Nothing Inevitable: The Struggle for Ratification

Lorri Glover

In our national creation story, the Constitution was completed in Philadelphia, in the summer of 1787; Fifty-five men, consensus-minded models of civic virtue, reasoned together to achieve the greatest design of government the world had ever—has ever—known. Ratification becomes an afterthought, at best. That the Constitution persists, now in the third century after it was proposed, seduces many Americans into imagining its passage as fated. Alongside the military triumph of the patriots over the British and the often-enumerated flaws of the Articles of Confederation, the validity of the Constitution seems, with 240-plus years of hindsight, self-evident. The design, many like to believe, was so brilliant, and the framers were such honorable visionaries, that ratification must have been inevitable. It was not.

Philadelphia was only the start. As James Madison explained, the Constitution “was nothing more than the draft of a plan, nothing but a dead letter, until life and validity were breathed into it by the voice of the people, speaking through the several State Conventions.”[1]

The history of the adoption of the Constitution—narrowly achieved after nearly a year of contentious and consuming public debates—is exciting, messy, and relatable. Eighteenth-century Americans undertook rancorous and momentous debates in 1787-1788 over whether to accept the radical proposed Constitution. And they endured four volatile years between the revelation of the controversial constitutional design, in September 1787, and the divisive adoption of the Bill of Rights, in December 1791.

Scholars’ interpretations of ratification sometimes echo those of eighteenth-century politicians. Some historians advance the neo-Whig interpretation that ratification fulfilled the ideals of the American Revolution. Others see the acceptance of the Constitution as a reversal of democratizing impulses, even a coup of sorts.[2] Across interpretations, scholars recognize that ratification was chaotic, unpredictable, and nerve-wracking—very much in line with the history of the creation of the American Republic.

The relatively consensus-driven debates in the Philadelphia Convention of 1787—only later renamed the Constitutional Convention—stand out as distinct from eighteenth-century Americans’ fraught attempts to design republican governments, from state constitutions through the Bill of Rights. Delegates to the Philadelphia Convention generally agreed on the need for revisions to the Articles and restraints on state legislatures. How, exactly, to achieve this centralization of authority was an open-ended question. Most delegates arrived uncertain about structural details and open to new ideas. The small gathering (all fifty-five were never in the room together) operated in secrecy and under what they called the committee of the whole. Votes were taken to gauge perceptions rather than approve measures and were recommendary, not binding. The debates certainly grew tense from time and time, and nearly fell apart in July. But the circumstances of the Philadelphia Convention led delegates to engage in wide-ranging conversations and gradually move toward consensus.

All that ended when they unveiled their plan. They presented states with a radical departure from the Articles and one, binary choice: vote yes or no. A strict majority was to prevail in each state convention. Voters and elected delegates could make no changes and pursue no compromises. The delegate elections and conventions played out in public, throughout 1787-1788, with plenty of time for partisans to hone their arguments. It was one of the most divisive, inspiring, and significant years in all of American history.

Advocates for the Constitution—and a more consolidated, national government—quickly chose the inaccurate but shrewd label “Federalists.” They called their opponents “Anti-Federalists”—a misleading but sticky term. Critics of the Constitution never embraced the negative-sounding moniker, and they voiced varied, sometimes contradictory, objections.

Self-styled Federalists coalesced around a singular cause: ratify the Constitution. They countered their opponents by insisting that the proposed design was the only way to save the country from either foreign invasion or anarchy. Americans were living in a dangerous world, they reminded skeptics: the Confederation Congress could not pay its debts, including soldiers’ pensions; Congress commanded no respect abroad and lacked power to protect the country’s boundaries; the economy was in freefall; and the states lay on the verge of devolving into regional confederacies.

Skeptics countered these claims by pointing out that the Constitution created a distant, centralized government that dangerously resembled the British government. It seemed to undermine the states, and many citizens saw their political identity in their states. The Constitution created a standing army—antithetical, most Americans at the time believed, to republican government and citizens’ liberty. The proposed government held the power to tax, which many found mindboggling considering their recent history. Citizens were used to annual elections and term limits in the Confederation Congress, and mandatory rotation of officeholders in their states, too. Under the Philadelphia plan, senators would serve six years, representatives two, the president four—all without term limits. There was shockingly little representation, massive new powers ceded from the formerly sovereign states, and no guaranteed protections of citizens’ rights. To critics, the problems seemed abundant, but solutions or a unifying alternative plan proved elusive.

Rather than simply “Federalist” vs. “Anti-Federalist,” Americans split into several camps. Some were unwaveringly committed to ratifying the Constitution as written. Others insisted on rejection until changes could be made through a second convention or some undetermined method. Others still supported making changes after the new government began operation. Within the two latter camps, the kinds of changes varied significantly, from adding a bill of rights to altering fundamental structures. The yes-or-no directive and evolving public debates, however, funneled that range of perceptions into pro- and anti-Constitution.[3]

The loudest voices on both sides, amplified in newspapers, hurled escalating accusations of duplicity, self-interestedness, ignorance, arrogance, tyrannical and anarchic ambitions, even treason. As partisans grew increasingly certain that they held the only patriotic, virtuous position, the question crystalized: Did the Constitution secure or betray the American Revolution?

Early, arch resistance to the Constitution threw into high relief the erosion of political deference instigated by North American opposition to British imperial policies. George Washington, the most respected man in the young nation, widely perceived as embodying the highest ideals of the Revolution, chaired the Philadelphia Convention and wholeheartedly supported the Constitution. The revered Benjamin Franklin backed it, too, as did a host of renowned patriots, intellectuals, high-ranking Revolutionary War veterans, and state politicians. They were shocked to be met with massive grassroots opposition. Despite Washington and Franklin and so many other experienced leaders advocating for the Constitution, ratification nearly failed. This scope of opposition reflected how many citizens had decided they could discern for themselves what fulfilled their interests and their vision of the American Republic. In many locales, citizens and voters refused to leave to their elected delegates the choice of ratifying or rejecting. Community members gathered at town meetings, interrogating the Constitution. Some districts passed directives on how their delegate should vote.

Still, the process of constitution-making was highly exclusive, for most Americans in 1787-1788 were disfranchised, marginalized, or enslaved. No women served in ratification conventions, although some elite white women wrote newspaper pieces analyzing the Constitution and advocating for and against it, displaying deep knowledge of the plan and confident engagement in political ideas. Slavery pervaded informal and formal debates over the future of the supposedly free American Republic. And diplomatic and trade concerns regarding Native American nations—including aspirations for appropriating Native nations’ lands—shaped newspaper coverage and deliberations in the conventions.

Delaware and Pennsylvania called the earliest ratification conventions. Federalists, eager to create a perception of enthusiasm for the Constitution, rushed their proposal through Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey by mid-December 1787. But those illusions of consensus gave way to growing criticisms, and the new year brought new challenges from sharply divided—and crucial—states.

Technically, ratification by any combination of nine states would enact the Constitution. In reality, Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia were essential. Massachusetts had been the seat of political radicalism in the 1760s and 1770s, and the War for Independence started there. If Massachusetts rejected the Constitution, how could advocates credibly champion it as fulfilling revolutionary principles? New York was the commercial center of the country, vital for any future union. Virginia was the most populous and largest state, and Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Patrick Henry, and George Washington all lived in Virginia. It was hard for Americans to imagine the country without these men and the critical states in which they lived.[4]

Ratification provides as strong an example of contingency in history as teachers are likely to find. The three most important states to the future of the nation also happened to be the most divided over the Constitution. No one living in 1787 could have confidently predicted the outcome of any of their conventions.

The Massachusetts Convention, the largest of any state, convened in January 1788. Massachusetts presented Federalists with their first formidable challenge. The 364 representatives seemed at the outset likely to reject the Constitution. The convention ushered in a new level of rigor. Federalists found themselves compelled to proceed line-by-line through the plan and refrain from curtailing debate (which they had done in earlier conventions). Deliberations would continue until every member had the opportunity to express his views. Under growing pressure from critics of the design and fearing defeat, Federalist delegates then called for the convention to draft recommended amendments: changes to the Constitution for the first Congress to pursue, particularly to ensure citizens’ rights. Was this a cunning strategy or a virtuous compromise? Massachusetts delegates then and historians now disagree. Either way, it worked: Massachusetts narrowly ratified 187-168 in early February. The Massachusetts Convention thus offered the country a path forward by exceeding the charge of an up-or-down vote to include recommended amendments.

Virginia and New York, each as important as Massachusetts, set their conventions for the summer of 1788. In Virginia, Patrick Henry, the greatest orator of the age, took on James Madison, the intellectual force behind the Constitution. They agreed on only one thing: their decision would determine the future the American experiment in representative democracy. The final vote was 89-79, so that if 5 votes out of 168 had swung the other direction, Virginia would have rejected the Constitution. In New York, Federalists lost the delegate elections in the spring of 1788, winning less than one-third of the seats in the convention. By the time the New York delegates voted, in late July, not only Virginia but ten other states had ratified. Still, Alexander Hamilton endured a squeaker in Poughkeepsie: 30 for ratification, 27 against.

Scholars—and many a lively classroom of students—have debated what made the (slim) difference in such an unpredictable, divided country.[5] Trying to draw a clear line between supporters and opponents of ratification can quickly lead to oversimplification. While region, class, generation, and economic circumstances factored into appraisals of the Constitution, those influences fluctuated over time and varied by locale. Voters and elected delegates did not fall neatly into any categories, including creditors/debtors, cosmopolitans/ provincials, easterners/westerners, slaveholders/non-slaveholders, urban/rural, or merchants/farmers.

So, what did matter? Some students of ratification emphasize a key point Federalists made with increasing urgency as months passed: the absence of any viable alternative plan. Skeptics of the proposed government believed in the fall of 1787 that the longer Americans had to seriously interrogate the plan out of Philadelphia the more they would see the inherent dangers. But they calculated wrong. Instead, the passing time gave momentum to Federalists. The wobbly Edmund Randolph—who proudly presented the Virginia Plan to the Philadelphia Convention in May 1787 but refused to sign the Constitution that September—explained in May 1788 that time shaped his late but staunch support for ratification at the Virginia Convention. Virginians, Randolph reasoned, faced only two options: support the Constitution or destroy the union. Several still-dubious New Yorkers reached the same vexing conclusion in Poughkeepsie. Other students of ratification point out the focus and preparation of firm advocates for ratification. They had months, including during the Philadelphia Convention, to puzzle through the meanings and implications of the design, and they were able to offer credible answers to many speculative challenges leveled by critics. The committed Federalists held the advantage of sharing a single clear goal. Some Federalists resorted to base, manipulative tactics to prevail in close votes: rushing and stifling debate, strongarming opponents, and ridiculing their concerns. Most newspaper publishers supported ratification and used their papers to build enthusiasm for the Constitution and address, and sometimes discredit, opposition. The materials they chose to publish influenced public opinion and deliberations within state conventions. It was widely assumed—for it was shrewdly rumored—that George Washington would serve as the first President, should states ratify. Faith in Washington’s leadership convinced some wavering delegates to take a chance on the Constitution. And, by accepting the idea of recommended amendments and working with their opponents to craft specific proposed changes to the Constitution, Federalists in several divided conventions provided a compelling model of compromise. They practiced in 1788 what they promised in the government design. Some people saw the move as calculating, but the idea of cooperating to effect changes influenced wavering delegates in several key states, including Massachusetts and Virginia.[6]

By late July 1788, eleven states had ratified, turning a controversial proposal into the country’s new government. Despite hyperbolic and spiraling rhetoric and the narrow vote margins in several state conventions, defeated delegates and distressed citizens reconciled themselves to the Constitution. George Mason, one of the few opponents to ratification to try and foment resistance, found himself facing swift and widespread reproach. The details of Mason’s address in the aftermath of Virginia’s close vote remain opaque. But delegates found his remarks so inflammatory that even the strongest adversaries of ratification rebuked him. Bejamin Harrison reminded Mason that the Constitution “had been adopted by a majority of their countrymen” and so “it became their duty to submit as good citizens.”[7]

Skepticism persisted. The Constitution was far from sanctified in 1788. Patrick Henry fought ratifying the Constitution with unsurpassed ferocity and energy: “I despise and abhor it,” he proclaimed in the heated Virginia debates. At the close of the convention, he pledged to accept defeat and remain a peaceful citizen in the new government. But, he added, he would pursue changes within the bounds of the law to shape the federal government to fulfill his vision of a just republic. Then he set to work. As the most powerful figure in the Virginia legislature, Henry took the lead in appointing senators and designating legislative districts. James Madison, who opposed the addition of a bill of rights both in Philadelphia and throughout the Virginia Convention, became Henry’s chief target. Henry denied Madison a senate appointment, ensuring instead that Virginia sent two strong advocates for protecting citizens’ rights and restraining federal powers to represent the state. Under Henry’s guidance, the legislature drew district boundaries to disadvantage Madison in the congressional election. And Henry convinced James Monroe, who opposed ratification in the Virginia Convention, to run against Madison. Madison, fearing exclusion from serving in the government he had devoted years of his life to crafting, made an about-face campaign promise. If elected, he pledged, he would ensure a federal bill of rights. And he did.

Henry’s actions and Madison’s reaction illustrate powerful, if too-often-forgotten, lessons from the ratification debates. The fitful, fractious acceptance of the Constitution in no way signaled consensus among Americans. They continued to argue—as we do, today—about intractable matters, especially how to balance individual rights and the common good. They established a norm, mostly honored across the centuries, but with some reprehensible exceptions, of engaging in savvy, principled, and cutthroat politics, but within the bounds of the law and respecting the Constitution.

James Madison is especially helpful in our need as educators to counter popular myths about “the Founders,” “originalism,” and how, if we would only do what they intended, all would be right in the world. Whenever I hear someone—usually a politician or pundit—proclaiming what “the Founders” wanted or believed or meant in their “original” design of the Constitution, I always wonder: who and when? Who do they mean when invoking “the Founders”? And what place in time are they referencing? Narrowing from the unwieldly “Founders” of the nation to the narrower “Framers” of the Constitution is not helpful. Nor, even, is focusing on the “father of the Constitution.” What did James Madison think about a bill of rights? In Philadelphia, in 1787, he thought enumerated rights unnecessary and counterproductive. In Richmond in the summer of 1788, he remained convinced that adding a bill of rights to the Constitution was redundant—states had them already—and too cumbersome a process to undertake. But by the fall of 1788, he changed his mind (or Patrick Henry changed it for him) and Madison pledged to pursue one, if elected to Congress. Between 1787 and 1790, Madison went from opponent to architect of the Bill of Rights. Furthermore, he found little will among members of the first Congress to undertake the arduous process of drafting amendments. Madison persisted, but his efforts, revered now, pleased nearly no one at the time.

Attention to the creative process of ratification helps correct present-day confusion (and distortions) surrounding “The Federalist.” Often imagined as a series of learned, dispassionate treatises on the meaning of the Constitution, John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton wrote the essays (all published anonymously as “Publius”) to sway suspicious New Yorkers to ratify the Constitution. The advocacy pieces, originally appearing in New York between October 1787 and May 1788, were reprinted in other states but understood then, unlike today, to be part of an aggressive—and not particularly successful—political campaign waged by Federalists. Falling far short of the authors’ ambitions of shaping New York voters’ opinions, “The Federalist” did reflect the ratification debates overall. Eighteenth-century Americans engaged with difficult, existential questions: What is our country and where should sovereignty lie? How should we balance protecting individual rights and securing public safety? What is the nature of representation? On the other hand, these were political debates, performed for the public and posterity.

However much we may wish our national creation myth to be true, it is not. Creating the Constitution was neither a stroke of genius nor a providential design. It was a long, acrimonious ordeal. For the better part of a year, politically active Americans debated, in homes, taverns, legislatures, newspapers, and, finally, formal ratification conventions. Delegates to the state ratifying conventions varyingly delivered judicious addresses, hurled wild accusations, pandered to wavering delegates, pleaded for compromise, exhausted each other with tedium, spun conspiracy theories, and pursued high-minded ideals. Then, they voted. By a close margin, convention delegates staked the country’s future with the Constitution. But supporters and skeptics alike understood it remained a work in progress.

I often do an exercise with students in the U.S. survey, to illustrate how much “We, the people” has changed over time and thus the hollowness of “originalism.” I ask everyone eligible to vote in the next election to raise their hand. The international students are usually the only ones with lowered hands. Then, we go back through time, over the twenty-sixth amendment, 1965 Voting Rights Act, 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, nineteenth and fifteenth amendments, and so on, until we get to property qualifications. By the time we arrive back in the 1780s, a room full of citizens, including their professor, are disfranchised. We discuss contemporary forms of disfranchisement and voter suppression, too, so that students understand they face ongoing work in building a “more perfect union.”

When representatives of the states ratified the Constitution, they set in motion not only a new system of government. They redefined the union of states, reimagined the balance of liberty and power, and created a complex system of representation and sovereignty. Key parts of the Constitution were—and remain—ambiguous and so inherently contestable. What does “necessary and proper” mean? What are the “high crimes and misdemeanors” for which officials can be removed? Who are “We, the people”? Some Americans dream that we can discern clearly and act confidently if we follow faithfully the path the founding generation laid. But even a cursory review of the fractious, shifting, creative ratification debates reveals the absurdity of that proposition.

We, like every generation since the first one, must chart our own path. As we fight over forming our version of a “more perfect union,” we should neither forget nor romanticize ratification. And we should remember that present-day Americans’ most treasured constitutional liberties were controversial, politically motivated revisions forced by the sharpest critics of the original design of the Constitution.

Author

Lorri Glover is the Bannon Endowed Chair in the Department of History at St. Louis University. She has written widely in early American history, including  Eliza Lucas Pinckney: An Independent Woman in the Age of Revolution (2020); and The Fate of the Revolution: Virginians Debate the Constitution (2016).

Notes

I am grateful to Todd Estes and Mark Boonshoft for generously sharing their knowledge and advice.

[1] James Madison, 6 April 1796, Debate in the House of Representatives.

[2] Bernard Bailyn added a chapter on the Constitution entitled “Fulfillment” to the 1992 edition of his influential 1967 study, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1992). See also Gordon S. Wood, Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (1969); Lance Banning, The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic (1996); Jack Rakove, Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (1996). Michael J. Klarman, The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the U.S. Constitution (2016) analyzed the “coup” effected by the Philadelphia and ratification conventions. See also Woody Holton, Unruly Americans: Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (2007). Other scholars emphasize geopolitics and state formation; see, Max M. Edling, A Revolution in Favor of Government: Origins of the U.S. Constitution and the Making of the American State (2003); David C. Hendrickson, Peace Pact: The Lost World of the American Founding (2003). The best narrative history of the Philadelphia Convention is Richard Beeman, Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution (2009).

[3] Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (2010) makes this point and is the most comprehensive account of ratification. For a conversation by leading scholars about Maier’s book, see “Critical Forum,” William and Mary Quarterly, 69 (April 2012), 361-403. See also Jon Kukla, “A Spectrum of Sentiments: Virginia’s Federalists, Antifederalists, and ‘Federalists Who are for Amendments,’ 1787-1788,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 96 (July 1988), 277-96.

[4] For Virginia, see Lorri Glover, The Fate of the Revolution: Virginians Debate the Constitution (2016).

[5] Readers interested in taking a deeper dive into ratification debates should start with the magnificent achievement, The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution (Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution – Center for the Study of the American Constitution – UW–Madison (wisc.edu)). The National Archives site, Founders Online (Founders Online: Home (archives.gov)), provides access to over 120,000 word-searchable letters and documents from leading members of the founding generation, derived from decades-long, editorial standard-setting papers projects. The Yale University Law School Avalon Project (Avalon Project – Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy (yale.edu)), offers a vast array of relevant sources, including James Madison’s (and other delegates’) notes from the Philadelphia Convention, state constitutions, and records of the Confederation Congress. Teachers will find especially useful the extensive educational materials available from Mount Vernon (Education · George Washington’s Mount Vernon) and the National Constitution Center (Education | Constitution Center). Learners of all ages can enjoy the immersive educational games created by iCivics (Games (icivics.org)), including “Constitutional Compromise” and “Race to Ratify.”

[6] Todd Estes is completing a book about ratification across the states emphasizing shifts toward moderation and compromise. See his preliminary findings in: “The Emergence and Fundamental Centrality of James Madison’s Federalist 37: Historians, Political Theorists, and the Recentering of Meaning in The Federalist,” American Political Thought, 13 (Summer 2023), 424-52; “’From the Works of Nature . . . to the Institutions of Man’: How Political Moderation Made Possible the Constitution’s Ratification,” Journal of the Early Republic, 43 (Fall 2023), 363-98.

[7] “A Specter of the Meeting,” Virginia Independent Chronicle, 9 July 1788, in John P. Kaminski et al., eds., The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, vol. 10 (1993), 1560.