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Ratification of the Constitution

When the Constitutional Convention sent the Constitution to the Confederation Congress in late September 1787, controversy immediately broke out about whether Congress should recommend it to the states. Several members argued that the Convention had gone far beyond its assigned task and that the Constitution was a threat to liberty and to republican government; consequently, they said, either Congress should not transmit the Constitution at all or it should recommend against its adoption. James Madison, who was not only a member of the Confederation Congress from Virginia but also a just-returned delegate from the Constitutional Convention, successfully argued that Congress should merely send the Constitution to the states without comment, thus leaving to the people the decision whether or not to adopt the new form of government.

The Convention had provided in Article VII that the Constitution should be ratified by the people of each state in conventions specially called for that purpose. The alternative would have been ratification by state legislatures. But the Convention delegates shrewdly recognized that the legislatures would probably reject the Constitution out of hand. So they adopted an idea first put forward in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780: the constitutional ratifying convention – an affirmation of faith in the general public's judgment.

At the time there were no clearly organized political parties, though loose networks of like-thinking politicians existed across state boundaries. Supporters of the new Constitution quickly seized on the name Federalists and stigmatized their opponents by referring to them as Anti-Federalists – the implication being that many of them wanted to break up the Union into several regional confederacies. Though they fought back, the Anti-Federalists could never rid themselves of the label.

The ratification debates were marked by high-minded intellectual argument and no-holds-barred political maneuvers. In Pennsylvania, for example, there were not enough Anti-Federal members of the state legislature to block the calling of a ratifying convention directly, but there were enough to deprive the legislature of a quorum if they all stayed home. The Federalist legislators angrily directed the sergeant at arms to locate and apprehend two Anti-Federal legislators, the minimum number needed to complete the quorum. Accompanied by a cheering mob, the sergeant at arms broke into a locked rooming house and seized the two men, who were held until their votes against calling a convention could be recorded. The ratification battle was conducted in the press, through broadsides and by pamphlets getting forth the arguments of both sides. The Letters of the Federal Farmer by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia was the most important Anti-Federalist publication. The most significant of the Federalist publications was The Federalist, a series of eighty-five newspaper essays written by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison.

The first five states to ratify – Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia and Connecticut - did so unanimously or by overwhelming majorities. Massachusetts proved far more difficult; the final vote for ratification (187 to 168) came about only after the Federalists suggested that their opponents prepare a series of proposed amendments to be affixed to the Constitution for consideration should it actually be ratified. Soon thereafter, Maryland and South Carolina ratified by wide margins. New Hampshire, on June 21, 1788, became the ninth state to ratify, thus putting the new constitution into operation under the terms of Article VII. But Virginia and New York, the largest and richest of all the states, had not yet taken action, and a nation without either or both could not survive.

James Madison and Edmund Randolph led the fight for ratification in the Virginia convention. Opposing them were George Mason, who had refused to sign the Constitution, Richard Henry Lee, and above all Patrick Henry, the leading orator of his time. Henry and Madison battled for weeks, until Virginia finally was persuaded by the cogency of Madison rather than by the sometimes incoherent remarks of Henry. On June 25, before word of New Hampshire's ratification arrived – but after adopting a twenty-article declaration of rights and twenty other amendments – Virginia's ratifying convention adopted the Constitution by a vote of 89 to 79.

Alexander Hamilton led the fight for ratification in New York, with the assistance of John Jay, the most respected Federalist political figure in the state. They wisely delayed the vote on ratification until news arrived of the ratifications of New Hampshire and Virginia. The Federalists then carried the day by a vote of 30 to 27, though New York's ratification was conditional on the consideration of proposed amendments by the new Congress.

North Carolina and Rhode Island failed at first to ratify the Constitution. North Carolina's first ratifying convention chose to keep the state in a kind of abeyance, and Rhode Island refused even to authorize the election of such a convention.

Congress at first declined to impose federal tariffs and other customs duties on goods entering the United States from Rhode Island and North Carolina. Then customs restrictions on goods from those states were passed in the summer and fall of 1789 – though only some minor restrictions were actually imposed, as a moratorium on imposing the others was adopted to encourage the two states to come into line.

North Carolina was the first to relent; the state had always been less rigidly Anti-Federalist than had Rhode Island. In fact, North Carolina had sent a delegation to the Constitutional Convention and had appointed commissioners to observe closely the actions of the new government. Despite the expectations of Anti-Federalists, the United States seemed all too able to do without the two holdout states, and the campaign for a second constitutional convention failed. Eventually Federalists succeeded in calling a second ratifying convention, which met in November 1789. Its delegates adopted the Constitution, 194 to 77.

Rhode Island proved far more stubborn, using excuses and delaying tactics. Congress's implied threat to remove its moratorium on major trade barriers against the state gave impetus to the Rhode Island Federalists' campaign to call a state ratifying convention. By then, the proposal to attach a bill of rights to the Constitution had removed one of Rhode Island's main objections. The ratifying convention was finally scheduled to meet in May 1790 – though, worried that the convention might reject the Constitution, Providence and Newport, the state's largest cities, threatened to secede if that did happen. The convention, however, did ratify the Constitution, by the narrow vote of 34 to 32. And so Rhode Island, one of the first states to declare its independence from England in 1776, became the last of the original states to ratify the Constitution.


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