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Historical Background

SOME of the State battles were fierce. Reason sometimes yielded to passion and both sides on occasion resorted to mudslinging and rough-and-tumble tactics. Yet, for the most part, the conventions were democratically conducted.

Giving the Federalists an initial momentum, in December 1787 Delaware, whose ratification notice is reproduced above, was the first State to approve the Constitution, on December 1787, and January 1788 the conventions of five States promptly ratified the Constitution. In all these cases, opposition was either lacking or ratification action was quick enough to forestall it. The votes in Delaware (December 7), New Jersey (December 18), and Georgia (January 2) were unanimous. Before opposition could be organized, two-thirds of the Pennsylvania convention (December 12) balloted for ratification. The Constitution passed in Connecticut (January 9) by a 3 to 1 margin. Except for Pennsylvania, where the vote may not have accurately indicated the opinion of the electorate because of the haste with which the convention was held Federalist strength was overpowering in these States.

ratification notice
Delaware, whose ratification notice is reproduced above, was the first State to approve the Constitution, on December 7, 1787. (National Archives.)

Between February 6 and June 21, 1788, four more conventions ratified the new instrument of Government. The first major test came in Massachusetts. Although he was not a member of the convention, Elbridge Gerry, who had attended the Constitutional Convention for its duration but had refused to sign the document, led the Antifederalists Federalist leaders included signers of the Constitution Rufus King and Nathaniel Gorham, as well as Caleb Strong. On February 6, after the popular John Hancock and Samuel Adams, both underwriters of the Declaration of Independence, converted to the Federalist cause, the convention narrowly (187-168) approved ratification, but recommended nine amendments.

All the subsequent States except Maryland were also to propose amendments, many including recommendations for adoption of a bill of rights and a second convention. Exercise of the amendment technique, which obviously required compromise on the part of the Federalists, came at a time when in many places their opponents were suggesting the calling of another convention to consider amendments. Such action would probably have been chaotic, especially if certain States specified the adoption of particular amendments as a condition of ratification. Thus, for the Federalists, the Massachusetts action in merely proposing amendments provided a desirable precedent.

The New Hampshire convention convened in February 1788 but adjourned until June to allow time for further debate in the delegates' home districts. The tempo of ratification revived, however, when Maryland (April 28) and South Carolina (May 23) accepted the Constitution by substantial margins.

The first in a series of allegories depicting ratification progress among the States that appeared in the Massachusetts Centinel, beginning on January 16, 1788. (Library of Congress.)

But people knew the real trials would come in the large States of Virginia and New York. Without their approval, the success of the new Government would be jeopardized. Serious clashes occurred in both places and the votes were close. When the Virginia convention began on June 2, the pro-Federalist delegates believed that their State, the largest and most populous, would fittingly be the ninth to ratify and thus make possible inauguration of the new Government.

Among those arguing the Antifederalist side were George Mason, Patrick Henry, and James Monroe. Their opponents included James Madison, John Marshall, George Wythe, and Edmund Pendleton, as well as Edmund J. Randolph after Madison won him over. One factor that apparently swung over some enemies of the Constitution was the belief that, if it were approved, Washington would likely be the first President. The vote in its favor, on June 26, was close, 89 to 79. But, meantime, 5 days earlier, New Hampshire, where the Federalists won another narrow victory, had become the ninth State to approve the Constitution. This was not known in Virginia until after the final vote there.

Another crucial race took place in New York, where the convention had been meeting since June 17. Hamilton was the chief strategist of the Federalists. Although he felt the Constitution granted insufficient power to the central Government, he was convinced it was the best that could be obtained politically at that time, did not publicly acknowledge the extent of his reservations, and worked diligently and cleverly for adoption.

newspaper article
A New York City newspaper announces details of Virginia's ratification. (Library of Congress.)

Hamilton conceived the idea of The Federalist Papers. A series of 85 essays first published by the newspapers in 1787-88 and almost immediately reissued in book form, the papers presented one of the most effective statements of the Federalist position and carried considerable weight in the New York battle, as well as in Virginia. Although the essays were issued under a pseudonym, the actual authors were Hamilton, who probably wrote 51; Madison, 26; John Jay, 5; and jointly by Madison and Hamilton, 3.

Gov. George Clinton, who strongly urged a second federal convention, headed the New York Antifederalists. Other leaders were Robert Yates and John Lansing, Jr., who had left the Antifederalists were clearly in the majority, though New York City had sent a Federalist delegation. Hamilton, arguing that conditional ratification would endanger the State by keeping it out of the Union, fought a delaying action and managed to postpone a final vote until the anticipated news arrived that Virginia and New Hampshire had ratified. The balance of power then swung to the Federalists. On July 26, 1788, by a bare margin of 30-27 New York became the 11th State to ratify. But it appended the record number of 32 suggested amendments and sent along various other resolutions, including a vigorous recommendation for a second convention.

Pennsylvania, an early an enthusiastic supporter of ratification, conducted a parade in Philadelphia on July 4, 1788, by which time sufficient States had ratified to insure establishment of the Constitution. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania.)

Two States that had printed large amounts of paper money and had been active in debtor relief, North Carolina and Rhode Island, did not ratify until after the new Government was set up. On August 2, 1788, the former, unaware of the New York decision, overwhelmingly voted to defer action on the Constitution until a second federal convention considered a declaration of rights and other amendments. Influenced by the First Congress' proposal of the Bill of Rights and other factors, on November 21, 1789, a second North Carolina convention ratified the Constitution.

The last of 11 allegories in the Massachusetts Centinel, August 2, 1788, that traced the status of ratification. (Library of Congress.)

Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, which had been the lone absentee at the Philadelphia Convention, stayed out of the Union until 1790. During that period, the legislature seven times defeated resolutions calling for a convention. Under threats of economic coercion by the Federal Government and the secession of Providence and other towns, on May 29, 1790, the State narrowly ratified. It was the last of the Thirteen Original States to do so.

For all the passions generated by the ratification battles, most of the Antifederalists gracefully accepted defeat—though their efforts soon won the Bill of Rights. With that exception, they would give the Constitution an opportunity to stand or fall on its own merits. With amendments, it has stood until this day.

Americans early revered the Constitution, as evidenced by this magazine sketch in 1788. Cupid presents a copy of the document to Concord, as she approaches the 13-pillared Temple of Liberty, Justice, and Peace. Clio, the Muse of history, kneeling alongside Concord, records the message Cupid is delivering. (Library of Congress.)

NEW HAMPSHIRE'S ratification in June 1788 had fulfilled the nine-State requirement to establish the Government. But, for various reasons, the Continental Congress did not take steps to do so until July 28, or 2 days after New York adopted the instrument. At that time, Congress, meeting in New York City, set dates for the selection and meeting of electors. In September it named New York City as the temporary Capital.

Not restricted by specific constitutional requirements, the State legislatures chose the dates for the election of their Representatives and Senators and made arrangements for selecting electors. In accordance with the timetable fixed by the Continental Congress, on February 4, 1789, the Presidential electors cast their ballots. The formal counting of the electoral votes was delayed pending the opening of the First Congress, which was scheduled to meet on March 4. But it was not until April 6 that Congress reached a quorum and began sitting at City (later Federal) Hall in New York City, where the Continental Congress had been meeting. That same day, the electoral votes were counted before a joint congressional session. George Washington was unanimously elected as President, and John Adams as Vice President. At Federal Hall on April 30 Washington was inaugurated. The new Government, the creation of the Constitution, was underway.

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Last Updated: 29-Jul-2004