Constitutional Debate

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Constitutional Debate


Decision . Even if the American people had rejected the U.S. Constitution in 1787 and 1788, the ratification process would have forged a closer union. The debate over ratification, carried out in thirteen state conventions and in newspapers and pamphlets, was the first national public debate in America. The decision for independence had been made in closed session by Congress in 1776; Americans in the individual states and towns then decided to affirm it, but gradually. In contrast, the decision to ratify the Constitution was made in public conventions, and both supporters and opponents of ratification made their case with appeals to public opinion. The debates in the state conventions were reported in the daily and weekly papers, and arguments for and against ratification were reprinted in papers throughout the country. The result was that people in all the states shared their ideas; writers in Massachusetts responded to arguments made in Pennsylvania; Virginians addressed issues raised by New Yorkers; and readers in Georgia, New Hampshire, and other states could read these arguments and make their own conclusions.

Assembly of Demigods . Initially, most Americans were prepared to like the Constitution. It had been framed by an august assemblyThomas Jefferson (who was in Paris when the debate took place) called it an assembly of demigodsincluding George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, along with less known but equally gifted men such as James Madison, Robert and Governeur Morris, James Wilson, George Wythe, Alexander Hamilton, John Dickinson, Elbridge Gerry, Roger Sherman, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. The Convention, meeting in Philadelphia, sent the document to Congress, which was meeting in New York.

State Conventions . Congress would have no role in approving or disapproving the document: its only task was to forward the Constitution to the states. In most states power was in the hands of legislatures, but the framers of the Constitution did not want the state legislatures to have a role in ratification (they knew the legislatures would not be happy with a system that limited their power). Instead, each state would call a convention, a body elected specifically for the purpose of considering the Constitution. A convention also represented the sovereign power of the people in the state, and thus legally would be superior to the legislature. The Constitutional Convention had met in absolute secrecy; no delegates were permitted to disclose what had been discussed each day during their proceedings. There had been great speculation outside the convention hall, and at one point the delegates did make a public statement to squelch rumors they were considering establishing a monarchy. When Washington, who presided at the convention, sent the Constitution to New York, he gave the first public account of the conventions work. Now the American people would have a chance to judge.

Support Mobilizes . Richard Henry Lee, a delegate to Congress from Virginia, wrote to George Mason on 1 October 1787 that already the proponents of the Constitution were mobilizing, joining with other interested parties to ratify the system before the American people had a chance to evaluate it. The greatness of the powers given and the multitude of places to be created produces a coalition of monarchy men, military men, aristocrats, and drones whose noise, impudence, and zeal exceeds all belief. Whilst the commercial plunder of the south stimulates the rapacious trader. In this state of things, the patriot voice is raised in vain.

Federalists . The proponents realized that many Americans felt that liberty could only be preserved in a small republic and that a country as big as the United States could survive under a single national government only if that government used despotic power. Proponents of the Constitution denied that they had created a national government and pointed out the parts of the system which rested on the states, such as the Senate, with the same number of senators from each state, and the electors who chose the president. These were federal features. On the other hand the national features included a House of Representatives chosen directly by the people, a judiciary to settle disputes between the states, local judges bound to follow precedents set by the federal courts, and all the laws made by Congress. The Constitutions supporters knew that the American people would reject a national system. To reinforce the point that they had created a federal system they called themselves Federalists; their opponents became Anti-Federalists.

First Responses . On 27 September 1787 a writer signing himself Cato, at the time believed to be New York governor George Clinton, urged Americans to think for themselves and not to rush their judgment. One week later, on 5 October, Philadelphian Samuel Bryan wrote his first essay under the name Centinel, stating that it would not be difficult to prove that only a despotism could bind so great a country under one government, and that whatever system men could devise to govern ultimately would become a tyranny. The elected officers of the government would be devoid of all responsibility or accountability to the great body of the people, and that so far from being a regular balanced government, it would be in practice a permanent ARISTOCRACY. Bryan went further and questioned why there was no protection for freedom of the press, religious or personal liberty, and trial by jury in civil cases. Bryans essay was reprinted thirteen times, in Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia. Bryans argument that the Constitution was flawed for lacking a bill of rights would stick.

James Wilson . On the evening after Bryan published his essay, James Wilson addressed a public meeting in Philadelphia. Wilson was the first member of the convention to speak out publicly on the Constitution, and his address in many ways set the tone for the rest of the debate. By the end of December 1787 Wilsons speech would be reprinted in thirty-four papers from Portland, Maine, to Augusta, Georgia. Wilson argued that the new system was unique in the worlds history, maintaining that the framers had created a federal republic, that the system was partly national and partly federal, and that it all rested on representation. Wilson also addressed the lack of a bill of rights, saying that it was unnecessary to have one because the new federal government had only

the powers specifically given to it in the Constitution; anything not given to the federal government was reserved to the states.

Freedom of the Press . Wilson would have been well advised to stop here, but he went on to discuss the specific rights mentioned by his opponents. For instance, the liberty of the press, which has been a copious source of declamation and opposition, what control can proceed from the federal government to shackle or destroy that sacred palladium of national freedom. By calling the free press a copious source of declamation, Wilson undercut his later assertion that it was a sacred palladium of national freedom. As to the charge that the new government could keep up a military force in time of peace, Wilson also dismissed this and suggested that a permanent military force would be a good thing. Wilson had a good argument about powers reserved to the states, but he went too far in suggesting that the threatened rights were not as important as Anti-Federalists were claiming. Finally, Wilson charged the Constitutions opponents with being petty, self-interested men, powerful in their own states, who feared losing their offices and prestige if a new, effective federal government was established.

Uproar . Wilson had given the Constitutions opponents something they neededa single organizing theme. Federalists could rally around the Constitution itself, arguing that its new organization of government would cure the ills of the Confederation. The worst charge that could be leveled against them was that they were an elitist group seeking to create an aristocracy. Wilson, by sounding like an elitist, played into this fear. By dismissing concern for a bill of rights, he gave the appearance of regarding it as irrelevant. Wilsons speech came as Pennsylvania began debating the Constitution. In other states the process began with an open discussion in the legislature, with the election of delegates to a convention, and culminated in public debates in state conventions. In October and November 1787 American newspapers were filled with essays by both supporters and opponents of the Constitution. Spains minister to America, Don Diego de Gardoqui, wrote home to his government that the paper war in the Newspapers over the new System of Government proposed by the Convention is growing; so that each day it becomes more clear that its establishment will be delayed a long time, and that according to some respectable opinions it would not be surprising if they were to find it necessary to call another Convention next year. While opponents of ratification could not agree on what kind of government to create, their main goal was to prevent ratification so that another convention would be called. On 8 November the most influential Anti-Federalist pamphlet, Letters from the FederalFarmer to The Republican appeared, urging a calm, unhurried consideration of the Constitution. At the same time, Wilson and other Federalists were urging a quick acceptance.

George Mason. In early October George Masons Objections to the Constitution began circulating in manuscript. Masons arguments were sent by mail from state to state, and Anti-Federalists used Mason to argue publicly against the Constitution. Mason was reported to have said he would sooner cut off his right hand than use it to sign the Constitution. He objected to the lack of a bill of rights and believed the House of Representatives was too small to represent the people adequately; the Senate had too much power; the federal judiciary would absorb and destroy the state judiciaries; and the president would be the tool either of his appointed advisers or of the Senate. Mason had been horrified that the Convention allowed the slave trade to continue until 1808. Mason also objected to the fact that a simple majority, rather than two-thirds majority, could pass commercial regulations. He believed this would hurt the southern states, who exported tobacco and rice and imported manufactured goods. This government, Mason concluded, will commence in a moderate aristocracy; it is at present impossible to foresee whether it will, in its operation, produce a monarchy, or a corrupt oppressive aristocracy; it will most probably vibrate some years between the two, and then terminate between the one and the other. On 21 November Bostons leading Federalist paper, the Massachusetts Centinel, printed Masons Objections to the Constitution so that all citizens, not just Anti-Federalists, could read them and so that Federalists could prepare responses. Masons essay was reprinted thirty times and responded to by Federalists in virtually every state.

The Federalist . The Federalists were better organized and were able to make more-coherent arguments. In New York on 27 October 1787 the first of the Federalist essays, written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, appeared. These eighty-five essays were all signed Publius and published in four different New York papers. So well did the three authors understand their arguments that they turned out these essays at a rate of three or four a week, and not until the twentieth century, with the aid of computer analysis of word usage and grammatical structure, were scholars able to say definitely which author wrote which essays. Hamilton is now credited with writing fifty-one essays, Madison with twenty-six, and Jay, who became ill in the fall of 1787, five. (Hamilton and Madison also cowrote three of the essays). While they were writing, the three authors remained anonymous and did not keep track of which man authored which essay. Madison recalled that the papers were written most of them in great haste, and without any special allotment of the different parts of the subject to the several writers. It frequently happened that whilst the printer was putting into type the parts of a number, the following parts were under the pen, & to be finished in time for the press. In May 1788 the seventy-eight essays then written, along with seven new numbers, were published in book form, to be distributed in Virginia at that states convention.

National Audience . The Federalist essays were addressed to the people of New York, but, like all other pamphlets and essays in this debate, their audience was truly a national one. The Anti-Federalists of Pennsylvania drew up a list of their objections, which were circulated in the other states except Massachusetts, where the Federalists controlled both the press and the post office and would not allow the document to be printed until after that states convention had ratified the Constitution. Once Massachusetts ratified it by a vote of 187168, Anti-Federalists in that state mobilized to prevent other states from following suit. By the spring of 1788 New York had become a central organizing point for the Anti-Federalists. Mercy Otis Warrens essay, Observations on the Constitution by a Columbian Patriot, published in February 1788, circulated in New York and Maryland. John Lamb, New Yorks customs collector, corresponded with Patrick Henry and other Virginia Anti-Federalists on goals to prevent ratification, while Madison corresponded with Hamilton on goals to secure ratification. The Anti-Federalists goal was to prevent the necessary nine states from ratifying in order to force a second Convention.

Ratification . New Hampshire ratified in June 1788, giving the Constitution the nine necessary states to carry it into effect. Some Anti-Federalists, such as Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, George Mason of Virginia, and George Clinton of New York, eventually received offices under the new national government. More important, the principal Anti-Federalist objection to the Constitution, that it did not have a bill of rights, had nearly prevented ratification. When Massachusetts had ratified in February 1788, the Convention called for amendments to the Constitution. While many had come to accept the need for a new government, no one, after the bitter debate, accepted James Wilsons argument that a bill of rights was unnecessary. Instead, James Madison, in the first Congress, drafted the Bill of Rights, which was ratified by the states by the end of 1791.

Final Argument . The long debate over ratification was the first national political debate. Even if the Constitution had been rejected, this debate allowed national political communities to form, as writers in New York and Philadelphia addressed audiences in Georgia and Connecticut and arguments made in Maryland and Virginia were challenged or affirmed in Massachusetts and South Carolina. The same issues moved men and women in different parts of the country either to reject the Constitution or to support it. One of the main Anti-Federalist arguments was that the United States was simply too big to be under a single government. As James Madison wrote in The Federalist, number 14, printed in the New York Packet on 30 November 1787, Hearken not to the unnatural voice which tells you that the people of America, knit together as they are by so many chords of affection, can no longer live together as members of the same family; can no longer continue the mutual guardians of their mutual happiness, can no longer be fellow citizens of one great respectable and flourishing empire. The ratification debate brought these people into closer communication than they ever had been, and helped ensure that they would continue to be knit together as one extended family by cords of affection.


An advertisement in Bostons Columbian Centinel 24 April 1793, announced a new stagecoach line. It would cost eight cents a mile to ride this new stage, and each passenger could bring up to fourteen pounds of baggage free of charge.

Boston and New York Stages. The subscriber informs his friend and the public that he, in company with the other proprietors of the old line of stages, has established a new line from Boston to New York for the more rapid conveyance of the mails. The stage carriages of this new line will be small, genteel and easy, in which but four inside passengers will be admitted, with smart, good horses, and experienced and careful drivers. They will start from Boston and New York on the first Monday in May, and continue to run three times a week until the first of November, and will leave Boston every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at four oclock a.m. and arrive at New York in three days and a half from their departure. They will leave New York on the same days at one oclock P.M. The proprietors have been at such great expense to erect this line, they hope their exertions will give satisfaction and receive the public patronage.

Source: Seymour Dunbar, A History of Travel in America (New York: Tudor, 1937).


Bernard Bailyn, ed., The Debate on the Constitution, 2 volumes (New York: Library of America, 1993);

Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist, edited by Jacob E. Cooke (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1961);

John P. Kaminski and Gaspare J. Saladino, eds., The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, 18 volumes to date (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1976).

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Constitutional Debate

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Constitutional Debate