On June 21, 1788, the United States Constitution became the official governing document of the United States when New Hampshire became the ninth of thirteen states to ratify it.
After the delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the Constitution on September 17, 1787, the document was submitted to the states for popular ratification. The process for ratification is laid out in Article VII of the Constitution, which reads: “The ratification of the conventions of nine states, shall be sufficient for the establishment of this Constitution between the states so ratifying the same.”
On July 23, 1787, the Constitutional Convention delegates resolved, by a vote of 9 to 1, to send its proposed plan to Congress, with a recommendation that it be sent to “assemblies chosen by the people” in each state for ratification.
In Federalist No. 22, Alexander Hamilton explained the decision of the delegates to submit the Constitution for approval to “assemblies chosen by the people” in each state rather than to state legislatures:
“It has not a little contributed to the infirmities of the existing federal system; that it never had a ratification by the PEOPLE. Resting on no better foundation than the consent of the several Legislatures, it has been exposed to frequent and intricate questions concerning the validity of its powers; and has in some instances given birth to the enormous doctrine of a right of legislative repeal. Owing its ratification to the law of a State, it has been contended, that the same authority might repeal the law by which it was ratified. However gross a heresy it may be, to maintain that a party to a compact has a right to revoke that compact, the doctrine itself has had respectable advocates. The possibility of a question of this nature, proves the necessity of laying the foundations of our national government deeper than in the mere sanction of delegated authority. The fabric of American Empire ought to rest on the solid basis of THE CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE. The streams of national power ought to flow immediately from that pure original fountain of all legitimate authority.” (emphasis added)
On September 28, 1787, the Confederation Congress unanimously passed the following resolution:
“Congress having received the report of the Convention lately assembled in Philadelphia, Resolved Unanimously that the said Report with the resolutions and letter accompanying the same be transmitted to the several legislatures in Order to be submitted to a convention of Delegates chosen in each state by the people thereof in conformity to the resolves of the Convention made and provided in that case.”
Ratification by conventions chosen in each state by the people gave force to the Preamble’s opening phrase “We the People of the United States.” By eighteenth century standards, the ratification of the Constitution was an unprecedented exercise of popular sovereignty. America’s founding demonstrates that we are a nation because we chose to be one. The ratification period of 1787-88 was a vital stage in that process. And, yet, ratification was not assured.
Supporters of the Constitution, who called themselves Federalists, won quick victories in four states in December of 1787. Conventions in Delaware, New Jersey and Georgia approved the Constitution unanimously. Large and diverse Pennsylvania also approved the Constitution, but opponents of the Constitution there were vocal and told their story to the nation, stiffening resistance elsewhere.
Connecticut ratified next in January 1788, setting up the next struggle in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts convention went through the text paragraph by paragraph, and, in order to achieve a slim victory, the Federalists there agreed for the first time to recommend possible amendments to the Constitution. Ratification was secured by a vote of 187 to 168 in February 1788.
Wins in Maryland and South Carolina followed thereafter in April and May of 1788, respectively. The Constitution then faced three critical tests in Virginia, New York, and New Hampshire. By this time, with eight states having already voted in favor of the Constitution, the Federalists were favored to prevail. New Hampshire would become the ninth state to ratify. Virginia and New York soon followed in late June and July of 1788, respectively. The votes were close in both states – with Virginia voting 89 to 79 to ratify with a recommendation that “subsequent amendments” be sent to the First Congress for their consideration. A list of proposed amendments from the states can be found here.
New York was truly at the center of the ratification controversy, with Anti-Federalists and Federalists trading essays on why to oppose or support the new Constitution. According to John Kaminski, “no where else were the people as well informed about the Constitution as in New York.” This is, of course, where The Federalist (or Federalist Papers, as they are now commonly known) was first published. Despite the rhetorical firepower of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay writing as “Publius” in The Federalist, the vote in New York was extremely close – 30 to 27 – achieved on the promise of recommended amendments to the Constitution.
Having satisfied Article VII’s requirement for ratification, the Confederation Congress on September 13, 1788, fixed March 4, 1789, as the date to begin operation of a new government under the Constitution:
“And whereas the constitution so reported by the Convention and by Congress transmitted to the several legislatures has been ratified in the manner therein declared to be sufficient for the establishment of the same and such ratifications duly authenticated have been received by Congress and are filed in the Office of the Secretary therefore Resolved That the first Wednesday in Jany next be the day for appointing Electors in the several states, which before the said day shall have ratified the said Constitution; that the first Wednesday in feby next be the day for the electors to assemble in their respective states and vote for a president; And that the first Wednesday in March next be the time and the present seat of Congress the place for commencing proceedings under the said constitution[.]”
North Carolina and Rhode Island did not ratify the Constitution until November 1789 and May 1790 respectively.
According to historian Richard Bernstein, who directs ConSource’s Colonial Charter and Early State Constitution project, “this shared national discussion help[ed] to draw citizens of the states together as Americans facing a common choice and defining a common political identity[.] [It] also was the origin of American constitutional discourse, that shared conversation about the Constitution, its origins, meaning and goals that has persisted from that day to the present.”
We, therefore, ought to mark this day by studying the records of the Constitutional Convention, as well as the debates that occurred in the states during the ratification period.
These materials today still define our shared political identity and serve as the basis for contemporary conversations about the Constitution.
I hope you will join me and ConSource in celebrating the Constitution’s Ratification Day!