America’s Long Journey: The Ratification campaign

The Ratification campaign

Originally the convention was to have proposed revisions of the existing Articles of Confederation. But everybody knew that if the new Constitution were adopted, the former colonies would be embarking on uncharted waters. For that to happen, nine states – two-thirds of the 13 – would have to call conventions that voted to ratify. To put it another way, any five states could kill it by declining to ratify.

A prime weakness of the Confederation government was the need for unanimity. In practice, that meant that nothing that any one State objected to could be done. And that, in turn, meant that the Confederation lived on borrowed time. Nobody knew it better than the members of that Congress, so they decided – unanimously, by some miracle – to leave the decision to the states.

Then followed the process of ratification, State by State, in convention, and it didn’t come easy. Historians have guessed that the public was divided pretty evenly when the debates started.

Everybody knew that if any two of four states — Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia — rejected the proposed Constitution, it would probably come to nothing, regardless if the other states approved. And some heavy hitters were opposed. Thomas Paine, for one. In Massachusetts, Samuel Adams. In New York, Governor George Clinton and the whole state machinery. In Virginia, Patrick Henry. But the Federalists were not exactly helpless. In Massachusetts, John Adams. In New York, Hamilton. In Pennsylvania, Franklin, and in Virginia, Madison.

And towering over them all, the man who had presided at the convention, George Washington.

The Federalists argued that ratification was necessary to fix the obvious inadequacies of the Confederation government. To continue under a government that couldn’t make decisions except unanimously, and couldn’t even prevent the various states from each issuing its own currency would be to drift to disaster and dissolution, followed by – what? No one cared to guess.

The Anti-federalists viewed the strong central government outlined in the Constitution as a threat to liberty and a betrayal of the Revolution. They worried what would happen to the powers of the states, and argued cogently that the Constitution lacked a bill of rights.

The struggle over ratification was intense and bitter, but in every state, the Federalists were more united, and more used to working with politicians on a national level.

The turning point of the campaign probably came in Massachusetts, when Hancock and Samuel Adams negotiated a compromise: The convention would ratify, and delegates would recommend amendments to be considered by the new Congress. The Massachusetts compromise determined the fate of the Constitution, as it permitted delegates with doubts to vote for it in the hope that it would be amended. All subsequent state conventions but Maryland’s recommended amendments as part of their decisions to ratify.

And so it was done. One interesting and under-reported fact, if indeed it is fact, and not merely appearance: The smaller states, which one might have expected to be the most fearful of incorporation into a stronger central government, by and large were among the first signers, while Virginia and New York, which one might have thought would expect to extend their influence in a larger union, were far more hesitant. Nonetheless, the die was cast.

The ratifications, in the order in which they took place:


Delaware (Dec. 7), Pennsylvania (Dec. 12), New Jersey (Dec. 18)


Georgia (Jan. 2) Connecticut (Jan. 9)

Massachusetts (Feb. 6)

Maryland (April 28)

South Carolina (May 23)

New Hampshire, the crucial ninth state needed (June 21), Virginia (June 25)

New York (July 26)

Voting ratification after the new government was already functioning:

North Carolina (November 21, 1789)

Rhode Island (May 29, 1790)

It had been a long and hard-fought struggle, which in itself, perhaps, had encouraged people to look beyond the limits of their state, and come a step closer toward thinking of themselves not as New Yorkers or Virginians but as Americans. Shared experiences will do that.


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