Ratification of the Constitution

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Plans for a convention to revise the articles of confederation were in fact a subterfuge, because the delegates in Philadelphia convened in May 1787 with no serious thought whatever of an attempt to keep that instrument in force. But a legal problem had to be resolved, for the Articles were a fact and their revision was to be made only by unanimous agreement of the Continental Congress which "the legislatures of every state" would later confirm. Delegates to the constitutional convention of 1787, including several lawyers who later became Supreme Court Justices, wasted little time in disposing of such restrictions, but they were wary of the manner in which the Constitution could be made acceptable to the people. The solution hit upon by james madison in his virginia plan was to circumvent the state legislatures and ask Congress to send whatever plan they adopted in Philadelphia to "assemblies of Representatives … expressly chosen by the people, to consider decide thereon." Frankly fearful of local officeholders who would see the new Constitution as a threat to "the importance they now hold," the Virginia delegates were united on this point. "Nine States had been required in all great cases under the Confederation that number was on that account preferable," george mason suggested, and his logic prevailed.

After some maneuvering, the expiring Continental Congress by unanimous resolution forwarded the Constitution to the states for their approbation, thus placing an implicit seal of congressional approval on Article VII. The principle of a two-thirds majority rather than unanimity was crucial. Ominously, Rhode Island had sent no delegate to the convention. To avoid embarrassing obstructions, prudence dictated a fair trial for the Constitution, provided key state conventions ratified the document. Rarely in American history has such a sweeping change moved so rapidly through the cumbersome machinery of disparate state governments, and the phenomenon can be explained only in the adroit handling of george washington's implied endorsement along with the urgency which supporters of the Constitution preached in pamphlets and newspapers or wherever influential citizens congregated.

Much of the credit for the Federalists' strategy must go to James Madison. As a central figure at the convention and in the Continental Congress he carefully brought forward the accompanying documents which gave an impression of unanimity by the framers and the forwarders. Using his franking privilege (as a congressman), Madison maintained a correspondence with colleagues in the principal state capitals and coordinated plans to hold conventions at the proper tactical time. Ratification by the conventions in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Virginia was essential, for these three states contained most of the nation's people and much of its wealth. In New York a surly band controlled the state government and was in no hurry to surrender its profitable customs collecting to a national government, but these men could not withstand pressure from the commercial community if all the other large states ratified. Rhode Island was doubtful, and New Jersey and Georgia were unnecessary, owing to the smallness of their populations and their geographic positions.

The Federalists had powerful allies in the newspapers, some ninety-eight in number, most of which printed the Constitution in toto shortly after September 17. In Philadelphia, Boston, and New York the leading journals soon printed essays favoring the Constitution and denouncing the opposition Anti-Federalists as obstinate "placemen" (state officeholders) fearful of losing their jobs or "wrong-headed" on other grounds. Pennsylvania Federalists moved swiftly but could not outrace their friends in Delaware, who hurriedly called a three-county convention and became the first ratifying state on December 7 (30–0). In Philadelphia, the first stirrings of Anti-Federalist activity included publication of attacks on the Constitution's lack of a bill of rights, but as that argument was picked up elsewhere the high-handed legislature called a convention that was heavily weighted with delegates from eastern counties favorable to the Federalist cause. Before farming communities in western counties could organize, the Pennsylvania convention ratified on December 12 (46–23). New Jersey fell in line on December 18 (38–0). Then word came that Georgia had also unanimously ratified on January 2, 1788 (26–0). After perfunctory debate, Connecticut ratified on January 9 (128–40).

Before they could enjoy these triumphs, the Federalists learned that the failure to include a bill of rights, the fears of an overbearing (and tax-hungry) "consolidated" government, and a variety of local circumstances would slow ratification and might jeopardize the whole process. Massachusetts became the focal point of Federalist efforts, for rumblings from town meetings indicated that opposition was greater than anticipated. A phalanx of Harvard-trained lawyers, supported by commercial and shipping interests, accepted a set of recommendatory amendments to weaken the major Anti-Federalist positions, and on February 6 the Federalists won, 187–168.

New York Anti-Federalists began to counterattack. They urged friends in New Hampshire to reject the Constitution, and there is some murky evidence that a quick vote would have gone against ratification. Both sides finally settled on a postponement until June. Madison helped alexander hamilton write the essays of "Publius" (these became a classic treatise titled the federalist) for the New York newspapers and continued to send his morale-building, organizing letters to friends in the South. An unexpected stumbling block to ratification came from Baptist ministers and congregations, who voiced concern that freedom of conscience was not safeguarded by the Constitution.

Meanwhile, Maryland Federalists lost patience with their long-winded opponents in the Annapolis convention and ratified on April 28 (63–11). The recommended amendments from Massachusetts Anti-Federalists were used as a talking point, but when the argument came to whether amendments could be part of a conditional ratification, the Federalists lost their tempers. Madison hurried back to Virginia, aware that patrick henry and Mason would form the most powerful Anti-Federal combination possible. New York seemed safely Anti-Federalist, for Governor George Clinton and his friends talked and printed venomous attacks on the Constitution and its Federalist drafters. Hamilton counted heads and asked Madison if a conditional ratification would suffice. No, Madison replied, a ratification with any strings attached would leave New York out of the Union. After slight Anti-Federal resistance, South Carolina ratified on May 23 (149–73). In Rhode Island, the people rejected ratification directly, 237 yeas to 2,708 nays.

Ratification by Virginia on June 25 was uncertain until a crucial ballot was won by Federalists, who captured the eight doubtful votes from western areas. Madison, john marshall, and edmund randolph led the charge against Henry and Mason, but they agreed to recommend amendments adding a bill of rights to preserve some good will on the final roll call (89–79). The ninth state, New Hampshire, had already ratified on June 21, 1788 (57–46). The news from Virginia, however, sent a thrill through the North. Diarist john quincy adams noted that jubilant Federalists fired muskets far into the night when the tidings from Richmond reached Boston. With ten states now committed, the Constitution was sure of a trial. Even so, a powerful, entrenched Anti-Federal faction prevented action by the North Carolina convention, which adjourned to await future developments and a possible second convention that diehard Anti-Federalists thought might patch up another version of the Constitution (with a bill of rights among the additions). A test vote on ratification lost, 184–84, but New York fooled everybody by ratifying on July 26 (30–27).

Within four months, all the states except North Carolina and Rhode Island had set in motion machinery to elect the new federal Congress and a President. The knowledge that Washington supported the Constitution and would be the first President tipped the balance in crucial situations. Washington's stature, the concession by Madison and others that amendments adding a bill of rights would be proposed forthwith, and the overwhelming support of the press were the chief reasons that ratification proceeded with relative speed. The new government was operating, and Madison had introduced a bill of rights by the time North Carolina ratified on November 21, 1789 (197–99). Rhode Island narrowly ratified on May 29, 1790 (34–32), to become a fully participating member of the Union. Few scars remained. The hastily drawn lines of the ratification battle soon faded, and the divergent political philosophies that emerged in the next decade had little to do with the intense struggle of 1787–1788.

Robert A. Rutland


Farrand, Max, ed. (1911) 1966 The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, 4 vols. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Main, Jackson Turner 1961 The Antifederalists: Critics of the Constitution, 1781–1788. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Rutland, Robert A. 1966 The Ordeal of the Constitution: The Antifederalists and the Ratification Struggle of 1787–1788. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Wood, Gordon S. 1969 The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787. Pages 306–344. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.