1787-1791: The meeting of the Constitutional Conventional and the ratification process
- May 25
- Fifty-five of America's most distinguished statesmen participated in the closed convention in Philadelphia. Among them were George Washington, who was chosen president of the convention, and Benjamin Franklin, whose age and wisdom lent venerability to the occasion. Others in attendance were James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson, Gouverneur Morris, John Dickinson, Roger Sherman, Edmund Randolph, Charles Pinckney, and John Rutledge. Rhode Island alone sent no delegate.
All of the delegates were at least agreed on the desperation of the situation. The Union itself was at stake. Both Great Britain and Spain were waiting in the wings to plunder the tottering new nation if it should fall. Most of the delegates also agreed on what must be done: the central government needed strengthening, so that it might, without the mediation of state governments, take such actions as levying and collecting taxes, and enforcing laws.
William Paterson of New Jersey submitted a plan which revised the Articles of Confederation, but this was rejected in favor of the Virginia Plan, drafted by James Madison and presented by Edmund Randolph. Some of the most contentious issues of the convention were addressed in this proposal, such how sovereignty ought to be distributed between the national and state governments, and how the small and large states might both be represented fairly. The Virginia Plan called for a bicameral legislature, a national executive, and a national judiciary.
- July 13
- One of the most important documents in American history, the Northwest Ordinance sought to extend "the fundamental principles of civil and religious liberty" into the new territories. It provided for the admission of each new state from these territories on a basis of equality with the original states, required a "republican" form of government for these new states, and prohibited slavery or involuntary servitude in the territories. Eventually, five states-Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin-entered the Union from the land originally called the Old Northwest.
- September 17
- On July 26th, 1787, the Constitutional Convention appointed a Committee of Detail, to which were referred the twenty-three resolutions that had been agreed upon. Their report was debated for five weeks, after which a Committee on Style was appointed, and Gouverneur Morris became its principle draftsman. It took only two days to give the Constitution its final form and language. After a few more days of voting and debate, the final vote was passed, and thirty-nine delegates signed the proposed Constitution. Among those who did not sign was Edmund Randolph, whose plan for the separation of powers had helped heal a near-disastrous rift in the convention and bring the Constitution into being.
- September 28
- More than 1700 delegates were selected to deliberate on behalf of the people at the various state ratifying conventions. Nine of the thirteen states were required for ratification. Rhode Island was known as a definite negative vote, and North Carolina was also expected to vote against the Constitution. This meant as a practical matter that nine of the remaining eleven states had to vote affirmative. Two very important states-Virginia and New York-were known to be evenly divided. All informed people realized that ratification was very uncertain at best.
- October 27
- The Federalist Papers were written jointly by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay (under the pseudonym "Publius") for the immediate purpose of persuading the citizens of New York State to ratify the proposed Constitution.
Many "Antifederalist" articles had already appeared in the press urging Americans to reject the new Constitution. Some significant Anti-Federalist documents include: "Letters from the Federal Farmer"; "The Agrippa Letters"; and the essays of Brutus (probably a pseudonym for Robert Yates), a prominent Anti-Federalist from New York. Also noteworthy is a speech given by Melancton Smith, before the New York Ratifying Convention, June 21, 1788. In response to such opposition, the Constitution's architects and proponents decided that a vigorous defense of its virtues was necessary to ensure its success.
The Federalists and Anti-Federalists agreed about a number of things in the Constitution drafted by the convention of 1787, and disagreed sharply about others. But behind every disagreement- and there were many- lay a fundamental agreement upon the principles of the revolution. Both sides firmly believed that government must be founded on consent and must secure the rights of the governed; conflicts arose over how to reconcile these two fundamental principles. These were divisions over means, not ends. Nevertheless, they reflected serious differences about the character of the new government.
The two sides agreed that the new constitution should prescribe a federal system of government. By this they meant a government in which political power is divided between a national government and the several state governments. They also agreed that the new government should be republican- that is, a government in which the people are sovereign, but their elected representatives perform the actual tasks of governing.
The Federalists argued that the people are sovereign in the sense that they are the origin of both the national and state governments, and that both levels of government should be accountable to them. The Anti-Federalists, on the other hand, believed that the nation should be made up of states to which the people grant sole sovereignty, and which in turn establish a central government invested with certain limited powers, such as conducting foreign affairs and protecting the nation against foreign aggression.
Another disagreement had to do with the sheer size of the new nation. The Federalists maintained that it was both possible and desirable to institute a republican form of government over a very large territory. James Madison argued in The Federalist (see The Federalist 10 and 51) that the liberty and rights of individual citizens would be most secure in an "extended republic"- that is, one of great geographical extent, comprising a large population with diverse interests, tastes, and opinions. In such a republic, Madison argued, it would be quite difficult for a majority faction to exist and tyrannize over unpopular minorities. By "faction," Madison meant a group of people animated by a passion dangerous to the rights of others or to the public good. Factions can be made up of people who identify their cause with the national or public interest, and who therefore tend to be quite intolerant of those who disagree with them. Madison argued that the tyranny of majority faction was one of the greatest dangers to which republican government was exposed. In his view, threat of this tyranny was most effectively provided for by the large or extended, commercial republic.
The Anti-Federalists countered by arguing that a true republic is necessarily small enough to allow its citizens to participate directly in their government. They rejected the Federalists' proposal for an extended republic, and for a national government that would be supreme within the limits set by the constitution. Even a limited "federal supremacy" would, the Anti-Federalists argued, deprive the states of their natural supremacy and allow the national government to gradually accumulate more and more power, and thus become a threat to individual liberty.
In some cases, the differences separating the Anti-Federalists from the Federalists were matters of degree, not of principle. For instance, the Anti-Federalists agreed with the Federalists that republican legislatures should be accountable to the people; but the Anti-Federalists feared that the Constitution gave the national legislature too much power. For example, they opposed giving the national legislature the power to tax individual citizens and the power to raise armies. They also feared the "necessary and proper" and "supremacy" clauses (US Constitution, I, 8; VI, 2).
In some cases, the opposing sides were able to compromise; the Constitution we know exhibits both Federalist and Anti-Federalist opinions and principles. For example, the Bill of Rights, which was not part of the original Constitution, was added after the Constitution was ratified as a concession to the Anti-Federalists. (Some Antifederalists, including Samuel Adams, changed sides only after Federalists proposed to add the Bill of Rights to the Constitution.) The limits to governmental authority stipulated by the Bill of Rights originally extended only to the federal government. For example, the prohibition against an "established" or national church was originally directed only at the national government.
- December 7
- By a unanimous vote, Delaware becomes the first state to ratify the Constitution, and thus, the first state of the new Union
- December 12
- Congress had stipulated that upon receiving the Constitution, the states should select times and places for their ratifying conventions. In Pennsylvania, however, the assembly was on the verge of adjourning, without having received the Constitution. It looked as though debate over the Constitution was not even going to heard in the very city where it was composed.
Federalists finally presented a motion which set a date for a ratifying convention, but before this proposal could come to a vote, nineteen anti-Federalists escaped from the assembly during the noon recess. Without them, the quorum necessary for conducting further business could not be made up, and the session would adjourn the next day; all they had to do was stay away until then.
The following day, word of Congress' approval of the Constitution arrived. The Federalists, their confidence bolstered, sent the sergeant-at-arms to collect just two of the "fugitive" anti-Federalists-all that was necessary for a quorum. The sergeant found them at their lodgingplace, but they refused to accompany him, whereupon a mob of Federalist sympathizers picked up the unfortunate pair, carried them to the state house, deposited them in their seats, and barred the door. Business then cheerfully continued, and the date for the ratifying convention was set.
The sharp debate over the Constitution continued for nearly a month, but the Federalists in Pennsylvania's ratifying convention at last prevailed, securing a vote of 46-23.
- December 18
- New Jersey ratifies by a unanimous vote.
- January 2
- Georgia ratifies by a unanimous vote.
- January 9
- Connecticut ratifies by a vote of 128-40
- February 6
- Massachusetts ratifies by a close vote: 187-167
- March 24
- Rhode Island was the only state that did not send delegates to the Constitutional Convention. Rather than hold a ratifying convention, the state decided instead on a popular referendum. With Federalists opting not to participate, the people of Rhode Island rejected the Constitution by a vote of 2708-237.
- April 28
- Maryland ratifies by a vote of 63-11.
- May 23
- South Carolina ratifies by a vote of 149-73
- June 2
- The President of Congress announces that the Constitution has been ratified by the nine states required
- June 21
- New Hampshire was the ninth state to ratify, which meant that (as set forth in Article VII of the Constitution) the proposed Constitution became the supreme law of the land for the nine states that had ratified it. The New Hampshire ratifying convention also proposed twelve amendments to the Constitution.
- June 25
- The debate in the Virginia ratifying convention was perhaps the most historically important of all the ratification debates. The greatest orator in Virginia, Patrick Henry, led the Antifederalists against the Constitution. James Madison, later to be known as the "father of the Constitution," headed the Federalist coalition. The convention was evenly divided. Virginia's ratification was crucial to the prospect of a viable union, partly because of Virginia's large population and economy, and also because of her position as a leader in the fight for independence. In ratifying, the convention recommended a bill of rights and many other changes.
- July 26
- New York's vote, which, along with Virginia's, was one of the most important, was extremely close. Alexander Hamilton led the supporters of the Constitution. He had delayed the vote in hopes that New Hampshire and Virginia would vote favorably and influence New York.
- August 2
- North Carolina refuses to ratify until a Bill of Rights is added to the Constitution
- September 30
- The first elections of senators and representatives to the new government are held.
- October 10
- The Congress of the Confederation conducts its last official business.
- February 4
- Presidential electors elect George Washington president and John Adams vice president of the new government.
- March 4
- The First Congress convenes in New York.
- April 30
- Washington had retired to Mount Vernon, his beloved Virginia estate on the Potomac River, when he received word that he had been unanimously elected to be the first president of the United States-the only president ever to receive a unanimous vote.
The 235-mile journey to New York, the nation's first capital, took eight days. In each town along the way he was greeted with parades, bonfires, speeches, and fireworks. In Trenton, young ladies sang and threw flowers at him from beside the road. Church bells rang, cannons boomed, and people cheered until they were hoarse.
On April 30th, 1789, Washington stood on the balcony at Federal Hall on Wall Street and was sworn in by Robert Livingston, Chancellor of New York State. Afterward, he and the members of Congress walked to St. Paul's Episcopal Church, where they prayed for guidance for themselves and the young republic.
- September 25
- Congress submits twelve Constitutional amendments to the state of consideration.
- January 10
- Vermont ratifies the Constitution, and later becomes the fourteenth state of the Union (on March 4).
- December 15
- Virginia ratifies the Bill of Rights, making it a part of the Constitution.