A Brief History of the Ratification Contest on this Constitution Day

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

These are the opening words of the United States Constitution. A document that was signed on September 17, 1787. The Constitution was signed by 39 delegates from 12 different States. The States bound themselves in a lose association titled Articles of Association. Under the Articles of Association, the Colonies declared their Independence from England.

In 1777, Congress passed the Articles of Confederation which governed the States. There were many problems with the Articles of Confederation which is one of the reasons why James Madison and others worked diligently to create a strong Federal government with limited and expressed duties and responsibilities.

In 1787, as the delegates left Philadelphia, they all understood that the real fight was just beginning. They had labored for 117 days in Philadelphia ironing out compromises and establishing the framework of how 13 States would be governed. However, just because the delegates agreed to the language contained in the Constitution, the document still had to be ratified by nine states.

Each state needed to select delegates to a state ratification convention. This meant that a new group of public leaders had to debate whether to accept the language proposed in Philadelphia at the national Constitutional Convention.

As the delegates left Philadelphia, they were probably wondering what the people were going to think. One thing became clear very quickly, there were many leaders who strongly opposed the proposed Constitution. A public education campaign was needed. The fact that George Washington and Benjamin Franklin supported the Constitution was not enough.

One of the best-known efforts to educate the electorate on the benefits of the Constitution was that of Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison. The people in New York were opposed to a national government and they needed to be persuaded. Hamilton, Jay, and Madison worked together to write educational opinion articles in The Independent Journal. By the time these men had finished, they had written 85 separate articles that we now know as The Federalist Papers.

Efforts like Hamilton, Jay, and Madison were going on in almost every newspaper across the nation. Local leaders wrote in local papers in an attempt to persuade their neighbors to accept their opinion concerning the new Constitution. The debate for ratification was on.

Georgia had the smallest convention with 26 representatives while Massachusetts had the largest with 355. Each state selected how many representatives they would have, and when and where their conventions would be held.

Delaware was the first state to ratify the Constitution on December 7, 1787. They were also the first of three states whose ratification convention unanimously approved the Constitution. The other two states were New Jersey and Georgia.

On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution. Madison knew that both New York and New Hampshire were debating whether they were going to ratify the Constitution. Madison was in regular correspondence with the conventions in both of these states. Madison was using his pen to help proponents of the Constitution with arguments for ratification.

Madison would have loved for Virginia to be the ninth and decisive ratification vote. He argued persuasively throughout the Virginia convention. On June 25, 1788, with a vote of 89 to 79, Virginia became the tenth state to ratify the Constitution. Madison was elated.

New York became the 11th state to ratify the Constitution on June 26, 1788, by a vote of 30 to 27. The New York ratification vote is a testament to the power of the press. When the New York delegation was initially elected, 19 were Federalists while 46 were Anti-Federalist. The New York delegation was strongly against the Constitution but they were persuaded to vote for ratification as the electorate became convinced of the need for a strong national government by publications like those contained in The Federalist Papers.

One interesting fact about the ratification process is that by the time George Washington was sworn in as President of the United States on April 30, 1789, two states still had not ratified the Constitution. Neither North Carolina nor Rhode Island were allowed to vote for the President. North Carolina ended up ratifying on November 21, 1789, and Rhode Island on May 29, 1790. With a vote of 34 – 32, Rhode Island ended up being the closest ratification vote of all the original 13 states.

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Mark Meuser

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