, the subsistence farmers who opposed the Constitution generally held democratic political ideals, meaning essentially that they believed that most adult white men should have the right to vote and to run for office. Because they thought that democracy could be realized only in the state assemblies, anti-Federalists defended the sovereignty of the states and were reluctant to delegate power from the states to the federal government.

The Federalists held opposite views. In private if not always in public, progressive historians say, Federalists supported elite rule by a "natural aristocracy." The Constitution was primarily a means for them to restrict the "excessive democracy" characteristic of the state legislatures ever since the Revolution. In the 1780s the assemblies had repeatedly threatened property rights, most blatantly by making depreciating paper money legal tender. Centralizing power by adopting the Constitution provided a way to distance the government from popular influence. By limiting representation and refining the majority will, the government would be less influenced by popular demands and therefore less likely to threaten the interests of the propertied elite.

In reaction to the progressive interpretation, many historians of the nation's founding turned away from studies of social struggles to study ideas. They came to interpret the ratification debate not as a conflict over democracy but as a transition from a classical republican to a liberal conception of social and political life. According to this interpretation, the Federalists and the Constitution represented the new liberal order, whereas the anti-Federalists represented the waning republican order. Classical republicanism gives primacy to the common good over the interests of the individual and demands that the citizen participate actively in the political community. It is therefore an ideology in basic conflict with liberalism, which gives primacy to the rights of the individual over the will of the majority and that often assumes a conflict of interest between the individual and the community. Further research has shown that neither the idea that there existed a conflict between republicanism and liberalism, nor that the founding era was a period of transition from the one to the other, is tenable. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that this perspective has contributed greatly to a better understanding of the intellectual world of the late eighteenth century.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, interpretation of the ratification debate focuses on the inter-related issues of Federalism and international relations. It argues that in the wake of independence, the survival and prosperity of the American Republic depended on the ability to keep the Union together and to defend its interests against foreign powers. With the Constitution, the Federalists aimed to do both. Keeping the Union together was crucial because dissolution would create a number of competing and warring confederacies and independent states. This would amount to a reproduction of the highly destructive European state system on the North American continent. But equally important was to make sure that the Republic could defend its territory and interests against foreign powers. For this reason it was necessary to grant the federal government extensive fiscal and military powers. Although the anti-Federalists shared many of the Federalists' concerns, the call to strengthen the Union and the federal government clashed with the anti-Federalists' states' rights ideology and their fear of central government.

Scholarly debate about the real meaning of the ratifying debate and the Constitution is likely to continue as new developments give rise to new historical interpretations. It can hardly be otherwise as long as the belief persists that the American Republic can only be true to itself as long as it does not stray too far from the path set out by the founding generation.

See alsoAnti-Federalists; Constitutional Convention; States' Rights .


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Max M. Edling

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