Ratification of the Constitution

Article VII. The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the Same.

As has been remarked elsewhere in these pages, we Americans tend to take our Constitution for granted, and unless we know the full story, we might assume that ratification was easy, if not almost automatic. The actual process was far from easy, and ratification came perilously close to being unsuccessful. We have no idea how the country might have evolved had the Constitution not been adopted. Perhaps it would have been rewritten; perhaps the amendments which eventually became the Bill of Rights would have had to be incorporated before the document could be adopted. But the Constitutional convention had adjourned, its members scattered to their home states, and reconstituting it would have been politically challenging to say the least.

Catherine Drinker Bowen titled her story of the Constitution “Miracle at Philadelphia”; but the miracle did not end there—it was completed when the ninth state ratified and the Constitution became official. Even then, with Virginia yet to ratify, the future of the country was still uncertain. Not only was Virginia's vote close; New York's was even closer, and without those two states in the Union it is hard to imagine it surviving in the form that we know.

The Constitution Goes to the States. Congress wisely decided to pass the document along to the states without otherwise interfering, although they did debate the matter for a time. The most serious arguments against the Constitution were those expressed by Patrick Henry in the Virginia ratifying convention, Samuel Adams in the Massachusetts convention, and others. The first thing that caught the objectors’ eyes were the first words of the preamble: We the People. As Patrick Henry expressed it, where did those gentlemen in Philadelphia get the idea of ‘we the people’ instead of ‘we the states’? Many people wanted a federation, not a national government, and the differences in those days were large.

The Articles of Confederation had created a union of sovereign states, which might legitimately have been called the United Nations of North America. Although the states still retained many powers under the Constitution, a direct link had been created between the people and the national government, which some saw as a threat.

Neither did Patrick Henry look with favor upon the office of president. “It squints toward monarchy,” he said. The American people had just overthrown one tyrant and they did not want another in his place. Those who supported the Constitution—James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Marshall, and eventually even George Mason (the most famous non-signer in Philadelphia)—were known as Federalists. Those who opposed were known as the anti-federalists. They became the second major opposing political groupings in the United States, the first having been Patriots and Loyalists during the Revolution.

Because all of the New York delegation had left the Philadelphia convention except Alexander Hamilton, considerable fear existed that the state might not ratify, and given its key position between New England and the rest of the states, its vote was considered critical. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay therefore penned a series of articles directed at the people of New York known as the Federalist Papers—eighty-five essays defending the Constitution and explaining the essentials of republican government as eloquently as has ever been done. The actual title was The Federalist: A Collection of Essays, Written in Favour of the New Constitution, as Agreed upon by the Federal Convention, September 17, 1787. The essays originally appeared as newspaper articles. Various collections have been published, either as text  alone or with commentary by editors.

The Federalist papers are generally considered to have been vital to the successful ratification of the Constitution. As seen from the list below, the fight for ratification was intense, and the result was extremely close. If less than 5 percent of all the votes cast in the state conventions had changed, the Constitution would not have been ratified. The votes in several keys states were extremely close.

  • Virginia: 89–79. If 5 votes out of 165 had changed, Virginia, the largest and most important state, would have stood outside the Union.
  • New York: 30–27. Two votes reversed and the “Empire State” would have been out.
  • Massachusetts: 187–168. Ten votes out of 355 change and Massachusetts, the “Cradle of the Revolution,” would not have been part of the new nation.

In other words,17 different votes would have meant that those three states, cornerstones of the union, would not have been part of the nation, and it is hard to imagine the United States having survived without them. Together those three states provided the first six presidents, two of our most important ambassadors and the first Chief Justice of the United States.

Why was it so close? Here are a few arguments:

  • For Patrick Henry, arguing against ratification in the Virginia convention, the question of ratification turned on “the expression, We, the people, instead of the states, of America. I need not take much pains to show that the principles of this system are extremely pernicious, impolitic, and dangerous.”
  • Sam Adams was of the same opinion. In a letter to Richard Henry Lee Adams wrote, “I confess, as I enter the Building I stumble at the Threshold. I meet with a National Government, instead of a Federal Union of Sovereign States. I am not able to conceive why the Wisdom of the Convention led them to give the Preference to the former before the latter.”
  • A New York Anti-federalist argued under the pen name Cato that the Congress was too small: “It is a very important objection to this government, that the representation consists of so few; too few to resist the influence of corruption, and the temptation to treachery, against which all governments ought to take precautions.”
  • A Pennsylvania opponent was upset by the secrecy that had surrounded the Constitutional Convention, and claimed that the dangers of the existing system had been exaggerated: “Whilst the gilded chains were forging in the secret conclave, the meaner instruments of despotism without, were busily employed in alarming the fears of the people with dangers which did not exist, and exciting their hopes of greater advantages from the expected plan than even the best government on earth could produce.”

It is difficult for us to understand the objections thus raised, given that our Constitution has allowed the nation to prosper in the two centuries since its adoption. It should be pointed out, however, that the system created by the Constitution gave far more power to the national government than the King in Parliament had exercised over the colonies. it was indeed a national government and not a federation, as Patrick Henry had argued. But James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, any other leading Federalists had become convinced that in order for the nation to prosper, to defend itself, to conduct international in interstate commerce efficiently, and to provide for the needs of its citizens, a national government was necessary. The articles of Confederation had proved woefully inadequate to meet the challenges of the new nation, and tinkering with that product would have been difficult, as unanimous consent of all the states was required for any substantial amendment. Unanimity in politics is extremely hard to achieve, as we all know.

Even after the Constitution was adopted, it was uncertain exactly how it would be interpreted and followed. In 1798, in response to the Sedition Act of that year, Kentucky passed a resolution stating in part “that the several States composing the United States of America, are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their general government . . .” As it had been during the debates over ratification, states’ rights was an issue and would remain so until well after the Civil War.

Despite all the issues surrounding its creation, the U.S. Constitution can still be considered one of the most remarkable documents ever penned by man. It was the first government in history created essentially out of whole cloth, and it served as a model for other nations seeking to find a successful way of governing themselves. Although certain provisions of the Constitution have been interpreted in various and sometimes conflicting ways, its essential nature has remained intact.

The “Federalist Papers” written by Hamilton, Madison, and John Jay, lay out the arguments in favor of the new government and remain one of the most important explications of our constitutional system ever written, and their significance goes beyond their role in the ratification process. Yet one should not overlook the anti-Federalist papers which, although not published in any single volume at the time, nevertheless constitute lucid and valid arguments on the nature of government; they should not be dismissed as the rantings of the losing side. Rather, in order to fully understand our constitutional heritage, one should become familiar with all the arguments that surrounded the adoption of our Constitution, both pro and con.

As this is being written, the U.S. Senate is preparing to offer its advice and consent (or non-consent) to the appointment of the new justice for the U.S. Supreme Court. Those who take a deep interest in the process will no doubt tend to focus on specific issues such as abortion, free speech, the rights of victims and those charged with crimes, and so on. But underlying all arguments, no matter how heated or specific they may become, will be the question, How do we interpret our Constitution?

During the First Congress James Madison collated the recommended amendments proposed by the state ratifying conventions, boiled them down to about 16, of which Congress eventually passed twelve. Ten were quickly ratified and became the Bill of Rights. Another was finally ratified in 1992 and is now the 27th Amendment.

See Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.) See also Additional Section on Ratification.

Ratification Dates and Votes:

  • 1 Delaware, Dec 7, 1787, Unanimous (To this day, Delaware proudly provlaims its status as “the first state.”
  • 2 Pennsylvania, Dec 12, 1787, 46-23
  • 3 New Jersey, Dec 18, 1787, Unanimous
  • 4 Georgia, Jan 2, 1788, Unanimous
  • 5 Connecticut, Jan 9, 1788, 128-40
  • 6 Massachusetts, Feb. 6, 1788, 187-168
  • 7 Maryland, April 28, 1788, 63-11
  • 8 South Carolina, May 23, 1788, 149-73
  • 9 New Hampshire, June 21, 1788, 57-47
  • 10 Virginia, June 25, 1788, 89-79
  • 11 New York, July 26, 1788, 30-27
  • 12 North Carolina, Nov. 21, 1789, 195-77 (Note: North Carolina and Rhode Island did not ratify until after the new government had convened.)
  • 13 Rhode Island, May 29, 1790, 34-32
Federal Age Home | Updated June 2, 2017